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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.

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.

Restoration

Spencer began working on his Moto Guzzi in 1974, disassembling the bike for body and paint work only to have the gas tank and side covers disappear from a ne’er-do-well local shop. The project was off to a poor start. Through persistent inquiries, Spencer located Jerry Kimberlin in California, who was very knowledgeable about the Guzzi singles and a skilled engine builder. Jerry undertook the rebuilding of the engine.

As this was going on, Spencer was searching for the parts lost by the body shop, as well as many others needed to complete the project. Along the way fellow U.S. Guzzi enthusiasts Tim Smith and Antonio Ricciardi helped with parts and advice, as did Marco Valentino in Italy. To give you an idea of the difficulties, it took 16 years (1974-1990) to find a correct, original gas tank to replace the one lost at the start of the project. Other parts were nearly as challenging to find, as was information about the bike itself. Don’t forget that these initial efforts were done before the internet, so snail mail, phone calls and word-of-mouth were the only means available, all of which took much time and diligence.

Image by Tammie Bostelman

The 1934 Moto Guzzi GTS 500.

In addition to the difficulties in sourcing parts, etc., it’s also important to note that Spencer was not a mechanic, not a paint-and-body guy, not knowledgeable about prewar Guzzis GTSs, of which only 2,952 were built, and did not know anyone who was. He also didn’t speak Italian. However, he was persistent, focused and found that he had fundamental skills which developed into fine craftsmanship.

He admits to lots of mistakes and do-overs, but he kept at it over the years and, as seen in the photos and the many show awards, he got it very right. He first displayed the 1939 model at the Barber Vintage Festival in 2011 as a solo bike and received high praise for his efforts.

Image by Tammie Bostelman

Spencer Graves’ 1939 Moto Guzzi GTS 500, with a Parri sidecar.

The second GTS

In 1990, Spencer’s Army buddy called from Wyoming and asked if he’d like to buy the 1934 500 GTS he’d bought in Eritrea, as he’d decided that he just didn’t want to take the project on. Now that Spencer had many years of experience working on his bike and had developed sources for parts and advice, he readily accepted the offer, so now he had two vintage Guzzis. He wisely waited until he finished his bike in 2011 before starting on his friend’s bike which, as you’ll recall, had the sidecar that Spencer sold him in Africa.

Spencer knew that the body on the sidecar was not correct, but the frame fit the Guzzi so well that he thought there was a chance that it may have been an Italian rig originally made for the bike. Perhaps, but the chances were very slim, as he knew. Still …

Although there were no markings on the sidecar frame, after much searching on the internet, Spencer located a sidecar museum in Italy (www.sidecar.it), which not only had many different sidecars on display, but also had a restoration shop and original tooling for several classic Italian sidecars. The founder, Constantino Frontalini, carefully studied the photos Spencer sent and recognized the frame as a period-correct, Italian Parri S.M.I.T unit! So, fate stepped in and proved Spencer’s intuition correct despite the very long odds. The next question was whether original Parri sidecar bodies were available? The disappointing response was “no.”

But in the next breath Constantino said “but we can build a new one for you from the original bucks and tooling!” What are the chances of finding THE one person on the planet who could recognize the bare frame and who could then build a new, period-correct body for it? So a deal was struck and eight months later the sidecar body arrived in primer at Spencer’s doorstep in Tennessee.

In the meantime, he’d continued on with the restoration of his friend’s GTS. Then began the painstaking process of filling, sanding, blocking the new body, matching the new paint to the complex, two-tone scheme shown on original Parri advertising literature and getting the whole assembly brought together into the extraordinary, award-winning rig you see in the photos. He decided to attach the sidecar to his 1939 GTS, since that was the bike on which it was originally mounted. In 2016, after 42 years of diligent and skillful effort, both of Spencer’s 80-plus-year-old Guzzis from the other side of the world were completed. They were both displayed at the Barber Vintage Festival that year and again in 2018, to much-deserved praise and awards. Listening to comments by onlookers at these shows, it’s safe to say that the art deco design of the Parri sidecar is unlike any other in the world (with the possible exception of the other famous Italian sidecar company, Longhi), and is just stunning when seen in person. The soft, streamlined lines of the Parri and the intricate detailing are simply unmatched.

Image by Tammie Bostelman

The 1939 GTS 500 still wears its U.S. forces tag from Ethiopia.

It is notable and speaks to Spencer’s character that, even given the obvious quality of the work and the many awards, he is humble about what he’s accomplished and wonders aloud if it is “good enough.” The best answer is a simple “job very well done.” No doubt Carlo Guzzi would say the same thing, shake his hand, pat the gas tank and murmur “bella macchina” over and over.

These bikes are not trailer queens meant to just garner awards. Spencer pilots the sidecar rig regularly, although he doesn’t ride the solo bike as much these days. He has been generous in showing the bikes at many venues large and small, famous and not-so-much since completing the restorations. It is nothing short of a miracle and a fine example of one man’s persistence that these two bikes have been restored to their former glory for future generations to appreciate.

Image by Tammie Bostelman

Finished in 2011, the 1939 GTS 500 is ridden regularly.

Technical info

With their exposed hairspring valve springs, the iconic Moto Guzzi “bacon slicer” flywheel, rear friction dampers, handsome alloy engine castings, fishtail exhausts, intricate instruments and controls, both of these Guzzis are mechanical feasts for the eyes and ears.

Sporting a low 4.6:1 compression ratio with a modest 13.2 horsepower moving 323 pounds (solo bike), acceleration is leisurely. With a 4-speed gearbox, a comfortable cruising speed of 50mph and a maximum speed of 65mph, power was certainly sufficient, especially considering the small drum brakes, not to mention the poor road conditions of the day.

Image by Tammie Bostelman

While the frame for the Parri sidecar is original, the body was built from the original bucks and tooling.

Moto Guzzi built several models of the 500 GT series between 1934 and 1949, with the GTS being the less sophisticated, lower-powered model, but it was also less expensive to buy and maintain and was very robust. The higher-performance 500 GTV model produced 18 horsepower with a 5.5:1 compression ratio and an overhead valve/pushrod system, although it weighed slightly more at 352 pounds. Both series were available with either a rigid or a friction-type rear suspension and both had a springer-type front suspension.

It is important in Guzzi history that the prewar 500 GT series motorcycles not only helped establish the company as a builder of fine, high-quality bikes, but they were also the basis for Guzzi’s reemergence following World War II. The 500 GT models were also the basis for the later and more famous Falcone model, which came to market in 1950, as well as the successful Dondolino racing bikes.

Image by Tammie Bostelman

Spencer Graves (right) with his 1934 GTS 500. Spencer’s son Russell Graves (left) and grandson Conner with the 1939 GTS 500.

Spencer Graves (right) with his 1934 GTS 500. Spencer’s son Russell Graves (left) and grandson Conner with the 1939 GTS 500.

Guzzi carried on with the horizontal single-cylinder bikes in 500cc and 250cc displacements until 1967, at which time the famous V-twin engine we see in today’s Guzzis came to market. But that’s a story for another time. MC

Published on Feb 13, 2020

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