Under the Radar
The Laverda 500 Zeta is a 500 twin rival to the Moto Guzzi V50 Monza.
Moto Guzzi V50 Monza
Years produced: 1980-1983
Claimed power: 48hp @ 7,500rpm
Top speed: 109mph (est.)
Engine type: 490cc OHV, air-cooled V-twin
Weight: 353lb (dry)
Price then: $3,249 (1981)
Price now: $2,500-$4,500
“If you were ready to buy a 500cc bike and you happened to stroll into a Moto Guzzi dealership while making the rounds through the local motorcycle shops, chances are you wouldn’t ride out on a Moto Guzzi V50 Monza. The Monza, you must understand, is simply not a mass-market machine for the casual or average buyer.” So wrote the editors at Cycle in their November 1981 issue. Ironically, the V50 Monza was supposed to be Moto Guzzi’s shot at mass marketing to the motorcycle enthusiast — a fact Cycle’s editors either didn’t appreciate or simply rejected.
As one of the top moto mags, however, it’s doubtful Cycle’s editors were unaware of Moto Guzzi boss Alejandro De Tomaso’s strong yen to drive the Japanese back to the sea. Or that he hoped his company’s little 490cc Moto Guzzi V50 Monza — and its even smaller brother, the 346cc V35 — would be the motorcycle to stem the tide of the Japanese invasion. More likely, they recognized his desire for what it was: wishful thinking.
The new Guzzi
When De Tomaso took control of Moto Guzzi in 1973 — with financial backing from the Italian government — it was a company in deep financial trouble. Although enthusiasts praised the Italian manufacturer for its fine line of big V-twins like the El Dorado and V7, Moto Guzzi was losing money steadily. To turn the tide, De Tomaso decided to take advantage of Guzzi’s expertise with air-cooled V-twins, expanding the theme and hence Guzzi’s market by moving into small-displacement bikes affordable to a larger population. Enter the V35 and V50.
Prototypes of the new small-bore V-twins, which featured horizontally split crankcases for easier machining (the big twin crankcases were one-piece affairs) and an oil filter that could be replaced without removing the oil pan, appeared in 1976. The first bikes started rolling off the assembly line at Guzzi’s Mandello del Lario factory in 1977, but production bottlenecks kept the new models from being exported until 1979, when production was moved to an old Innocenti car factory in Milan. Finally, volume production was possible, and Moto Guzzi started promoting its new little bikes.
Although the V50 was lauded by the European motorcycling press, it was basically ignored in the U.S., where the market was becoming saturated with increasingly sophisticated and technically proficient bikes from Japan. To help shine the spotlight on its little twin, Moto Guzzi introduced the upmarket Moto Guzzi V50 Monza. Larger carbs (28mm instead of 24mm), plus bigger valves and revised intake and exhaust manifolds, netted a few extra ponies over the earlier V50 (48hp versus 45hp), while new bodywork in the style of Guzzi’s much-lauded 850cc Le Mans positioned the Monza as a European pocket rocket, a term that would come into vogue in a few years with introduction of the Kawasaki GPz550.
The European motoring press loved both the standard V50 and the Monza, which received rave reviews for its handling, judged clearly superior to any of the Japanese competitors in its class. Importantly, that included Honda’s CX500, which the Monza was frequently compared to as both bikes were small-displacement, shaft-driven V-twins, although the Honda was water-cooled.
Cycle loved the bike’s handling, calling the Moto Guzzi V50 Monza “amazingly stable, inspiring rider confidence at high speeds in a straight line or through fast sweepers. The Guzzi tracks through corners as if it were laser-guided.” A low weight of 353 pounds (dry) — almost 90 pounds lighter than the CX500! — was a major factor in the bike’s good manners. And while the words “shaft drive” and “sportbike” are often considered mutually exclusive, testers reported the Guzzi’s system worked flawlessly, with barely a hint of the up-and-down movement often experienced with shaft-driven bikes as the rider rolls on and off the throttle.
Although the bike’s boy-racer riding position was deemed to limit its in-town appeal, it all came together out on the road. “The crouch doesn’t make sense until you start cruising at 70-plus speeds on deserted roads,” Cycle continued, “and then everything else suddenly begins to work together.”
To stop, the Moto Guzzi V50 Monza employed Guzzi’s patented linked-braking system: The brake pedal operates both the rear disc and the front left disc, with the front right disc operating off the handlebar lever, a scheme still used today on new Moto Guzzi’s, including the California Vintage. And aside from a very Italian, almost institutional lack of concern for switch gear ergonomics, quality and reliability were judged as Monza strong points. From 1981 on, ignition was by 12-volt coils and breaker points instead of the finicky Bosch electronic ignition used at first.
As it was, Guzzi’s small V-twin failed in its objective, at least in the U.S. While the new small block engines (layout aside, they shared no parts with the larger V-twins) ultimately begat a new series of Guzzi’s ranging from the V65 Lario to the recent Breva 750 and V7 Classic, in the U.S. market of the early 1980s they were too little, for too much: A 1981 list price of $3,249 insured that few beyond the Moto Guzzi faithful would opt for the little Monza. Curtis Harper at Harper’s Moto Guzzi says no more than 100 made it to U.S. dealers before it was dropped from the U.S. market.
Too bad, really, because the Monza’s a great little bike, with sharp looks, good performance and a bullet-proof engine. We can’t help but feel that if prices had been more in line with the competition from Japan we would have seen more of these Guzzis in dealer showrooms, making them easier to find today.
500 twin rivals to the Moto Guzzi V50 Monza:
Laverda 500 Zeta
- 44hp @ 9,000rpm / 100mph
- Air-cooled, 4-stroke DOHC parallel twin
- Dual discs front, single disc rear
- 387lb (wet)
- 35-45 MPG (period test)
- $2,500 - $4,500
If you think a Moto Guzzi V50 Monza is hard to find, just try and get your hands on a Laverda 500 Zeta. Marketed as the Alpino in Italy and Europe, Laverda’s 496.7cc parallel twin was a direct competitor to the V50. Equipped with a thoroughly modern mill featuring double-overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and a gear-driven counter balancer, Laverda’s 500 twin also had the misfortune of being hugely expensive: List price was a heady $2,995 at a time when $1,589 got you a new Yamaha XS500 twin, which was technically almost identical to the Zeta. Cycle Guide called the new-for-1978 Zeta “The world’s most expensive 500cc roadster.”
Endowed with superior handling to the Yamaha — or any other twin in its class for that matter — the Zeta’s high price killed it here almost as soon as it was born, and it’s thought no more than a handful made it to U.S. dealers. Pity.
Ducati 500 Sport Desmo
- 50hp @ 8,500rpm/ 115mph
- Air-cooled, 4-stroke SOHC parallel twin
- Dual discs front, single disc rear
- 407lb (dry)
- 50mpg (est.)
The Ducati 500 Sport Desmo is probably the best kept secret in Ducati history. And for good reason — it stank. Produced in small numbers in 1976-1983, the 500 Sport was supposed to be Ducati’s answer to bikes like the Moto Guzzi V50 Monza and Laverda 500 Zeta.
The package included a desmodromic valve, single-overhead cam parallel twin pumping out a claimed 50hp, boy-racer styling with sexy red and white graphics, and cast aluminum rims. Paioli forks and Marzocchi shocks promised good handling, with disc brakes front and rear bringing it all under control. Unfortunately, the Sport Desmo suffered from poor development and even poorer build quality, and Ducati pulled the plug on the model in 1983. Available in the U.S. for only two years, 1977 and 1983, only 50 Sport Desmos made their way to our shores, making it one of the rarest Ducatis ever sold here. MC