Moto Guzzi Airone

De­lec­ta­ble 250 sin­gle

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At var­i­ous stages since the Moto Guzzi com­pany was formed (ini­tially as the So­ci­età Anon­ima Moto Guzzi in March, 1921), mod­els ac­quired names de­rived from feathered flock, most no­tably the lusty Fal­cone (Fal­con) 500cc sin­gle that played an en­dur­ing role in the com­pany’s his­tory. Oth­ers in­cluded the rac­ing 250cc Al­ba­tross (1939-1948), Egretta (19391940, Egret or white heron), As­tore (1949 – 1953, Goshawk), Gal­letto (1950 – 1966, Cock­erell), Cardellino (1954 – 1965, Goldfinch), Lodola (1956 – 1966, Lark), and the sub­ject of our story here, the 250cc Airone (Heron), pro­duced from 1939 to 1957). From the very first pro­duc­tion Moto Guzzi, the 500cc Nor­male of 1921, the dis­tinc­tive sil­hou­ette was es­tab­lished – Carlo Guzzi’s hor­i­zon­tal sin­gle cylin­der en­gine with nar­row crankcases and out­side fly­wheel. It is a mark of the bril­liance of that ba­sic de­sign that it was still in pro­duc­tion (as the Nuovo Fal­cone) in 1976 – an in­cred­i­ble life­span of 55 years. Af­ter a long line of 500s (which in­cluded the in­ge­nious Tre Cilin­dra three cylin­der model of which only a hand­ful were pro­duced form 1932 to 1933) Moto Guzzi de­cided around the same time that a move into the ‘Light­weight’ mar­ket would be a shrewd move. It was a de­ci­sion taken with the par­lous world eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion very much in mind, and to take ad­van­tage of a sales tax ben­e­fit in Italy for mod­els un­der 175cc. What be­came the Airone ac­tu­ally be­gan as the P 175 – vis­ually very sim­i­lar to the 500s but in fact bristling with new fea­tures, many of which were sub­se­quently in­cor­po­rated into the larger mod­els. But as the fi­nan­cial cri­sis eased, the buy­ing pub­lic seemed to be less con­cerned with sav­ing a few lire and more with in­creased per­for­mance. As sales of the 175cc P 175 slowed to a trickle, Moto Guzzi en­gi­neers were hard at work on a larger model of 232cc, the P250. The P 175 uti­lized a brand new cylin­der head de­sign with valves in­clined at 31º con­trolled by ex­posed dou­ble hair­pin springs, with 59 x 63.7mm bore and stroke for 174cc, a three-speed han­d­op­er­ated gear­box, and a rigid frame with girder forks. The steel crankshaft of 27mm di­am­e­ter was a two-piece af­fair run­ning on a ball bear­ing on the right and a roller bear­ing on the left, with the con­rod on nee­dle rollers. The fuel tank was a sleek chrome job with panels painted in ama­ranth red – a styling ex­er­cise that was soon ex­tended across the en­tire range of mod­els. 1,503 units were con­structed be­tween 1932 and 1937. The P 250, with 68 x 64mm di­men­sions, first ap­peared around 1936 and quickly be­came avail­able as three sep­a­rate mod­els. In ba­sic form, the P 250 used a vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal chas­sis to the P 175, but as the P.E. came with a fully sprung frame. The can­tilever rear sus­pen­sion had its twin spring units con­tained in a com­part­ment below the en­gine, with damp­ing con­trolled by fric­tion dampers. This pair was soon joined by a third 232cc model, the P.E.S. which boasted a more highly tuned en­gine and was good for 115 km/h. Most of the 75 ex­am­ples built ended up in some form of sport­ing use which usu­ally in­volved ditch­ing heavy items like the steel mud­guards for al­loy ver­sions. Moto Guzzi also pre­pared sev­eral P.E.S. mod­els for im­por­tant events such as the Mi­lano-Tar­ranto road race, where the light­ened and tuned bikes were reck­oned to be ca­pa­ble of 125 km/h. The 232cc power plant, with iron head and bar­rel, still em­ployed a 3-speed gear­box, but with a foot op­er­ate change. Both the P.E. and the P.E.S. weighed 135kg and ran on 19-inch wheels. Up till 1939, a to­tal of 1,886 P 250s and 1,568 P.E.s were built. A fur­ther vari­a­tion was the P.L. (later called the Egretta) which was an econ­omy model with a pressed steel frame, and pressed steel blade-type girder forks, and all chrome re­placed by paint. Push­ing the econ­omy en­ve­lope even fur­ther, the Ardetta, made just in 1939 and 1940, used coil ig­ni­tion rather than mag­neto, the old 3-speed gear­box in ei­ther hand or foot change, and drab grey paint­work with white strip­ing. At 3,950 lire, it was 10% cheaper than the P.L. – it­self a bud­get model. In late 1939, the en­gine was re­designed with the bore size in­creased by 2mm to 70mm to a full 247cc, and a four-speed, foot op­er­ated gear­box. At this point the bird-lovers stepped in, and the new ma­chine be­came the Airone, or Heron. First mod­els were vir­tu­ally in­dis­tin­guish­able from the P.E. but very early in pro­duc­tion re­ceived a sprung pressed steel frame de­rived from the P.L. with pressed girder front forks. With Italy’s in­volve­ment in the war es­ca­lat­ing rapidly, very few were built in 1940. The 247cc cast iron en­gine, still with ex­posed hair­pin valve springs, ran on 6.0:1 com­pres­sion fed by a

Dell’Orto SBF 22mm car­bu­ret­tor. In­side the en­gine, the con­rod was now of the bolted-up type, with 25mm main­shafts run­ning on two roller bear­ings. In keep­ing with the coun­try’s rapidly es­ca­lat­ing in­fla­tion, price had jumped from 4,300 lire for the P.E. to 6,200 lire for the Airone.

Italy was a far dif­fer­ent place in 1945, when pro­duc­tion restarted on the Airone, nat­u­rally in its pre-war spec­i­fi­ca­tion. 875 were built that year, ac­count­ing for nearly 50% of the fac­tory’s to­tal out­put. But it took lit­tle time for mods to be im­ple­mented, and by 1947 (when 1,100 were made) the Airone ap­peared with Guzzi’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary tele­scopic forks – which in the par­lance of the 1990s were ‘up­side down’ with the slid­ing tubes con­nected to the front axle. At the rear were very long hy­draulic dampers, re­plac­ing the trade­mark fric­tion type, but these lasted only one year be­fore the Airone re­verted to the orig­i­nal style. The fol­low­ing year the en­gine gained an alu­minium al­loy bar­rel and cylin­der head with the valve gear com­pletely en­closed, and a Sport ver­sion was in­tro­duced along­side the stan­dard model. This used a com­bi­na­tion pressed steel and tubu­lar frame, with al­loy Bor­rani wheel rims, 200mm al­loy-finned brakes, sportier han­dle­bars and a fish­tail si­lencer. Com­pres­sion on the Sport rose to 7.0:1, breath­ing through a 25mm Dell’Orto SS car­bu­ret­tor. Valve springs were slightly thicker in di­am­e­ter, With 13.5 hp on tap, top speed was quoted as 120 km/h. Moto Guzzi was push­ing hard for ex­port mar­kets by this stage, and in late 1948 as­sisted English star Fer­gus An­der­son to un­der­take a tour of Aus­tralia, which was largely or­gan­ised by Ade­laide ac­ces­sory man­u­fac­turer Rex Til­brook. An­der­son was equipped with a works 250cc ‘Al­ba­tross’ sin­gle and a widean­gle 500cc ‘Bi­cilin­drica’ 500cc v-twin, plus a 65cc Mo­to­leg­gera sin­gle to use as ev­ery­day trans­port. Aus­tralia was seen as an ex­port mar­ket with high po­ten­tial, and although An­der­son’s tour pro­duced not a sin­gle win, he was far from hu­mil­i­ated and his ex­otic ma­chin­ery cap­ti­vated en­thu­si­asts wher­ever he went. By early 1951, Moto Guzzi had ap­pointed agents in Ade­laide and Mel­bourne and launched the as­sault with the lat­est ver­sions of the Airone, which was now avail­able in ei­ther Tourismo or Sport spec­i­fi­ca­tions, plus the in­no­va­tive but un­der­pow­ered Gal­letto – a com­bi­na­tion scooter/mo­tor­cy­cle with fully en­clos­ing body­work, a 160cc en­gine and a sin­glesided swing­ing arm rear that ap­peared many years later on the Elf GP races and sub­se­quently Honda and Du­cati su­per­bikes. The firm was rid­ing a wave of suc­cess, with works rid­ers Bruno Ruffo and Tommy Wood fin­ish­ing 1-2 in the 1951 250cc World Cham­pi­onship (Ruffo had taken out the in­au­gu­ral 250cc ti­tle in 1949) and En­rico Loren­zetti gave Moto Guzzi a third 250 cham­pi­onship in 1952 be­fore the all­con­qurering NSUs ar­rived on the scene and dom­i­nated for the next three years. The Aus­tralian de­liv­ered Airones sported all-al­loy en­gines and chrome petrol tanks with panels and cy­cle parts in ma­roon. At £297 plus sales tax, the Airone was rightly seen as a very ex­pen­sive 250 (when a new 350cc MAC Ve­lo­cette could be had for £219/10in­clud­ing sales tax), and in the name of max­imis­ing per­for­mance and over­all ap­peal, only the Sport ver­sion was im­ported. Back in Europe, the Airone re­ceived a makeover for 1952 with the chrome tank re­placed by a larger ca­pac­ity and much more round styled, fin­ished in tra­di­tional Ital­ian red with black panels at the knee area, and gold pin strip­ing. The Sport now fur­ther var­ied from the Tourismo in hav­ing an op­tional pack­age of the footrests and the rock­ing pedal gear change set slightly to the rear, and the rear brake pedal changed from the cu­ri­ous bell-cranked style hinged from the front, to a more con­ven­tional pedal that piv­oted from the kick starter shaft. Moto Guzzi seemed to adapt cer­tain parts ac­cord­ing to avail­abil­ity, and the Airone mag­neto al­ter­nated in var­i­ous years from man­ual to au­to­matic ad­vance/re­tard. But time was run­ning out for the Airone. There were sportier, faster and less an­ti­quated look­ing 250s now on the mar­ket from a wide va­ri­ety of man­u­fac­tur­ers, but the real killer was the price. By 1956, the fi­nal model year (although the Airone Sport con­tin­ued to be made into 1957 and a hand­ful of Turis­mos in 1958), the price of the Tourismo had rock­eted to 349,000 lire and the Sport to 364,000 lire. The ram­pant in­fla­tion, the in­flux of cheap cars (no­tably the Fiat 500 in the home mar­ket), re­pres­sive leg­is­la­tion and in­sur­ance costs, even forced Moto Guzzi to aban­don Grand Prix rac­ing at the end of 1957 – a field where its svelte 35occ sin­gles were well-nigh un­beat­able on which Aus­tralia’s Keith Camp­bell be­came Moto Guzzi’s last World Cham­pion. The fac­tory had ex­pended vast amounts of cap­i­tal on the com­plex V8 500cc racer (and built a 350cc ver­sion which was never raced), and per­haps if these re­sources had been di­verted to

mod­ernising mod­els such as the Airone, the fac­tory’s for­tunes may well have taken a dif­fer­ent course. With the demise of the Airone, Moto Guzzi’s en­try in the light­weight stakes was the 175cc Lodola, an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent type of bird with a more con­ven­tional look­ing en­gine that sloped for­ward in the frame at about 45 de­grees and used the now stan­dard swing­ing arm rear sus­pen­sion with spring/ damper units. In fact, the Lodolo of­fered per­for­mance lev­els very sim­i­lar to the Airone, in a far more mod­ern look­ing and mar­ketable pack­age. Af­ter this (in 1960) came the Stor­nello, in 125cc and later 160cc form, but to the Airone goes the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the fi­nal 250cc mo­tor­cy­cle pro­duced by Moto Guzzi.

Lo­cal birds Although very few Airones were im­ported into Aus­tralia dur­ing their pe­riod of pro­duc­tion, a sur­pris­ing num­ber ex­ist here to­day. Like many en­thu­si­asts with only a per­func­tory knowl­edge of the road-go­ing Moto Guzzi sin­gles, I was un­der the im­pres­sion that only the 500cc Fal­cones fre­quented these parts. That was un­til I vis­ited Gianni Min­isini at his im­mac­u­late work­shop in Ade­laide, where he has re­stored a large num­ber of mo­tor­cy­cles, most of which he pri­vately im­ported from his home town of Udine, in the far north east of Italy. The mo­ment I clapped eyes on his 1954 Airone Sport I was to­tally cap­ti­vated. It looked like, and in fact is, a minia­ture ver­sion of the 500cc Fal­cone – or maybe the Fal­cone is a scaled up Airone! Which­ever way you look at it, this is one stunningly beau­ti­ful mo­tor­cy­cle – a Latin lovely, to be sure. By 1954, the Airone had put on a few ki­los, to 140 from the ear­lier 135, but it still feels in­cred­i­bly light, and can be rolled on and off the cen­tre stand with just one foot and one hand. Gianni’s Airone be­longed to a lo­cal Udine doc­tor, who or­dered it from the fac­tory with a spe­cial, rather volup­tuous fuel tank, and the fac­tory op­tion Gi­u­liari dual seat. This one item prob­a­bly adds sev­eral ki­los to the over­all weight, so mas­sive is the con­struc­tion, but it sure is com­fort­able when com­pared to the tra­di­tional sprung sad­dle. Usu­ally, the rear mud­guard car­ries ei­ther a lug­gage rack or a pil­lion pad. Gianni’s Sport has the op­tional ‘rear sets’ and I have no doubt that the rear brake is much eas­ier to op­er­ate from this po­si­tion. One hour took care of the pho­tog­ra­phy, but the im­pres­sion lasted much, much longer. This was a mo­tor­cy­cle I sim­ply had to have, not that Gianni’s was for sale. How­ever by chance I hap­pened upon an Airone for sale in north­ern NSW and I was duty bound to in­spect it as soon as pos­si­ble. By this stage I had done quite a bit of re­search on the model, so I had a bet­ter idea of what I was look­ing for, or at. This one was a 1953 model that had been im­ported from a dealer in UK to Mel­bourne, in re­stored con­di­tion. It looked like a pretty good restora­tion too; ev­ery­thing ap­peared cor­rect and in­tact. There was fuel to be had, so I couldn’t start it, but there was plenty of com­pres­sion so I could see no rea­son why it shouldn’t run well. In a few weeks it was back at my home in Sydney, and I could run a closer eye over my lat­est ac­qui­si­tion. Much in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed it was in­deed a Sport, with the 25mm SS car­bu­ret­tor, big brakes, ‘Ace’ –type han­dle­bars and al­loy, rather than steel com­po­nents in the rear fric­tion dampers. But it had the for­ward mounted footrests, rear brake and gear lever, which I can only guess was a cost de­ci­sion since they were op­tional com­po­nents. One tasty ex­tra in­cluded in the sale was one of the very rare Gi­u­liari dual seats, in ex­cel­lent con­di­tion. One quirk of Moto Guzzis that I knew about was their use of odd sizes for fit­tings, and these ex­tend to 7mm pins in the gear linkage. Dur­ing the restora­tion, 6mm pins had been used, re­sult­ing in a sloppy assem­bly, so that was cured, although not eas­ily as 7mm stuff is very hard to find. The first de­cent run re­vealed a few things. One – the Airone is no pow­er­house, but it is smooth and revs freely. The gearchange is a de­light, and so is the clutch, and de­spite the an­tique ap­pear­ance of the rear sus­pen­sion, it han­dles su­perbly. The front end feels very mod­ern and those big brakes cer­tainly work well. What the run also re­vealed was a lot of oil es­cap­ing from the area of the fi­nal drive sprocket and onto the muf­fler, where is baked it­self into a thick crust. This was no easy fix, since the Airone, and in­deed all the Guzzi sin­gles, have a very un­usual ar­range­ment whereby the clutch is mounted on the left side, with a pushrod screwed into the outer plate and run­ning through to the right, where also is mounted the clutch spring. There is no seal as such on the gear­box bear­ing, just a se­ries of O-rings, which had all gone brit­tle and had ceased to per­form any worth­while func­tion. Once again, Trevor Love from Surf­side Mo­tor­cy­cle Garage at Brookvale came to the res­cue, rec­ti­fy­ing the prob­lem while learn­ing all about the quirks of the de­sign along the way. Now the Airone is ready for ac­tion, which it shall see at the next suit­able rally. I have also had con­tact with a num­ber of Airone own­ers, both in Aus­tralia and over­seas. Clearly, this is a model held in high af­fec­tion by own­ers, and I now know why. Beau­ti­ful it is, gen­tle rather than spir­ited, and a guar­an­teed con­ver­sa­tion starter where ever it is parked, although the chat gen­er­ally starts with a cor­rec­tion, “No mate, it is not a Fal­cone…” When it comes to iden­ti­fy­ing Moto Guzzis, it pays to know your birds.

The edi­tor’s 1953 Airone Sport.

LEFT Fer­gus An­der­son hams it up on his works 250cc Moto Guzzi Al­ba­tross out­side the Til­brook fac­tory in Ade­laide in 1949. ABOVE Glory days: Mau­rice Cann af­ter win­ning the 1948 250cc Ul­ster Grand Prix on the rac­ing ‘Al­ba­tross’ model.

Alan Gra­ham’s 1939 model P.E. – fore­run­ner of the Airone.Petrol tank is from the later 1950s model.

ABOVE LEFT 25mm SS Dell’Orto car­bu­ret­tor dis­tin­guishes the Sport model. ABOVE CEN­TRE Front and rear brakes are mas­sive by 250 stan­dards, with al­loy-finned drums. ABOVE RIGHT Bat­tery sits neatly in­side the pressed cen­tre sec­tion of the frame.

John Fer­gu­son’s yet-to-be-re­stored 1949 model Airone Sport has the pre-war style chromed petrol tank and ma­roon dé­cor.

Rex Jones en­joy­ing his Airone Turismo at the re­cent Bendigo Rally.

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