“Many riders, as in the past, have taken a standard motorcycle, maybe new, maybe old, and invested time, money and their ingenuity to produce a personal statement. A machine that — whatever its individual idiosyncrasies — immediately creates an impression of speed and purposefulness.”
Mike Clay’s words in his 1988 book Café Racers explain eloquently and concisely the reason why beautiful classic Italian motorcycles like the glimmering custom Moto Guzzi T3 Special in front of me exist at all. They’re called café racers because these bikes were and are used for short, sharp speed trips from one coffee bar to another.
Individuals like Paul Dunstall were the driving force of café racerdom in the 1960s, yet some factories felt compelled to produce their own café racers, and certain Ducati and Moto Guzzi models in particular, such as the Ducati 750 Sport and the Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, arguably redefined the genre.
Italian Day at the Ace
Suitably enough, I first came across James Cracknell’s Moto Guzzi T3 special on Italian Day at the fabled Ace Cafe. The parking lot was packed with Italian bikes of all makes, styles and ages, and there was some priceless machinery on show. When the silver Moto Guzzi café racer pulled up, its noise attracted as much attention as its good looks. The Guzzi stood out for all the right reasons and drew admiring looks and comments.
We later met up at the family-run garage near Bury where James, 39, works as a mechanic and also runs the motorcycle certification side of the business. A well-used Guzzi California 850 parked in one of the workshops gives me the idea that James’ special was born of an extension of a passion for the Italian V-twins. “I’ve had that Cali for 18 years,” confirms James, “and covered more than 50,000 miles on it. I really appreciate the simplicity of these Guzzis, and I like the chunky engine that is so over-engineered.”
The Guzzi bug bit hard and another bike was soon purchased. “A 1976 T3 came up for sale. It only had one owner from new, who’d crashed it at some point and replaced the frame, but didn’t manage to sort out the documents properly. He was returning to his native Australia but wasn’t allowed to take the bike, so I bought it cheaply. I put it in a shed for six years, then eventually decided to get it going,” James says.
The transformation begins
The difference between the bike that James purchased and what it looks like now could not be greater. The transformation from ratty tourer to lithe and fast sportster has been a process that has taken four years of patience and quite a bit of James’ hard-earned cash. The result is stunning, and a credit to James’ mechanical and engineering skills, and also his attention to detail. Why a café racer though? Aren’t Guzzis better at touring?
“It was a thought process that began with a friend who knew someone who had an alloy tank for a Guzzi. I’ve always loved how those two big Guzzi pots stick out from beneath the fuel tank, so I thought an alloy tank would be ideal, and the rest of the look followed from there,” James says. “I was also inspired by an old feature in a magazine that compared a Guzzi café racer with a Triton, and they came out at level pegging. The difference is, I can ride the Guzzi across Europe and not worry about it breaking down.”
James bought the tank from Roger Powell of Guzzi specialists Astico Moto. “The tank didn’t really fit properly, so I stuck it under the bed and got on with stripping the bike down in the meantime, as I knew I’d be best off having a rolling chassis to begin with,” James says. Roger also supplied a used but original Borrani rim for the front, and James bought a new 2.5 x 18in alloy Akront rear rim to enable him to fit at least a 130 tire instead of the 110 found standard. “This meant cutting out a small part of the swingarm to allow for the wider tire,” James says, “but it’s worth it for the improvement in handling and tire choice.” The hubs were blasted and powder coated, and the wheels were rebuilt with stainless spokes and nipples.
Luckily for James, the donor T3 was already wearing a set of 38mm Marzocchi forks, probably from a Ducati 860 or similar, as they’re far better than standard Guzzi forks. They still needed work, though, as the fork tubes were too long for the Guzzi’s low frame and had to be modified for this low-profile special. James also reprofiled the T3 top yoke, removing the ugly handlebar brackets and cutting off the lugs for the instruments. The frame was blasted clean and roughly primed as James knew he’d eventually have to have a dry run to check that everything fitted well.
James then turned his attention to the engine, which Roger was put in charge of. The standard T3 engine is 844cc, with small valves, 30mm Dell’Ortos and a heavy flywheel, which makes for a reliable but slowish lump.
Café corretto is, in Italy, an espresso taken in the morning with a shot of something stronger added in. When it came to the engine for his Guzzi, James also wanted something a bit stronger, and decided on a blueprinted engine based on a Guzzi Le Mans 950. Larger valves, plus competition springs and guides were fitted to the T3 heads, which were also treated to harder seats for unleaded use. They were also given the twin plug treatment to aid combustion. Inlet tracts were enlarged to suit 36mm Dell’Ortos. A lumpier than standard P3 cam, ideal for fast road riding, was fitted, along with 950 barrels and pistons.
The crankcases were machined out to accept the larger barrels, the bottoms of which were skimmed to raise compression. The T3 crank was found to be in excellent condition, as were the main bearings, so new shells were installed and the standard rods replaced. “The experts at Bassett Down balanced the whole lot. Roger replaced the crank for me and I built the rest,” James says. James purchased a new Le Mans flywheel, which is lighter than that of the T3, and fitted a later and lighter Guzzi clutch. A new timing chain and tensioner and advance/retard unit completed the build.
A café racer needs a fast engine but also needs to look right, and James’ Guzzi does — the lines of this bike are just perfect. “I wanted it to look right from the beginning, and in fact, most of the time has been spent on getting it right,” James says. “I spent a lot of time on the seat, as I didn’t see one ready made that would suit. I had to make some plywood formers, and then with the help of a friend I rolled the seat base in sheet aluminum. I wanted a Manx-style seat base, but it had to sit right on the rear frame tubes, which I didn’t want to cut off. After many hours of bending and shaping, I was happy, and cut the foam myself, then had it upholstered. I cut down the T3 mudguard by six inches. The front guard was something Roger had lying around.”
The side panels are in polished aluminium, shaped like the triangular toolboxes found on the Guzzi V7 Sport, and after having brackets made by James, fit perfectly.
It’s all in the details
James did all the polishing himself, and made a fine choice in having chrome parts stripped and then nickel plated, giving a shiny but not over the top finish to the bike. The swoopy, one-off exhaust system was made by ace restorer and fabricator Nick Paravani from photos of an Imola system found on a friend’s Guzzi. Rearsets are by Tarozzi, and the rear shocks are Konis, rebuilt completely with new seals by James.
As the end of this complete rebuild came into sight, James still had to rewire the Guzzi. Hinckley Triumph switchgear seems an appropriate choice, and no turn signals — in the pure café racer tradition — meant less to wire up. Newtronic electronic ignition was installed at first, but James reverted to coil and breaker points when the Newtronic failed.
The brakes were overhauled completely, but the Guzzi linked system that you either love or hate is retained. “I like it,” James says flatly. James’ attention to detail is incredible. The wiring is neatly held in place by stainless P-clips where required, and the chrome brackets that hold and guide the clutch cable are a great idea. “Harley accessories,” he admits. The clock brackets that James fashioned from aluminum plate are beautiful, and every grommet, screw, nut and bolt sits neatly and harmoniously with each other on this Guzzi. The net result of four years of work, long evenings and weekends is a very special motorcycle, one that’s truly a work of art.
On the road
Riding the Guzzi is a treat. I’m used to my own 750 Guzzi, but this special seems to have nothing much in common with my bike — in fact it’s more like sitting atop a Japanese 250 2-stroke than an air-cooled Italian V-twin. Throttle pickup is unbelievably quick and precise, and the momentum of the lighter flywheel James installed is far less intrusive than on a T3, allowing quick snicking through the gearbox. The light clutch helps matters, and the whole bike feels light and responsive.
The big sticky Bridgestone BT45 tire on the back of the Guzzi is fun, letting me throw the bike into bends with abandon, and the bigger forks really add to the surefootedness of the excellent frame and suspension combination.
On straights, I just have to wring the throttle and the Guzzi just pulls and pulls in any gear. The pit of torque seems bottomless, and it wants to be ridden hard. “It’ll probably do 125mph as it’s still on standard T3 cruiser gearing,” James says, “but when I go out with friends on their Japanese bikes, they still have to drop gears to keep up! The acceleration compared to my California is incredible, and that’s more fun than worrying about top speed.”
James is rightly very happy with the result of his labors, and seems almost surprised with the end product. “I wasn’t really sure how it would run, but it’s great; no glitches or flat spots. It’s really satisfying to ride something you built yourself, and the best bit of all the four years work was putting the ‘Moto Guzzi’ stickers onto the tank at the end. I love the way it all looks.” MC