The Moto Guzzi Eldorado was the biggest weapon in a snout-to-snout battle with Harley-Davidson
Years produced: 1972-74
Total production: 15,000 (est.)
Claimed power: 64bhp @ 6,500rpm
Top speed: 116mph
Engine type: Four-stroke, overhead-valve V-twin
Weight (wet): 261kg (580lb)
Price then: $1,985
Price now: $7,500-$12,500
With a trail of hamburger that used to be his hide, retired California Highway Patrol trooper John Moraga bought and paid for the right to say whatever he wants about the Moto Guzzi Eldorado.
In 1974, on his 13th day of on-the-street training, Moraga was patrolling along the MacArthur Freeway in Oakland, Calif., when the driver of a pink 1959 Cadillac pulled out in front of him and jumped on the throttle like David Crosby on a Ho Ho. Moraga hit the siren, rolled the throttle and was somewhere north of 100mph when the bike went into a wobble that wrenched the handlebars from his grip and sent him sliding 317 feet along the pavement. He somehow avoided serious injury, but came home a few ounces lighter after the asphalt ate through his riding gear in spots.
So what’s his assessment of the bike that could have ended his life?
"I sure liked it," he says. "It was so clean and so smooth with that shaft drive; just a really nice bike. I just wish I hadn’t had such bad luck with it."
Moraga didn’t bump his head during the accident: There are several perfectly logical reasons he doesn’t hold a grudge against the Eldorado. For starters, he thinks his accident was an anomaly, possibly brought on by a rare factory defect or a bad spot of road — or a combination of both. And despite the accident, the Eldo earned Moraga’s respect by serving many of his colleagues faithfully for several years.
Another reason behind Moraga’s fondness for the machine is that it was a much-needed alternative to the Harley-Davidsons of the early Seventies.
"Harleys were absolutely terrible at the time," he says. "They broke down all the time, they leaked oil all over the place, the vibration was so bad you couldn’t keep your feet on the boards. Later, the FXR in the Eighties was a nice machine. But those old Electra-Glides were junk."
Although Moraga had a professional interest in the Harley-Guzzi war of the Seventies, plenty of civilians shared his take on the 850cc Eldorado. The pinnacle of a line that began with Moto Guzzi’s V700 loop-frame cruiser of the mid-1960s, the Eldo hit a vein of popularity in the United States after going snout-to-snout with Harley-Davidson for markets that had previously been the American manufacturer’s domain: Long-range motorcycle touring and law enforcement.
"Moto Guzzi was really foundering back then," says Greg Field, owner of several Moto Guzzis and author of the 1998 book Moto Guzzi Big Twins — A Color History. "The Italian market and even the European market were not doing well, and the company looked at the American market as the key to success. The American distributor went to Guzzi and asked to go after the big-bike market."
Domestic buyers were hungry enough for an alternative hog that Moto Guzzi reportedly sold as many as 5,000 Eldorados a year from 1972 until the model was pulled in 1974 — not a death blow to Harley, but definitely a kick in the teeth.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, Harley-Davidson faced no serious challenge from foreign manufacturers in the big-bike market. The British ruled the sporting class but steered clear of big-bore cruisers during the Fifties, and the Japanese followed suit when they began sweeping across America in the Sixties.
BMW tourer motorcycles of the era, Field says, weren’t powerful enough to haul two passengers and full gear.
Enter Moto Guzzi importers Mike and Joe Berliner, brothers who owned the New Jersey-based Premier Motor Corporation. Acting on pleas from domestic distributors for a foreign-made touring bike to break Harley’s stranglehold on the class, the Berliners shopped the idea to overseas manufacturers and got a couple of bites. A Ducati V-4 concept failed to get off the ground, but a prototype of the Moto Guzzi V700 grabbed the Berliners’ attention and was put into testing in 1965.
Production began 1966, and the V700 went on sale — with a sticker price of $1,439 — that year in American dealerships. A 750cc version, designated the Ambassador for the United States market, appeared in 1969.
The 850cc Eldorado, unleashed in 1972 with a price tag of $1,985, would be Moto Guzzi’s most potent weapon in the battle against Harley. The new cruiser was built on basically the same chassis as the Moto Guzzi Ambassador but featured a five-speed transmission — as opposed to the Ambassador’s four-speed — and an engine that boasted far more torque than the 750cc V-twin. The extra oomph came courtesy of a new crankshaft with a throw of 78mm instead of 70mm, driven by completely redesigned pistons that increased the compression ratio from 9:1 to 9.2:1.
Standard features included a “police’’ fuse box, offering several extra terminals for accessory circuits.
Although the Eldorado suffered growing pains such as transmission problems that led to the first 1,500 units being recalled, it was an instant success.
"The first Eldo in 1972 was basically an Ambassador with a bigger engine and a five-speed transmission, but the torquier engine and the new transmission gave it a different feel," Field says. "Compared to the Eldorado, the Ambassador just feels like an older bike. Then, in 1974, Guzzi came out with the Eldorado with a front disc brake and a different set of forks, and that just took it to the next level of that modern feel."
According to Field’s book, sales of the Eldorado rivaled those of the Harley FLH. Harley’s poor quality control undoubtedly steered some customers toward Moto Guzzi, but the Italian company didn’t simply live off of Harley’s castoffs: It earned a market share by creating a simple, easily maintained and reliable bike with superior fit and finish — and by responding to improvements suggested by riders.
Throughout the loop-frame series’ development, Moto Guzzi bent over backwards to make the bikes suitable for law enforcement. Recognizing that the California Highway Patrol and Los Angeles Police Department were national trendsetters in police motorcycles and equipment, the company spent hours working with the agencies’ officers — going so far as to bring at least one to Italy for testing.
"There were some old-school officers who thought that if it wasn’t a Harley, it wasn’t a motorcycle," Field says. "So Guzzi found some younger officers who had ridden British and European bikes during the Fifties and were eager to ride the Guzzis. And that really helped."
As an indication of the importance of the LAPD in Moto Guzzi’s plans, the company sold its first two V700s to the department for $1 each. The strategy turned out to be brilliant: Besides selling thousands of motorcycles to law enforcement agencies in California, Georgia, Texas and other states, Moto Guzzi got free advertising on Los Angeles’ freeways.
"That was part of the whole plan: Touring riders would see these bikes on the highway and say, 'Maybe that’s a viable long-range touring bike,'" Field says.
Eventually, you didn’t have to go to California to see spin-off advertising for Moto Guzzi. The Eldorado edged its way into numerous Hollywood movies, sharing screen time with actors ranging from Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman to Cheech and Chong in Up in Smoke.
Moe Duenner, general manager of Cycle Gardens Moto Guzzi in Huntington Beach, Calif., put 15,000 to 20,000 miles on his first Eldorado — more than a fair return on the $250 he paid for the bike.
"It was just a beast," he says. "One time, I had an oil plug go out on me when it was raining and I didn’t have anything to do but run the hell out of it and get home. When I got there, it didn’t have a drop of oil in it. The next day I worked the crank back and forth with a wrench, put oil in it and it went right back out on the road.
"Later, I had a seal blow out on me. On my way home — which was about 50, 60 miles — I had to go to 7-Elevens and get quarts of oil. But it still ran. It was kind of a noisy, ratty bike, but it ran. But that’s the way those bikes are: The more you beat them and the more you abuse them, that’s how they like to be ridden."
Duenner discovered what LAPD and CHP officers knew very well: The Eldorado doesn’t break down often. And when it does, it’s about as hard to fix as an Erector crane.
"I like things that are simple and easy to work on, and that’s what attracted me to the Eldorado and the Ambassador," Duenner says. "Even a mechanic with medium skills can figure it out if something breaks down on it."
Duenner, who calls himself "the Fred Sanford of Moto Guzzis," still owns the first Eldorado he bought. In his three-person business, he specializes in restoring and producing replacement parts for pre-1975 Guzzis.
"I’ve seen a lot of other bikes, but there’s nothing else that really interests me," he says. "I used to go to some of the Harley rides here — ones where there would be 3,000 or 4,000 Harleys — and the Guzzis would always get a lot of compliments. A lot of the old guys from the Sixties or Seventies would come up and say, 'Wow, that’s a cool bike.'"
Mike Harper, who has been selling and restoring Moto Guzzis for more than 30 years in the Kansas City, Mo., area, rates the Ambassador and Eldorado among the company’s finest bikes.
"The motor is set a little farther forward, which gives you more legroom," he says. "And the engine design is very strong. It’s pretty common to see 100,000 miles on these engines, and you see some guys who have put 200,000 on them."
After Moraga’s 1974 accident, his bike went to a repair shop whose operator informed him that the accident must have been caused by rider error. To prove it, the operator rode the bike to the accident site and opened the throttle.
"At the same location at the same speed, he went down," Moraga says. "I went to see him in the hospital and said, 'I see you found the speed wobble on my bike.' He just grumbled."
The bike disappeared, but Moraga stayed with the CHP through 15 years and somewhere around 1 million miles, riding Harleys and Kawasakis. He never had another wreck, but he never complained about the Eldorado, either.
"I loved those machines," he says, "except for the one I had." MC
"The machine eats miles like no other motorcycle. Side winds and pressure front blasts from passing trucks don't faze it. ... Ripply pavement and chuck holes go almost unnoticed. ... And there's incredible cruising power." — Cycle, July 1972
"It's a bike for crossing continents, not states. It's a bike that can carry 200lb of gear for camping and a passenger at the same time. And, it's a bike that can eat up 300-mile sections of expressway and leave the rider free from fatigue." — Cycle World, August 1973
"A couple of quick definite shifts and it's topped the speed limit. It reaches 60 in one-tenth that many seconds without straining ... zzippPP! ... shot from guns (make that cannons' - it's a pretty big bike)." — Road Rider, January 1973
"Mountain roads didn't shake our confidence in teh handling, but they did draw attention to the brakes. The rear unit is overly sensitive. ... Contrasting this is the front twin-shoe drum which fades after a couple of panic stops. ..." — Cycle World, August 1973
"In summary, it would appear that the Eldorado basically has everything that it takes to be a very reliable, dependable machine." — Road Rider, October 1974