A Morning in Mandello

February in Portland, Oregon likes to play a little trick on its residents. The sun comes out, temperatures reach for the seventies, then rain and gloomy skies set in once again, dashing hopes of release from winter’s grip.

No surprise, then, at the return of the recurring dream in which my wife, Ann and I sip a capuccino on the shores of Lake Como, Italy, with motorcycle history but a stone’s throw away. In the real world there are usually some logistics on the way to realizing a dream, so it was time to get out the maps and surf our options on the Internet.

Eventually September rolled around and the excitement of the June 2010 MGNOC National Rally in John Day, OR was already fading into history. I needed another fix. The plan was to ride from England through France and Switzerland then drop into Italy and stay two days in Como, some 25 miles from Mandello del Lario, onetime home of the Moto Guzzi marque. Another two days in Bolzano would allow us to take in the legendary Stelvio Pass and the Dolomites to the east.

Our entrance to Como at around 7:30pm was a little dramatic. A massive alpine storm had gathered to the north as night fell and we crawled in heavy traffic to the Italian border where the heavens opened and a downpour of biblical proportions began. As if by magic, we found the exit to the city by the lake and descended onto its streets. The waters were a sheet of gray steel in a plasma sphere of lightning bolts. The surrounding hills loomed in the distance, every tiny light on their slopes defying the aerial attack.

Next morning, we pulled back the drapes to cloudless deep blue skies, the pink and ochre pastels of neighboring houses strong and serene in the new day. With an inner ‘Yeah, baby !’ we breakfasted and made our way through the hills and corniches to the fabled Mandello and our first port of call, the Agostini Moto Guzzi dealership on Via Statale, the main road through town.

A lone Breva stood on the concrete in front of the store – nothing unusual here. Then I noticed a gentleman standing by what I thought to be a Falcone. I asked him if the bike was his and he admitted proudly that it was. It was an unrestored but functioning 1951 Airone. Not yet having had the time, money or opportunity to work on bikes of this vintage, I’m more novice than connoisseur and Herman, of Club Merelbeke in Belgium, told me about the bike in fluent English. ‘Are you here to go to the factory museum ?’ he asked. I told him I was and that I figured it was one of the high points of the trip (the next one being the Stelvio which was slated for the following day). ‘Well, you might want to take a walk down the road first. They have the fairing off one of the 500cc V8’s that was built in the 50’s. They are loading it on the truck about 12:30pm to go to a demonstration track day in Assen, Netherlands’. I thanked Herman for his time and his tip and told him I’d best be on my way. ‘Don’t worry, you will see it. This is Italy… nothing happens on time !’

Nevertheless a few minutes later I strode off in the direction he had indicated, oblivious to the trucks and cars bearing down on me on the sidewalk challenged (read: none) Statale. My better half reined me in and said: ‘Let’s go together !’. This would take another couple minutes but I conceded and soon I was standing in front of an unassuming shop that appeared to be full of commercial vehicle tires.

Giuseppe & Francesco in the shop with the Otto

Giuseppe & Francesco in the shop with the Otto

About halfway back inside the building was a typical motor trade workshop office. Receipts, grease stained work tickets and other paperwork lay left and right, the walls decked in the promotional posters for the oil and spark plug products of yesteryear. A lady office manager sat behind the desk; to her left a lad I thought to be in his late twenties reclined on a chair, apparently on break.

My Italian vocabulary running only to the usual ‘please, thank you and another glass of wine’, I blurted out something about ‘Moto Guzzi ottocilindri’ and asked if they spoke English. The young man said ‘Yes, but not good’ but he understood why I was there. ‘Pino !’ he shouted to the back of the shop. Moments later, a fellow clearly in the middle of an involved mechanical task came to the office, smiled and asked ‘Can I help you ?’. I repeated my request by asking if he could spare a few minutes and let me look at the V8. ‘Of course, this way, please’ he replied.

What followed was an in-depth description and history of a classic motorcycle perched regally on its oily pedestal some 6,000 miles from the place I now call home. Pino told me how only six were ever made, that the machine went from drawing board to prototype in four months and a slew of other technical information that clearly came from living in close proximity to its origins and many hours wrenching on the type.

Engine Left

The engine’s left side. Two sets of four points. An expert takes 75 minutes to time the ignition

The centerpiece of the ‘Otto’ is a 90 degree V8, double overhead cam, two valves per cylinder, watercooled, four stroke engine. Each cylinder is fed by its own 21mm carburetor and ignition is via eight coils energized by two sets of four breaker points driven off the ends of the intake camshafts. The front and rear cylinder carbs alternate, cheek by jowl, between the two cylinder banks; each has its own aluminum intake trumpet. The cylinder heads are made from a specialized copper-aluminum ‘Y-alloy’ and have no valve seats, using the same technology as the Merlin engine that powered the British Spitfire WWII fighter plane. Intake valves are 23mm, exhaust are 21mm. Bore is 44mm, stroke is 41mm, slightly oversquare. The crank is a work of art and assembles using keyed surfaces that mate with one another. Each of four journals supports two tiny side-by-side connecting rods. Simple math determines that each piston displaces around 60cc and under race conditions there’s a lot going on within a confined space, so failures were often no surprise. There are two power bands, of which the main one is at 9,000 RPM. Valves start to bounce at 14,000 RPM. Transmission is dry clutch driving a 5-speed gearbox and the engine will start with a turn of the rear wheel in first gear. Dry weight is 135Kg (237 lbs), oil is in the frame and top speed is a claimed 294 KmH (183mph).


The Otto’s multipart crankshaft. The keyed mating surface is to the left

The bike normally wears a drab, light green fairing as did a number of others in the shop. Suddenly the livery of the modern day, limited edition V11 Sport Tenni made sense – this color scheme is clearly a tradition. Pino shared that the similarly clad nearby 350cc single provided much more rider feedback than the V8 as he found when the latter bike took him into a field at an Isle of Man demonstration some years ago. ‘All you feel is the wind’ he told me as he pointed to the ribs and collar bone that then too made themselves felt as that particular ride came to an abrupt end.

Two other gems in the shop were the above mentioned 350cc and a 1946 Falcone predecessor. Guzzi designers, engineers and test riders came up with nicknames that expressed the character of each machine: ‘Dondolino’ (Rocking Horse) and ‘Gambolonga’ (Long Legs).

The ‘few minutes’ I had asked of Pino had by now turned into more than an hour. Francesco, his accomplice, had brought me a flat piece of wood, pen and paper to write down the torrent of detail. More than once I felt like Moses on the mountain: ‘Hang on, what was Number Four again ?’.

Early Falcone Sport

1946 500 Falcone Sport predecessor

Now it really was time for the bike to go on the truck and I asked Pino for his full name and e-mail. He knew Portland and had been there on business a number of times over the years. ‘My proper name is Giuseppe’ he told me. ‘…Todero’. I did a quick double-take and asked if he was related to Umberto Todero. ‘Yes, he is my father’. I recalled that Todero senior, an engineer employee of Moto Guzzi for more than 60 years and a legend in his own right, had passed away some five years ago. At that moment a lot of the last 90 minutes fell into place, as did the last 30 years since I bought my first Guzzi, a 1975 850T.

Within half an hour I was walking beneath the 15 foot high poster of Sean Connery astride an Eldorado in the entrance to the factory on the nearby Via Parodi, then up the stairs to the gallery where icons of Moto Guzzi’s past were being admired by other visitors. ‘Huh’, I thought to myself smugly, ‘if they only knew…’.

1956 350

1956 350 Single in race garb. Recognize the ‘Tenni’ style green paint and white number roundel

My heartfelt thanks go to Giuseppe and Francesco for their hospitality and the time they took from their day to spend with a stranger and indulge his passion for all things Moto Guzzi.

Afterward, Ann and I stopped at a little café to enjoy the dreamt of capuccino and a snack before heading back to Como. ‘Aren’t you going to wash your hands ?’ she asked. I told her: ‘After shaking hands with those guys, I likely won’t be washing them till we get back to the States !’

Postscript: A few days later the Otto did indeed show up in Assen as witnessed by a video on YouTube. A minor correction to the above article. Things can and do happen on time in Italy, except when an Englishman steps in and causes a delay !

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