'Many riders, as in the past, have taken a standard motorcycle, maybe new, maybe old, and invested time, money and their ingenuity to produce a personal statement. A machine that - whatever its individual idiosyncrasies - immediately creates and impression of speed and purposefulness'.
Mike Clay's words in his 1988 book 'Cafe Racers' explain eloquently and concisely the reason why beautiful motorcycles like the glimmering Guzzi in front of me exist at all. Cafe racers because these bikes were and are used for short, sharp speed trips from one legendary coffee bar to another. Places like The Ace Cafe, now of course once again a mecca for the rockers of today, The Busy Bee, Johnsons and the Dugout, all became watering holes and meeting places for the ton-up boys of the day. Stripped down Triumphs, BSAs and Nortons with clip-on’s and racing tanks were tools of choice for those who wanted to experience speed and make a personal statement at the same time. Individuals like Paul Dunstall and Dave Degens were the driving force of cafe' racerdom in the 1960s, and rightly so, as cafe racers represent the individual, not the corporate monster. However, some factories felt compelled to produce their own cafe racers, and certain Ducati and Guzzi models in particular such as the Ducati 750 Sport and the Guzzi V7 Sport arguably redefined the genre.
Suitably enough then, I first came across James Cracknell's Moto Guzzi special on Italian Day at the fabled Ace Cafe this year. The forecourt was packed with Italian bikes of all makes, styles and ages, and there was some priceless machinery on show. I was sitting on the wall sipping a coffee as they did back in the 60s, when the silver Guzzi cafe racer pulled up, its noise attracting as much attention as its good looks. The Guzzi easily stood out for all the right reasons, and it drew admiring looks and comments. James had ridden it down that morning from his home near Bury St. Edmunds, a 300-mile return trip that proved the bike just wasn't some sparkly show stopper but a reliable and quick motorcycle.
We met up at the family run garage near Bury where James, 39, works as a motor mechanic and also runs the motorcycle MOT side of the business. A well-used Guzzi California 850 parked in one of the workshops gives me the idea that James's special was also born of an extension of a passion for the Italian V twins. "I've had that Cali for 18 years," confirms James, "and covered more than 50,000 miles on it. It's been more reliable than my '65 Triumph T120, that's for sure, and I've owned that for 19 years. I really appreciate the simplicity of these Guzzis, and I like the chunky engine that is so over-engineered."
The Guzzi bug bit hard and another bike was soon purchased. "A 1976 T3 came up for sale. It had had one owner from new, who'd crashed it at some point, and replaced the frame, but didn't manage to sort out the documents properly. He was returning to his native Australia but wasn't allowed to take the bike, so I bought it cheaply. I put in a shed for 6 years, then eventually decided to get it going. It didn't take much to get a V5 and age related plate for it", smiles James.
The difference between the bike that James purchased, and what it looks like now, could not be greater. Transformation from ratty, tatty and corpulent tourer to lithe, light and fast sportster has been a process that has asked four years of patience and clearly quite a few pounds of James's hard-earned cash. The result is stunning, and a credit to James's mechanical and engineering skills, and in particular his attention to detail. Why a cafe racer though? Aren't Guzzis better at touring?
"It was a thought process that began with a friend who knew someone who had an alloy tank for a Guzzi. I've always loved how those two big Guzzi pots stick out from beneath the fuel tank, so thought an alloy tank would be ideal, and the rest of the look followed from there. It's a traditional cafe racer but based round a Guzzi rather than a Triumph or Norton", enthuses James. "I was also inspired by an old feature in a magazine that compared a Guzzi cafe racer with a Triton, and they came out at level pegging. Difference is I can ride the Guzzi across Europe and not worry about it breaking down". While the Norton Featherbed frame may traditionally have been the starting point for the building of countless Tritons over the years, the low and stiff Lino Tonti-designed frame also has a reputation for excellent handling. A hotted up Guzzi motor compounds the low centre of gravity and gives V twin torque and reliability. The factory V7 Sport racers proved this with race wins and speed records won in the early 1970s.
The alloy tanks so beloved by cafe racer builders reflect the raw, unpainted racer look, and it was the starting point for James.
Owner of the alloy tank was Roger Powell of Guzzi specialists Astico Moto, and after some umming and aahing, sold it to James for £150. "The tank didn't really fit properly, so I stuck it under the bed and got on with stripping the bike down in the meantime, as I knew I'd be best off having a rolling chassis to begin with", saya James. Roger also supplied a used front but original Borrani rim, and James bought a new 2.50 18 inch alloy Akront rear rim to enable him to fit at least a 130 tyre on the Guzzi, as opposed to the 110 choice found as standard. "This meant cutting out a small part of the swinging arm to allow for the wider tyre", says James, "but it's worth it for the improvement in handling and tyre choice". Hubs were blasted, and powder coated, and wheels rebuilt with stainless spokes and nipples by Derek Yorke at Essex Wheels. Luckily for James, the donor T3 was already wearing a set of 38mm Marzocchi forks, probably from a Ducati 860 or similar, but they're far better than standard Guzzi forks. They still needed work though as the fork tubes were too long for the Guzzi's low frame. and had to be modified for the lower profile special. James also reprofiled the T3 top yoke, removing the ugly handlebar brackets and cutting off the lugs for the clocks. "Lots of evenings spent filing and polishing", laughs James. "I also had to have the Guzzi bearing carriers turned down to fit the Ducati front end, and a friend made up some stainless spindles, complete with imperial threads: unheard of on a Guzzi!" The frame, which had been tastefully hand painted in Hammerite by its previous owner, was blasted clean and roughly primed as James knew he'd eventually have to have a dry run to check all fitted ok.
James then turned his attention to the motor, which Roger was put in charge of. The standard T3 engine is 850cc, with a heavy flywheel, small valves in the heads and 30mm Dell'Ortos. A reliable but slowish lump. James wanted something more fire breathing, and so decided on a blueprinted motor based on an up-to-date Guzzi Le Mans 950 spec. Larger valves, competition springs and guides were fitted to the T3 heads, which were also treated to harder seats for unleaded use. They were also given the twin plug treatment to aid combustion. Inlet tracts were enlarged to suit the 36mm Dell'Ortos which were to be fitted. A lumpier than standard P3 cam, ideal for fast road riding was fitted, and new 950 barrels and pistons added. The crankcases were machined out to accept the larger size cylinders, and the bottom of the barrels skimmed to raise compression.
The T3 crank was found to be in excellent condition, as were the main bearings, so new shells were installed and the standard rods replaced. The experts at Bassett Down balanced the whole lot, and unusually, the crank had to have weight added to it. "Apparently, it was an earlier type T3 crank that were lighter than the later ones. Once that was sorted, Roger replaced the crank for me and I built the rest", says James. James purchased a new Le Mans flywheel, which is lighter than that of the T3, and fitted a later and lighter Guzzi clutch. A new timing chain and tensioner and advance/retard unit completed the build.
A cafe racer needs a fast motor but also needs to look 'the business', and James's Guzzi looks just right. I've seen many Guzzi cafe racers over the years, and the factory produced their own gorgeous versions with the 750 sports models in the early 1970s, but the lines of this bike are just perfect. "I wanted it to look right from the beginning, and in fact, most of the time has been spent on getting it right", says James. "I spent a lot of time on the seat, as I didn't see one ready made that would suit. I had to make some plywood formers, and then with the help of a friend, rolled the seat base in sheet aluminium. I wanted a Manx style seat base, but it had to sit right on the rear frame tubes, which I didn't want to cut off. After many hours of bending and shaping, I was happy, and cut the foam myself, then GB Upholstery of Bury (01284 388777) finished it off beautifully. I cut down the T3 mudguard by 6 inches. The front guard was something Roger had lying around".
Side panels are in polished aluminium, shaped like the triangular toolboxes found on the Guzzi V7 Sport, and after having brackets fitted by James, fitted perfectly.
Eventually the bike took shape. Two pack paint on the frame and other parts was applied by Wayne Green Body Repairs of Rougham (01359 272555). "They were great", says James, "as they also knocked out the dents in the front mudguard and headlamp rim, caused by me on the buffing machine!” James did all the polishing himself, and made a fine choice in having chrome parts stripped and then nickel plated, giving a shiny but not over the top finish to the bike. The swoopy, one-off exhaust system was made by ace restorer and fabricator Nick Paravani of Attleborough, Norfolk, from photos of an Imola system found on a friend's Guzzi. Rearsets are by Tarozzi, and the rear shocks are Konis, rebuilt completely with new seals by James. He also sourced the rear light that was sitting around his workshop. "It's an old bicycle dynamo, with a V7 lens added to it", explains James. He also fabricated various brackets himself - to stiffen up the front mudguard, for hanging the twin output Dyna coils from the frame, and the neat bracket and lugs that allow the seat and take to locate firmly and neatly. Other parts that required machining were completed by JW Engineering, Rougham (01359 270695).
Seeing the end of this complete rebuild in sight, James had to then rewire the Guzzi, stripping it of its extraneous spaghetti. Hinckley Triumph switchgear is a patriotic and efficient choice, although no indicators in the pure cafe racer tradition means less to go wrong. Newtronic electronic ignition was installed at first, but it broke, so James has reverted to points. Brakes were overhauled completely, but the Guzzi linked system that you either love or hate retained. "I like it", says James adamantly. James's attention to detail is incredible. The wiring is neatly held in place by stainless P-clips where required, and the chrome brackets that hold and guide the clutch cable are a great idea. "Harley accessories", admits James. The clock brackets that James fashioned from ally plate are beautiful, and every grommet, fixing, screw, nut and bolt sits neatly and harmoniously with each other on this Guzzi. This motorcycle is a work of art.
The net result of four years of work, long evenings and weekends - "my partner Zolii has been somewhat of a workshop widow, but fantastically supportive" James adds - is a very special motorcycle. Completed in January 2006, James has already covered 5,000 miles on the bike. Riding it is a treat. I'm used to my own 750 Guzzi, but this special seems to have nothing much in common - in fact it's more like sitting atop a Jap two-stroke 250 than an aircooled Italian V twin. Throttle pickup is unbelievably quick and precise, and the momentum of the lighter flywheel is far less intrusive than on a T3, allowing quick snicking through the gearbox. The light clutch helps matters, and the whole bike feels light and responsive. Having a big sticky Bridgestone BT45 back tyre on the Guzzi is fun, so I can throw the bike into bends with abandon, as the excellent forks really add to the surefootedness of the excellent frame and suspension combination. I would have preferred, in genuine form-over-function caff racer tradition, a rather more radical angle of the clipons that the bike currently wears, and James agrees, but the current, flatter bars do make it a comfy ride. On straights, I just have to wring the throttle, and the Guzzi just pulls and pulls in any gear. The pit of torque seems bottomless, and it's an exhilarating experience. The original Veglia clocks are not too accurate, but you can virtually rev it off the end of the range. After all, it's more or less a new bike, and wants to be ridden hard. "It'll probably do 125mph as it's still on standard T3 cruiser gearing", says James, "but when I go out with friends on their Jap bikes, they still have to drop gears to keep up! The acceleration compared to my California is incredible, and that's more fun than worrying about top speed".
James is rightly very happy with the result of his labours, and seems almost surprised with the end product. "I wasn't really sure how it would run, but it's great; no glitches or no flat spots. It's really satisfying to ride something you built yourself, and the best bit of all the four years work was putting the 'Moto Guzzi' stickers onto the tank at the end. I love the way it all looks. ' The public agrees, as the Guzzi won 'public's choice' and 'celebrity's choice' at this year's ever popular Copdock Motorcycle Show. Wooden spoon goes to me - my Guzzi has never felt the same after having experienced James's bike but I guess I'll just have to live with it.
© 2010 Anima Guzzista