Theory in Motion: 1977 MV Agusta Ipotesi

The MV Agusta saga starts in the rubble that was Italy after World War II.

1977 MV Agusta Ipotesi

1977 MV Agusta Ipotesi

Photo by Nick Cedar

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1977 MV Agusta Ipotesi
Claimed power: 34hp @ 8,500rpm
Top speed: 103mph (period test)
Engine: 349cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin, 63mm x 56mm bore and stroke, 9.5:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 352lb (160kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.17 gal (19ltr)/50-60mpg
Price then/now: $2,292/$6,000-$10,000

Ipotesi, in case you’re wondering, is Italian for “hypothesis.” “I saw it translated as ‘hypertensive,’” says Ipotesi owner Danny Aarons. “Hypertensive fits its character better; I’ve never heard a credible story as to why MV used that name.”

One could guess. In your imagination, you’re out for a morning’s ride through the foothills east of Lake Como on the Italian-Swiss border, and you come across an insolent rider on a large, multi-cylinder bike from Japan. You, however, are riding your Ipotesi, a machine designed to prove that handling can beat horsepower: That is its hypothesis. The proud yokel cannot power his heavy machine through the turns as quickly as you can hustle your MV Agusta, and your light, agile 350 dances up and down the hills, leaving the multi in the dust.

The MV Agusta saga starts in the rubble that was Italy after World War II. The Agusta company manufactured aircraft for Mussolini’s forces during the conflict, and was now out of business. To keep their workers busy, Vincenzo Agusta and his brother Domenico turned to manufacturing motorcycles in 1945. MV quickly became involved in racing, winning the Italian Grand Prix in 1948.

For years the bright red “fire engines” built near the Italian town of Gallarate led the competition, with legends John Surtees, Mike Hailwood, Phil Read and Giacomo Agostini holding the handlebars. In 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960, MV won all four Grand Prix displacement classes. The 37 stars in the Ipotesi’s logo recall Agusta’s 37 World Championship wins.

The street MV’s were totally unlike the multi-cylinder Grand Prix racers. Geared for the Italian worker, they were small but very pretty single-cylinder bikes that were simple to repair.

It all worked well for over 20 years. Domenico Agusta, who had become head of the company, was completely devoted to racing: Racing added glamour to the street bikes, and profits from the street bikes paid for the race effort.

Things, of course, change. By the late Sixties the aircraft arm of Agusta was again in business, profitably making well-regarded helicopters. Italian workers could now afford a small car instead of a motorcycle, and motorcycle sales — and profits — were down.

When Domenico died in 1971, the passion to make and race motorcycles died with him. Slowly, the motorcycle arm of the Agusta company started to wind down.

MV’s eventual shutdown was hastened by financial difficulties suffered by all branches of the Agusta industries in the mid-Seventies. The Italian government was willing to prop up Italian industry if the company met certain requirements. In the case of MV Agusta, the requirement was to stop making (and racing) motorcycles and concentrate on helicopters.

A modern twin

Yet in something of a last gasp, MV Agusta turned to Ital Design’s Giorgetto Giugiaro, highly regarded as a designer of Alfa Romeos, Lamborghinis and Ferraris, to come up with a sporty, modern 350. Guigiaro set himself to the task, and the result was the very handsome and decidedly modern looking Ipotesi twin. The engine was MV’s tried and true 350 twin, but to make it look new Guigiaro designed new squared-off clutch and primary covers to match the straight lines he designed for the bike. Similarly, the castings for the cylinder and cylinder head were changed, now sporting squared-off fins to echo the angular bodywork, which included side covers designed to ape the cylinder fins.

The Ipotesi made its first appearance at the Milan show in 1973, where it was well received by attendees and the motoring press. But then, as was not uncommon for Italian bikes in the era, it disappeared for a year and a half. The production Ipotesi finally appeared in Italian and English dealers’ showrooms in 1975, in both naked and faired versions, with faired bikes going mostly to England.

MV claimed a surprising 34 horsepower for the pushrod twin. The secret was in light valves and valve gear, short pushrods and an over-square 63mm x 56mm bore and stroke. Excellent breathing was aided by the sporty exhaust, and testers consistently revved the machine to over 9,000rpm, with some opining a safe limit of 10,000rpm.

With a claimed dry weight of 352 pounds, the 349cc twin could achieve respectable quarter-mile times of 14.83 seconds, with a terminal speed of 89.46mph and an absolute top speed of 103mph. “Performance is good by any standards and exceptional for a 350,” said England’s On Two Wheels.

The frame consisted of two top rails running the length of the bike, joined at the tail above the number plate at the rear and below the headstock at the front. A single downtube bolted to the engine, which was a stressed member of the frame. Front and rear suspension were by Ceriani and the triple disc brakes were by Scarab; alloy wheels reduced weight while adding panache.

“The suspension gives the MV a ride like a steel-wheeled skateboard,” said England’s Superbike magazine in 1975. “Handling is not something you think about with this bike: it is the rider and the tires, with nothing in between to conceal the deficiencies of either,” added On Two Wheels.

Yet while contemporary magazines were enthusiastic about the bike’s speed and handling, its high price and the cheesy finish of the bodywork and some parts put them off. Complaints included the thin fairing, which was not firmly attached to the frame and shook at speed, the noisy exhaust, and the kickstart lever, which broke on one test bike. “It emerges as a true superbike,” said Superbike. “It’s not flawless, but it’s still a gem, and you have to pay for gems.”

Another common complaint was vibration. Ipotesi owner Danny Aarons feels this fault is overstated. “Two owners warned me off the bikes for exactly that reason. In reality, I’ve found that for bikes in its class that I’ve ridden, it’s about mid-pack. It’s much smoother than the Honda CB350 I once owned and not as smooth as a Morini 3-1/2 or a Yamaha RD400. It’s roughly on par with my Triumph 500 but vibrates at a higher frequency and lower amplitude. It’s much smoother across the board than my old BSA Shooting Star, for what that’s worth.”

Ipotesi production was slow, with a lot of starts and stops that discouraged would-be buyers. Danny estimates MV built 600-700 Ipotesis a year from 1975 to 1977. Changes from model year to year were few, the major one being a switch from chrome to black mufflers. Eventually, 1,976 were built. In the meantime, the Agusta company had wound down its motorcycle division, officially closing the doors in 1980.

Danny Aarons’ Ipotesi

The Ipotesi was not officially imported to the United States. Contrary to DOT regulations, the bike shifts on the right (one up, four down), the mufflers are certainly too noisy, and there are no turn signals or mirrors. However, in the 39 years since the Ipotesi was first built, some have turned up here, imported by MV enthusiasts and Italian bike collectors.

Danny Aarons, the owner of our feature bike, is a long time Italian bike enthusiast. “When I was 15, I wanted to buy a motorcycle and of course had no money. I stumbled upon a Ducati 250, a completely clapped out Diana. It was gobs of fun. Time went by and I bought other bikes, but that Ducati spoiled me. It just felt like home.” Presently, Danny has 10 runners (including the Ipotesi), plus two bikes that are close to running and three projects. “I was always into things mechanical. I grew up in the hills, building and racing bicycles, then got into motorcycles. It seemed like the right way to get around.”

Danny first saw an Ipotesi in person when a fellow enthusiast put his up for auction. When he saw the bike in Monterey, California, he thought, ‘That’s beautiful!’ That set the hook. “I kept it in the back of my mind,” Danny says. “Two years ago, I started actively looking for one, preferably with the fairing and in the U.S. I am not sure what inspired that. I looked in the usual Italian motorcycle sources for six or eight months. Finally, I posted my quest on a Ducati listserv and got four or five leads. I found this one in a collection in Colorado. I went out to look at it and fell in love.”

The bike had about 5,200 miles on it and had been sitting in different collectors’ warehouses for years. “It was indoors its entire life,” Danny says. Rust, of course, never sleeps, and rubber and oil disintegrates with time, no matter how carefully a bike is kept. The cosmetically sound Ipotesi needed TLC to get moving.

Danny’s first step was to replace the tires, oil and brake fluid. He rebuilt the front brakes, replaced the fork seals on the 32mm Ceriani forks, and installed a new battery. “Just basic stuff,” he notes. He also rebuilt the automatic petcock and repacked the wheel bearings. Although most bodywork is unobtainable, Danny found a source in Europe for footpeg and other rubber parts.

The Ipotesi now sees the light of day on a regular basis. Danny has put about 2,500 miles on his little classic, mostly on the secondary roads in the hills near his home. “It’s really a pleasant ride. Although it’s not a long distance mount, I’ve never felt fatigued from vibration on a typical 50-mile ride. It’s a little buzzy, but quite pleasant. Even the aftermarket bar-end mirrors are usable!”

Maintenance is eased by the Ipotesi’s electronic ignition, and while Danny has been told the 24mm Dell’Orto square slide carburetors are problematic, he’s had no trouble with them. The most common chore with the Ipotesi is changing the oil. As the Ipotesi has a wet clutch that runs in engine oil, an oil screen instead of a filter — and the generous tolerances of an air-cooled engine — frequent oil changes are a must, so Danny changes the oil every 1,000 miles. The head has started weeping a bit of oil, and he hopes torquing it down will take care of it. Tires are also a bit of an issue, as the Metzlers fitted by the factory were discontinued a long time ago. Danny is running Avon Roadmasters. “Avon is the only company making serious tires in 90/90 x 18-inch and 90/100 x 18-inch.”

The Ipotesi will start on the first or second kick, provided you follow the starting drill. Despite being rebuilt, the “automatic” petcock (it’s an electrically-activated solenoid) on Danny’s bike doesn’t work well, so he starts by turning on the manual tap, which is supposed to be the reserve. Next, he flips on the choke, then makes sure the clutch is free by pulling the clutch lever and kicking through a few times. “It doesn’t hang up,” he says, “I just do it from force of habit.”

Then it’s key on and kick, once or twice. The fairing interferes with the kickstart lever, so Danny keeps his foot on it to keep it from swinging back and smashing the fairing. “The frame is perfect — everything else was an afterthought. It has the same switches I used to throw out on old Ducatis.”

The MV roars to life and Danny and his 350 swing out onto the road, where, he says, it shines. “It has incredibly precise, light handling. I’m used to riding big bikes, where you are committed to a line. With this bike, you are not committed to a line through turns. It does what you think about. It loves tight twisties. The tighter the road, the faster it goes.” Amazingly, it is also good on gas: Danny reports 60mpg, and period tests support that figure.

“With the MV, I learned to ride differently,” Danny says. “I learned to carry speed into turns. I can go on a twisty road and never use the brakes. The brakes, by the way, are very good by the standards of the day. They are teeny Scarabs only used on this bike and one other Italian machine, but they are quite competent. In its day, it was the fastest production 350 you could buy, good for 103mph. That’s not true anymore, but the Ipotesi is so charming and so fun to ride.” Quite the compliment for a bike now pushing 40, but then again, it is an MV Agusta. MC