The Tumultuous History and Heritage of Italian Motorcycle Brands
Since the early part of the 20th century, almost 60 Italian motorcycle manufacturers have produced everything from the wacky to the wonderful.
Those early Italian motorcycling pioneers were also highly talented and innovative. Take Moto Rumi for instance; the company was better known for making mini-submarines during WWII. Postwar years, however, saw them building the world’s fastest scooters.
The strangely shaped cast aluminum monocoque body, square headlights, and 14″ wheels gave them a slightly animated look, and model names like the Moto Rumi Junior Gentleman certainly didn’t help. A stripped down version of their 1957 production bike though, won the grueling Bold’Or 24-hour race an incredible three times between 1957-60.
Racing heritage is a main ingredient in the Italian motorcycle DNA, as can be seen from the top ten manufacturer wins at the legendary Isle of Man TT. Two Italian companies appear within those hallowed ranks, Aermacchi with 18 wins and MV Agusta with a staggering 34 Tourist Trophy victories.
Unfortunately, out of the many names from Italy’s illustrious biking past, only a handful remains. This article will, therefore, be taking a close at the Italian bikes that are still rocking the motorcycle world.
Famous Italian Motorcycle Brands: Ducati
The world famous Bologna-based company
first opened its doors in 1935, but the only wheels on their production line were attached to radios. The move to bikes came sometime later, but by 1950 they had produced more than 200k of their Cucciolos scooters.
The success of the 48cc runabout funded Ducati’s move into larger 4-stroke motorcycles. In 1960 they started a trend for building fast road bikes when the Ducati Mach1 became the fastest 250cc road bike on the market.
Arrival of the Ducati Desmos
Just over a decade later and the first large capacity V-twin to wear the Desmo badge guaranteed the company’s place in history.
The mid 90’s form a prominent part of Ducati’s motorcycle lineage, with the introduction of two groundbreaking models. The Galluzzi designed Monster and the equally stunning Tamburini 916.
Their most famous model to date, the Monster is still going strong, with a new one hand-built every 88 minutes. Today, the factory is enjoying yet another lease of life though, with the Scrambler series.
Famous Italian Motorcycle Brands: Moto Guzzi
Moto Guzzi holds the record for being Europe’s longest established motorcycle manufacturer in continuous production.
Started in 1921 by two Italian air force pilots and their mechanic, they had the skills between them to build, race and finance an entirely new motorcycle.
Unfortunately, Giovanni Ravelli died in a plane crash before they could build their dream bike. The two remaining friends used the winged eagle (the emblem of the Italian Air Force) as their tank badge to commemorate him.
Ironically, the air force mechanic who gave his name to the bike (Carlo Guzzi) never held any shares in the company, receiving instead, a royalty from every machine sold.
He did, however, design and build their first engine. The horizontal single, became very popular, sealing its success when British rider Stanley Woods won the Jnr and Snr TT in 1935. By the 1950’s the engine had been developed further and dominated Grand Prix racing, winning five consecutive world championships.
By the time Guzzi retired from competing, the factory had amassed a staggering 3,329 race wins. The man behind those early race bikes, Giulio Carcano, went on to design one of the most complex racing engines ever built, a DOHC 500cc V8 power plant. A motorcycle engine so fierce, Guzzi’s own factory racers refused to race it.
Over the years, Moto Guzzi has earned the bragging rights to many industry firsts, but the invention of swinging arm rear suspension in 1928 tops them all. Not only did it revolutionize motorcycle comfort and safety, but also allowed the entire motorcycle industry to evolve.
Today, the new generation of Moto Guzzi’s such as the Audace, Eldorado and V7 range, still appeal to those riders who appreciate quality craftsmanship. It is this certain something that epitomizes Italian motorcycles.
Famous Italian Motorcycle Brands: MV Agusta
Another member of the Italian motorcycle aristocracy, but in MV Agusta’s case the aristocratic link is the real deal. Started by Count Giovanni Agusta in 1923 as an aircraft company, upon his death in 1927, the business was continued by eldest son Vincenzo right up to WWII.
After the war demand for their aeronautical engineering facilities backed off and to keep his workforce employed, the Count moved them into motorcycle production.
In 1948, their first full production motorcycle, a 125cc two-stroke machine was launched and immediately entered into the Italian Grand Prix.
MV Agusta won the race in their very first outing and became a recognized name on the starting grids of Europe’s race circuits. They continued to make an outstanding name for themselves as a manufacturer whose production motorcycles benefited from the hard-won lessons of the racetrack.
First TT win
Their first IOM TT win came in 1952 followed by a world championship title in the same year. Starting in the late 1950’s, the company’s racing efforts clocked-up 17 consecutive world championships in the 500cc class.
During this time, the Count’s ultra-competitive nature saw him hiring some of the most well-known motorcycle racers in history. Legends such as John Surtees, Phil Read, Mike Hailwood and perhaps their most famous works rider, Giacomo Agostini, all helped MV Agusta dominate the sport.
The death of Count Domenico Agusta in ‘71 marked the beginning of the end for the famous company. The driving force behind MV Agusta gone, the company began to lose focus and amass huge debts. The emergence of a financial rescue package came as a welcome relief but came with the understanding that MV Agusta stopped making bikes. The last motorcycle, whose lineage traces back to the company’s start, was sold in 1980.
The next two decades read like an Italian soap opera. In 1990, the MV Agusta brand was taken over by Cagiva, who launched the highly acclaimed 750cc 4-cylinder F4 range. Producing high-price high-spec bikes in comparatively small runs, Cagiva ticked over with a number of different models including the naked 910cc Brutale.
Competing with Ducati’s high-end super sports models, but never getting close to their sales popularity, the following years saw MV rack up more debt. Despite restructuring attempts, Cagiva sold the company to Malaysian firm, Proton, who in turn sold it to Italian financiers, GEVI Spa.
Bought by Harley Davidson
In 2008 Harley- Davidson threw its hat into the ring acquiring the company for $108m, only to sell it on exactly one year later to Claudio Castiglioni, former MV Agusta President. To pump in some extra cash, Castiglioni then sold 25% of the company to Mercedes, but the specter of debt loomed once more. To attract yet another refinancing deal, Castiglioni bought back Mercedes 25%.
Today, the company continues to fly the flag for the motorcycle with the majestic family tree, offering no less than nine models, how long for though, is anyone’s guess.
Italian motorcycles have always had a distinct flavor. They can be challenging to live with and maintenance heavy, but what they offer in return is a riding experience that it is impossible to duplicate.
Unfortunately, the fate of some Italian motorcycle brands may still hang in the balance. One thing for sure though, is the world of motorcycling would be a duller place without them.