MOTO GUZZI V50
If you’re still searching for a classic motorcycle which is light and lively; ruggedly practical and reasonably priced, David Bell suggests Moto Guzzi’s middleweight V-twin…
If you’re still searching for a classic motorcycle which is light and lively; ruggedly practical and reasonably priced, David Bell suggests Moto Guzzi’s middleweight V-twin…
It would be difficult to claim that I really needed another bike. I already had an excellent modern Japanese machine and an excellent British classic. But you know how it is: every three or four years the desire for something new to play with starts to nag away insidiously and is very difficult to shake off. Since both of the existing bikes are definitely keepers, a third bike it had to be.
In the years which have passed since my 1967 debut on an Ariel Arrow, I have owned and ridden a lot of bikes, but never a Moto Guzzi until now. I have always admired the purposeful look and sound of that transverse V-twin but never got round to owning one. Somehow or other, it was the V50 which took my fancy rather than one of the big ones. After all, I already had two big, heavy powerful bikes, and I was attracted by the idea of a lively lightweight.
Almost everything I read about V50s was favourable. Designed by the legendary Lino Tonti, they have good looks, heritage, light weight, a reputation for reliability and first class handling, and the prices are still reasonable compared to British classics. And they look and sound like a proper motorbike.
I started searching eBay. It took several months. I missed a good one while I was still making my mind up to actually buy one. Others were basket cases or were hundreds of miles away. Others disappeared half way through the auction. Eventually one turned up in Yorkshire: still quite a long way from my home in Galloway, but possible to do there and back in a day. It was a going concern, with moderate mileage ( just under 31,000), a recent MoT, and looked as though it didn’t need too much work. The asking price was at the top end of what I wanted to pay, but who knew when another one would come up within a reasonable distance?
I sent a deposit and set off to Yorkshire a few days later in my trusty van with a suitable wad of cash. The bike was a little bit scruffy, but it started easily (always a good sign), ticked over like a clock, sounded healthy, and everything worked. The tyres were new. I took the plunge, coughed up, and loaded it into the van. It was a 1979 Mk2, which seems to be the commonest model in the UK.
The Mk2 has the benefit of Nikasil plated cylinder bores and Bosch electronic ignition and produces a claimed 45bhp, which is probably a slight exaggeration. The subsequent Mk3s had larger carburettors and a claimed 3bhp increase in power. The café racer Monza version had the same engine as the Mk3. Strangely, the Mk3 reverted to points ignition instead of electronic, allegedly to address a flat spot in the Mk2’s acceleration curve, of which more later.
On getting the bike home, I changed all the oils and took it for a couple of longish runs to see what needed to be done. My plan was to sort out any problems and smarten it up a bit over the winter. I already knew that something would have to be done about the horrible looking seat and the scruffy exhaust. My wife had temporarily ‘borrowed’ half my workshop space, so I would have to do the work in a rather crowded garage.
Test riding didn’t reveal any major horrors. The worst discovery was leaking fork oil seals due to pitted stanchions hidden by the fork gaiters (how had it passed the MoT?), and the directional stability, which was OK at lower speeds, but became distinctly vague at anything over 65mph. The steering head bearings were fine, as were the swinging arm and wheel bearings, but a fork strip was obviously required.
In fact, the oil in V50 forks is only there to
lubricate the sliders: the damping is provided by sealed cartridge dampers. The fork legs came out easily, but the dampers and springs are anchored to the bottom of the sliders by an allen bolt deeply recessed into the bottom of the slider. These bolts had probably never been undone since they left the factory in 1979, and they were tight. They obviously needed the attentions of an impact wrench, which I didn’t have, so I took the sliders in to my friendly local bike shop, A&G Motorcycles of Dumfries, who had the bolts out in seconds. This revealed that the dampers didn’t damp, that one of them was half seized, and that the springs had compressed to nearly an inch shorter than they should be.
Thanks particularly to Gutsibits, the spares supply for old Guzzis is excellent. So I was able to rebuild the forks with new dampers, new progressive springs, new stanchions, new seals and new gaiters. Gaiters aren’t a standard fitting, as V50s followed the normal 1970s fashion of exposed stanchions, but they protect the stanchions and in my opinion have a more classic appearance while doing away with the spindly look. The only original bits left were the alloy sliders, which I rubbed down and sprayed with acid etch primer. This was followed by several sprayed coats of smooth silver Hammerite and topped with a couple of coats of clear lacquer, leaving them looking as good as new.
I didn’t expect any problems in putting the front wheel back in, but I was wrong, of course. On the port side, there is a longish steel spacer between the fork and the wheel. On the starboard side are the speedo drive and a thick spacer washer. The drawings in both the Guzzi workshop manual and the Guzzi parts list show this spacer to be between the wheel and the speedo drive. I soon found that if you assemble it this way, the wheel has a quarter of an inch side play and the speedo drive won’t work. After some head scratching and two more unsuccessful re-assemblies, I realised that the Guzzi drawings were rubbish, and that the spacer actually goes between the fork and the speedo drive.
Two lessons learned: pay more attention when you take things apart, and don’t believe everything you see in print!
Given the state of the front suspension, I thought that I had better check the back as well. Rightly, as it turned out. On removing the springs from the two old Monroe units, I found that one of the dampers was half seized, so a pair of new shocks was required. I don’t think that expensive multi-adjustable gas shocks are really necessary on a lightweight bike of moderate performance like the V50. A bit of Googling found that NJB shocks were generally well thought of, and their Classic model, based on period Girlings, are reasonably priced and look the part on a 1979 bike, so on they went.
I fitted new sintered brake pads, although the old pads weren’t bad. V50s, like many Guzzis, have a linked braking system, where the foot pedal operates the front left and rear Brembo disc brakes, with the front right being operated by the handlebar lever. The brake discs are cast iron. On Mk2s, the front brake master cylinder normally lives under the petrol tank and is operated by a short cable from the handlebar lever. The Mk3 has a handlebar-mounted master cylinder operated directly by the brake lever, and my bike has one of these, fitted by the last owner.
Most things on a V50 are easy to get at. One exception is the bulky air cleaner housing, which also acts as a collector for the rocker box breathers, returning the oil to the sump. It lives between the cylinders, under the petrol tank, and is a pig to get at, involving removing one of the carburettors. Unfortunately I needed to know what state the filter was in. When I eventually got at it, I found the filter to be in as-new condition, so I had wasted my time, but at least it gave me peace of mind.
Checking the valve clearances was really easy, with the rocker boxes stuck out there in the breeze. The clearances were a bit tight, so I opened them up to the recommended gap. Nice to deal with a good old pushrod engine again!
Opening and closing the throttle produced a tell-tale double click when the throttle slides hit their stops. Investigation showed that one cable had about 1/8” more play than the other one. This was easily adjusted out, and now the slides rise and fall as one.
All the remaining jobs were largely cosmetic. I took great pleasure in binning the rusty exhaust pipes and the non-standard short, fat reverse cone meggas, which made a nice deep fruity sound but looked clumsy. I replaced them with a polished stainless Keihan system which replicated the chrome standard pipes and looked great, although it was the most expensive part of the whole job. I also binned the wobbly mirrors and fitted a much neater and steadier bar-end mirror.
The seat was comfortable but looked like an oversized two-tone plastic sofa. It was packed up and sent to Les Wood at Saddlecraft in South Shields. Les was friendly and knowledgeable. A couple of long telephone conversations and an exchange of photos by email soon sorted out what to do. On stripping off the old cover, he found that someone had covered the original foam with a wraparound extra layer, so it was no wonder that it had looked a bit fat. He also found that the steel seat pan was rotten with rust at the sides, where rainwater had been trapped by the cover. This was repaired effectively with layers of glass fibre and repainted. The extra foam was removed, and the original foam, which was in good condition, was reshaped to take out the step in the middle and give a flatter profile. (Some V50 seats are flat and others are stepped – I’m not sure why this is, but I like them flat so that I have room to move about).
As for the new seat cover, Les can do pretty much whatever you want. I chose a fairly grainy material, with a ribbed top, coloured stitching to match the bike’s paintwork (I thought that coloured piping would be OTT),
and ‘Moto Guzzi’ impressed into the back. I was delighted with the results when I got the seat back. The quality of workmanship is excellent and the price was very reasonable: I would certainly use Saddlecraft again.
Next on the tidy-up list was replacing the horns. The twin Fiamm horns worked fine and sounded good, but looked too bulky and obtrusive on this compact and elegant bike. The standard horn for these bikes is a Voxbell with a chrome front grille. These are quite expensive to buy, and look a bit blingy for my taste. My modern bike, a Yamaha TDM900, has a small but very effective single horn, so I looked for another one on eBay. The TDM and the R1, as well as sharing their front brakes, also use the same horn. I found an unused example, removed from a brand new R1, and it fits very neatly and unobtrusively into the V50. And being from an R1, I confidently expect it to give me at least an extra 10mph on the top speed.
The front direction indicators on a V50 are normally mounted on a bar bolted to the back of the front forks. On my bike, a previous owner has moved them to a homemade aluminium bracket bolted to the horn-mounting plate between the frame downtubes. I painted this bracket black, and the arrangement now looks as if it could be an original fitment. In fact, I think that I prefer it to the standard set-up, and I have no plans to change it.
The next job was the paintwork. The petrol tank, side panels and rear mudguard had evidently been resprayed already, in an orangey red quite close to the original colour, but slightly more orange than the original. The headlamp brackets had been brush painted in a slightly different shade, and the front mudguard was black, so they needed to be sprayed to match the rest of the bike. I took one of the side panels into the local Halfords to see if I could match the colour. Ford Carnival Red looked right, and it proved to be a perfect match. Once you get the hang of them, you can get quite a decent result with rattle cans and T-cut, and the mudguard and headlamp brackets were soon transformed.
This just left the frame and the headlamp shell, both of which had minor patches of rust here and there. The headlamp was soon rubbed down, treated, primed and sprayed satin black to match its original finish. I wasn’t going to strip the whole bike down to get the frame powder coated, so I just rubbed it down, treated and primed the rusty bits, and brush painted it with Halfords black gloss enamel, using a very soft brush, and getting a pretty good finish.
In the course of the various jobs, I also spent a few pounds on new stainless steel fasteners. V50s use a lot of socket headed bolts rather than the usual hexagon heads, and these look good in stainless. It’s a cheap way of smartening a machine up.
Another little task was fitting a stem nut clock, as I like to have a clock on my bikes. I couldn’t find one to fit over the V50’s rather large stem nut. However, I had one left over from a Hinckley Bonneville I once owned. The internal diameter of the clock housing was
about a millimetre too small to fit over the nut, so I marked out where the points of the nut touched it and ground some shallow grooves with a Dremel, after which it fitted a treat.
I finally wheeled the bike out on Easter Monday for its first post-overhaul run. It behaved itself perfectly, and has done so ever since. So what is it like to ride?
The starter motor feels powerful and kicks the transverse engine into instant life with a slight twitch sideways. First gear goes in quietly, and subsequent changes are light and accurate. Acceleration is pretty lively for a 500, as it is so light and therefore has a good power to weight ratio.
Gearing is quite low, showing 6000rpm at an indicated 70mph. The engine is smooth when burbling along at 30 to 40mph, then there is a mild vibration period when accelerating from 40 to 50, then it smooths out again. Back in the day, road tests claimed that they would cruise at 80mph. Maybe they will, but I can’t help feeling that it would be cruel to old machinery. Perhaps I am too used to my other two bikes, both of which are high geared and relaxed at speed. The V50 feels happy and unstressed at 50-60. 70mph is still smooth, but feels a little busy to me. Top speed is claimed to be 105, but I wouldn’t like to rev the engine so hard. The exhaust note sounds great at all engine speeds.
Apart from a high compression ratio, it is in a generally mild state of tune and pulls well from low revs. On my bike at least, there is no trace of the alleged ‘Mk2 flat spot.’ It is interesting to note that Dave Richardson suggests in his Moto Guzzi bible ‘ Guzziology’ that the reversion from electronic to points ignition on the Mk3 may actually have been to save money, and that, in his experience, it is the Mk3 that is more likely to have the problem.
The linked braking system is excellent. Unlike modern brakes, which slow you down dramatically with single-finger pressure, 1970s brakes need a bit more pressure to be applied, but a moderate press on the brake pedal brings you to a rapid and controlled halt, with no appreciable fork dive. Use of the handlebar lever brings the other front disc into play if really hard braking is required.
Now that I have sorted out the suspension at both ends, the ride is comfortable and the handling is sublime: probably the best I have experienced. Stable, but light, flickable and accurate. Brilliant.
The bike’s other striking features are its small size and light weight. Its dry weight is only 152kg, so it is like a 250 with a 500 engine. For comparison, the V50’s contemporary rival, the Honda CX500, weighed 217kg dry. The current ultra-light Yamaha R1 sports bike weighs 179kg dry. Although the V50 is quite compact, I am 6ft tall and find it perfectly comfortable. As we progress through our motorcycling careers, most of us tend to buy ever more powerful and correspondingly bigger and heavier bikes. More power is always nice to have, but every silver lining has a cloud, and extra power is nearly always accompanied by extra weight. In riding the V50, I have rediscovered the special pleasure of chucking a small, light, easily controllable machine around the back roads.
It is not the bike I would choose for relaxed long distance motorway work, but for zapping around country roads it would be hard to beat. My TDM can do the motorway stuff. For a total outlay of less than three grand, I now have a very characterful little classic that is easy to handle, looks and sounds great, and is already giving me a lot of enjoyment.
David’s Guzzi as originally bought. Remarkable seat, that. Curious silencers, also
Work in progress, then. A gentle cosmetic job?
The new seat from Saddlecraft is something of an improvement, and is also comfortable, which is a god thing in a seat
More suitable stainless silencers replaced the earlier items, while a pair of NJB shocks provide rear end comfort and control
Not entirely original, but neat and effective, so perfectly great!
Above far right: New stainless exhausts show off the high quality alloy of the engine, with the sump below and an easy-access oil filler
Right: Italian style!
Above right: Moto Guzzi’s small-block engines are compact as they come, distinctive and smooth. The pedal operates the linked brakes
Above: Guzzi forks of this period were a little unusual in that the damping is provided by sealed cartridge dampers – the oil inside the legs only lubricates
Pilot’s view. Tempting, no?
Brembo calipers provide the stopping. One of them is operated by the rear brake pedal, while the other is more conventional, with a hand squeeze doing the usual thing
Typical stylish Guzzi clocks of the period – a view enhanced by the addition of a neat pre-digital timepiece
Final drive is by shaft, logically enough, while the rear disc is tucked away inside a home of its own