MOTO GUZZI V50
Buying a cheap old bike with a mysterious misfire might be a recipe for disaster, or it could be a savvy way to snap up a cut-price classic. Stuart Urquhart meets an enthusiast of the Guzzi marque with a soft spot for the small-block V-twins…
Buying a cheap old bike with a mysterious misfire might be a recipe for disaster, or it could be a savvy way to snap up a cut-price classic. Stuart Urquhart meets an enthusiast of the Guzzi marque with a soft spot for the small-block V-twins...
One of the abiding pleasures of being a member of the Scottish Classic Motorcycle Club (SCMC) is the camaraderie and eclectic mix of motorcycles and characters that swell our ranks. Young and old rub shoulders and swap motorcycling tales in our club’s buzzing car park. The same can be said of their steeds – all sorts attend our events and provide your humble scribe with an endless supply of exciting and unusual pickings. Coveted machines like Vincents, Broughs and Gold Stars might not be so common, but it is the everyman’s RealClassic that I personally find exciting. These are the bikes on which I long to bag a ride.
In this case I should say ‘everywoman’ – for the elegantly aging military Guzzi V50 that is featured hereabouts belongs to Catherine. It’s a NATO machine that is as splendid in its patinated matt green and white stencilled paintwork as Cath is in her riding leathers, full-face hat and plaited pigtails. Both create a striking pose when encountered on the road or gracing SCMC’s car park with their presence.
Cath caught Guzzitis when she met her ‘intended’ at the tender age of 21. Today Cath has an impressive score of five V50s under her belt... plus two T3s, a Spada, a Le Mans and a Nevada 750 and, dare I mention possibly not one of the prettiest Guzzis ever, a Sessantacinque GT. So Cath can rightfully claim to be a baptised Guzzi disciple. Over to her:
‘My introduction to the seductive world of Italian motorcycles happened in my 21st year. Having recently moved to the Highlands I happened to visit a little folk museum in Kingussie. My guide was a very charming young man called Rod, who seemed to fall instantly for my constant companion, my collie Ben. We soon established that Rod and I had a common interest in dogs and motorbikes. Rod then intrigued me by asking if I would like to see his Ducati Desmo. Of course I said yes – though I was completely ignorant as to what I was going to see.
‘So Rod appeared with this gorgeous, custard yellow, 450 Ducati Desmo and I was completely seduced. 30-odd years later I am still hooked on Italian machinery. Rod has owned a succession of bikes after the Ducati was sold on; several of them were Moto Guzzis. I loved all the Guzzis, and as our kids grew up it finally dawned on me that I should have a Guzzi of my own. Rod suggested the most sensible option would be a V50 but I wasn’t tempted, until I discovered that there was an ex-military version in all over matt green. No shiny bits at all – a machine made just for me!
‘Finding the desired option was the stumbling block. There was an Italian importer in London who brought over exmilitary/police models so we got in touch, only to discover he was not expecting delivery of any military V50s in the near future. He did however have a black and white Polizia Urbana V50, complete with fully working siren and panniers with machinegun shaped pockets.
‘Rod duly set off for London with car and trailer to view the bike, only to call back with
his opinion that the bike was horribly shabby and over-priced, and wouldn’t I really prefer some sensible mid-weight Honda that he had spotted in some nearby dealer’s showroom? Having firmly reiterated that it was the little Guzzi, irrespective of its scruffy appearance, that I wanted – nothing else would do, Rod handed over the money and brought the bike home for me.
‘I loved that little Guzzi from the moment it arrived and it gave me a lot of fun over the years. I felt wedded to it! It might have been shabby and occasionally unreliable, but it was brilliantly easy to ride and a treat to work on. It came through quite a few winters of regular riding with nothing more than lashings of WD40 and some sturdy crash bars to protect it. Remarkably its appearance never changed from the day I bought it.
‘OK, it wasn’t very fast, but it did handle small twisty highland roads with aplomb and was guaranteed to make me smile every time we ventured out. The working siren was an added bonus and certainly added to the fun. It produced a wicked drone of mournful wailing but was sparingly used, lest it got me into trouble with the real Bobbies. Eventually I moved on to the bigger Guzzis and sold on the V50, and since that day it’s the one bike I regret parting with.’
Consequently our pining Cath decided the time was right for another V50 in her life, and of course it had to be a military model...
‘Realising I wasn’t 21 anymore, I fancied a lighter motorcycle. I’m not one for polishing, but motorcycle mechanics no longer posed a problem for me, having learned so much sorting faults on my previous Guzzis. They really are simple to work on.
‘So I turned to the internet and Mark Wilmink who supplies ex-NATO machines from Holland. I even considered travelling there, but the distance and the added hassle of registering any motorcycle in the UK put me off. As my search continued, another NATO machine popped up on Gumtree with only 17,000km recorded on its original speedo. It had already been imported into the UK from Holland and was up for sale for £900, with only two previous owners.
I snapped it up, especially when I considered that Wilmink-supplied NATO machines normally go for three times as much! However the Gumtree Guzzi was advertised as “suffering from an electrical fault” and the seller couldn’t diagnose the problem. Both original silencers had also rotted through – hence the attractive price!’
Neither issue posed a problem for Cath, even though she was located near Dundee and the bike was in Berkshire. Happily, her friend Ivan was an old school mechanic who lived in the neighbouring county and he offered his help. So the bike was duly delivered to Ivan’s home and he soon had the little Guzzi running. Cath sourced UK-made stainless silencers for half the price of original matt black silencers, then simply sprayed them matt black.
Meantime Ivan was struggling to sort the mysterious and persistent running problem he described as a ‘mysterious electrical fault’. The problem could not be traced to the carburettors, or to the V50’s traditional points, plug or coil. A slipping clutch also
complicated matters. Then a concerned Cath suddenly lost touch with Ivan altogether. Enquiring phone calls and emails were unanswered and Cath considered travelling south before Ivan’s wife called with the shocking news that he was seriously ill and confined to hospital. Cath resigned herself to leaving the V50 in limbo.
After a six-month delay, she decided to ride the bike home herself. Following a series of road tests she decided to risk the 496 mile journey. Cath and the V50 ended up stuck for hours in Oxford’s sweltering nose-to-tail Bank Holiday traffic. Inevitably the V50 began to misfire in the hot conditions and then it suddenly broke down, refusing to start again. But her problems were only just beginning. Being a Bank Holiday weekend it took the AA a further eighteen hours and no less than eight different drivers to recover Cath and her stricken Guzzi from Oxford to Scotland…
Once back home and recovering from her ordeal, Cath discovered that the V50’s new coils were cooked and that the overheating engine had also damaged the valve guides. Replacing the coils, condensers, points and valve guides had the bike up and working again, but unfortunately did not bring any improvement to the persistent and erratic running. So Cath turned to a local mechanic and SCMC member for help. Was the attraction of V50 ownership now beginning to wear off? Cath takes up the story...
‘My friend and ex-TT racer/mechanic Tom Willison was amazing. As soon as Tom checked the ignition timing he identified that the timing marks were incorrect. Tom set the timing by instinct and by the use of his welltrained ear, and my V50 has run beautifully ever since. The hesitant starting, poor running and bland performance were transformed overnight. I was so pleased to have a lively, lightweight and responsive V50 back in my garage. I couldn’t have thanked Tom enough and now I look forward to rides on my little NATO Guzzi at every opportunity.’
Cath’s refusal to lose faith with her motorcycle is impressive, to say the least. Why is she so loyal to Guzzis and in particular to the V50 model?
‘I’ve always had a soft spot for twins, especially Moto Guzzi and BMW twins, but there is something about a Guzzi that gets under your skin. All Guzzi fans know this. Through long-term ownership they become forever bikes. If properly serviced, Guzzis rarely let you down. They are also easy to work on and kind to the home mechanic, as well as being simple to understand both mechanically and electrically – unlike BMWs,
FROM THEN TO NOW
Conceived in the late 1970s by renowned Guzzi designer Lino Tonti, the middleweight V50 was a scaled-down ohv two valves per cylinder, 90-degree V-twin with shaft drive and patented linked braking system. Moto Guzzi boss De Tomaso wanted chief designer Tonti to come up with a middleweight model that would deliver much needed sales and compete admirably with the class-leading Honda CX500 and Yamaha XS500 of the time. When launched at the 1976 Cologne Show the new V50 was an instant hit for Guzzi and soon established itself as a niche model in a very competitive market.
During the early days of V50 production a series of electrical and mechanical faults unfortunately curtailed sales. Then just as Guzzi had sorted out their production problems a global recession hit the motorcycle industry. This unforeseen event, in combination with the firm’s poor marketing of its middleweight models, further stifled sales. Yet the little Guzzi endured – helped along by a loyal following, competitive pricing, compact size, clever design and its extremely low weight. A striking resemblance to their bigger siblings was another contributing factor to the V50’s success, especially when the middleweight began to claw back a reputation for reliability.
By the early 1980s another middleweight model was introduced; the V65, which evolved into sports, trail and custom variants. The popular V65 Lario soon earned press plaudits as a very credible sports bike, but never quite achieved the status of the legendary Le Mans.
Sadly, some of Guzzi’s middleweight models continued to be spoiled by mechanical problems. A lack of servicing – chiefly missing regular oil changes and tappet adjustment – could lead to head gasket failures and burnt-out exhaust valves. Carburettors required regular balancing to maintain smooth running and it was not unknown for the rear bevel drive to fail on higher mileage machines. All tarnished the middleweight Guzzi’s reputation.
Fortunately, Guzzi had nurtured a long and profitable association with both police and military services around the globe and Guzzi began to develop models specifically targeted at both groups. The factory designed cheap, practical and robustlyengineered machines by cleverly adapting and converting several of their civilian models into excellent military machines. By 1985 Guzzi had developed a line-up of four distinct service models, all influenced by the company’s civilian motorcycles – the acclaimed V7, V1000, T3 and latterly the V50.
These civilian models were transformed by the addition of accoutrements essential to police and military forces. They were then marketed as the 1000 California Polizia and the 850 Carabinieri, before two V50 machines followed – the 500 Polizia and the 500 NATO model.
Since 2008 Moto Guzzi have exploited a global interest in retro-styled roadsters. They successfully launched a range of new middleweights that began with the introduction of the V7 Classic and V7 Sport, both of which can be traced back to the venerable V50.
which are more complex (I have owned several boxers).
‘Guzzi V-twin cylinder heads are easy to access and tappet adjustments are a doddle with the heads “hanging in the wind”. Points are also in a handy location at the front of the engine; even the electrics are all conveniently housed within the RHS toolbox. Locating and replacing a blown fuse for instance, couldn’t be simpler.
‘Middleweight Guzzis also offer exceptional handling and you can stay in top gear and simply ride the throttle all day long, courtesy of the engine’s torque. The softly-tuned engine is smooth but powerful enough to cope with A-road gallops (you can tell I own a horse), but back road cantering is really the V50’s forte. I also like the fact that “a get you home” kickstart is located beneath the left footpeg, should the Bosch starter ever let you down.
‘This NATO model is an accomplished touring machine with easy to remove panniers – made from what I can only presume is 4mm brontosaurus hide; tough as old boots, just like the bike. But should you be unfortunate enough to drop her, she’s easy to pick up, weighing half as much as the average BMW.
‘The standard single saddle, which makes room for an absent NATO radio at the rear, is plush and comfy on longer runs – again a boon to touring. Also an upside for me with family and friends spread all over the UK. I didn’t bother with a car licence until I had passed my half century, so motorcycling is my first choice mode of travel (after a horse, of course!).
‘ The only downside to V50 ownership is perhaps the lighting, which I am reliably informed is improved by fitting modern LED bulbs – I fully intend to investigate this possibility. But the upside of this NATO model is the thick matt green paintwork that is splashed all over, so I never need to clean or polish the brute… as I do tend to ride all year round.’
My proper introduction to Cath’s lovely NATO V50 came when we headed into the green and pleasant (in this case the blue and pleasant) to take some pictures, so that you gentle geezers can appreciate what a cracking little bike this Moto Guzzi really is. My first impression was how purposeful and muscular the NATO V50 looked in the flesh, especially when you recall Guzzi’s svelte and sparkly showroom middleweights.
The impregnable military matt green paintwork and white identification stencilling
enhances its macho image. It looks like it should be in the company of front line hardware such as tanks, artillery and even battleships – this NATO incarnation of Robocop certainly appears to be indestructible. Its durable design became more evident when we removed the leather panniers to photograph the Guzzi’s shaft drive and exposed the sturdy and overengineered pannier frames. I was certainly hooked by its appearance, but could the same be said of the ride?
When I swung my leg over the diminutive V50, its engine was already warm, and on my first stab at the starter button she fired up instantly, with a gently thrumming engine. There was no characteristic side shuffle as with larger capacity Guzzis or BMWs. I can remember my surprise at how small the bike felt beneath my thighs – much like a 250 it was very easy to manoeuvre and push around for the photo shoot.
The engine responds well to the (heavy) throttle and revs instantly without lag or vibration, suggesting that Tom had indeed set up the V50’s ignition timing and twin Dell’Orto carburettors perfectly. The single plate clutch felt a bit grabby as I selected first gear and shuffled in the power, but both the throttle and clutch action improved significantly during the road test, signifying that I just needed to become accustomed to a bike that I had never had the pleasure of riding before.
The gearbox is a one-down and four-up configuration and it’s a belter, offering fluid gear changes with no false neutrals. Absent too are clunky gears that spoil some bigger capacity Guzzis and BMW boxers. Several miles in, I began to relax and appreciate just how smooth, silent and well-engineered this middleweight Guzzi really is. The 490cc ohv pushrod engine with its Heron heads and Nikasil bores delivers 45bhp at 7500rpm and I soon became enthralled with the V50’s punchy and revvy nature. Equally impressive is the quiet and smooth shaft drive.
Although there may be less power at your fingertips than when riding a litre-class V-twin, the famed characteristic Guzzi growl and delightful rolling surge is unmistakable in this middleweight design. In fact the exhaust note is unobtrusive, but unmistakably Guzzi
On the move, Cath’s well-balanced NATO machine impresses too. Tipping the scales at an anorexic 345lb (claimed) the handling is extremely light and nimble. The slim tyres and low centre of gravity also add to the little Guzzi’s responsive steering. Often criticised as the V50’s Achilles heel, I found the skinny 32mm front forks to be perfectly damped. They paired up well with the quality rear shocks and Tonti’s taut frame to produce a surefooted ride over any road surface we encountered. Even a series of deep potholes we clattered over did not deflect the little Guzzi from its course, or from making steady progress. In my opinion this NATO V50’s road manners are nothing short of remarkable.
The handlebars, controls and seat position were perfect for my five-ten frame and 29” pins. The comfort provided by the thickly-padded, if tattered, single seat is mile-crunching magnificent. Cath, at fivesix and 32” inside leg, rates V50 comfort as exemplary too. So we can assume Guzzi got the ergonomics right first time for beast or
beauty – which is much as one would expect from a military bike designed for policing duties in a troubled world.
Another Guzzi plus is the linked front (left) and rear Brembo discs, operated by the foot pedal. The front brake lever operates the remaining (right) front disc, which when used together, effortlessly dump excessive speed. Top speed hovers around the magic ton, but cruising speeds of between 60-70mph are this little Guzzi’s forte. Thankful for my joy ride, I was left with a very positive impression of Guzzi’s NATO V50 and it certainly lived up to any hype. It is solid, handles beautifully and is endowed with Guzzi character. So much so that I now understand Cath’s allegiance to both the badge, the breed and this particular bike.
Riding an all-weather bike finished in military matt paint means you don’t need to clean it much, right? Observe the reserve kickstart lever hiding beneath the footrest, too
There surely must be a ‘military mite’ joke here? NATO’s arsenal has included a lot of motorcycles, including Guzzi’s finest
Removing the bags reveals the familiar V50. It also reveals some seriously robust mounts for the luggage
If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a small surprise…
Suspending and stopping the V50 pose no problems
This has always been one of the best Italian middleweight engines. Painting it green fails to disguise this
Wide handlebars, trad lighting … and a neat shade for the instruments, too. The military mind considers everything
Ready for anything!
Mysterious military markings…
Military machines like matt black silencers instead of reflective chrome. In this case the chrome is still there … beneath the matt paint
Everything the military pilot needs to know is here
The clocks are familiar, and include an mph speedo. However, the console for the ignition and lighting switches is unusual
Military men (and women) get a dinky panel for the switches: the indicator / horn switch is especially wonderful. Those keys show a long and distinguished career, too