To visit the official MV Agusta museum, you don’t head towards this famous motorcycle manufacturer’s current factory in Varese, Italy. After you get off the plane at Milan’s Malpensa airport, you only need to travel a few miles east to the town of Cascina Costa di Samarate.
There an elegant estate hosts a range of significant and rare MV Agustas that shares space with the business that financed the racing and bike building, Agusta helicopters.
With more than 3,000 international race wins, 38 world rider’s titles and 37 manufacturer’s championships, MV Agusta was a powerhouse of Grand Prix racing for three decades.
Unlike its rivals from across Europe and Japan, MV existed primarily to go racing. It regarded the production of road motorcycles a distraction.
It could do this because Count Domenico Agusta ran MV like a personal fiefdom. He employed the best riders and technicians to satisfy his every racing whim, his adventures underwritten by the family’s worldwide helicopter business.
A walk through this museum is a journey through the life and times of a visionary obsessed with speed and flight, aerodynamics and cutting-edge technology. A man who was able to surround himself with the best technicians and who had the money to hire the world’s greatest racers.
Count Agusta started the racing program in 1946 with a 98cc 2-stroke. MV quickly moved on to 4-strokes and in 1950 revealed its first 4-cylinder Grand Prix racer.
Setting a pattern that would last until its final GP at the end of 1976, MV initially enticed top engineers Arturo Magni and Piero Remor from Gilera to develop both the 4-cylinder 500 and a 125cc DOHC single. Count Agusta then hired the first 500cc world champion, 1949 season winner Les Graham.
The Englishman finished runner-up to Gilera in 1952, while fellow Englishman Cecil Sandford gave MV its first GP win and inaugural world championship in the 125cc class.
The fragility of life in Grand Prix racing was brought home starkly to the Count when Graham crashed fatally at next year’s Isle of Man TT. Then his successor, Rhodesian Ray Amm, died after a crash at Imola in his first race for MV.
Another Englishman, rising star John Surtess, came on board in 1956 and a golden period began. Surtees delivered MV its first 500cc title (and manufacturer’s championship) while Carlo Ubbiali became double world champion in the 125cc and 250cc classes.
That year MV poured incredible resources into its racing effort, developing four-, twin- and single-cylinder versions for the 350cc class, experimenting with fuel injection and monocoque frame technology as well as building a prototype 6-cylinder 500 for the 1957 season.
When MV’s main rivals, Gilera, Mondial and Moto Guzzi, abandoned GP racing in 1958, MV made a clean sweep of the titles, with Surtees achieving the 350cc/500cc double.
MV was unbeaten in all GP classes until Honda came along in the early 1960s.
Count Agusta responded by concentrating his efforts on the 500cc classes, with Mike Hailwood and then Giacomo Agostini dominating the 1960s with year-on-year championship wins. Ago also won six 350cc world titles in a row for MV from 1968 as the factory evolved several versions for this class, including a 6-cylinder.
Pushing on until the end
By the early 1970s MV’s main 500cc weapon, a highly-developed 3-cylinder, seemed invincible. But it was about to be swamped by a tidal wave of Japanese 2-strokes. Count Agusta died suddenly of a heart attack in 1971, but the MV technicians soldiered on.
Multiple world champion Phil Read gave MV another two titles in 1973 and 1974 while engineers pushed the envelope of 4-stroke design and aerodynamics. They even built and tested a 4-cylinder 500cc with frontal wings on its fairing.
Ago returned in 1976 from his Yamaha 2-stroke adventures (1974 350cc world title/1975 500cc title) for one last tilt with MV. The 15-time world champion signed off his career at the season’s final round at Germany’s Nurburgring, winning his last GP and making MV’s final victory the last for a 500cc Grand Prix 4-stroke.
If the story of MV Agusta really is a case of truth being stranger than fiction, so is the story of the museum. Back in the 1980s Team Obsolete acquired much of the MV Agusta racing team. At the same time the Elly collection was established and eventually prominent racers in this stable were demonstrated by their original riders, including Ago.
Like the official MV Agusta museum, most of the Elly collection is made up of machines gifted to mechanics by the factory. There are known to be other significant collections in existence, including one involving 90 models dating from 1945 that was auctioned off in Paris in early 2019. The highest price at that auction was $108,800 for an ex-Arturo Merzario 1972 MV Agusta 750S.
Meanwhile, the new owner of MV Agusta, Russian investor Timur Sardarov, has said he is going to build his own museum through buying or loaning landmark race bikes from existing collections. Until then, we hope you enjoy the highlights of the museum at Cascina Costa di Samarate on these pages. MC
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