Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Moto Guzzi V50

The V50 has the kind of sure footed and agile feel that inspires a streak of madness when hordes of tin boxes try to block off what are laughingly referred to as main roads. Where certain large multis feel happier going through rather than around cars, the Moto Guzzi can be flicked with impunity through the smallest of gaps, and when some crazed lunatic suddenly swings right after indicating left, the linked brakes are more than powerful enough to save the day. The Guzzi has the feel of a much smaller machine. Unfortunately this feel is extended to the engine, which even in its Mk3 form when Guzzi claim 50hp, doesn't exactly lead to a manic grin when the right wrist is employed. The Guzzi can make it all the way to 110mph, but up hills or against a strong wind it is reluctant to do much better than 85mph. Throw in fuel consumption that rarely betters 50mpg, and one begins to wonder just how such a light and mild machine can have been designed so inefficiently.

The V50 came out a year after the Honda CX500, and uses a far purer and simpler design of V-twin engine. With proper 90 degrees between the cylinders, primary vibration is no problem, while the torque reaction caused by out of line cylinders never becomes more than the most mild intrusion upon the tranquillity of V50 ownership. The engine employs a two valve head with a flat, Freedman combustion shape. This is nothing new in the car world, and was used to good effect on the Morini 350. However, Moto Guzzi don't seem to have got either the valve size or timing near to the optimum, because above five grand the engine appears to be unhappy and unable to find an engine speed where it can settle down and rumble along efficiently. This is difficult to understand, as their bigger V-twins, equally burdened with 1950s-style pushrod operation, are rather more powerful and no less economical. That said, the Guzzi does benefit from its mild state of tune by being able to withstand quite a lot of neglect, and yet keep on running. The engine of the test bike had done just over 35000 miles and was still running well, although the valve gear would sound very agricultural after a long hard run. The clutch was a little jerky, and the lack of power at very low revs made the bike quite easy to stall at low speeds. The bike has had several owners, and with three years neglect and the horrors of eleven month English winters needs some polish on the casings and a new paint job.

It also desperately needs new switches. They may just survive the warmth of Rome, but the dull, dismal climate that is inflicted on Great Britain makes a can of WD40 a necessary adjunct to V50 ownership. Even the miracle properties of WD40 failed to stop the Guzzi from refusing to start on a couple of occasions after it had been subjected to the usual tropical downpour (in June, for Heaven's Sake!). Short of taking a flamethrower to the thing, only leaving it to dry out at its own pace is any help. This, fortunately, is one of the few areas where the bike takes on the normal temperamental nature of its Italian parentage. It normally started without any problems with a little help from the choke, which could be dispensed with very quickly. 

Although the bike was great fun in traffic, it does suffer from some minor handling quirks at high speeds over bumpy going when the combination of poor rear shocks and fairly direct shaft drive can make the back end twitch around. This never becomes terminal, while the rest of the handling is commendably neutral. Springs are taut rather than ultra stiff, damping at the front is adequate - riding the V50 through a huge pothole at 70mph shakes the front end up, but it quickly recovers and there's never any hint of a speed wobble even on worn tyres. Feedback from the road isn't quite as good as it should be, there are times when the back tyre can step out without any warning, but it does manage to recover very quickly. The suspension does absorb a large percentage of the bumps - for riders with a little blood in their veins its quite a good compromise between comfort and sporting riding, although a decent set of replacement shocks transform the handling. It's way ahead of Honda's CX500, but a little bit in the shade of the smaller, sophisticated Jap multis. British bike fans will be interested to learn that a Norton 88SS, twenty years its junior, left the Guzzi for dead on fast two lane A roads. There is, it seems, still plenty of life left in the old Featherbed chassis. This is especially true in wet weather when the Guzzi seemed more than a little lost. Nothing too dangerous or violent, just a lack of feeling entirely secure. In fact, I preferred riding an eminently stable, if ponderous, Suzuki GS550 on wet roads because its actions were always predictable. The way the shaft could play up with less than meticulous gear changes leading to a miscreant back wheel didn't inspire confidence. But, it must be added, I never actually fell off, so it must be pretty good.

Once I became used to ignoring the handlebar lever, the linked brakes worked, whatever the weather conditions, without causing any problems. I still prefer to control each brake individually and I have an immense dislike of companies that insist on using disc brakes on the rear wheel. As Guzzi's system only works on discs, I suppose they can be forgiven. As mentioned earlier, the brakes could pin the light mass of the Guzzi down very rapidly, and are a great help in the cut and thrust of heavy town traffic. The only real complaint was rapid pad wear - 6000 miles for either end doesn't seem at all reasonable. Pattern pads start at £7.50 a set.

Riding the Guzzi over my usual 160 miles run from Cardiff to Shit City brings out some interesting comparisons with cheaper and more economical Jap 550 fours which are regularly subjected to my shattered deadlines and early morning hallucinations. The Guzzi's disinclination to start one early, misty morning almost caused a cardiac arrest, but connecting the Guzzi to a car battery for five minutes managed to overcome that particular problem. Riding through the clouds of spray from overloaded lorries on the M4 showed up the Guzzi's lack of top end urge, only able to race away from the artics when hills slowed them down. Where most middleweights were happy to Cruise at over 90mph, the poor old Guzzi could olny gasp along at 85 mph. Indeed , ridden on full throttle into a strong wind, the Guzzi returned as little as 35mpg. On the flat, relatively smooth motorway surfaces, the Guzzi was stable and didn't wander off all over the road. Crossing the Severn Bridge in the teeth of a minor gale revealed that the bike was hardly affected by side winds, and was quite happy to potter along amidst slow moving cars and lorries.

I'd just knocked off some speed and hustled my way back into the slow lane, to leave the three artics plenty of space as they tried to surround an Allegro driver who had been stuck in the fast lane doing a steady 70mph, when I noticed the police officer on the BMW. He came alongside and actually grinned. As the speedo registered 70 mph, I shrugged my shoulders. He held my eye for a few seconds and then rumbled off after the artics. Ever watched the way the back wheel of a BMW skips about at speed? Very funny. Distraught at having to travel so slowly, I exited the motorway for some country road fun and games. Scattered lines of early morning commuters were dealt with by screaming along in third gear, the only way to keep the bike on the boil. The valve gear and exhaust (lacking some internals and exhibiting a few holes in the silencer) were rather noisy and there was even a little vibration when the rev counter flicked into the red sector. But even at high speeds the front end remained precise, the bike could be flicked around obstacles with the minimum of input and effort, and the Guzzi could take on road speeds and surfaces that would have a CX500 twitching and weaving. 

A brief ride on a Mk. 1 version revealed the lack of top end power to be all the more disturbing, although the engine did exhibit a little more of the character expected from a V-twin layout. The Mk. 3 is, in many ways, too civilised and doesn't seem to have the same relaxed and calming influence exhibited by most V-twins. Trying an almost new bike, didn't effect any new revelations in the power department, although the handling and suspension were tauter and felt safer.

Tyre wear varies between eight and twelve grand depending on the type of tyre used. Ten grand from a rear Roadrunner is typical. The carbs do go out of balance about every 500 miles, but it's not too much hassle to get the tickover back to a smooth rumble. The valves need adjusting every two grand. Otherwise, the Guzzi gives a pretty easy life to the lazy owner. Nothing falls off the engine, and even the light bulbs don't blow very often. New switches and rewiring are needed after a couple of years wear. The chromework isn't too good, with reports of some exhausts falling apart after as little as a year, while rust on the forks will ruin seals after two years. Paintwork is,er, Italian, hard used bikes need a respray after two years, especially on the frame. Engine life goes for between forty and sixty grand, with valvegear problems the major hassle, although some clutches have given up hope at as little as twenty grand. The bottom end is quite tough, the gearbox gets clunky with age and the shaft drive coarser. There are some very nice low mileage, one owner jobs on the market which are worth tracking down.

As middleweights go the Guzzi really lacks the power to make the grade. It's light weight, agile handling and tough motor are worth noting for those who want a viable alternative to the Jap orthodoxy. With the exception of fuel, the Guzzi can be run very cheaply and is plenty of fun to ride.

Bill Fowler

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