By Frank Melling, Contributing Editor

Thinking far, far outside the box

The Moto Guzzi V8 is wheeled out of Sammy Miller’s workshop and into the courtyard of the racing legend’s motorcycle museum. Immediately, a group of grey-haired enthusiasts gather 'round the bike. Eight cylinders – each with its own carburetor. Sixteen valves, two banks of camshafts. Oil in the frame for cooling and mass centralization, and with a top speed timed at 178 mph, it was a bike that would take on a current Superbike, despite being only 500cc. This is no ordinary motorcycle.

One of the aficionados stands proudly by the Guzzi – but still a respectful distance from this motorcycling legend. He pulls in his ample belly and stands up straight like a Grenadier Guard coming to attention. He knows he is in the presence of magic. He tells his mates, “I’ve waited all my life to have my picture taken next to that bike. I can die happy now.”

I don’t tell him that in less than an hour I won’t be standing next to the Guzzi – but riding it. Like him, I am in awe of this motorcycle.

As I pull on my leathers, I am nervous – very nervous. I never doubt my ability to ride exotic bikes, but the Guzzi isn’t exotic – it is a legend in metal. Maybe ten or so people in the world have ever ridden a Guzzi V8. As for the cost of repairing the bike if I make a mistake – think of any figure and then start adding zeros – lots and lots of them!

You just can’t press the starter button on the V8 and ride off. It has to be treated with respect. First John Ring, Sammy’s race mechanic, gives each carburetor an individual squirt of Avgas, then Bob Stanley, who rebuilds all the bikes in the Miller Museum, backs the Guzzi onto the starter, spins the rollers and brings the V8 coughing to life rather like a Rolls Royce Merlin engine firing up on a Spitfire.

After ten seconds, all eight cylinders are running, and the eight completely unsilenced exhausts are singing together. Like everything else on this bike, the sound is unique. It’s not nearly so harsh as the Gilera and MV Fours I know so well and is much less strident than the multi-cylinder engines from Honda. In fact, it is almost civilized.

Here’s what the bike sounds like being warmed up.

Lacking anything worth calling a flywheel, the V8 will stall in an instant, so Bob blips the throttle constantly, keeping the revs between 5,000 and 6,000. It’s a skilled job because the V8 is water-cooled, unlike all the other great bikes of its era, so it has to be warmed up carefully. Run the bike too cold and it will seize. Run it too hot and it will also seize. This is not a beginner’s classic race bike.

From the outside, the Guzzi looks awkward and almost homemade. But the bike’s designer, Giulio Cesare Carcano, was an engineers’ engineer and never a stylist. For him, function was all and so the V8 will never win any beauty competition.

However, once on the bike, the hand beaten aluminum fuel tank with all its strange curves and cutaways molds 'round my knees like a tailor-made suit. It’s the same with the padded leather seat, which doesn’t so much push the rider into the tank but holds him there. There is only one riding position on offer, but it is a comfortable one and ideal for racing.

After the tension of the buildup, taking off on the Guzzi is a real anti-climax. The motor is so torquey and easy to use that you could go shopping on the V8. The clutch is light and flawlessly judged for bite, and once over 10 mph the bike has perfect, effortless balance.

In a few yards, I start to give the V8 some gas and I’m rewarded with a rev counter needle that swings around at light speed and a baritone wail that arrows into my soul.

Conscious of the bill if the motor drops a valve or seizes, I change at 12,000 rpm rather than the 13,000+ the works riders used, and the acceleration is superb. The V8 is not dramatically better than the MVs and Gileras – it’s not even worth mentioning the single-cylinder Manx Nortons against which it competed – but it is a much easier ride. Open the throttle, 12,000 rpm and slide in the next gear. It’s all smooth and easy and the motor is just so willing.

With modern tires, the handling is solid over the bumps and undulations of the old airstrip we are using for a test track, and the huge, double-sided, twin leading shoe brakes scrub off speed effortlessly. What wouldn’t I give to actually race this bike?

Riding at 150 mph with a full fairing and the rock-hard tires of 1957 would have been a different matter, and it’s not surprising that Guzzi’s factory riders were often reluctant heroes when it came to racing the V8.

So, if the Guzzi was so good, why didn’t it win everything? The primary problem with the bike was ignition. On the original bike, Carcano had eight individual sets of mechanically opened points for the eight cylinders, and getting them to work in harmony was very difficult. Now, Sammy’s V8 has electronic ignition and this explains why the bike runs so well.

The bike also suffered from chronic overheating caused by the extremely compact layout of the engine and the dustbin fairing, which, while being ultra-slippery in terms of aerodynamics, provided poor airflow for the radiator.

Guzzi was also hugely underfunded, and despite Carcano’s genius, its race team was a real budget exercise. Finally Guzzi withdrew from racing in 1957, just as the V8 was getting sorted. Given another year and a decent budget, there would have been nothing in the world to touch this bike.

But there was no increase in budget and no next year either, so the V8 remains one of the great “What Ifs” of racing.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Guzzi V8 is that it went from a blank sheet of paper to a running engine in just five months. It’s also important to remember that there were no computer predictions or simulations available to Moto Guzzi. Carcano sat down at his desk with a pencil, sheet of paper and simple slide rule calculator as the only aids to his creative genius. Everything else happened inside his head.

A team of Guzzi engineers worked on the project, but they were led by Carcano, who began work at Moto Guzzi, writing workshop manuals, in 1936. But, like many ambitious young engineers before him, Carcano had racing in his heart and, in 1938, began working with Carlo Guzzi on the company’s light, narrow and agile 500cc Singles. This bike, and the ideas behind it, stayed with Carcano all the way to the V8.

He was right to be influenced by the horizontal-engined Guzzis because they won five consecutive 350cc World Championships from 1953 to 1957. In one of his last interviews, Carcano said: “The 350 was an agile and reliable motorcycle and was competitive against the four-cylinder bikes (from MV Agusta and Gilera), which gave 10 more horsepower but were 40 pounds heavier.”

So, when Carcano began work on the V8, it was lightness and a narrow frontal area that dominated his thinking. Why then did he go down the route of eight cylinders rather than the proven four-cylinder engines of MV and Gilera?

“We thought differently. Once we abandoned our Singles and V-Twins, the obvious solution would be four cylinders. But building a four cylinder meant staying behind Gilera and MV because they started earlier and we would have had to work at least a couple of years to be at the same level of experience and development.

“Then we thought that if we were aiming for eight cylinders the power was not an issue anymore. On the contrary, weight and dimensions would be important. Our eight cylinder was brilliant because it was no bigger than a 250cc bike.

“When it was tested on the bench for the first time it already gave 63 hp while the Gilera gave 60 hp, and we were just at the very first tests. Then it achieved 70-72 hp and the power would be increased more and more if they did not kill it with the famous 1957 agreement.”

Carcano was as good as his word and built a tiny V8 with a crankshaft just 13.5 inches wide (342mm) and weighing only 330 pounds (150kgs) – which is the weight of a current MotoGP bike.

Confident as he was of his ability and his predictions – and Carcano really was – the feeling at Guzzi was that the V8 would be rev hungry and therefore a six-speed gearbox was specified. As things turned out, the V8 pulled like a train and, if anything, exceeded all expectations.

The bike’s problems were twofold. First, Carcano’s ideas were right on the very, very edge of what was possible with the technology of the day and, in particular, there was no way of reliably delivering the 800 sparks a second the V8 required.

In tandem with Carcano’s ambition outstretching the limits of 1953 technology, the race department at Moto Guzzi was woefully underfunded and development took place irregularly.

Carcano said: “If you think about modern factories, Guzzi’s organization of that time will make you shudder!

“For example, the racing department didn’t even have a workshop of its own. We had our own staff managing the racing but, for the rest it, depended on the production department.

“Moto Guzzi was not an organization dedicated to the races as for example today in Ferrari. We depended on the toolmakers and production staff to help us with personal favors to get things made. It was impossible to race properly and professionally like this.”

Emotionally, I want to believe that Carcano’s genius would have been rewarded if Guzzi had stayed in GP racing for just one more year. However, intellectually, I have more doubts. The way in which Moto Guzzi went racing was completely normal for the time. The BSA competition department was known as a “Den of Professional Thieves” because of their proclivity for stealing parts from the production line and bribing skilled machinists to make race parts with free tickets for major events.

Norton and Gilera were no better, while Ducati was in an even worse state.

The only exception was MV Agusta, where racing motorcycles was Count Domenico Agusta’s personal hobby and funded by his highly profitable Bell Agusta helicopter business – so even MV was not a truly professional exercise.

It took Honda, who entered four riders in the 1959 TT, to show the world what real factory racing meant with dedicated designers and race bike production staff – and a virtually blank check to support them.

Probably, Carcano would have continued to struggle with Guzzi in 1958 – predominantly because of the ignition problems the high-revving eight-cylinder bike posed. What Carcano needed was Soichiro Honda at his side – but that really would be rewriting history.