MANDELLO DEL LARIO, Italy
Imagine an authentic Italian pizza, made by Italians, but meant for consumption by Americans. While it might be delicious, would it appeal also to Italian tastes?
Possibly not, but would it be any less Italian?
That’s the dilemma of the Moto Guzzi California motorcycle. It’s made by Italians, in Italy, with thoroughly Italian ingredients. It is, from the standpoints of styling and performance, meant for Americans. And it is delicious. But so far, Italians aren’t buying it.
That is not surprising, actually – least of all to the people at Moto Guzzi who are responsible for creating it. They knew going in that the California is bested suited for America’s more expansive tastes (and roads).
Moto Guzzi, Italy’s (and Europe’s) oldest motorcycle manufacturer, has long had an international cult following. Often its appeal outside of Italy exceeded its appeal to home audiences. Italians, nevertheless, adore Moto Guzzi and – even if they don’t own one – they probably wish they did.
Since its beginning in 1921 in the idyllic village of Mandello del Lario on the shores of Lake Como, Moto Guzzi has sought to prove itself on an international stage. Guiseppe Guzzi, brother of co-founder Carlo, rode one of its early models that would become known as the Norge a fabled 1,000 miles to the Arctic Circle in Norway in 1928. Moto Guzzi raced internationally, winning World Championships and such grueling events as the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy nine times, 1935-1955 (there were no races during World War II). In the U.S., its big cruiser-style models – progenitors of the California – gained fame as police bikes.
Down through the years, Moto Guzzi revolutionized motorcycle suspension construction and geometry, perfected aerodynamics of two-wheeled vehicles with its industry-first wind tunnel, and pushed the envelope of performance with motorcycling’s first V8 engine (fitted into a bike so scary-fast that no one dared ride it).
It is arguably, along with Harley Davidson and Indian, one of motorcycling’s most storied brands – with cachet to match.
The California traces its origins to 1971, when the Los Angeles Police Department helped with the design and performance characteristics of what was then officially known as the V7 – and at least a half dozen other iterations since.
“We were going to call it the California back then, but an executive at the company at that time questioned, ‘Why anyone from California would buy an Italian bike named the California?’,” said Nello Mariotti, Moto Guzzi’s production manager.
The suitability of the model to police work, particularly in California, led other law enforcement agencies, including the California Highway Patrol, to order their own.
The latest California, reborn in 2013, is Moto Guzzi’s first really all-new motorcycle in many years, and it reflects a new attention to design, style and performance. Head designer Miguel Galluzzi (who works in Pasadena, California – now you know the “rest of the story”) came up with proportions that match his imposing 6-foot-5 height. So the motorcycle no longer seems cramped in its riding position. Its proportions also seem more harmonious.
It has the dimensions and frame of an all-American cruiser, unlike the original California, which was tailored from a sportbike chassis (a more traditional Italian recipe).
The 2015 California Touring model – with hard saddlebags, a windshield, cushy seating and an updated suite of electronic riding aids – is nearly as posh as a Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic, or Indian Road Master. The California Touring may be the biggest Italian motorcycle ever made. (A Custom model eschews the touring accessories.)
Riding it is like climbing on a horse. At close to 750 pounds, it weighs in at nearly as much. But that mass is propelled more than adequately by a thundering 1,400cc 90-degree V-Twin that produces 96 horsepower and 87 pounds-feet of torque.
A unique thing about the California is that its engine is mounted sideways, or transversely. This means the rider is straddling the engine, with the insides of his knees against the protruding cylinder heads. This can be a pretty toasty riding arrangement.
When I rode the bike in Italy, everywhere I went – no matter what the ambient temperature was – the insides of my knees would get lightly roasted (pink, like a sunburn). When I subsequently rode the bike in California, the heat was still there, but it wasn’t quite as noticeable and I didn’t need aloe lotion after the ride. A Moto Guzzi engineer attributed any difference to engine tuning.
The Italian version also seemed larger – perhaps because the roads were smaller. It’s almost as wide as a Fiat!
“The only visual difference between the two models is that the California for America has 19 legal warning stickers,” Mr. Mariotti said. “On the Italian bike, you see only one. There are too many lawyers in America, I suppose.”
A major difference is to be found in the sales numbers. In Italy, where the California is considered a two-wheeled behemoth, it sells in the dozens. In America, where it fits right in with the super cruiser crowd, it sells in the hundreds. While neither number, nor both numbers added together, represents a significant percentage of worldwide cruiser sales, the Moto Guzzi’s charm, charisma and sex appeal make it a desirable addition to the genre.
Price-wise, its $18,490 sticker is comparable to its Harley and Indian rivals, but similarly equipped Japanese models can be had for considerably less.
That may prove to be the deciding factor – if your tastes run more to brats and beer, or sushi, than to pizza.
September 8, 2014