1979 Moto Guzzi: An Italian Motorcycle That’s California Cool

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James Adam Bolton was first impressed by the Moto Guzzi California T3 in 1988. The California became Moto Guzzi's best-selling model.
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The Guzzi roars into life easily via the start switch on the right handlebar, current flowing from the big car-type battery to the car-type starter.
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This particular T3 was constructed sometime in 1979, midway through the model’s 1975-1982 production run.
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The 850cc 90-degree V-twin engine sits low across the Tonti frame.
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Aluminum for the alternator cover, fork legs, and clutch and brake levers all give the California a high-quality flash.
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Old school quality is everywhere on this bike.
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Beautiful; competent and capable; the California is among the greatest long-legged touring bikes ever made — in Italy or anywhere else.
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Polished valve covers are a nice touch.

Moto Guzzi T3 California
Claimed power: 59 hp @ 6,800 rpm
Top speed: 100 mph
Engine: 844 cc air-cooled OHV 90-degree V-twin
Weight (wet): 540 lb. (245 kg)
Fuel Capacity/MPG: 6.34 gal. (24 ltr)
Price then/now: $3,250 (est.)/$5,500 – $8,500

It was back in 1988, on the streets of South Philly, that the Moto Guzzi T3 California first made a big impression on me. It was big, with loads of presence and dripping in style, and it had an exhaust note that caught your ear and made you turn and notice the nonchalant rider in black Ray-Bans and an open-face helmet.

I was then a 20-year-old Londoner, in the U.S. for the first time, playing guitar in a band and looking out for ’57 Chevys, ’53 Caddys and H-D Knuckleheads — not Italian motorcycles from Mandello del Lario, a place I’d never heard of.

When I got home, my brother bought one. It was his first big bike before a serious Harley passion kicked in. I was so envious. He lent it to me for a week, and I racked up 1,000 miles just cruising around London — I felt like the king of the road. He sold it, but I was determined to own one some day. The T3 California was just cool; I was smitten.

An Italian motorcycle gets a police bike’s modification

What makes the original Moto Guzzi California so special is that it wasn’t designed to be a show pony, but a hard-working utilitarian motorcycle. In fact, looks were probably the last thing on Sergeant Scotty Henderson’s mind as he watched over workers at the Guzzi factory at Mandello in late 1968. Sent over by the L.A.P.D. Traffic Enforcement Division, Henderson supervised the building of 10 special 750cc V7 Police bikes, commissioned after two 700cc machines (with involvement of U.S. Guzzi importers Berliner Motor Corporation) had been tested by police top brass  in Los Angeles earlier in the year.

The handling and ruggedness of the V7s, along with their ease of maintenance, had impressed. Moto Guzzi was eager to impress even more. “At Mandello, I was given carte blanche for ideas on how to make the motorcycle,” Henderson later commented. “They literally designed a bike right before my eyes.” Henderson oversaw L.A.P.D.-required modifications, including the sprung sidestand that could be operated from the solo saddle, the famous footboards, a left foot gearshift and a windshield in bulletproof Lexan, all added to a machine that already featured extra lights, a siren and a radio.

A standing quarter mile in 16 seconds with full police dress had to be achieved. The Guzzi did it in 14.3. Once approved and in service in L.A., the Guzzis quickly became favorites with younger officers, who found the “Goose” agile compared to its Harley rival. Orders from other police departments followed, including the California Highway Patrol. “California” would eventually define this big Guzzi, the name appearing on a civilian version 750, then on the 850cc “Police Special” version. It was like a Harley, but wasn’t a Harley. With a big black and white solo seat, screen, bags and footboards, the California “look” was established.

Our T3 California — an original with a few add-ons

The very clean 1979 T3 California shown here is in exceptionally original condition with just a few additions. Based on the T3 introduced in 1975, the T3 California retains the distinctive black and white paint and saddle scheme, footboards, hard bags and barn door-sized windscreen of the earlier Californias. Thanks to Guzzi engineer Lino Tonti’s super-stable and intelligently constructed frame (designed for the V7 Sport and adopted for the 850 T in 1974), the T3 California squats visibly lower than its earlier relatives.

This particular T3 was constructed sometime in 1979, midway through the model’s 1975-1982 production run. Apparently a “crossover” bike, it features the beautiful Borrani wheels fitted to earlier T3 Californias rather than the cast wheels introduced in 1979, and the later clocks, switchgear and “cigarette pack” hard bags (the lids open like a hard pack of cigarettes).

The so-called “buddy” seat with its big chrome grab rail is aptly named — perfect and comfy for one, but your passenger should either be a close friend or very petite for you to avoid riding with your knees cooking on the rocker covers, hence the handy knee guards. The big front disc brakes really stand out, solving the braking weaknesses of the earlier V7 models, especially as there’s a third rear disc, and all boast Brembo calipers. Sistema Frenante Integrale it says in Italian on the worn decal on the tank, reminding you of the California’s linked braking system that applies the left front and rear discs when using the foot-operated brake pedal, the hand-operated lever actuating only the right front disc. Revolutionary stuff for 1975.

The 850cc 90-degree V-twin engine sits low across the Tonti frame, its chrome exhaust system curving back to form two straight lines that tuck neatly under the hard bags. The buckhorn handlebar, twin horns, mirrors, headlamp brackets and rim, brake and shift pedals are all dripping in chrome, and the use of stainless steel for both fenders and aluminum for the alternator cover, fork legs, and clutch and brake levers all give the California a high-quality flash. Copious use of Allen bolts means practicality for the owner. Need to balance the 30mm VHB Dell’Orto carbs or adjust the tappets? Maybe strip down the heads and barrels? It’s all there in front of you — Guzzi accessibility is not only legendary, but damn useful, too. Replacing the oil filter can be a pain (it’s mounted in the oil pan), but even that’s easy.

Touring on a Moto Guzzi T3 California

Although the California is a big bike, there’s no problem getting both feet firmly on the ground, and with the key ignition between the clocks on, and the choke lever mounted on the left rocker cover open, the Guzzi roars into life easily via the start switch on the right handlebar, current flowing from the big car-type battery to the car-type starter.

If you haven’t ridden a California before, it might take a while to get used to putting your feet on the footboards and locating where best to position your left foot to operate the heel-and-toe shift lever, but it comes quickly. I’m used to it, and snick the Cali into first with a Guzzi-typical positive clunk. The clutch is light as a feather — if the cable is routed correctly and lubricated well, as it is on this bike. Choke off, and with a slight lurch, the Cali accelerates away. It’s no red-light dragster, and changing across the big gap between first and second gear requires patience, but once up into third the engine’s healthy torque comes into play, and it’s easy to use third up to fifth gear and back down again, depending on what kind of road you’re enjoying.

It’s fun to sit back and enjoy the California concept, and I’m reminded of an early 1970s Cycle World description of the earlier V7 Ambassador Police Special that went, “If the Roman Gods rode motorcycles, the Moto Guzzi would be the choice of Bacchus. It reeks of luxurious plenty; a genuine ultra-bike.” Seventies spouting, maybe, but spot-on when also applied to the T3 California — there is something about the handlebar/seat/footboard combination that gives you an imperious feeling of satisfaction and comfort. Combine that with a chassis that gives confidence, brakes that work and an engine that feels simply unburstable, and you can appreciate why the young guns in the California Highway Patrol liked it so much.

The Guzzi’s natural pace is to sit in fifth gear and cruise at between 70 and 80mph, with the torquey V-twin spinning lazily at around 5,000rpm. The big screen is pretty efficient at keeping most of the windblast off. The linked brakes work very well, and dabbing on the brake pedal slows the California quickly, though on slower roads engine braking and a finger on the front brake (i.e., right disc) has the same effect. The 35mm forks are adequate for a motorcycle of this age, though Konis have replaced the original rear shocks on this bike, so suspension is good. A California in touring mode, loaded with a passenger, boxes full and a tank bag, is a stable and safe ride.

Yet point the Guzzi toward mixed roads with plenty of long, fast or tighter bends, and it’ll perform just as well. Handling is excellent, and the hinged footboards mean you have plenty of ground clearance in tighter bends. It’s just such fun to ride, using the big bars to haul it easily from left to right, barely bothering to shift from third and fourth to spin the lazy, elastic engine to pull out of corners. Its sprightliness completely belies its 580-pound weight. The low bass sound from the seamed Lafranconi mufflers is addictive, especially on the overrun or through tunnels, preferably the ones passing under the Alps and into Italy …

If you like the looks, the T3 California is an involving and endearing motorcycle to ride, and to own. I eventually bought my own seven years ago. It needed a lot of work, but it’s become a keeper. I love to sit on that comfy seat, toes poking off the edge of the footboards, and cruise. As a practical classic they’re hard to beat for all-around usability, and rising prices for bikes and original spares over the last couple of years suggest that many agree. That the California model, developed 40 years ago by police from California in Mandello del Lario, Italy, has remained the best selling model from Moto Guzzi is no real surprise — a fact confirmed by the recent launch of the latest in the line, the 1400 California. It has much to live up to. MC

Learn about an updated version of the T3 California in California Cool Makes a Comeback: 2013 Moto Guzzi California 1400.

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