Retrospective: Moto Guzzi Le Mans

Moto Guzzi's most popular and commercially successful endeavor

This article was originally published in the 1995 October Issue of Sport Rider.

Charging onto the scene hot on the heels of fabled Guzzi engineer Lino Tonti’s fabulous V7 Sport, the sporting Le Mans series was certainly Moto Guzzi’s most popular and commercially successful endeavor. The first one, simply called the Le Mans, debuted at the 1975 Milan Show (this model was subsequently referred to as the MkI after the release of the MkII in September 1978).

At the time of its introduction, competition for this new “flash bike” came from machines such as BMW’s R90S, tower-shaft 900cc Ducatis, and in-line twins and triples from Laverda. Of these machines, the Guzzi most resembled the BMW in terms of its specifications—a large-bore, air-cooled twin with shaft drive. The sporty Beemer was the definition of a machine that could tour as well as thrive in a sporting environment. The R90S was generally well-finished and slick with a supple ride, while the Guzzi was a brute with a stronger frame and stiffer suspension components, able to bully its German brother in any sort of acceleration contest. With 71 bhp at 7300 rpm and a top speed of more than 125 mph, it was the most obvious street racer Guzzi had ever built. The original Le Mans impressed the motorcycling press with its confident, sure-footed handling, excellent braking and aggressive styling. British racer Roy Armstrong won the prestigious Avon Production Series in 1977 on a basically stock 850 MkI, and even rode the machine for transportation between races.

1975 Moto Guzzi LeMans

Quail Motorcycle Gathering at the Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley, CA

Moto Guzzi's Le Mans "flash bike" was one of the most successful and similarly resembled BMW's R90S.Photo Courtesy of Moto Guzzi

The Europe-only Le Mans II was identical to its predecessor except for new bodywork that had a larger nose fairing with a rectangular headlight, new lowers, a new seat, the gauge package from the sport touring SP model and a larger, 32-amp-hour battery. In the U.S., we rode the CX100, essentially the same bike without the hot 850 motor, using instead the milder-tuned 1000cc twin from the SP.

In 1983, the Le Mans underwent its first major makeover and emerged as the MkIII. It was adorned with wind tunnel-tested bodywork even more angular than before, as well as new instruments and switchgear. The thicker, glossier paint sprayed on the frame is evidence of the improved quality. To purists, however, the motor castings harbored the most noticeable change, sporting squared-off cylinder fins. The Nikasil-coated bores inside the castings constituted the biggest improvement on the MkIII, replacing the steel bores and chrome rings of the previous two models. These machines were available in red, white and silver.

In spite of the 1979-80 model CX100, 1985’s new Le Mans IV was the first true full-liter model (948cc), and Guzzi’s most serious effort to date. It sported a compression ratio of 10:1, huge 47mm intake and 40mm exhaust valves, and 88mm Nikasil bores. Guzzi also added the high-lift, long-duration B10 camshaft (lifted from the LM1 racing kit). The result: a machine capable of covering the quarter-mile in the high 12s with a top speed of 135 mph. Not bad for an engine originally designed for use in a military tractor.

Moto Guzzi LeMans CX100

Quail Motorcycle Gathering at the Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley, CA

The CX100 was similar to its European counterparts with the exception of a 1000cc twin instead of the 850 motor.Photo Courtesy of Moto Guzzi

Also upgraded from previous models was a new 40mm fork; full-floating Brembo rotors; red, five-spoke aluminum wheels and a stronger, redesigned swingarm to accept the wider rim and tires that used twin Koni 7610P shock absorbers. A smaller, sleeker quarter-fairing, and swooping side panels and a rear spoiler accented the color-matched chin spoiler nicely.

Despite its impressive specifications, the Le Mans IV was criticized for the switch from Guzzi’s standard 18-inch front wheel to a more modern 16-incher. However, the factory took this action not for fashion or style purposes, but as a response to being told by the tire manufacturers that it was the future of sporting rubber. By 1988, and the introduction of the sport-touring-ish LM5 with the frame-mounted fairing, Guzzi had returned to the traditional 18-inch front—good news to journalists and Guzzi fans alike. A few black with chrome exhaust–equipped “last edition” models were imported in 1990 and ’91—the factory’s attempt to rid itself of remaining stock while preparing for the release of the new 1000cc Daytona.

Despite never being as popular here as in Europe, ownership of a well-kept Le Mans continues to be a rewarding experience. While fierce acceleration may be many sport bikes’ major redeeming value, the long-striding, galloping nature of the Le Mans may prove to be much more satisfying in the long run. Guzzi owners and dealers, though not numerous, are quite fanatical and passionate about their machines. There is a strong Guzzi owner’s club and aftermarket performance network as well.

Prices continue to slowly rise, so expect to pay upwards of $5000 or more for a clean MkI, with the Le Mans IVs and Vs going from $3500 to $4500. MkIIIs and CX100 models fall into a slightly lower range, with prices from $2500 to $3500. Mileage isn’t as important as a loving and knowledgeable owner. Guzzis are known for their stone-axe reliability and ability to endure mileage.

For the vintage sport bike enthusiast looking for an alluring Italian exotic that can be ridden hard and long, the Moto Guzzi Le Mans is an attractive and affordable option.

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