From Eritrea to Tennessee: 1934 and 1939 Moto Guzzi GTS 500

A former soldier brings a pair of pre-war Moto Guzzi GTS 500s back to the states, of which only 2,952 were made, along with a Parri sidecar.

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by Tammie Bostelman

Sometimes the stories behind vintage motorcycles are as interesting and compelling as the bikes themselves. This is one of those times.

The persistence and talents of one man have resurrected not one, but two discarded, forlorn prewar Moto Guzzis found in a distant corner of the world. This epic began in 1968 when a 20-year-old Army-enlisted man from Tennessee named Spencer Graves was assigned to duty in Asmara, Eritrea. Eritrea became an Italian colony in 1889 and, under the hand of dictator Benito Mussolini, the capital of Asmara was greatly expanded beginning in the early 1920s. With over half of the capital’s 98,000 residents being native-born Italians, there were of course many Italian products, including motorcycles, as we shall see.

Early in his deployment, Spencer found a 1939 Moto Guzzi 500 GTS in sad condition, not running with many missing and cannibalized parts, following nearly 30 years of neglect. Shortly after acquiring the Guzzi, a fellow soldier sold him the sidecar off of his Triumph 650, which Spencer thought would fit his bike. Little did he know how fateful this purchase was. He found a native Eritrean who was knowledgeable about older Guzzis and who agreed to return it to running and presentable condition. The mechanic’s name was Solomon Mashio, and he was not only the first native African to be a certified Moto Guzzi mechanic, but also a Guzzi racer of some repute. Solomon was trained and mentored by the noted Italian Moto Guzzi mechanic and racer Mario Mancini in the early 1950s. When Spencer picked the bike up from Solomon, it ran well enough, but evidently “presentable” to Soloman was a bit different than what Spencer had in mind: the bike was painted in the traditional Guzzi bright red, but the sidecar was painted like a zebra!

Having seen Spencer dashing around on his old Guzzi, Al Willey, a fellow soldier and friend, decided he had to find one as well, which he did. It was an even older example of the same 500 GTS, circa 1934, in much the same condition as Spencer’s. Al’s goal was to ship the bike home and restore it. Al’s daily ride was a Ducati 250 Scrambler. Imagine two young soldiers far from home, one on the prewar Guzzi and the other on a period Ducati dashing around the dusty roads of Aswara, the nearby port city of Massawa and the surrounding desert. They must have felt like modern-day Lawrences of Arabia! When their tours of duty were up, the two buddies shipped the bikes back to the U.S. and eventually restored them. Spencer’s Guzzi went home to Tennessee and his buddy Al’s bike to Wyoming, now with the sidecar which Spencer sold him just before leaving Africa. It would return, as we will see.

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