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European Bike Guide: Part 3

December 8, 2021

Your guide to the best (and the average, and even the not so good) European classic bikes - Part 3

Gilera

Once famed for its four-cylinder racers that won multiple world championships, Gilera also built high quality and exotic roadsters including the Saturno single, and in the 1970s, along with a range of workaday two-strokes, put out a range of four-stroke singles, the Arcore.

Saturno

Designed in the late 1930s and in full production from 1945, the Saturno had a 498cc (30.4 cu in) OHV single with 22bhp (16kW) @ 5000rpm and swinging arm rear suspension using parallel twin horizontal coil springs; a similar layout to postwar Moto Guzzi Falcone singles.

The long-stroke engine featured a massive sump and, as well as the coil spring suspension at the back, were fitted with telescopic forks from 1951.

Gilera revived the name in the late 1980s, producing a clean, sleek Nuovo Saturno with a twin cam 492cc engine in a trellis frame and bodywork, including a top half fairing that’s aged well. The lightweight frame makes the Saturno an excellent handler.

Prices

low £12,000 || high £24,000

Arcore 125/150/200

152cc OHV single 231lb 75mph 1955-1980

The Arcore single is unusual for an Italian lightweight, with a single cylinder four-stroke engine in a purposeful cradle frame that was produced from the 1950s until the late 1970s.

The Arcore is another good-looking Gilera, and many made it to the UK thanks to the factories-connections with Douglas, where they can still be found second-hand at sensible prices. You can pick up an Arcore for about £2000 and you’ll get a smart lightweight for your money.

Prices

low £1500 || high £3000

Jawa-CZ

Actually two separate companies, people associate Jawa-CZ as being one entity in the UK because that is how they were marketed here.

Jawa was founded in the 1920s and built a range of two and four-stroke motorcycles, including a 500cc single just after the Second World War.
The later Czech-built two-strokes were highly regarded in the Soviet Bloc and remain so in their home country.

A popular budget buy in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, Jawa CZ bikes undercut Japanese rivals by a massive amount.

Jawa models endure to this day, with two-stroke twin and four-stroke single versions.

CZ 125/175

171cc two-stroke single || 230lb || 70mph || 1968-1996

The CZ single was a cooking commuter that despite its foibles, mostly in the electrical department, is a purposeful two-stroke single with good engineering.

A basic piston-port single cylinder engine powered the bike through four decades, in various guises, with Posilube oil injection for a period. Cycle parts are excellent, being the same from the 125 through to the Jawa 350.

The gearbox has a slickshift mechanism that means the semi-automatic clutch is only needed from a standstill. The smartest and rarest of the singles is the 175 Trail.

Prices

low £300 || high £1000

Jawa 350

343cc two-stroke twin || 346lb || 84mph || 1973 on

The Jawa 350 twin is powered by a two-stroke engine in a cradle frame. Like the smaller models, it suffered from poor quality control from suppliers of electrical components but was a rugged machine with few pretensions.

Often hitched to a sidecar, the most common models are the 634 twins made from 1973 onwards, with an updated model arriving in 1986. There was also a 250cc version made by CZ; in the late 1970s this was fitted with a sporty seat, nose fairing and metalflake paintwork to cater for the learner market.

It was even touted by CZ as an alternative to Suzuki’s 100mph GT250 X7, causing much derisive laughter. Spares availability for all Jawa twins is good and the twin is still in production – you can buy a new Jawa 350 clad in 1970s clothing with the addition of an electric start from F2 Motorcycles for less than £4000.

Prices

low £400 || high £2500

Laverda

Laverda makes combine harvesters. And for a brief period in the late 1970s it built the fastest street-legal motorcycle in the world.

Laverda started like many Italian makers, turning out small runabouts for the Italian market, before producing its first big bikes in the late 1960s – a 750 twin was followed by an earth-shattering triple and range of 500 twins.

It also produced lightweights with German two-stroke engines, and even managed to produce a prototype V6 engine.

500 twins

497cc DOHC twin || 409lb || 110mph || 1977-1995

Laverda’s 500 is a gorgeous thing, with a DOHC eight valve twin engine built to the same exacting standards as its bigger siblings.

The Alpino has high-quality cycle parts and add-ons including twin Brembo front discs, while the Montjuic saw Laverda repeat the success of the Jota on the race tracks.

This howling orange pocket monster embarrassed the best that Yamaha could throw at it in production racing, though as a barely legal race bike for the road, the finish was less resilient.

Laverda avoided heavy things like extra coats of paint or chrome plating in pursuit of speed. There was also a home market 350 and despite being out of production for a decade, the engine made a comeback as an oil-cooled 688 and then a 750 in the mid-1990s.

Although these machines’ cycle parts were excellent and they handled superbly, looked decent and weren’t too exotically priced, the twin cylinder engines, though updated, were based on the original 500 Montjuic 1977 and were dreadful.

Prices

£3000-£15,000

750 twins

744cc ohc twin || 480lb || 115mph || 1970-1977

At 500lb, the first SF750, launched in 1971, was heavy, and this was partly down to Laverda’s practice of massively over-engineering everything.

The crankshaft ran on five ball and roller main bearings and the spine frame, from which the SOHC engine hangs, has four substantial tubes.

Laverda avoided the usual Italian practice of using home-market parts, instead buying in the best it could get.

Its belt-driven dynamo was by Bosch, as was the headlamp and entire ignition system, while the starter motor was made for Laverda by Nippon Denso, as was switchgear.

The 750s are powerful, the weight of the engine meaning the handling is a bit of a handful – but at least you’ll know you are going to get to the end of your journey. Laverda also built 750 tourers, including the softer GT, which is less of a challenge to ride.

Prices

low £3500 || high £10,000

Triples

981cc dohc triple || 470lb || 135mph || 1973-1985

These three-cylinder models beat just about everything in the cool stakes, but you’re going to need to be a special breed of rider to get the best out of them.

Starting life as the 3C, Slater Brothers in the UK turned the triple into the Jota, which promptly wiped the floor with the competition from the Far East in production racing, which must have raised a few eyebrows in Hamamatsu.

The SFC, a full-bore proddie racer, followed, as did a tourer, the RGS, and the 1200 Mirage, just in case a 1000cc triple wasn’t enough for you.

Later models had a 120-degree crank, which smoothed things out a little. A real Jota is going to be hard to find – mostly because owners just won’t part with them.

Prices

low £6000 || high £17,000

Motobi

Motobi was founded in 1950 by one of the Benelli family, Giuseppe, after he fell out with the rest of his siblings.

Motobi made attractive machines with a distinctive egg-shaped crankcase on both its two and four strokes, with heavily finned cylinders set horizontally.

While only 49cc Motobis were brought into the UK officially, in recent years small numbers of the attractive four-stroke singles have been making their way north from Italy. The last Motobi was a rebadged version of the Benelli Tornado.

250 Supersport

249cc OHV single || 260l || 90mph || 1968-1973

Well designed and with aggressive lines, the 250 Sport was one of the last Motobis made.

It was equipped with the last version of the company’s proven air-cooled four-stroke horizontal OHV single cylinder engine as a 250, capable of running at 8500rpm and producing a mild 16.5bhp.

The 250 Supersport was also sold as a 350, and as a Benelli, and is one of Italy’s hidden gems.

Prices

low £2000 || high £4000

Moto Guzzi

One of just a few manufacturers from Italy in constant production from the start, Moto Guzzi has produced everything from buzzy lightweight commuters to exotic V8 racers since production started in 1921, but it is bikes from its range of V-twins that are most commonly seen.

Moto Guzzi’s roadsters manage to combine Italian flair with a more practical riding experience than their rivals, having better handling than BMWs and being easier to live with than Ducatis.

They also managed to be good looking at the same time. While the V-twins are the most common, don’t rule out a Falcone single.

Spares availability is good, and Guzzis inspire just as much passion as their rivals. There’s a strong and dedicated community of riders who have grown up around them.

Falcone

498cc OHV single || 470lb || 80mph || 1950-1976

The flat-single Falcones with their huge exposed flywheels have a charm all of their own. From the early 1950s Guzzi replaced its girder forks with more conventional running gear, while the coil spring suspension system took care of the rear end.

The engine is easy to start on the kicker, and chunky and low revving. The Falcone would have died out had it not been for the Italian military and police, who decided to buy heaps of them.

This machine was known as the Nuovo Falcone. It had a more conventionally sprung rear end, a cradle frame and Grimeca brakes, and an enclosed flywheel. Many of these have made their way to the UK, virtually unused, and they make great classic tourers.

Early military Falcones have been turned into smarter civilian models, though military chic has its followers.

1950s Italian Army Falcones were fitted with a second set of handlebars for the pillion to hang on to, so officers didn’t have to touch lower ranks.

Prices

low £3000 || high £10,000

V7/750S/750S3

748cc transverse V-twin || 450lb || 120mph || 1965-1975

The first Guzzi big twin was launched in 1966 when the new 700cc V-twin arrived. It was first proposed in the early 1960s when Moto Guzzi started to work out a V-twin for Italian police. Enthusiasm from US importers saw it enter civilian production.

Designed as a long-distance touring model, the V7 was the first-ever production motorcycle to feature electric starting only.

In 1971 the Moto Guzzi V7 Sport was launched, based on the V7 roadster but with a new frame and clip-on handlebars, an extra 50cc, a five-speed gearbox and bigger brakes.

The sports models were updated, with the S3 gaining triple Brembo discs in 1975. Following established patterns, earlier models are sought after.

A good S3 is more than capable of offering a comfortable day on the road, the shaft drive making rapid progress a comfortable experience. Engine parts are hard to find for the early models but capacity upgrades can be fitted.

The design of the V-twin means that the engine is even easier to work on than a BMW, with most of the major components easy to get at.

Prices

low £9500 || high £15,000

850-T3/4/5 California

844cc OHV transverse V-twin || 490lb || 120mph || 1974-1983

Refusing to rest on Moto Guzzi’s considerable laurels, designer Lino Tonti took the 750 S3 and expanded it to become the improved 850 T3, which was in many ways the most important Moto Guzzi made in the 1970s.

Lighter than the touring-oriented California and far more sporting than the also new 949cc two-speed semi-automatic Convert, the 1975 Moto Guzzi 850 T3 was the bridge between the Moto Guzzi V7 Sport and the bigger models.

The T3, and the subsequent 4 and 5 variants are grand touring classics, using components designed for the big tourers like the Convert but with less weight and better agility for riders looking for both long-distance capacity and performance.

There was also the California, a machine developed from a police bike ordered by the LAPD and California Highway Patrol to replace their Harley-Davidsons.

Dripping with chrome and stainless steel, the California was Moto Guzzi’s best-selling model for many years.

Prices

low £3000 || high £7500

850 Le Mans

844cc OHV transverse V-twin || 440lb || 130mph || 1976-1993

Rivalling the Ducati 916 for the title of the most beautiful motorcycle ever made, the Mk1 Le Mans is a stunner, from the sexy curved nose fairing to the round rear light.

It is a good as it looks, too, the power from the tuned-up engine matched by the handling. It’s less likely to drive you crazy than a 900SS or a Jota, and almost as capable of whisking you to Monaco in a day as a BMW, and in considerably more style, though the riding position may give you a few twinges.

The Mk2 concentrated on those touring capabilities and unfathomably the designers managed to make it look less attractive, with an angular nose fairing and upper panels, though it’s still better looking than most.

Revisions were made to the engine in 1981 with a new square cylinder head, angular bodywork, a new exhaust and updated suspension. The last 1000cc Le Mans with swoopy plastics was the longest lived, staying on the books until 1993.

A Le Mans will suffer from that traditional 1970s and 1980s Italian condition of poor finish. A big motorcycle with buckets of soul.

Prices

low £3500 || high £13,000

V35/50/65

490cc OHV transverse V-twin || 340lb || 105mph || 1977-1990

Although they mirror the big Guzzi Vees, the smaller engines were a new design for a lower-cost power plant as Moto Guzzi struggled financially in the early 1970s.

The engine has a horizontally split crankcase, unlike the single casting of the bigger engines, and the cylinder heads were flat, with ‘heron head’ pistons.

It is this basic design concept that survives in the Moto Guzzi engines today. These compact, good looking middleweights are well engineered and have excellent handling, as well as all of Guzzi’s style.

The shaft drive makes them good tourers, though the 350cc V35 can struggle a bit. Originally fitted with electronic ignition, the Mk11 V50 has points, which might be old-fashioned but are easier to replace and less likely to fail.

These bikes will leap along nicely, and the V50 Monza is a pocket-sized Le Mans II and lots of fun, if a little uncompromising.

Prices

low £750 || high £4000

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