Motorcycle Classics

Café Veloce: 1978-1988 Moto Guzzi SP1000

We take a look at the legendary Moto Guzzi 1000SP, compared to the BMW R100RS and the late Honda CBX Super Sport.

Years produced: 1978-1988

Horsepower:  62hp @ 6,500rpm (rear wheel)

Top speed: 112mph (period test)

Engine: 948cc, (88mm x 78mm) air-cooled, OHV L-twin

Transmission: 5-speed gearbox, single-plate engine-speed clutch, shaft final drive

Weight: 554lb curb (wet)

Price then/now:  $2,299 (1978)/$2,500-$6,500

You could argue that Philip Vincent invented the sport-touring motorcycle. The Black Knight and Black Prince of 1955 were the first fully enclosed motorcycles designed for crossing continents in comfort and out of the wind. Sure, you could add windshield, leg shields and hand guards to your Beemer or Beezer but these would have been aftermarket pieces. Then Royal Enfield followed Vincent with their factory optional “Airflow” fairing in 1958, and Velocette with the “Veeline” in 1961. The first mass-produced, factory-faired sport-tourer is generally accepted to be the BMW R100RS of 1977, with Moto Guzzi’s SP1000 close behind. What did Royal Enfield, BMW and Guzzi have in common? They all had access to a wind tunnel!

Guzzi learned from their racing experience that fairings can boost speed by streamlining the bike and rider. But they also discovered that the full “dustbin” fairing compromised high speed stability, leading to an FIM ban in 1958. For the SP1000, the solution Guzzi came up with was to split the fairing into two pieces: a lower section mounted on the frame; and an upper section bolted to the front fork.

The SP1000 was the result of patient but steady development in Mandello. The 700cc L-twin V7 of 1967 grew into the 750cc 4-speed Ambassador and 850cc 5-speed Eldorado of 1972. After joining Guzzi in 1967, Lino Tonti developed a new, lighter frame with improved ground clearance for a sportier ride. To suit his frame, Tonti replaced the twin’s belt-drive generator with an alternator on the front of the crankshaft. Fitted to the 5-speed gearbox, this became the V7 Sport of 1971.

With the arrival of new owner Alejandro de Tomaso in 1973, the V7 Sport was replaced by the 750S, and then the iconic 850 Le Mans in 1976. For more pedestrian duties, including police work, there were the Tonti-framed 850T and triple-disc-brake 850T3. Meanwhile, Guzzi had stretched their L-twin one more time to 948cc providing the extra grunt needed for the automatic-transmission Convert. The sum of all these parts was the 1978 948cc, 5-speed, Tonti-framed, triple-disc SP1000, fitted with its slippery, tunnel-tested, two-part fairing.

With the L-twin’s cylinders (“Nigusil” lined from 1980-on) out in the breeze, Tonti had been able to design a “low-boy” frame with two, straight, parallel top tubes inboard of the jugs. These tubes were triangulated to the top of the steering head, not the bottom, keeping the frame rails — and therefore the seat — low. The dual cradle frame enclosed the crankcase, engine-speed clutch and 5-speed transmission with the right-side swinging arm also housing the final drive shaft. Lower frame rails were bolted in place to facilitate engine removal.

Three-way adjustable rear shocks and a non-adjustable front fork ran on 18-inch alloy wheels (16-inch front on the SPII from 1983). Equipment was comprehensive, including a clock, voltmeter and ample warning lights.

Testers liked the “smooth and understressed” power delivery of the SP’s big twin, with its “broad, fluid powerband,” but also found the hand controls heavy, especially the clutch and throttle. Shifting was “positive,” while the front-rear linked braking system provided “excellent stopping power” even if just the foot pedal was used. (Hydraulic pressure control valves prevented lock-ups.)

Cycle World noted that “Riding the Guzzi at high speeds isn’t so much exciting as it is fun … handling is absolutely stable, the steering utterly predictable … Steering, power and gearing all fit together to make the Guzzi a motorcycle that never feels as though it’s in a hurry.” However, they did note some instability at 100mph-plus speeds and under hard braking.

“That wonderful, flat, soft seat offered excellent comfort,” said one tester, though others found their knees banging the jugs and fairing lowers. Other gripes included the sidestand (“unreachable from aboard the bike”) and the mirrors (“little more than a bad joke”). Said Cycle Magazine: “It is distinctive, mechanically simple, innovative in many details, and reasonably comfortable for average sized riders. Ridden briskly, the bike handles with a predictable stability that many riders will find friendly and reassuring. And in that way the Guzzi has become a contemporary motorcycle.” MC

Contenders: Sport-touring alternatives to the SP1000

Contender: 1977-1984 BMW R100RS

  • 1977-1984
  • 70hp @ 7,250 (claimed)
  • 108mph (period test)
  • 980cc (94mm x 70.6mm) air cooled, OHV flat twin
  • 5-speed gearbox, engine-speed clutch, shaft final drive
  • 535lb (wet)
  • 42-50mpg
  • $4,595 (1977), $7,025 (1981)/$4,000-$8,000

The R100RS defined the sport-touring motorcycle for the best part of a decade; its Hans Muth designed, Pininfarina-wind-tunnel developed fairing was emulated but its efficiency and effectiveness rarely equaled. The fairing improved fuel consumption over the naked R100/7 by 4mpg at 62mph, and — almost as important — reduced lift on the front and rear wheels by 20-25 percent for added stability at high speeds.

The RS arrived in 1977 with wire wheels, dual front discs and a drum rear brake. By 1978 it had gained BMW’s “snowflake” alloy wheels and a rear disc. Improvements over its life included gearshift enhancement, a new crankshaft, lighter clutch and flywheel, an oil cooler, and Nikasil plated cylinders. By then the K100 was ready to replace it — though the air-cooled Boxer engine soldiered on in the GS series until the mid-nineties.

Some testers found the riding position — quite forward with narrow handlebars — uncomfortably heavy on the wrists without the balancing airflow of a naked bike.

They also noted head-level turbulence from the windshield; and criticized the suspension as too soft for good handling; though the ride was “simply first rate,” said Cycle: they concluded that the RS was for, “… those who enjoy its composed nature, its swiftness over long distances, the crispness of its controls, and its full-fairing shelter without cross-wind susceptibility.”

Contender: 1981-1982 Honda CBX

  • 1981-1982
  • 85.6rwhp @ 9,500rpm (period test)
  • 128mph (estimated)
  • 1,047cc (64.5mm x 53.4mm) air cooled, DOHC inline six, 24 valves
  • 5-speed gearbox, chain final drive
  • 662lbs (curb, half tank)
  • 41 mpg
  • $5,600 (1981)/$5,000-$10,000

Featuring six cylinders, two overhead camshafts and 24 valves, the 1979 CBX parachuted into motorcycling like the Starship Enterprise landing in Jurassic Park. By comparison, BMW’s and Guzzi’s technology looked almost antediluvian; but the CBX’s outrageous powerplant simply overwhelmed its chassis. The CBX Supersport of 1981 featured a stronger frame, Pro-Link rising rate rear suspension, fatter front fork, and a wind-tunnel designed fairing, repositioning the CBX as a sport-tourer.

First, the engine was re-tuned for more mid-range, dropping the first-year’s 135mph top speed to an estimated 128mph. Suspension was beefed up with 39mm fork and aluminum swing arm connecting the three-way adjustable shock, and brakes featured ventilated discs. ComStar wheels were retained. Other touring features included hard bags to match the fairing, a lockable glove box, a toolkit and engine guards.

Did it work? Cycle Guide conducted a comparo with the R100RS. The CBX produced much more power, was considerably faster and offered fully adjustable suspension. But it was also 150 pounds heavier, and the fairing was less effective, introducing turbulence while buffeting the rider’s head. Likewise, the CBX’s heft and higher center of gravity made it more of a handful in spirited cornering. Their conclusion: the CBX was more suited to point-and-squirt highway touring, while the Beemer was better on the backroads. “… the Honda approaches sport-touring from an entirely different angle,” and compared to the R100RS, “does the job almost as well,” but, “The BMW is still The King.”

  • Published on Dec 1, 2020
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