1983 861 Magni MV Agusta
Claimed power: 95hp @ 10,000rpm (est.)
Engine: 861cc DOHC, air-cooled inline four
Weight (dry): 440lbs (200kg)
Fuel capacity: 6.35gal
Just listening to Shane Chalke’s 1983 861 Magni MV Agusta warming up as he blips the throttle sends the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. As he rolls up to greet us, the sound of the Magni’s engine shatters the quiet of his rural Virginia home with the most raucous, feral, mechanical shriek I can remember. For once in my life, I’m rendered speechless.
Standing next to Motorcycle Classics editor Richard Backus, I notice we are gazing at each other with identical dumb, slack-jawed grins that communicate the mutual realization that we are sharing a motorcycle lifetime high.
Shane continues blipping the throttle to get the 861 Magni MV Agusta up to temperature, and as he does my mind transports me back to the vintage festival at the Barber Motorsports Museum in Alabama in 2006, when I had my first real taste of the legendary MV Agusta sound. At that memorable event, Backus and I met "Sir" John Surtees, uniquely famous for being the only man ever to win world championships on both two wheels and four. At Barber we watched Surtees, now 73 but still competent as ever on the track, making parade laps on his MV Agusta race bike, one of the very bikes he rode to a world championship in the late 1950s.
As intense as that experience was, watching a legend in motion, and watching and listening as they warmed up his equally legendary bike in the pit area, I have to say Shane’s 861 Magni MV Agusta sounds better to me.
Snarling through its four individual, handmade Magni GP one-piece exhaust pipes on idle, then winding up to a phenomenal crescendo as Shane roars off down his driveway, the 861 Magni MV Agusta has risen to number one on my chart of best motorcycle sounds, knocking off any bevel-drive Ducati with Conti pipes and Dell’Orto carburetors and even my old beloved three-cylinder Laverda: Shane should be selling audio CDs of this intoxicating Italian stallion making hot laps on the racetrack.
The Magni experience
Getting a chance to see one of these hand-built 861 Magni MV Agusta motorcycles is one of the highlights of my 30 years on two wheels, and hearing it is more of the same — but readying myself to actually ride it is close to overwhelming.
I have ridden more expensive motorcycles, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the Magni MV Agusta is the prize of Shane’s personal collection. One of only a handful built, it is so rare, so valuable the thought of even scratching it has me quaking in my bike boots. Especially when the venue is West Virginia’s Summit Point Raceway, a track I have never seen, and one that seems to have far too many concrete barriers for my tender disposition.
Once in the saddle, however, there is a certain level of "business as usual" to help calm my frayed nerves. But pulling in the somewhat heavy clutch (a modified unit made by Magni) and hitting the starter button signals the ride is about to begin, and I feel my anxiety rising again.
Discretion and valor
Gently rolling on the throttle to get a feel for how quickly the engine revs and how far I need to twist it, I make a point of filling my lungs with air a couple of times. Next, it’s clutch in and right toe under the shift lever in preparation to lift it into first gear. Pausing for a moment to work the clutch lever in and out a few times to fully appreciate the rasping noise coming from the dry clutch, I’m aware Shane is watching and I get back to business.
The thought of having to shift upside down on the right isn’t adding much comfort, as I ease out the clutch and gently apply some throttle. I’m immediately greeted by a sound from the dry clutch like a chain jumping off its sprockets. My heartbeat passes redline as I let the clutch fully out while picking up the throttle.
I’m instantly transported to a mechanical wonderland as the liquid smooth, inline four-cylinder engine propels me forward with an eager rush, the accompanying mechanical symphony rising with my conductor’s throttle hand puts me in the perfect motorcycle moment. Watching the Veglia tachometer needle rising and falling in time with the accompanying sound track, I’m extremely happy to have a tinted visor on my Arai, so no one can see my stupid grin.
Shane had alerted us of a jetting problem that is causing the Magni MV Agusta to stutter around 6,000rpm, and I’m happy to use this as the rev limiter for fear of hurting this rare, exotic engine. Rolling around the challenging Summit Point circuit, the Magni feels very spacious, conflicting with my thoughts that the bike would have a restricted racing crouch. While the pegs are high, when combined with the long reach to the clip-on handlebars the bike has more of a sport-touring feel.
After coming close to tossing Shane’s Ducati 900SS a few laps earlier (due to over-inflated tires and not my incompetence, for a change), for the first couple of laps on the Magni I’m locked somewhere between solid fear and child-like wonder. Celebrating the glorious noise the bike makes when letting off the throttle, every single gear change is the stuff gear heads dream of when they are tucked up in bed at night.
Picking up speed down the long back straight, the bike tracks true through the fast left-hander, and I’m almost starting to feel comfortable. Cancel that thought. Hauling on the anchors, the Brembo GP2 calipers do a good job of clamping onto the full-floating rotors. Unfortunately, the Forcella 40mm forks need more pre-load to limit the dive. The rebound needs to be slowed also, to stop the wheel from jumping back at me as I come off the brakes to turn in. Thankfully, I didn’t try running it into the apex before braking, so this happens in a straight line, but it’s definitely not the sort of moment you want to be having on a bike like the Magni.
This area of the track also gives me a lesson in close-ratio gearboxes, as I blip the throttle and lift up on the gear lever to drop down into fourth, instantly chirping the rear tire and flicking the bike a tad sideways. I quickly pull in the clutch and make a mental note to lose more speed before attempting this maneuver again.
With this in mind, I begin entering the higher speed turns on the brakes, waiting to down shift until I have scrubbed off the correct amount of speed. Compared to modern bikes with slipper clutches that take the bite out of downshifting, it definitely takes some mental re-programming, and only adds to the degree of difficulty I experience hustling Shane’s pride and joy around the track.
The thunder rolls
As the laps tick by, the sky grows darker and more ominous by the second, occasionally interrupted by lightning forking through the murky blackness. Not wanting to end the day in tragedy, I maintain my steady pace while absorbing every sound and experience the Magni is throwing at me. Running under the bridge, I let the engine pull through its mid-rpm flat spot and find myself screaming in my helmet as the bike really begins to pull hard. Noticing Backus crouched by the track with his camera in hand, I wonder if he can hear me over the Magni’s pipes.
Streaking through the fast right hander on full noise, before standing the bike up and getting hard on the brakes for the tight left hander at the top of the hill, I get my knee out early and my body weight shifted to the inside. Clicking down perfectly through the gears, it’s time to muscle it back to the right through the slow section before flicking into the downhill left.
Hitting the exit, hanging way off and rolling on the throttle, the Magni holds a tight line without stress or drama as we shriek through the fast left and back toward the long straight. Tucked in, clicking up the gears with the inline four wailing its soulful howl beneath me, I know as I accelerate down the straight that few two-wheeled experiences will ever come close to the magic of this one.
And then the rain comes. Noticing a few raindrops smeared across my visor, I instantly roll off, sit up and tip-toe back to the pits before the storm hits.
Grinning from ear to ear, I can see my excitement reflected in the faces of Shane, his friend Aaron and Backus. I have not only just been privileged to ride the last 861 Magni MV Agusta built (it was constructed in 1993), but lucky enough to ride it as Arturo Magni had intended, with the bike performing admirably and not giving a single complaint at my sloppy riding skills.
We at Motorcycle Classics owe a sincere debt of gratitude to Shane Chalke for not keeping this rare exotic in a climate-controlled showroom, and for regularly stretching its legs on the racetrack. It was an honor and a highlight of my riding career — one that I am happy to have shared with editor Backus, and one the pair of us will talk about for years to come. MC
• Arturo Magni