The Modern Four: 1967 MV Agusta 600
1967 MV Agusta 600 Four
Engine: 592cc air-cooled DOHC inline four, 58mm x 56mm bore and stroke, 9.3:1 compression ratio, 50hp @ 8,200rpm
Top speed: 99.3mph (period test)
Carburetion: Two 24mm Dell’Orto MB24
Transmission: 5-speed, shaft final drive
Electrics: 12v, distributor ignition w/coil and breaker points
Frame/wheelbase: Dual downtube steel cradle/54.7in (1,390mm)
Suspension: Telescopic fork front, twin shocks w/adjustable preload rear
Brakes: Dual 8.5in (216mm) mechanically actuated discs front, 7.9in (200mm) SLS drum rear
Tires: 3.5 x 18in front, 4 x 18in rear
Weight (dry): 486lb (221kg)
Seat height: 31.6in (802mm)
Fuel capacity: 5.3gal (20ltr)
Price then: $1,698 (1,060,000 lire)
When MV Agusta, one of the greatest names in motorcycle racing, decided to make a 4-cylinder road bike based on its success with Grand Prix racing, it did all it could to deter owners from racing it. That says a lot about what was fermenting in Count Domenico Agusta’s mind when he set his engineers to work preparing what would be the first modern Superbike, before the term was even coined.
The bike featured here is the actual, very first road-going 4-cylinder motorcycle to roll off the assembly lines at Meccanica Verghera Agusta’s facility not far from Milan, Italy. Although most of us know the brand more for its racing than its road bikes, if history had been kind, the marketplace of two-wheelers, and especially scooters, would have been very different.
MV early days
Costruzioni Aeronautiche Giovanni Agusta was founded by Count Giovanni Agusta in 1923 as an aircraft manufacturer. It was a natural choice, as Count Agusta was one of the earliest exponents of the aviation world after the Wright brothers, and in fact had taken to the skies before the likes of the French ace Louis Blériot. Count Agusta had seen action in World War I when he was part of the Malpensa Air Battalion and it was near there, in Varese, that he set up his aircraft construction business.
He died early though, in 1927, at age 48, but his widowed wife, the Countess Giuseppina, and eldest son Domenico took charge. In the closing years of World War II, the Agustas knew, as did many others, that they would have to set their factories working on things other than aircraft, especially for the fighting forces. Personal mobility was the overarching theme that dominated, so in 1943 and early 1944 Count Domenico Agusta and his team prepared a 98cc big-wheeled moped-like contraption they called the Vespa (Wasp) 98. It was advertised in a few Italian trade journals before it was realized that another Italian aviation firm, Piaggio, had registered that very name for a mass mobility two-wheeler that embraced aviation construction techniques, also with a small 98cc engine.
The first five years of MV’s motorcycle manufacturing activities were all about delivering mass mobility, offering small 2-stroke scooters and motorcycles in displacement sizes ranging from 98cc to 250cc. Although well received, they were also more expensive than the competition so sales were always lower than the established giants like Moto Guzzi and Gilera. However, Count Agusta was never shy of going that extra mile when it came to technological innovation or flair, and his avowed zeal to always build in the coup de théâtre meant that MVs were forever seen at the cutting edge of motorcycle technology.
The biggest thrust to MV’s fortunes came with the formation of the World Championships in 1949. In those days, World Championship titles were fought in the 125cc, 250cc, 350cc, 500cc and 600cc sidecar classes. This gave an overwhelming impetus to all bike makers to be in these racing series, where wins brought glory that transferred to the showroom. By this time, 2-strokes were beginning to be seriously threatened by 4-strokes, especially in the smaller classes where 2-strokes dominated, so MV had no option but to hedge its bets by beginning to develop 4-stroke motorcycles, as well.
To ensure top notch 4-stroke engine technology, Count Agusta invested in two of the best known names in Italian automobile race engineering — Professor Mario Speluzzi of the Polytechnic University of Milan and Pietro Remor, who had designed the Gilera Rondine, the supercharged, water-cooled 500cc 4-cylinder Grand Prix motorcycle of the late 1930s. Prof. Speluzzi had impeccable credentials as well, as a builder of supercharged speedboat engines and then a special engine for Maserati in GP racing, and the two of them set MV on the road to 4-stroke motorcycling glory.
MV’s first four
On Dec. 3, 1950, MV Agusta took the wraps off its road-going 500 Grand Turismo R19 at the Milan Motorcycle Show. It was a staggering machine, beautifully constructed and dazzling to behold. Finished in silver gray, it embraced a light alloy, 4-cylinder, twin overhead camshaft engine fed by twin Dell’Orto carburetors with a wet clutch and 4-speed gearbox in unit, with shaft final drive. Housed in a duplex cradle frame, it was exceedingly well finished. The tachometer and speedometer were both mounted in the gas tank. The swingarm was also a work of art, with twin spars on both sides working on torsion bars and friction dampers while telescopic forks did duty up front. The bike ran on 19-inch wheels front and rear, with a ventilated 9-inch (230mm) twin-leading-shoe drum at the front and an 8.7-inch (220mm) at the rear.
The 500 Grand Turismo made extensive use of exotic materials, with the engine said to weigh the same as a contemporary 500cc single.
Earlier in the year, MV had shown off its first 500cc 4-cylinder Grand Prix motorcycle and this road-going version borrowed massively from it. Priced at 950,000 lire (approximately $1,521 U.S.), it was never produced, despite great interest from potential buyers. It survives today in the Agusta Museum in Gallarate, Italy (museoagusta.it).
Birth of the 600 four
Although MV did win a smattering of Grand Prix races in the 500cc premier class, it couldn’t emulate its smaller siblings in the way of World Championships until the great John Surtees landed MV its first premier class world title in 1956. From then on the glorious red and silver “fire engines” dominated the 500cc and the 350cc classes until Honda began to make things difficult in the mid-1960s. It was during the Japanese onslaught of motorcycle sales in Europe and the U.S. in the first half of the 1960s that Count Agusta again began to think about his shock and awe approach to creating high-performance motorcycles for the road in line with its winning Grand Prix lineage.
Count Agusta’s vision was a grand touring motorcycle that would adopt most of the elements of MV’s Grand Prix World Championship-winning motorcycles, but it would not be a fire-breathing version that customers could take to the track. What he wanted was a two-wheeled equivalent of the glorious Ferrari 275 GTB and its like.
To prevent clients from buying the bike to race, he ordered his design and engineering teams to give his proposed street 4-cylinder a displacement of 600cc, putting it into no man’s land as far as racing classifications. He also specified shaft drive, which uses more power than a chain.
The engine used the same architecture as the engines that powered the likes of John Surtees, Gary Hocking, Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini to win after win and World Championship after World Championship. The prototype featured a bore and stroke of 56mm x 60mm for a 592cc displacement, but this long-stroke layout gave way to a shorter stroke version with a bore and stroke of 58mm x 56mm to give the same 592cc capacity. This was the layout adopted for production.
The light alloy, double overhead cam engine breathed through a quartet of Dell’Orto MB24 carbs and featured wet sump lubrication and a 5-speed gearbox that drove the final drive shaft via bevel gears.
The bikes were virtually hand built, and it showed in the absolute craftsmanship. The crank-driven cluster of timing gears for the twin overhead cams was a joy to behold, while the crank itself was elaborately built of five main parts and ran on six roller bearings. The two outer bearings were conventional, but MV Agusta probably broke new ground with the other four by employing the cracked manufacturing approach to get a perfect fit. In that process the ball races are machined, ground and treated in one piece, then broken into two in such a way that the fracture, though irregular, is unique yet perfect for each fit. Although the process sounds irregular, it simplifies crankshaft/crankcase assembly. This approach is used today for connecting rod big ends on high-end BMW and other sports cars.
Probably the weakest link in the MV 600’s engine was its electrics, but then this could perhaps be said to hold true across the board for all Italian cars and bikes of that period. Ignition was by breaker points distributor and coil in conjunction with a 12-volt, 135-watt generator that also doubled as the starter. To overcome the generator’s inherent deficiencies, MV’s engineers adopted a special twin-belt drive system; a low-geared belt for starter motor duty and a higher geared belt for the generator.
The engine was housed in a duplex cradle frame that was also clearly inspired by MV’s Grand Prix racing, albeit slightly enhanced to take care of road-going requirements and the bike’s extra weight. The front Teledraulic forks and the two rear hydraulic shock absorber working with a sturdy swingarm made up the suspension components. Top-notch Borrani 3.25 x 18-inch light alloy wire wheels were used, an inch smaller in diameter than those adopted for the first 500 four from 1950, and shod with a 3.5 x 18-inch tire at the front with a 4 x 18-inch on the rear.
One of the 600’s most modern elements was MV’s adoption of two mechanically actuated Campagnolo 8.5-inch (216mm) diameter disc brakes on the front wheel. This was truly an industry first, and MV had already tested them in competition on their 125cc Grand Prix machine. They seemed to work adequately well given the performance potential plus the 486-pound (221 kilogram) dry weight of the bike. Interestingly, the models that followed the 600, which came in much sportier and larger engined attire, adopted twin-leading-shoe drum brakes on the front, and it wasn’t until the 750 Sport America appeared in 1975 that twin 11-inch (280mm) diameter hydraulic disc brakes made their appearance on the big MV road-going fours.
As much as the quality of the mechanicals and the cycle parts — plus the obvious inherent sporty performance — were obvious, the styling was quirky, to say the least. This was due to Count Agusta’s stern dictate that the designers follow his every directive, including the large rectangular headlight, smallish pannier boxes on either side of the passenger seat and that humpback fuel tank. That aside, the bike was sensational — but pricey — and it was to lay the template for all inline 4-cylinder motorcycles to follow from there on.
The first 600
The bike featured here belongs to Jean Marie Marechal, whom I first met at the 2016 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, held on the shores of Lake Como, Italy. It is no ordinary 600, but the very first 600 four off the factory line and features matched chassis and engine numbers — 199001 — to prove it. Marechal lives and breathes MVs, and has fond memories of seeing the fire-engine-red bikes race and win in the hands of Surtees, Hailwood, Agostini and Read. He has everything that a dedicated MV anorak would have along with this historic bit of art on two wheels, including the original bill of sale, signed by Count Domenico Agusta himself.
Examining the 600 at Villa d’Este, I could see it was one of motorcycling’s Holy Grails. Marechal is full of enthusiasm for motorcycles and MVs, and he gladly fired up the bike for me the evening preceding the concours main event. He also spent time showing me his collection of memorabilia that he carried with him. The 600 has its original number plates, untouched tools in the original tool kit, original keys with the original leather key holder, and more. The fact that he rode to Villa d’Este for the concours certifies him as an absolute MV nutter engrossed in the firm’s mystique.
MV Agusta built just 127 examples of the 600, and total production of all 4-cylinder bikes (including the Sport, GT, 750 Sport and 750 S America) to 1977 just nudged 1,200. MV Agusta closed its doors in 1977, and all remaining stock was sold off by 1980, bringing to an end what was one of the most glorious motorcycle marques, with a strong racing pedigree and immensely long list of successes, with 270 Grand Prix victories, 37 Constructors World Championships and 38 Riders’ World Championship titles.
In absolutely original condition, Marechal’s 600-4 is truly one of a kind.MC
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