2011 marks Moto Guzzi’s 90th year building motorcycles, the oldest European motorcycle manufacturer in nearly continuous (there have been a few brief interruptions) operation. Moto Guzzi’s first production machine was the 500cc Normale. Based on a four-valve OHC prototype, the production OHV Normale produced 8 horsepower from its horizontal single cylinder. Intelligently designed and well made, it was utterly reliable and delivered solid performance. Those attributes made it surprisingly competitive even in standard form (it was also hugely successful, with more than 2,000 built by 1923) and a series of factory specials like the Condor, the predecessor to our featured Dondolino, proved Moto Guzzi’s engineering mettle time and again.
Although the Normale’s layout would define Moto Guzzi for decades to come, the 1950s saw a flurry of new designs, including racing inline fours and the legendary 500cc Otto Cilindri. Moto Guzzi also produced a slew of scooters and small-displacement singles, but then in 1966 came the bike that changed everything, the V7. Using a 703cc 90-degree V-twin (with roots in a three-wheel utility truck and a Fiat car!), the V7 set a path that Moto Guzzi continues to follow today, with a line of V-twin motorcycles that includes the V7 Classic and the recently released V7 Racer, machines directly inspired by Moto Guzzi’s iconic V7 Sport of the early 1970s. Buon Compleanno!
Mike Madden's 1940 Big Tank Crocker motorcycle at the 2005 Legend of the Motorcycle show in Half Moon Bay, Calif., where it garnered Best of Show.
In the period before World War I, at least 100 different American motorcycle brands appeared on the market. In the 1920s, two or three intrepid U.S. manufacturers came out with new bikes. In the 1930s, the only American to commence the manufacture of motorcycles was Al Crocker with the legendary Crocker motorcycles.
Crocker worked for the Indian Motocycle Company in the late 1910s, not long after graduating from engineering school. By 1928, he was the Southern California Indian distributor, but what he really wanted was to go out on his own.
Crocker bought a machine shop, where he made aftermarket parts such as a steering dampener for Indian Chiefs as a sideline. He would have probably continued his main business selling Indians, had it not been for the speedway craze, a type of short-track racing on a cinder course.
In 1931, racers from Australia gave speedway exhibitions in Southern California, touching off a brief speedway fad across the U.S. Seeing an opportunity, Crocker designed and manufactured special speedway competition cylinders and heads for Indian Scouts. About this time, he met up with Paul A. Bigsby, a patternmaker by trade, who shared Crocker’s love of fast motorcycles. Bigsby soon became an integral part of the Crocker motorcycle operation.
Crocker decided a single would be better for speedway racing than the modified Indian twin, and built approximately 31 hemi-head, overhead-valve, 500cc single-cylinder racers between 1932 and 1935. This was at odds with his working for Indian, so Crocker sold his Indian franchise to Floyd Clymer around 1935. Crocker singles were campaigned by some of the top riders of the era, and were very successful until English-built J.A.P. race bikes appeared in 1935.
Crocker put the speedway aside, and encouraged by Bigsby, started work on a sporty, overhead-valve, V-twin bike. By 1936, testing was so successful that Crocker installed Bigsby as chief engineer and began producing the Crocker V-twin. He immediately ran into a piece of bad luck: Harley-Davidson finished development of its own overhead valve sport bike soon after the Crocker twin hit the market. Making matters worse, the Harley also featured a constant-mesh transmission, but with four gears, a step up from Crocker’s three.
Crocker motorcycles had a performance edge, however, especially in the early days when the Knucklehead’s bugs were still being worked out. But a Crocker cost $495, when a top-of-the-line EL Harley sold for just $380. However, every Crocker was basically custom built, and few are alike. For example, there are at least four different versions of the original hemi-head, and five different parallel-valve top ends.
The crankcases were heavy aluminum alloy and the cast iron cylinders were so thick that although Crockers were designed as a 61ci (1,000cc) with a bore of 3.25in, overbores to 3.625in without distorting the cylinder are possible. A Crocker motorcycle can be built up to 90ci (1,476cc) through a combination of boring and stroking.
The first Crocker motorcycles were hemi-heads with cylinders similar to the speedway machines. Although fast, they leaked oil and developed cracks in the heads after hard use. In 1937, Crocker introduced redesigned heads with the valves positioned vertically over the piston.
The new heads didn’t throw oil or crack as easily, and produced about as much power as the earlier hemis: 53hp to 55hp at 3,600rpm, depending on whose bike was tested on which dyno. Here's a video tribute to Crocker motorcycles:
Unfortunately, America’s entry into World War II made it impossible for Crocker to get raw material for his bikes, and he was forced to turn his machine shop over to war production. This was probably a blessing in disguise, since it cost so much to build each bike that he made little to no profit. It’s rumored he lost money on every bike he sold. When the war ended, he decided not to return to the motorcycle industry.
Crockers were not mass produced, and estimates of how many were made range from 61 to 104 road machines, with many experts agreeing on 75 complete motorcycles manufactured. And had it not been for Elmo Looper and Ernie Skelton, there would probably be few left. Elmo bought out Crocker’s remaining stock a few years after the end of World War II, while Ernie enjoyed riding his Crocker so much he regularly took it to meets to let other people ride it: One ride was enough to spark Crocker fever in many folks, and the remaining Crockers in Looper’s care were rescued and restored. The brand itself was reincarnated in 2006 as the new Crocker Motorcycle Company.
Special thanks to Chuck Vernon and the late Ernie Skelton, who is sorely missed by all.
The 1933 sales brochure for the Indian Motorcycle Company boasted: “For smoothness, extreme flexibility and all-around excellence of performance, there is no equal to the 1933 Indian Four. This Aristocrat of motorcycles emerges from the Indian plant with many improvements and new features.” Those modifications included a revised intake manifold, wider fins on the cylinders, new pistons, and altered first and second gear transmission ratios, allowing for quicker starts.
Red Caldwell loads his BSA Gold Star at Sacramento, Calif., 1960.
BSA Gold Star racing then Red Caldwell made a name for himself racing Gold Stars in Northern California. “I got my pro license and bought my first Gold Star in 1956. In 1958, I bought another one. I was racing at Vallejo, the Sacramento Mile and Belmont,” he says.
Like most racers of the era, Red did most of his own wrenching. “I raised the compression and put in better cams. There was a guy in Southern California who made cams, and Harold Ball in Sacramento was the local dealer. He had a knack for getting the most out of whatever motorcycle he was working on. He helped me, and did the machine work, but I did all the engine work myself.
“I always liked the single cylinder and the low-end torque. It was a fun motorcycle to ride. I had the most fun riding Belmont. It had a figure-eight TT, quarter mile, with an underpass. You didn’t have to have a lot of horsepower. I rode Catalina in 1956, 1957 and 1958 — the last year. I rode Big Bear three different years.
“My main competition was Dick Dorresteyn, a fast Triumph rider. I only beat him once. It was happenstance. I rode to the edge on a corner and got enough horsepower to get past him,” Red remembers. “It was a great experience and a great motorcycle, although it was underpowered for my six-foot four-inch frame — especially on longer tracks.”
Here's some vintage footage of BSA Gold Star racing from 1957 featuring dirt track racer Louis Kramer:
BSA Gold Star racing now Five years ago, vintage racer Ron Halem was talking with some other riders. “It came up that no one had ever lapped the Isle of Man on a Gold Star at over 100mph. Someone said, ‘I bet you can do that.’ I’ve been playing with Gold Stars since the late Sixties, and the idea was intriguing,” Ron says. The next thing Ron knew, someone was offering him a Manx frame, custom built for a Gold Star engine. The person who ordered it had backed out. “It started me down that slippery slope.”
David Roper heads for a win aboard Ron Halem's BSA Gold Star at Willow Springs, 2010.
Ron acquired an engine from Phil Pearson in England, and was on his way to the Isle of Man for the 2008 races. He retired with a leaky fuel tank. He tried again the next year, and the connecting rod failed. In 2010, Ron assembled a fresh engine, but the shipping agent couldn’t get the paperwork together and the bike sat at the airport for three weeks.
Ron has, however, had better luck in American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association events. His Gold Star has placed fourth in class at Daytona twice, won twice at Willow Springs with vintage ace David Roper riding, and taken two second places at Portland. “Gold Stars are addicting,” Ron explains. “All vintage big singles have that allure, but Gold Stars outlived their design. It’s a neat bike considering how old the technology is. They rev so nicely.”
Here's some contemporary footage of BSA Gold Star racing at Cadwell Park in Lincolnshire, England:
Honda Motor Company, Ltd., was the brainchild of one of the true visionaries of the world, Soichiro Honda - the central character in the early history of Honda motorcycles. Honda repaired cars and motorcycles for a living while pursuing the hobby of auto racing. In the 1930s, he started manufacturing piston rings, a business that ended shortly after the war did. A year later, in 1946, Honda started selling motorized bicycles to war-ravaged Japan desperately in need of cheap transportation.
The moped business took off, and Honda started building his own engines. In 1949, Takeo Fujisawa, a master of organization and finance, joined the operation. Profits were invested in the company. In the early 1950s, Honda was able to borrow one million U.S. dollars from friendly banks to buy American and Swiss machine tooling. As a result, the factory was able to economically build clean, reliable motorcycles with advanced features.
By 1959, Honda was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. That year, the company established an American subsidiary and started exporting bikes to the U.S. By the end of 1961, Honda had more than 400 U.S. dealers selling models developed specifically for the American market.
The first bike in the CB series of sporty roadsters was the 125cc Honda Benly Super Sport, one of the first bikes exported to the U.S. The Benly was followed by the 1961 Honda CB72 Hawk, a 250cc overhead cam twin, and its big brother, the 305cc Honda Super Hawk.
The sport, the first Honda CB160, appeared in July 1964. It was soon followed by the Scrambler, with high pipes, and a touring model with wider fenders and only one carburetor. The CB160 range was restyled and souped up in 1969 as the Honda CB175.
Here is a four-part video discussing Honda and its history of success in the Isle of Man TT:
Illustration of the NSU Supermax from promotional materials.
Headquartered in the southern German town of Neckarsulm, NSU had produced automatic knitting machines and a successful line of bicycles before introducing its first motorcycle in 1901.
Once called Neckarsulm Strickmaschinen Union, the company eventually shortened its mouthful of a name to NSU and became one of Germany’s most famous marques along with BMW and DKW. Annual production grew to more than 350,000 units in 1955, making NSU one of the world’s largest manufacturers of two-wheeled vehicles at the time.
But by then, the company was already on its way to losing the distinction. Through the 1950s, NSU became increasingly preoccupied with developing the Wankel rotary engine as well as a line of automobiles. Motorcycle production ceased in 1963, and Volkswagen/Audi swallowed the company by the end of the decade.
Here are two videos featuring the NSU Supermax, one of the company's most fondly remembered motorcycles:
Arturo Magni in his shop in the 1990s preparing a Magni Moto Guzzi.
Ask your average motorcyclist about Magni motorcycles, and you’re likely to get a blank stare in response. In fact, if you’ve come across a Magni, a marque connected with ultra-fast and ultra-rare MV Agustas, BMWs and Moto Guzzis, you’re part of a decidedly small crowd, at least in the U.S. Given that the machines that have rolled out of Arturo Magni’s shop, Elaborazioni Preparazioni Magni in Samarate, Italy, are rarely seen on this side of the world, perhaps that’s no surprise.
Yet Arturo Magni’s association with high-performance motorcycles, and particularly with the fabled MV Agusta name, runs deep, making his relative obscurity something of a puzzler. Operating from a modest two-story building in Samarate, Italy, just a few miles northeast of Milan, Arturo and son Giovanni produce hand built, race-quality bikes for a privileged few — and have been doing so for the past 30 years.
Born in 1925, Arturo Magni’s connection to MV goes back to 1950, when he was hired by MV founder Count Domenico Agusta to be chief mechanic for MV’s struggling race team. At MV, Arturo eventually assumed total responsibility for the company’s race efforts, overseeing technical developments and working with company engineers to make MV a dominant force on the track. It was Arturo who helped turn MV’s four-cylinder race bikes into world championship machines, first in the hands of rider John Surtees in 1956 and then again in 1958 — and for the next 17 years, until MV finally lost out to the financial and technical prowess of the Japanese.
MV Agusta pulled out of racing in 1976, its passion for competition killed following the Count’s death in 1971, and two years later the company quit motorcycle production all together. Yet while racing had been Count Agusta’s primary motorcycling interest, his company produced a surprisingly broad range of motorcycles for the street, most memorably the four-cylinder 750S and 750 America of the early and mid-1970s.
Arturo started his shop after MV shuttered its race program in 1976, at first producing his own custom-framed MV using customer bikes and, later, engines left over from the end of MV production. Hallmarks of a Magni MV include a larger, 861cc capacity engine, MV race-style frame, a Magni dry clutch and a Magni chain-drive conversion. Original 750S and America models all sported shaft drive — fitted, the story goes, to keep private racers from being competitive with MV’s chain-driven racers.
As the supply of available MVs dried up, Arturo transitioned to Honda, BMW and then Moto Guzzi engines to power his creations. In 1999, he introduced the Sport 1200 S, which combines the classic looks of a 750S with a modern Suzuki 1,156cc engine. All told, Arturo Magni and crew have crafted well over 2,000 Magni-framed motorcycles. And if you happen to have an extra MV four-cylinder engine sitting around, he’ll still sell you everything you need to make your own Magni 861. Here's a video demonstrating the beautiful sound a Magni MV Agusta can make:
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