Moto Morini is Moving On Up

Alan Cathcart
by Alan Cathcart

Photos by Moto Morini + AC Archives

Historic Italian brand Moto Morini was founded in 1937 in Bologna, but was a regular visitor to the last chance saloon before its acquisition in October 2018 by Chen Huaneng, the owner of Chinese scooter and minimoto manufacturer Zhongneng Vehicle Group. In my exclusive interview with him that month Mr. Chen promised to invest in the company by underwriting the development of a range of different model families, including updating the company’s existing 1,187cc 87° V-Twin CorsaCorta engine to be fully compliant with current noise and emissions norms via an RBW digital throttle and other solutions.

Five years on, Mr. Chen has proved to be as good as his word, with the Moto Morini stand at EICMA 2023 bursting with dramatically styled and excitingly engineered new models which have been 100% developed in Italy, according to Moto Morini CEO Alberto Monni, the architect of the company’s resurgence under Chinese ownership. “We are offering Italian designed and engineered products at Chinese prices,” he says.

Heading up the Moto Morini EICMA lineup were two ultra-striking 750cc models, a Naked and a Sport bike each carrying Morini’s trademark Corsaro name, and powered by the company’s own all-new 90° V-Twin eight-valve dry sump motor designed by freelance engineer Gianni Mariani. This vertically-split design measures 90 x 58.9 mm for a capacity of 749cc, and is fitted with composite chain and gear drive to the double overhead cams, as well as a plain-bearing crankshaft running backwards, in pursuit of improved handling on turn-in to a bend, as well as holding a tighter line, by considerably reducing its influence in terms of rotational inertia on the front wheel by as much as 10%.

This all-new engine is claimed to deliver 96 bhp/70.5kW at 9,500 rpm, and an A2 license version restricted to 48 bhp/35kW will also be available. A two-way quickshifter is fitted as standard. The good-looking motor also has multiple pick-up points for the several different chassis designs it’s planned to be fitted in, in order to power a wide variety of models. On both these first new examples it’s mounted in the frame with a 10° rearwards tilt for ideal rider dynamics and weight distribution, according to Morini CTO Massimo Gustato. “The dry sump format of the engine is a big advantage,” he says. “It means we have no ground clearance issues, and so can position the engine in the frame independently of the rider’s seating position. It gives us big flexibility for future Moto Morini models using it.”

These, like the first such two on display at EICMA, will be designed by Moto Morini’s progettista Adrian Morton, the former MV Agusta and before that Benelli designer, who left MV in June 2020, and later began as a freelance consultant designing these first two Morini models. “They’re rather improbably the first V-Twin motorcycles I’ve ever produced!” says Adrian. “In doing so, I wanted to make sure the engine remains in full view as much as possible, as V-twins are the signature of the Morini brand, and it’s an aesthetically very pretty motor, anyway.” Morton has also given both bikes a very distinct ‘face’ and a vivid visual personality. “Morinis have never been associated much with styling,” he says. “They’ve always been pretty functional-looking, honest motorcycles – a kind of Italian Triumph. I’ve tried here to give them a distinct personality, with the mechanical package in plain view.”

That’s been achieved on both bikes by the extremely unusual modular chassis design, with a cast aluminum forward section incorporating the steering head, attached to a chrome-moly tubular steel rear subframe – the reverse of the Tamburini-legacy MV Agusta models Morton worked on for so long, then powered by three- and four-cylinder inline engine. Moto Morini CEO Alberto Monni states that production of the finished version of both models is due to begin in China in October 2024 – but no hints yet on the exact price they’re likely to cost.

The same time frame is quoted for the arrival in dealer showrooms of Moto Morini’s constantly expanding sales network of its two new large-capacity models also debuting at EICMA. These were the all-new X-Cape ADV model and the revamped Milano roadster, both powered by the company’s liquid-cooled 1,187cc 87° V-Twin eight-valve CorsaCorta (as in, short-stroke) motor featuring a nowadays unique one-piece crankcase – i.e. with no horizontal or vertical split into two halves: engine internals are assembled through the left side, producing an ultra-stiff bottom end which allows the engine to be used as a fully load-bearing chassis component. Designed by acclaimed progettista Franco Lambertini, this has heavily oversquare 107 x 66 mm dimensions and weighs a light 152lbs (69kg), and has been in production since 2006, albeit never until now with a digital RBW throttle. It features a side-loading six-speed gearbox, DOHC cylinder heads, and composite chain/gear cam drive, and has now been redesigned by Moto Morini’s CTO Massimo Gustato and his team in the company’s Trivolzio factory 25 miles south of Milan to be Euro 5+ compliant, albeit with a lower output of 125 bhp, 10% down from the 137 bhp of the older version with a cable throttle, but with an even broader spread of torque, according to Morini engineers.

The Moto Morini Milano 1200 naked bike.

On the X-Cape 1200 this engine is installed in an all-new tubular steel trellis spaceframe again attached to a cast aluminum upper section, with a 630mm-long cast aluminum swingarm delivering a 1550mm wheelbase, and fully adjustable long-travel suspension from a brand yet to be revealed. The tall screen is non-adjustable at this stage, behind which sits a seven-inch full-color TFT dash with integrated GPS. A two-way quickshifter is again included as standard, together with tire pressure monitors for the 19-inch front/17-inch rear wire wheels with alloy rims shod with Pirelli Scorpion Trail tyres. Top line Brembo brakes feature 320mm front discs gripped by four-piston Stylema radial calipers, with a 280mm rear disc. The all-new electronic package features four riding modes including one offroad map, with switchable TC, Cornering ABS, and radar-activated blind spot protection similar to that on a BMW or Ducati Multistrada. With deliveries due to start next November there’s no price quoted as yet for this well-equipped and distinctively-styled model, whose looks are recognizably similar to its smaller 650cc sibling’s. 

The Moto Morini X-Cape 1200 adventure bike.

This reached the marketplace in 2022 as Moto Morini’s first new model under Chinese ownership, and the parallel-twin X-Cape 650 go-anywhere Adventure bike has been a sales hit all over the world after entering production late in 2021 at the Zhongneng factory in Taizhou, about 250 miles south of Shanghai, albeit entirely developed at the Moto Morini HQ in Trivolzio. For 2023 it was joined in the ever-growing number of Moto Morini dealerships globally by two new models based on the same platform, the Seiemmezzo duo (meaning 6½, a passing tribute to the iconic 3½ V-Twin model which put Morini on the map bigtime in the 1970s, with 85,000 examples sold in a decade), the STR/Street and SCR/Scrambler.

Like the X-Cape, these two models were both powered by the well-established liquid-cooled 649cc DOHC eight-valve Parallel-Twin engine produced by Zhongneng’s near-neighbor CFMoto – their factories are just 40km apart. This carries a 180° crankshaft, offset chain camshaft drive, and a single gear-driven counterbalancer, and has been in production since 2011. Tens of thousands of the various models it powers in CFMoto’s roster of midsized models have been sold all over the world since then, in the process acquiring an enviable reputation for performance and reliability.

For 2024 these three 650cc models have now been joined by the Calibro 650 cruiser that’s due to be available around the world (but especially in the USA, at which it’s clearly targeted) from next June. With a chilled 28.3-inch seat height and 18-inch front wheel but a 16-inch rear, the 440lb Calibro will be going head to head with the new Royal Enfield 650 Shotgun as well as the several Japanese and Chinese models in the increasingly crowded entry-level Custom market, such as the category-leading Honda CMX500 Rebel and Kawasaki Vulcan 650.

With Adrian Morton in charge of styling and the broad potential of Gianni Mariani’s new 750cc V-twin engine, plus the evidently clearly thought out path to profit via a wide variety of models, Moto Morini looks to be coming to the boil very nicely under Chinese ownership.

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Alan Cathcart
Alan Cathcart

A man needing no introduction, Alan Cathcart has ridden motorcycles since age 14, but first raced cars before swapping to bikes in 1973. During his 25-year racing career he’s won or been near the top in countless international races, riding some of the most revered motorcycles in history. In addition to his racing resume, Alan’s frequently requested by many leading motorcycle manufacturers to evaluate and comment on their significant new models before launch, and his detailed feature articles have been published across the globe. Alan was the only journalist permitted by all major factories in Japan and Europe to test ride their works Grand Prix and World Superbike machines from 1983 to 2008 (MotoGP) and 1988 to 2015 (World Superbike). Winner of the Guild of Motoring Writers ‘Pierre Dreyfus Award’ twice as Journalist of the Year covering both cars and bikes, Alan is also a six-time winner of the Guild’s ‘Rootes Gold Cup’ in recognition of outstanding achievement in the world of Motorsport. Finally, he’s also won the Guild’s Aston Martin Trophy in 2002 for outstanding achievement in International Journalism. Born in Wales, married to Stella, and father to three children (2 sons, 1 daughter), Alan lives in southern England half an hour north of Chichester, the venue for the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed and Goodwood Revival events. He enjoys classic cars and bikes, travel, films, country rock music, wine - and good food.

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2 of 14 comments
  • 91LT250R 91LT250R on Jan 10, 2024

    From Italian to Chinese is more like moving on down.

  • Larry W. Larry W. on Jan 12, 2024

    Very good looking Italian design. I find it more impressive that chassis and engine design are also Italian, with lots of Italian components as well. I find the X-Capes better looking than most ADVs and love the Seiemmezzos; but the 60hp P- twin is short on power for the high elevations where I live and ride. The V-twin nakeds look good as well, but I'd be more interested in a classic Italian roadster look with the 750 V-twin.