In our back to the future world, everything old looks new again. Cool bikes from the past are hot, and retro has become the new “new.”
Some credit must go to Honda for their recasting of the classic British racing single with the 1989 Honda GB500. Triumph and Kawasaki picked up the theme with their retakes on the traditional British twin (Bonneville T100 and W650, respectively), and Ducati upped the ante with their Sport Classics. In Europe, Honda aped their iconic CB750 with the CB1100, and Guzzi’s flashback V7 Classics and Racers have recently been flying out of showrooms. All of this is well and good: The classic bikes of our misspent youths are re-created so another generation can enjoy them. Inevitably, though, these reprised rides lack what we misty-eyed geezer bikers are wont to call “character.” With fuel injection, liquid cooling, solid-state electrics, precision steering and suspension, the intimacy between man and machine has waned, the relationship more distant. The starting rituals, unplanned roadside maintenance and mysterious malfunctions are mostly a thing of the past. Some would applaud that. Motorcycles were ornery back then: Now, most have as much character as a dishwasher. So what if you could take a classic motorcycle, and without changing its soul, bring its reliability and functionality fully up to date — retaining its essential character while consigning any orneriness to the trash can?
That’s essentially what dedicated Guzzista George Dockray has done for the Mandello maker’s first V-twin, the 1967 model Moto Guzzi V700.
Moto Guzzi’s 700cc V-twin (actually 704cc) traces its roots to the Mulo Meccanico, a three-wheeled, three-wheel-drive military vehicle designed to go just about anywhere. The rear wheels could be fitted with short tank tracks for extra grip, and the powered front wheel could literally almost climb walls. Guzzi’s Giulio Cesare Carcano designed the Mulo and its engine — an air-cooled 90-degree V-twin with overhead valves.
In spite of its rather industrial appearance, the engine found a ready home in Carcano’s next project. A touring motorcycle, it would be the largest capacity motorcycle Guzzi had ever built, all its previous road machines having been singles. Yet a growing awareness of the huge market for big bikes in the U.S. was leading several Italian companies like Laverda, MV Agusta and Ducati to build bikes in the 700cc-plus category.
One of the attractions in the U.S. was the huge market for police motorcycles, as anti-trust laws required police forces to garner bids from more than one supplier. It was in seeking to exploit this opportunity that Berliner Motor Corporation sponsored Ducati to build the then-outrageous 1,200cc V4 Apollo in 1961. (At that time, all proposals had to have an engine capacity of at least 1,200cc, roughly matching the 74-cubic-inch engine size of the Harley FL, then the enforcement branches’ mainstay.)
Whether brothers Joseph and Michael Berliner similarly influenced Guzzi’s management to build the V7 or whether they simply recognized the potential of the big bike (the more likely reality) is moot. Whichever way it happened, the police versions of the 750cc Ambassador of 1970 and the 1972 850 Eldorado sold to U.S. police forces at a rate of up to 5,000 a year.
To create the V7, Carcano mated the Mulo engine to a 4-speed transmission through a dry single-plate, engine-speed clutch with final drive by a shaft that made up one fork of the swingarm rear suspension. The powertrain slotted into what has since become known as the “loop frame,” a dual-downtube structure that cradled the big twin, its lower tubes running alongside the oil pan. Electric power was provided by a car-style alternator sitting between the cylinders and driven from the crankshaft by a belt. Spoked wheels with drum brakes completed the specification. The V7’s styling was certainly intended to satisfy American tastes, with deeply valanced fenders, crash bars and a handsome, cast-alloy speedometer housing. With 50 horsepower and a dry weight of 500 pounds, it was comfortably inside the performance envelope of its U.S. competition, and sold well. As Guzzi aficionados’ T-shirts proclaimed, it was a V-twin “done right.”
“I was attracted to the loop frame bikes because they had this very stolid kind of look,” says George Dockray, the owner/builder of our feature bike. “And I really liked the very first model, the Moto Guzzi V700 with the red paint scheme. It was a little different from the later models. I thought it would be fun, but being the first model, they had a lot of things that didn’t work so well.”
What made the project possible and facilitated the upgrading process that George undertook was the commonality and interchangeability of Guzzi V-twin parts. “They took the same basic rig — engines, frames, gearboxes — and made it into all kinds of multi-role machines, from a cop bike to a road racer with basically the same platform,” George says. “The engines didn’t really change that much, so you could make a much nicer motorcycle out of what would look almost indistinguishable from the original 1967.” For example, it’s easy enough, George says, to take any later round-barrel engine with a 5-speed transmission and drop it into the earlier loop frame. Similarly, the front engine cover from the earlier external-alternator bikes will bolt straight on to an engine from one of the later Lino Tonti-framed bikes, like an 850T, Le Mans or 1000SP.
George’s project inevitably started with a loop frame. All the loop frame bikes used a similar chassis, and George assumes his, first registered in 1973, came from a police Eldorado. “I had to saw off the siren bracket that used to be on it,” he says.
After lengthy searches on eBay and help from author and Guzzi guru Greg Field, George was finally able to track down the necessary parts to assemble a complete bike.
Among the items George particularly wanted to update were the front fork and front brake. The original fork used a single-acting damper rod, which was pretty crude in operation, but some machining of the internals allowed fitment of a cartridge damper unit from a California-series Guzzi. He also modified the fork legs by welding on lugs to locate the locking plate from a Guzzi double-sided, twin-leading-shoe brake. That welding led to distortion of the legs, which meant more work, but it was worth it: George describes the original Moto Guzzi V700 brake as “horrible,” while the four-leading-shoe unit works much better. Thanks to the improved suspension, the difference in the ride compared with other loop frame Guzzis is “like night and day,” George says.
The engine in George’s bike originally powered a 1000 Convert, Guzzi’s “automatic” transmission cruiser. The engine has been upgraded with a Megacycle cam and now breathes through 36mm Dell’Orto pumper carbs, but uses stock size Black Diamond valves fitted with lash caps for long-term durability. George used the earlier single-breaker distributor, which again was an easy “mix ‘n match.” An oil sump extension increases oil capacity to help carry away heat.
The engine drives through a stock 5-speed Guzzi clutch and geartrain (from a California II) to a V7-type shaft drive, but the U-joints and carrier bearings have been upgraded to the spec used on later disc-brake bikes. George wanted to use the “pumpkin” rear axle casing from an Ambassador, but the Ambassador’s gearing was too low. Once more, interchangeability of Guzzi parts meant George was able to use the pumpkin housing he wanted, but with a later helical gear set for a higher final drive ratio.
The electrical system was upgraded with a Nippon Denso alternator intended for a forklift, while George used his skills as an aircraft mechanic to craft a new wiring harness using period cloth-wrapped wire from Rhode Island Wiring Service. And instead of taping or shrink-wrapping, cables are laced together using waxed linen cord. Fuses are eschewed, with power distribution and circuit protection handled by a MotoGadget M-Unit circuit monitor and electronic breaker. If a short occurs in any circuit, the M-Unit senses the problem, tries to reset the circuit, and if the problem persists, leaves the circuit open, triggering a warning light on the dash.
George’s biggest challenge here was retaining the original switchgear while meeting the circuit requirements of the M-Unit. “Under the tank there’s a whole rack of relays just to accommodate these switches,” George says. The M-Unit also incorporates an immobilizer and alarm, taillight modulator, adjustable fade-in/fade-out for the turn signals, and a host of other features.
George didn’t have to worry about any corrosion issues with a rusty old steel gas tank; he was lucky enough to find a new-old-stock Moto Guzzi V700 chrome tank on eBay. The leg shields were standard equipment on police and military bikes, and were also available as a factory accessory for civilian customers. In George’s case the crash bars, leg shields and footpegs with mounting brackets came from Greg Field. Pretty much everything else is stock Guzzi — and the Hella bar-end turn signals complete the period look.
The Loop Frame Project bike is George’s third custom Moto Guzzi, the two previous machines being café racers (read Custom Moto Guzzi Café Racer). So this time, the emphasis was on streetability.
“It has way more power than a stock Guzzi, and it has wonderful low-speed handling,” George says, adding that even though the Megacycle cam is pretty lumpy, “the performance is pretty docile. You can be real lazy with it, you can just putt around, even with the 36mm carburetors. And if you’re on the highway and want to pass a couple of motor homes, just grab a handful … ”
George also points to the bike’s superior ride, due at least in part to the Ikon rear shocks he fitted, which he prefers to shocks he’s used on past project bikes. Handling and braking are also first class, George says. “It’s very stable. And you won’t outride the tires before you start dragging all manner of stuff. The first thing that hits ground is the centerstand.”
The four-leading-shoe front brake also works well. George wanted to retain a drum brake, even though the Eldorado gained a disc during its production run. The drum certainly complements the period look. “It’ll stop you pretty damn fast. But you really have to really pull on it,” George says.
The finished Moto Guzzi V700 project draws stares of admiration everywhere it goes, and it fools even dedicated Guzzisti — at least for a few seconds, until they spot the brakes, alloy rims and modern performance tires. Then the looks of astonishment turn to admiration, and George knows he’s accomplished exactly what he set out to do. MC
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