The Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert

The “highs” and “lows” of Moto Guzzi’s V1000 Convert

moto guzzi v1000 convert 1

The Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert may sport an automatic transmission, but that doesn't mean it can't make the best of your favorite winding road.

Photo by Phil Masters

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Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert
Years produced:
1975-1982
Total production: N/A
Claimed power: 71hp @ 6,500rpm
Top speed: 110mph
Engine type: 949cc overhead valve, air-cooled transverse 90-degree V-twin
Weight (dry): 255kg (560lb)
Price then: $3,495 (1976)
Price now: $4,000-$6,000
MPG: 35-45

You pretty much know what you’re going to get when you ride an old Moto Guzzi tourer — or so I thought before riding the Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert.

I was expecting a slow-revving V-twin engine, a laid-back riding position and a large, comfortable seat. The Guzzi certainly ticked all those boxes, thanks to its wide handlebars and a huge, squashy dual seat that feels more like a waterbed than a typical bike perch.

But the Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert was like no other bike I’d ridden before, and really I should not have been surprised about that. The reason for this Guzzi’s unique feel is its big, agricultural 949cc V-twin engine coupled to its automatic transmission, which meant that my left hand had nothing to do apart from an occasional flick of the turn signal, while my left boot never had to leave the broad floorboard where it was resting.

Rumbling down some sleepy country roads on this extraordinary classic Italian motorcycle was a pleasant way to spend a hot summer afternoon, even if the Guzzi’s age, weight and idiosyncrasies mean that riding it isn’t always as relaxing as the bike’s flat torque curve and zero-effort transmission system might suggest.  But the Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert certainly impressed enough to make me understand why it was well received by most who rode it back in the late Seventies, even if it didn’t convince many motorcyclists of the benefit of automatic boxes.

The times, they are a changin’
These days, after decades of slow progress at Moto Guzzi’s digs in Mandello del Lario, Italy, it’s hard to believe that back in 1975 Moto Guzzi was one of motorcycling’s most dynamic manufacturers. That year saw the introduction of the Convert, followed by the announcement of the gorgeous Le Mans 850 for 1976, the first and greatest of Guzzi’s string of models of that name. In sharp contrast to the sporty Le Mans, the Convert was an even more touring-oriented version of the Moto Guzzi 850 T3 California, itself one of the most glamorous and capable long-distance machines of its day.

The “Cali” was launched in 1971, initially as a U.S. market edition of the 757cc V7 Special, which in turn had been developed from the original V7 model that began the transverse V-twin line in the Sixties. The Cali quickly gained popularity and was introduced to other markets in 1972, updated with a larger, 844cc version of the 90-degree transverse V-twin unit. At the same time the engine also gained a five- instead of four-speed gearbox to go with its shaft final drive system.

The California became a familiar figure in many countries, with its buddy seat and cowhorn bars, and it was often fitted with a screen and solid saddlebags, too. The Honda Gold Wing GL1000 Wing arrived in 1975 to show that the Japanese could also build touring bikes, but the Guzzi remained highly desirable, its closest rival arguably being Harley’s less powerful, heavier and more expensive Electra Glide.

The Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert was an attempt to broaden Guzzi’s appeal still further, especially in the hugely important U.S. market, at a time when automatic bikes looked as though they might play an important part of motorcycling’s future. Honda was developing an automatic version of its four-cylinder Honda CB750, and after all, some people said, automatics are popular in cars and trucks, so why not in a motorcycle, too? Additionally, several U.S. police forces had requested a bike that could crawl along at a walking pace for escort duties, without continuously using the clutch and risking overheating the engine.

Guzzi’s engineers began by enlarging the familiar pushrod-operated V-twin unit again, increasing both bore and stroke to give a capacity of 949cc. The real change, of course, was replacing the standard gearbox with a torque converter and two-speed box. And the torque converter, built by Sachs, was the key element of this new package.

A torque converter is basically a type of fluid coupling system, which allows the engine to spin independently of the transmission. When the engine is turning slowly, as at idle, hardly any torque is passed through the converter. As the engine speed increases, more fluid is pumped into the converter, causing more torque to be transmitted. At high speed the torque converter is effectively locked, so it provides near-direct drive to the transmission. On the Guzzi it’s directly connected to the crankshaft, delivering the engine’s power to the gearbox via a multi-plate dry clutch.

The engine’s extra capacity was needed in part because a torque converter is not 100 percent efficient, so it inevitably steals a bit of power. The 949cc Convert’s peak output at the crankshaft was a claimed 71hp at 6,500rpm, slightly up on the 844cc T3 California’s 68hp at 7,000rpm. The bigger engine’s compression ratio was slightly lower at 9.2:1 instead of 9.5:1. Both engine’s were fed by a pair of 30mm Dell’Orto carbs, and were identical in most other respects.

The V1000’s chassis also followed that of its more conventional sibling. It was built around Guzzi’s traditional tubular steel frame, which held the firm’s own forks and a pair of preload-adjustable shocks. The Convert also followed the Moto Guzzi 850 T3 California and other big Guzzis in using the firm’s linked brake system, whereby the foot pedal operates the rear disc plus one of the front discs, and the handlebar lever works the second front disc.

For its first few years the Convert came with wire-spoked wheels, but one of the very few changes by 1980 (when our feature bike was built) was the introduction of cast wheels, in unchanged 18in diameters.

Riding the Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert
This dark blue Convert has 12,500 miles on its clock, and has been restored by UK-based Italian bike specialist Mdina Italia. Boss John Fallon says it was bought “in a pretty rough state,” but the Convert is in excellent condition now, its paint and chrome shining.

And its engine fires up instantly on the button, provided I hold in the clutch lever (yes, it does have a clutch lever, for starting), making a familiar “whoomph” through the twin pipes and idling effortlessly. So far, so normal, at least for a big Guzzi. But on this bike, I can let the clutch out and leave the bike idling in gear — then simply wind back the throttle to send it accelerating forward, with no need to move my left hand again.

It’s a slightly weird feeling at first, controlling the Guzzi’s speed purely on the throttle and brakes, with no need to change gear, as though it’s some gigantic retro-scooter. I’d assumed I would use the heel-and-toe gear lever frequently, especially on narrow country roads, to swap between the high and low ratios of the two-speed box. But in reality the change is very heavy, the pedal rather difficult to operate, and the two ratios closely spaced. And there’s little acceleration to be gained by using first gear, which is good for about 85mph anyway.

It seemed much more in keeping with the Convert’s leisurely style to stay in second, so I did, making use of the V-twin’s ample reserves of low-rev grunt. Ridden like that, the Guzzi is very enjoyable. Sitting upright in the thick, squashy seat with my hands resting on the slightly raised and pulled-back bars and my boots on the footboards, the Convert feels ready to cover some serious distance — in relaxed comfort, if not at high speeds.

Mind you, the bike can move reasonably quickly when requested. Given a crack of the throttle, the engine goes to work. It starts making a fair bit more noise as the torque converter does its stuff, but the Guzzi rumbles forward with enough urgency to put a grin on my face. In contemporary magazines’ back-to-back tests, the Convert was always slightly slower than the nominally less powerful California. The auto-bike did, however, gain by always being ready for a burst of acceleration, with no chance of being caught in the wrong gear when a gap appeared in the traffic.

For getting away from the lights in a hurry, the approved method is to hold the bike on the brake, give it some revs and then release the anchor, at which point the Guzzi roars away at a very healthy rate: Certainly at a rate that will leave four-wheeled traffic far behind, despite the bike’s rather substantial 255kg (560lb) of mass. Top speed is about 110mph, a few mph down on the Cali, which means the Convert is powerful enough to cruise at close to 100mph or, in reality, however fast its rider can stand given the exposed riding position.

This model was generally fitted with Guzzi’s accessory windshield and saddlebags, and came with them fitted as standard in some markets. The shield would have been useful when making the most of the generous 5.2gal (24ltr) gas tank, although the torque converter increased fuel consumption by up to 20 percent, bringing its range below the 200 miles that a California could typically manage.

This bike’s handling is similar to that of other big Guzzis, although the Convert requires a slightly different riding style due to its lack of engine braking, which puts more emphasis on the linked Brembo brake system. That was generally fine, especially given that Guzzi’s linked set-up was arguably the best in all motorcycling in the late Seventies. Unfortunately this particular Convert’s only real flaw was that its foot pedal generated a surprisingly feeble response.

The Guzzi’s cornering performance is excellent given its age, thanks partly to its suspension being reasonably firm by touring-bike standards and of good quality. Pirelli Phantoms give as much grip as the Convert would have had when new, too, and ground clearance is reasonable despite those footboards. The V1000 requires plenty of muscle to make it change direction, especially at slow speed, but for such a laid-back machine it is impressively manageable.

Built for the long haul
By Italian standards the Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert was reasonably well built and finished — enough for one 1976 test to conclude that after a tough life as a press bike, the Convert test machine “didn’t look like the usual ad for BMW.” Useful details included the crash-bars and pillion grab-rail. Less clever were the hard-to-use center stand and the instrument panel’s warning lights, which are too dim to be seen in sunshine.

Automatic answers
When Moto Guzzi introduced the Convert, it was considered a bold move for the small Italian firm. By contrast, it was hardly surprising when Honda, the world's largest manufacturer of motorcycles, followed the same path shortly after the Convert was introduced.

Honda's first automatic came in 1976 with the introduction of the Honda CB750A Hondamatic. Based on the four-cylinder, single-cam superstar Honda CB750, the new bike used a two-speed semi-automatic (said to be a scaled-down version of the contemporary Honda Civic's transmission) and the four-into-one exhaust found on the CB750 Super Sport. The gas tank and side covers were new, and the frame was slightly modified, but otherwise the bike was like any other CB750, except of course for the telltale missing clutch handle on the left bar.

Like the Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert, low gear was the theoretical starting gear; in operation most riders simply clicked the bike into high and rode away, letting the torque converter do the rest.

While there wasn't anything particularly wrong with the automatic, there wasn't anything particularly right with it, either. They rode well enough, but the torque converter was noisy, and period testers complained of high revs at low speeds thanks to converter slip. Compared to the stock 750, straight line performance was decidedly lackluster.

Sales of the CB750A never met Honda's expectations, and when the new twin-cam CB750 was rolled out for 1979, the automatic was retired.

But as the curtain prepared to drop on the CB750A, for 1978 Honda introduced a new middleweight automatic, the CB400A Hawk Hondamatic.

Powered by a 395cc parallel twin, the Hawk was Honda's brand new entry in the middleweight category. Honda was still convinced there was a market for an automatic, just maybe not in the heavyweight category of the CB750. With the move to the CB400A, Honda was betting their new automatic would appeal to first-time buyers who might be expected to want a smaller bike that was easier to ride.

Like the CB750A, the 400A used a two-speed clutchless semi-automatic, with a high and low gear. The Hawk operated much like its bigger brother, but its lighter weight made the bike feel like it wasn't working quite so hard.

Unlike the CB750A, the little automatic managed to get a longer lease on life, staying in Honda showrooms for five years. In 1979 it was rebadged as the CM400A, and for 1982 its engine was bumped to 447cc and it became the CM450A.

But it wasn't to last. In 1984 Honda dropped the entire CM/CB450 line, and with the demise of the CM450A, Honda's flirtation with automatics came to an end.

Press reports
“At steady cruising speeds the Convert is at peace; accelerating to those speeds it is at war … maintain 55 or 60mph, and the big Guzzi is calm, unobtrusive, serene, composed. Its seat is as good if not better than a BMW's; its suspension system is superior to the German twin's in terms of accuracy and inferior in terms of long-distance comfort. The Guzzi, for a pure touring bike, is a marvelous handler.”
Cycle – March 1976

“How well can two gears replace five? We found that Guzzi managed it by not sharply defining low and high range. While you might tend to think of low with a short powerband, on the Goose it's more like first and second, while high is like fourth and fifth. The overlap allows you to use either one in middle-ground situations.”
Rider – April 1976

“The system is a joy when the rider is faced with continuous stop-and-go traffic conditions or in cases when traffic slows to a crawl behind a truck laboring up a mountain grade. There is no clutch slip; you just feed the machine enough throttle to meet the situation.”
Road Rider – December 1976

“ … by the time I got to Laguna Beach, I'd changed a number of my initial impressions of the GuzziMatic. That transmission can be very handy in city traffic or when you get caught behind a bus or truck on a mountain grade. Just relax and play with the throttle.”
Road Rider – December 1976

“The Guzzi Convert is a pleasurable mount. Police heritage assures excellent dependability and that is a strong investment point. For general riding, comfort is on par with any modern machine; and, aside from some minor vibes detected in the floorboards, the engine is smooth, willing and obedient.”
Rider – January, 1981

Resources

Mdina Italia
Moto Guzzi National Owners Club
Moto Guzzi Parts