As the owner of several Gootsies in diverse states of decay/restoration, it's hard for me to be impartial about the Moto-Guzzi V11 Sport "Scura" and to treat it objectively as if it was just another cycle. But what really turns me into an unsuitable candidate to test ride the V11 is totally unrelated to my intimate knowledge of the tiny needle rollers that sit inside a Guzzi's CV joint and the type of grease they like for breakfast.
Even the meanest journalist, one who has not grown up on valve-dropping V50s and can't tell a Falcone from a Galletto, would melt into a puddle under the sheer nostalgia overload that lands on the visitor to the Mandellodel Lario factory. An early morning train from Milan transfers me within just one hour into another time dimension as I descend into the tiny and romantic train station of Mandello, an early century stone building that looks like it's been taken straight out of a fairy tale book. At the far end of the station, huge and decaying loading ramps are silent reminders of the times when this factory was among the biggest in the world and churned out hundreds of bikes a day. A one-minute walk brings me to the gate of the factory, and while waiting inside for my test ride I suddenly have to rub my eyes in disbelief: In a nearby open garage, a dozen or so of Moto-Guzzi's historic racers sit in a row, quietly reflecting the morning sunlight that filters in through the windows. The most exotic race bike ever built, Bill Lomas's 500c.c. V8 GP machine, some pre-war GP V-twins, a few world championship winning 350 singles with their hand-beaten aluminum "dustbin" fairings. A friendly mechanic with a cigarette dangling from his lips (while strolling between the most prized classic bikes on earth) notices my unbelieving stares, and without blinking asks me: "Wanna try them for size?".
And so, while I find myself seated on Omobono Tenni's 1937 Isle of Man Senior race winner, enjoying its Swiss clockwork delicacy and half-century patina, this mechanic decides to push me along an internal road so that I will be able to feel the feathery steering of the bicycle like 3.00"-section tires. Can you imagine such a scene at Honda HQ in Japan? Yeah, go and write an honest road test after such a personality altering experience, Guzzi fan or not. This is plain bribery, a real scandal, I bet it was all planned beforehand. I'll soldier on just the same.
A short history lesson is due. For the last 35 years Moto-Guzzi has been producing their big bore, across the frame V-twins, BMW's of sorts but with a 90 degree angle between the twin towering cylinders. As unreal as it might sound, the 2002 V11's engine is a straight descendant of this long dynasty. Mechanically, this family of engines which started as a failed project for Fiat car power units, hasn't changed much since the Ice Age. The family of V's was born in `67 as a 700, was seriously updated in `71 when the classic V7 Sport came out, received its "square" looks with the launch of the LeMans III of `81, and that's about it. There have been displacement increases, 844, 949 and lately 1064--but no major mechanical changes.
So while even slow moving giants such as H-D and BMW update their stuff every 15-20 years, Guzzi engines have remained essentially the same for three decades (save for the eight-valve 992 which saw service in the Daytona but isn't in production at the moment). As it turns out, major re-dos weren't exactly needed. As amazing as it might sound, in dyno testing, the old dinosaur that is the current two-valve-per-cylinder, 1064 mill of the V11, churns out close to 80 rear wheel horsies, giving an even fight to BMW's modern four valve per cylinder 1150cc unit. More than honorable for such an old lady and living proof of the basic virtue of Guzzi's V-twin.
Those big cylinders sticking out beneath the fuel tank might look exactly the same as those on my `81 LeMans Mk III, but around the pre-historical engine there are very few age-related accessories. A six-speed gearbox was mated to the V11 when the model was launched back in `97, and full digital engine management (injection and ignition) was a Guzzi trademark long before being adopted by other makers.
The V11's frame is based on the design penned by American dentist, Dr. John Wittner back in the good old eighties. The V11's Dr.John-inspired frame is built around a main rectangular section tube that runs straight from the steering stem tube between the cylinders to the area above the gearbox. A round cross tube spreads the structural loads to two bolt-on ears that hold the rear swing arm bearings. Clean and simple. At the back end, the swingarm holds a floating bevel drive case, thus canceling the unwanted compression of the rear suspension under engine braking--a well-known distraction to riders of shafties.
The old vs. new theme continues with a fully up-to-date inverted fork and a rear triangular monoshock suspension that's linkless, just like in an early eighties Yamaha. Oh yes, I almost forgot to say that I am about to ride a rather special version of the V11 Sport, the new for `02 "Scura" (Dark). In the fashionable matte black "Scura" version, top-of-the-line Ohlins suspension components replace the more mundane regular V11 items. There's a titanium nitride coated fork up front, actually the same one as fitted to the Aprilia RSV Mille R, and ultra-adjustable Swedish damper in the back. Other expensive items that make the Scura stand out are carbon fiber side panels, front fender, tank top protector and mufflers. There is also a "Scura" bikini fairing and deluxe Ohlins steering damper.
And the thing is designed, too: Guzzi was among the first companies in the world to use professional designers, way back in the 60's. Even with all my unconditional love for most things "made in Mandello", I have to admit I had a hard time trying to digest the V11's shapes. Designers seem to have tried to create a retro-cafe-racer and in many ways they actually succeeded, but there is something awkward about the fuel tank's shape that disturbs the balance of the whole bike, at least in my eyes. It's high at the rear, sharpens strangely at the front when looked at from above and creates a visual composition that failed to convince me even after a few days. Other body parts, on the other hand, are extremely sexy. The seat unit, especially when the rear seat cover is in place, is a masterful and modern interpretation of those classic and firm rear ends of Rocket Gold Stars and Vincents of yore. At the end of the day my main problem was the fact that the whole bike looks way too tall, hence reducing the visual presence of that bold & lovely engine.
And yet, the new composition has advantages too compared to the old models. Upon sitting on the bike, my knees stay farther away from the rocker covers, allowing me to sit in a much more modern feeling position. There is also more distance between seat and pegs and only the handlebars seem still to be a tad too far--but nothing like my old Lemon. Serious smiling begins after starting the thing and snicking into first gear. Gear changing on those old five-speed Guzzi boxes was a half hour long project that required some serious pre-planning and conveyed the feeling of moving around huge lead weights. In the V11's "new" six-speed box, first gear slides in like the proverbial hot knife in butter. Just to make sure that it's not the fairy tale atmosphere that's twisting my perception, I play again with the lever. Neutral is so easy to find, lever so smooth, ooh, the marvels of modern technology...(Will they notice if I hand back the Scura with my bike's gearbox?) The six-speed box can make any Guzzisti believe the Mesiah has arrived.
PAGE 2 This pleasant mechanical suppleness is echoed in a wonderful engine that pushes you forward with authority from 1500 rpm, without any hiccups, just like a Harley. Unlike the narrower angled H-D, it doesn't try to jump out of the frame, and it also climbs on vigorously to 7500 or even 8000 rpm, as if those prehistoric pushrods just weren't there. A healthy roll-on along the road that surrounds Lago di Como clarifies that this veteran power unit, assisted by thoroughly modern digital engine management, supplies the goods in true Guzzi fashion while feeling also quite modern. Think somewhere between the anemic smoothness of the latest Bavarian boxer, the meaty grunt of a 1200 Sporster, totally unlike a Ducati--and you'll be close. Luvely.
Twisting the V11's throttle never fails to produce an impressive multimedia show of acceleration, sound and vibrations. When accelerating through the gears, a small problem might pass unnoticed, but when settling down into a steady fast cruise at 4500-5500 rpm, the handlebars transmit sizable and sharp spikes into your palms that cannot be cataloged as enjoyable.A shame really, cause this engine speed is extremely suitable for 90-mph touring. Eventually I chose to bomb along above the vibey rev range, and the V11 has no problem propelling me at 100 mph-plus for an hour or two. The handlebar's distant position allows me to assume a nice, comfy crouch behind the small bikini fairing, and the pilot seat is wide, long and accommodating. If you insist, the V11 will climb with authority into the 130-plus range while staying perfectly stable; new frame bracing for `02 sees to that. When the black top turns twisty, the V11 has no problem following suit as long as you remember that it's no lightweight, at 480 pounds dry, and not reallyshort at 58.6" between contact patches. At "Milan's Mount Palomar", a twisty mountain road that also ends in an astronomical observatory, the "Scura" loves to bend over and keep a steady and sweeping line while the wide Pirelli Dragons supply plenty of traction.
But you definitely have to give the V11 some time to lay down and make use of the impressive ground clearance it's got. When exiting turns the always-cooperative engine pulls on smartly from any speed making you really forget about shifting. In case you do want some extra oomph, the Suzuki-smooth box will supply you the next lower gear or two with unbelievable easiness and speed by any standards. The V11 might be slightly ponderous and lazy for true squidding, but that doesn't make it any less entertaining--actually the opposite.
Considering that this bike is built around a 30-year-old engine design--one from the era when good road handling meant "as if on rails" and truck-like steering, it's actually an amazing handling bike. The thundering exhaust note, the noticeable power pulses and those two Dumbo ears sticking out in the breeze always remind you that you're riding a time machine of sorts, one that can rock pretty well when the pressure is on. Suspension components had me waxing somewhat less lyrical. The golden Ohlins fork was really faultless, responded well to spanner twirling, kept dive in check when the stonking Gold Brembos did their anchoring act, the works. No amount of adjustment, in unpleasant contrast, managed to dial the rear monoshock into a good bump swallower; a classic case of lack of progressivity.
Yamaha stopped using those linkless suspensions for a good reason. Considering the intended use of the V11, I am pretty positive that as impressive as those Ohlins components are, they're a bit of overkill on the Sport. While I'm at it, I was also a bitpissed by the fact that when I wanted to take the V11 for an extended tour with my girlfriend, my universal soft saddlebags just couldn't be fitted on the V11's sexy rear end (too sloping), while the round-top fuel tank caused my tank bag to slide one way or the other. And don't get me started about those dedicated soft bags made for the V11. We like to carry more than just a few pairs of G-string panties and toothbrushes when we go touring.
A real shame, because if there is an adorable thing about Guzzis, it's their versatility--and that got lost on the way to more fashionable shapes and "enhanced" retro looks. Those upswept mufflers really prevent you from fitting sizeable touring bags. The V11 is one hell of a mile muncher and long-trip tool with its relaxed ergos, comfy driver seat and soothing engine (at the right revs). With 80 rear-wheel horsies, the big Gootsie has no problems tackling serious mountain roads, passing any four wheeled stuff or supplying grin-inducing roll-ons every now and then.
Well, here I am, judging the thing objectively at the end of the day--a totally useless approach, because Guzzis do it differently. If you really need to read it black on white, then any sporty 600 will trounce it in the twisties, a 900SS is a better handler and an R1150R is a much more sophisticated and refined machine.
And so I am left only to play, that's right, the character card. Yes that's what the V11 delivers by the truckload, a quality that never fails to make you grin from ear to ear if you're the right type (and I seem to be). The beauty of the whole thing is that those meaty "character" portions are wrapped in reliable mechanics, superb engine management and excellent road manners--ingredients that never existed in the heyday of the original big Italian twins. The admiring looks that were cast on the V11 at gas stops from intelligent looking 30 to 40- somethings that asked reasonable questions instead of the usual "what she'll do?", convinced me that this bike and this company still hold a strange and understated fascination.
The V11 can supply then a rather special retro-trip, an experience that's way out there at the left far end of the "alternative" spectrum. Nowadays when Ducatis and Harleys are sold from stores that try to mingle with DKNY, Guzzis are still being built in Mandello by mechanics who smoke fags while torquing bolts, and surely keep a nice bottle of vino in the locker for a sip during the long and sacred midday break. Thankfully, time moves on slowly in Mandello. Before the dynamic new management of Aprilia turns the 80-year-old factory into a fashionable and marketable "brand", we can still enjoy a cycle that's really built in the old way, and acts it.SPECIFICATIONS
1064cc air-cooled L-twin, overhead valve, 2v/cyl.
Bore and stroke: 92 x 80 mm
Compression ratio: 9.5 : 1
Fuel delivery: electronic fuel injection
Clutch: single disk, dry
Final drive: shaft, 11/32
Frame: steel rectangular box
Wheelbase: 1490 mm
Seat height 800 mm
Claimed dry weight: 221 kg (487 lb)
Front suspension: 43mm inverted Ohlins fork with 120 mm travel, compression/rebound/preload adjustable
Rear suspension: One Ohlins coil-over damper with 128mm wheel travel, cantilever swing arm, compression/rebound/preload adjustable
Front brake: two 320mm floating discs, Brembo Goldline four-piston calipers
Rear brake: one 282 mm disc, Brembo Goldline two-piston caliper
Wheels: Brembo 3.50x17, 5.50x17" cast alloy
Tires: 120/70 VB17, 180/55 VB17
Fuel Capacity: 22 litres