Ace Tester Miles gets to grips with Morini’s ubiquitous 3½, and ponders whether the pint-size V-twin really is a pocket superbike – or the Italian equivalent of the Superdream…
Ace Tester Miles gets to grips with Morini's ubiquitous 350, and ponders whether the pint-size V-twin really is a pocket superbike - or the Italian equivalent of the Superdream...
The classic world is divided between those who like or loathe Italian motorcycles. I can see their respective points of view. Italy is capable of producing motorcycles that not only look wonderful, but also sound fantastic and perform brilliantly. It’s also fair to condemn the Italian industry’s attitude towards reliability, finish and especially electrics. The old joke about why Italians build beautiful bikes – so that you have something to admire while sitting waiting for the breakdown truck – has a ring of truth to it. Then there’s Morini. This minor player in the grand scheme of things appears to be granted special dispensation when it comes to matters of Italian quality and engineering. We will laugh at ‘Italian spaghetti electrics’ on a Ducati, but a Morini gets a free pass. A Laverda is ‘harsh and uncompromising’ to ride, but the little V-twin is ‘inspiring’. Even vibration, always ‘intrusive’ on a 350 MV, becomes ‘charismatic’ on a 3½. It just so happens that the eclectic shed would currently benefit from something smaller but interesting enough to use on a wet VMCC run, when the poshest bikes are too shy to come out and play and I need something for a 100 mile trip at low-ish average speeds. I was idly looking at early 1980s Japanese middleweights when this became available. It’d been a while since I’d owned a Morini, so… Like most Italian motorcycle companies, Morini never had any spare money, so the famous 3½ appeared wearing several outfits, but was fundamentally similar underneath. This example, an import, is supposedly from 1979 but looks a little later. The softer and classically pretty profile of the early wire-wheeled machines has been upgraded to better represent the company in the funky new decade of the 1980s. Alloy wheels replaced the spokes, with a longer and leaner look to the bodywork plus, of course, that all-important rectangular headlight. Nothing screamed 1980s like a TV set headlamp, after all; very Space 1999.
Black paint replaced much of the chrome or polished alloy of the earlier versions and the Strada now even came with that great novelty, an electric start. This and the other later variants aren’t as desirable as the early models and, as a consequence, can be had for less money today – which suggests they’re an affordable and interesting Italian classic. This seemed to fit my remit perfectly: quirky, Italian, had less chrome to try and keep attached, boasted an electric start and came with that sparkling promise of exotic fun at a surprisingly moderate price.
MYTH VS REALITY
The Morini arrived and yes, I think it looks pretty good. The Italians have always known how to style a motorcycle and on the rare occasion when they get it wrong (MV Agusta 600 anyone?) I still suspect them of doing so deliberately. This ‘new style’ Morini distanced itself from the earlier design, which was then some eight years old and looking distinctly old fashioned. As well as freshening up the lines, the new machine proudly displayed the angular accents – squared-off indicators, shoebox headlight, and even the (round) clocks were embedded into square housings. It doesn’t quite work today, but at the time I think I wore a luminous green headband when I went clubbing, so all is forgiven. With an easy to use centrestand, sidestand, electric start, huge mirrors and comfortable riding position, the factory had made a serious attempt to provide the rider with useful creature comforts. Even the CEV switchgear worked well and operated in an almost logical manner, despite being Italian. The speedo needle flapped around throughout the test, of course and replacing the cable made only a minor difference.
The riding position was perfect for me, the 3½ pulling off the trick of being small yet roomy at the same time. This Strada variant was infinitely more comfortable that the Sport version I’d previously owned, complete with forward footrests and clip-on bars forcing the rider into a foetal crouch.
Best fire it up, then. Being aware of the theoretically fragile electric start, something supposedly cobbled up in a hurry to satisfy demand, I attempted to use the kickstart. It’s on the left, of course; these Italians have always enjoyed that particular little joke. There was something I couldn’t quite recall about starting them bubbling under in my memory, but after one swing it all came flooding back – along with the blood.
The Morini kickstart is a truly poxy piece of design. It’s too close to the motor and folds at the bottom, so anything other than the perfect prod results in it tucking itself under the footrest as your leg continues downwards while having large chunks of flesh gouged out by various engine protrusions. It then jams itself under the heatshield that attempts to protect the rider’s leg from the exhaust which is so badly placed that burns are almost inevitable. At least the exhaust cauterised the wounds, I suppose. Take a look at one next time you see a 3½. They’re always bent and battered, just like my leg. It has to be one of the worst designed kickstarts in history. Luckily for me, the notoriously unreliable (I read it on the internet, so it must be true) electric start performed faultlessly throughout the test.
Once started, the 3½ ran… badly. It was the carburettors, it always is on old Italian clunkers. A tip: if you own a bike fitted with original Dell’Ortos, change the choke plungers, they’re always worn out. That bit that looks like a tiny O-ring in the end? Should be flat. The carbs were treated to a clean and rebuild kits and I tried again. This time the ‘wee vee’ (always hated that expression) fired up and sound much better. A quick spin revealed a nice example of a Strada, begging to be thrash… erm, evaluated.
A six-speed gearbox, with the change still on the right, was a nice surprise. I wasn’t expecting any great issues with the gearbox, and it didn’t disappoint. The little twin needs all six ratios as it’s only a pushrod 350cc motorcycle yet begs to be recognised as a sports bike. This is really where I seem to deviate from most of the Morinisti; the bike’s performance really isn’t very fast.
Fans of the marque speak lovingly about its willingness to rev and exhilarating performance down a twisty road. I can only assume they’ve never ridden a Japanese 250 two-stroke of the same era, or even, dare I say it, a 400 Superdream. The truth is that the 3½ isn’t a very powerful motor. The factory claimed 35bhp, but it feels more like 25-27 at the rear wheel. At low revs it lacks the torque of, say, a Triumph 500 twin and needs to be howled to make any serious progress, using all six ratios enthusiastically while setting your teeth against the vibration.
And this is the truth about them. For all the cuteness and supposedly clever engineering, the Morini is just a 350 twin and simply cannot compete with the bigger stuff, or much of the better smaller stuff, either. I won’t cover old ground by speaking of the ingenious Heron (cheaper to produce) heads, or the tiny belt that drives the cam, you’ve doubtless read it all before. But, despite all this brilliant engineering, they still didn’t see fit to incorporate a proper oil filter; the Morini owner had to make do with the usual Italian fudge of a couple of tea strainers, despite buying a 350cc machine that cost as much as a 750cc offering from Japanese rivals.
The motor looks great, though, a cute little V-twin with electronic ignition, twin carburettors and exhausts. I even think the abundance of black paint on this model suits it well. The clutch is dry, which makes it easy to work on. Just as well, because it’s not that great. If you’re a fan of finding neutral at a standstill, look elsewhere. Every Morini I’ve ever ridden has been the same; they all do that, sir. Once rolling, it neither slipped nor dragged, so it’s really a matter of finding neutral before you roll to a stop at traffic lights.
The front Grimeca disc brake and rear drum do a fine job of stopping the bike, although the disc brake feels very wooden; perhaps new pads would help. The whole package of light weight, quality Marzocchi suspension and good balance results in a fine-riding machine. I’d expect nothing else, frankly; if an Italian manufacturer fails to make a lightweight and underpowered machine feel surefooted they need exiling to Sicily. On balance, I guess that there are worse places to spend your exile.
If I seem to be painting this as a disappointing motorcycle I apologise, because it really isn’t. The little twin is charismatic and quite able to whizz the rider beyond the speed limit, but it’s no fire breathing road racer. The Strada is as comfortable as you could reasonably expect a small bike to be, with great handling and effective brakes. Even the catastrophiclooking electrical system should be OK with a modicum of water protective screening applied before winter, although keeping the press-fit idiot lights attached to the panel is a fruitless exercise.
I would say that the Morini fulfils its brief exactly. But it isn’t a pint-sized exotic superbike. Which is why prices for the weevee (there I go again) have continually lagged behind their fellow Italian stablemates. A nice example of a Morini Strada like this is around £3500. A 350 Desmo Ducati single would be ten thousand pounds more than that. It would be reasonable to assume that if the market hasn’t woken up to them after nearly half a century, then the Morini’s current values are correct. Even the best early 3½ examples with wire wheels and drum brakes only fetch around £4500-6000, a price which would buy you little more than a pile of rusty metal purporting to have once been a 250 Ducati.
So, if you want to run a pretty little Italian motorcycle with fantastic spares back-up courtesy of companies like NLM, and are prepared to accept the realistic limitations of the performance, a cutesy Morini might just be the bike for you. They have a fantastic owners’ club with very enthusiastic, devoted members. Be prepared to spend time fixing bizarre electrical issues and lower your expectations about the functionality of idiot lights, indicators and rear lamp clusters. The engine is simple to work on, requiring pretty much just a 10mm socket and two screwdrivers to dismantle. Brace yourself for an engine that may have been worked on previously by somebody who believed that previous sentence; their simplicity sometimes leads to… enthusiastically misguided spannering.
Ownership of a Morini opens a window of friendship and camaraderie with fellow enthusiasts, and the little V-twin is quite good fun to ride down a twisty lane or two. If you consider them as interesting, fun bikes they offer fair value. Just bear in mind they do nothing which a similar era Honda wouldn’t be able to match or better at half the price. The Morini 3½ – the Italian Superdream…
One of many advantages of the Vee ohv arrangement is that the engine need not be too tall to fit a compact frame. As seen here
Some folk consider the rectangular headlamp to be an outstanding example of Italian stylistic excellence. Other views are available
Below: A frequent challenge in an editor’s arduous existence is wondering why noble contributors include certain photos. This is a fine example. Does Ace Tester Miles imply that the Morini would struggle to overtake a laden tractor? We may never know
Racer fantasies are easy when you have a kph speedo. Typically characterful handlebar architecture is as idiosyncratic as you might expect
The minor controls are fiddly and can become imprecise with age and use. However, they mostly work reliably. Mostly
Marzocchi forks and a single Brembo disc. What could be better? A second disc, maybe?
Above: Many riders complain about the relationship between the somewhat awkward kickstart lever and the adjacent exhaust heatshield. The moral is: if there’s an electric starter fitted … use it
Left: This is it: the fabled ‘wee-vee’ engine. Neat, compact and stylish, but not entirely bursting with pep, claims Ace Tester Miles
Mr Inscrutable. We suspect that the Ace Tester actually enjoyed his time with the 3½ more than he’d admit, although we could be wrong… Does our noted contributor truly compare this handsome Italian pony with Honda’s Super Dream? He does. He is plainly very brave