Thirty Years Later

The Stones sang ‘Time waits for no one’ in 1974 and I hummed it mindlessly then. Moving past adolescence, new interests were developing in a rush to catch my older brothers. Pop’s half of the DNA offered no choice in becoming a gearhead, and that proliferation was nurtured by a house full of them. Knowing life is for learning, a deep appreciation was gained for those with the talent to make the difficult easy to understand ... (continued)

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Rickman Kasasaki Z1000 CRE

Along with independents like Harris, Seeley, Italy's Bimota and Fritz Egli in Switzerland, Britain’s Don and Derek Rickman changed the game in the 1970s by doing what the big factories couldn’t. Reminded again that necessity is the mother of invention, Japan’s engine overcompensation resulted in the creation of an industry that pulled chassis technology even to produce the era’s finest sporting motorcycles…(read more)


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Thirty Years Later

My passion for Moto Guzzi was fused in the showroom of our local dealership, well after the V700 loop frame I bought as a teenager had been sold. It was late 1980 when I entered and saw the made-for-the-US CX-100 Le Mans; raised on a cloth-covered mantle and illuminated by floor lights. Devastation followed and Moto Guzzi invaded my senses, but it wasn’t until A Flock of Seagulls ruled the airwaves that I sought a second chance at the only Guzzi dealer left in Arizona. Pressing Steve at Renaissance Motors for info, I wanted him to tell me that the black over white Le Mans 850III I'd put a deposit on was the real deal. “Look,” Steve said in a tone that made me believe he was on the level, “It’ll be even better in ten or fifteen years if you take care of it. These aren’t like other bikes. They either become part of you or they’re sold for something easier to own.” A dear friend for years, Steve probably wishes it wasn’t quite so good, so I’ll polish this part off by saying the 850 was passed up in favor of the larger, faster and (thanks exchange rate!) cheaper 949cc version pictured here. That was the first Friday in December, 1985. Now its thirty-years later.

Excitement for the Le Mans was in the air at our cutting tool business, and I got my brothers so worked up about the Le Mans everyone agreed to chip in. On our way to a budding collection of future Euro-classics, we piled into pop’s just-purchased ’77 Lincoln after a long, slow Friday and blasted south through the chill to pick it up. Dad was a Buick man so we didn’t quite know what to make of the big Ford, but change was in the air. Some years before he picked a Guzzi 750 over his usual Harley and we all just ran with it, even if I hesitated while burning through a couple of double-cam Hondas. Pop said the Le Mans ‘looked dangerous’ and reminded me I had a one-year old at home, but his eyes gleamed as they panned back and forth over the sparkling white and red machine. Since then three more kids were born and raised, houses came and went, and years moved life forward, but the Le Mans was a constant. Thirty-years is a long time, but the BMW S and Spada sharing space came five-years before that. My New Year’s resolution? Get both of those back on the road.            

Still close to its original tuning, the Le Mans was fitted with Ago timing gears before delivery and Lafranconi slip-ons just after. It was re-jetted, the airbox replaced with individual K&Ns, stainless FrenTubo brake hoses and a hundred other little things. Despite the on-saddle improvements, the 1000’s general uprating over the excellent 850III has been ignored by many historians of the brand and replaced with criticism directed at the machine’s chassis and styling. A true standout model for Moto Guzzi, every edition of the Tonti/Le Mans has both similar and unique qualities, but any rider who can ignore the 1000’s extra stomp probably isn’t interested in an accurate comparison. I’m still a little surprised so few have made the Le Mans 1000’s obvious endurance-racing connection. That sweeping ‘whale tail’ is far from unique to this motorcycle, but so much of that has been ignored. Easily the best improvement to mine was the leather Corbin from old pal Greg Field, and looking over the bike now I’m humbled at the many parts were gifted by my Guzzi friends.  

Because I’ve attached my name to the bike professionally, it’s gotten a decent amount of exposure…even if most of it was self-generated. Still, it’s enjoyable explaining how taking care of a motorcycle with simply a shop manual and the desire to follow it can result in extended periods of service. Some friends showed a great deal of interest, and I’d wager a dozen or more bought a similar Le Mans. Not many of them stayed on. Old friend Mike Sorge is one exception. Sorgie spent the last twenty-some years modernizing his 1000 Le Mans with FI, new suspensions, and other bits of trickery. Another Californian, Bill ‘Billoni’ Ross is also a long time Le Mans owner. Bill was on a 1987 Special Edition 1000 (different graphics and a close-ratio tranny) when I met him, but sold it. Years later he unknowingly bought the same bike back and vows not to make the same mistake. “They are special machines”

Because I had other bikes the Le Mans spent its first fifteen-years in an easy rotation. I rode to Washington for a MGNOC rally, but the majority of miles came after 2001. Now approaching 50K, the suspensions were addressed this spring after Mr. Ross dropped a beautiful new set of Hagon shocks in the post to motivate. “The bike deserves some new legs” he insisted, meaning everything that rolls, spins or bounces on either end was renewed. Kudos to Hagon, Wirth and folks at FAC. Friends like Mike, JJ Cerilli and even John Wittner have offered encouragement, but the Guzzisti are a tight-knit group. Opinionated, stubborn and tragically cheap, yes, but the camaraderie is legend.  

They’re tough too, like their bikes, and I still wonder if I broke the Le Mans in or vice-versa. Measuring just two-percent, Billoni was shocked when he leak down tested the engine. It’s healthy, but the guides let some oil in. Parts? Nothing major, but MG Cycle, Harpers, MI in Seattle or Agostini in Italy is where I go. Thirty years is a long time, but that span offered plenty of time for attention too. With the aim of keeping it new, elbow grease is credited for the shine, Mandello for the finish and Arizona’s gentle climate for the lack of rot. It won’t start if parked overnight by the ocean unless you cover the intakes with plastic. It shakes its head in protest of worn tires and if I'd spent the money on petrol that’s been invested in battery straps, the bike would have another two-thousand miles. Chuffing (maybe) 60-hp at the wheel sounds pretty weak, but it holds its own. Dr. John won a World Championship on one, beating gear-drive Hondas and other Works hardware. The saddle has been shared with different wives and girlfriends, and while I know it isn't a living thing I can tell it likes Merry (^above) best. So do I.   

Reminding myself there’s no fault in favoring something else, it’s hard to describe just how well a sorted Tonti Le Mans works. Working through the miles and years, long term Moto Guzzi owners will tell tales of magical things happening at ten-thousand mile increments. The first ten you’ll pay some dues, no matter how carefully tuned. A whole bunch of good stuff starts happening at the 20K mark, and by 35.000-miles this Le Mans had traded its jackhammer for a booming alto cello. See, as things progressed through the De Tomaso years refinement won out exterior finish, but the jewel underneath remained. Polish and care will expose it eventually, but the process isn’t an instant reward deal. Understanding it better brings gladness and satisfaction.             

I could go on and on, but your letters, emails and messages prove there’s plenty of riders out there with similar stories. It’s hard to explain the feeling of certainty experienced all those years ago, and while a vow was made to never sell, there was never any pressure to keep it. Besides the life lesson, the enduring feature of this Le Mans is its ability to reliably entertain, then return. It was great then and it’s better now. Like life, some of that was earned. The rest is good fortune. Nolan Woodbury (NW and Merry Lucero photos)