By Frank Melling, Contributing Editor

Your very own slice of a legend

Although I was invited to the launch of the MV Agusta F4, I had to reluctantly decline the offer because 15 years ago my mind was 101% concentrated on keeping our newly launched Thundersprint alive. As things turned out, this was all to the good because later I had the great pleasure of spending a day with Claudio Castiglioni, who was the driving force behind the relaunch of the MV brand. Claudio and I got on really well, so much so that he later rode at the Thundersprint.

Claudio was a fascinating mix of gentility, kindness and a titanium hard business brain. He was personally one of the most charming men I have ever met and was a gracious, well-mannered host. In some ways he had everything as the son of a wealthy industrialist – born, as he was, into the family’s well-established and successful metalworking business.

However, he was a dedicated man to the point of obsession, working typically six and half days a week – and long days too!

Even driving back to his house for dinner was an exhausting experience. He had four phones and one of these rang almost constantly as he solved problems and did deals at a speed which left me spent – and I was only a passenger!

Claudio’s deal-making was legendary. He first built Cagiva into a successful brand and then bought Aermacchi from Harley-Davidson, who owned the Italian manufacturer. Using the old Aermacchi seaplane factory on the banks of Lake Varese in Northern Italy as a base, he later saved Ducati from ruin; the Bologna bikes had been so near extinction that they were being built at hobby levels in a factory largely devoted to making diesel engines for Alfa Romeo cars.

Claudio truly loved Cagiva and also, although to a lesser extent, Ducati, but the brand that drove him to the point of near ecstasy was MV Agusta. The iconic MV headquarters at Gallarate was only 12 miles away from Varese, tantalizingly near to Claudio every single day. MV had long given up motorcycle manufacturing to concentrate on their helicopter business, and this was an additional advantage to Claudio, who was a keen helicopter fan.

So, through a heady mixture of charm, an outstanding track record of rescuing broken Italian motorcycle companies, and a passion for MV, Claudio got to own one of motorcycling’s great brands.

Depending on your point of view, a lesser – or maybe greater – businessman would have set about rebuilding the marque, carefully and methodically using Japanese experience just as Triumph did. The very thought of walking the Triumph path would have been unthinkable to Claudio. He had the best motorcycle brand in the world and therefore needed the best bike. Really, it was no more complex than that.

Claudio also had an ace up his sleeve, and this was Massimo Tamburini. I have mixed feelings about the great designer. On the one hand, there is no greater stylist in the world than Tamburini, and there is a strong case for arguing that the F4 is his best design ever. But a motorcycle you can’t turn around is flawed, and a riding position that cripples the rider after an hour is not the apogee of practical engineering.

Cagiva insiders also resented, with some enthusiasm, Tamburini’s insistence on always being right. Not 99% correct 99% of the time, but always knowing best and, with Claudio as his boss, always getting his way.

I blushed when I wrote this last paragraph because determined people are always better at listening to their own opinions than those of others, but Tamburini was in a class of his own when it came to the F4.

In Claudio’s eyes, nothing was too good for the F4, but in this quest for perfection he misunderstood the marketplace. I feel strongly that he always had his near neighbor, Ferrari, in mind with MV, but in doing this he lost sight of his customers. Even wealthy motorcyclists are not in the same league as Ferrari owners who consider a $300,000 price tag as perfectly acceptable. For sure, the great and the good lined up to have free MVs from Claudio, but the line is always long for exotic presents that don’t cost anything – and don’t think that the super-rich are any different from us ordinary folk who beam when we get a free T-shirt.

So, although weighing each piston to have a perfectly matched set for the F4 engine was very exotic – and, yes, this really did happen in the early days – in terms of performance and reliability, the MV engine was no better than its Japanese contemporaries. In fact, with screamingly high revs, the F4 was arguably even worse than the Japanese superbike opposition.

Claudio was very keen on special editions of the F4, and probably the best known are the Senna and Serie d’Oro. Both are superb, breathtaking, blinged-up versions of the F4 – but they’re not Ferraris, Lamborghinis or even Aston Martin supercars. Even the best, highest specification F4s have not become motorcycling icons in the way that Vincents and Brough Superiors have appreciated, or even homologation specials such as Honda’s iconic RC30s and R45s.

Where I did get things wrong in the original story was in predicting that the F4 would become a cult collectors’ bike. If you paid a lot of money for a new F4 in the hopes of making a killing 14 years later, then you are going to be disappointed. However, the obverse side of the coin is that anyone with a love of sports bikes can now afford one of the world’s most beautiful motorcycles for the price of a second-hand superbike.

Currently, this is what is going through my mind. No one with a love of motorcycling can fail to fall in love with the F4 despite – or maybe even because of – its flaws and failings. In truth there is nothing more beautiful on two wheels than the F4, and I still lust for one.

Here are my original impressions of the F4.

MV Agusta F4 750

What makes an MV Agusta F4 750 special? The chassis? The engine? Perhaps the handling? No, all these are almost trivial details compared to the soul of the bike. Take the MV decals on the front of the fairing as an example. In the normal run of things, stickers are just stuck on. That’s the role of stickers in life – to be stuck on things. But on the MV they are visually perfect. Move them up, down, to one side or, for that matter, change their size, and the look of the fairing becomes unbalanced. Sounds mad? Well, it isn’t. We played about with the images of the MV on Photoshop and sure enough, those stickers need to be exactly and precisely where they are.

Insiders at Cagiva Group, which owns the MV name, variously describe the F4’s designer Massimo Tamburini as “a genius,” “a manic,” “Italy’s greatest ever motorcycle designer” and “completely obsessed with detail.” That Sig. Tamburini is MV Agusta is without question. The bikes might be made in the North of Italy, on the banks of Lake Varese, but the intellectual effort is done in Rimini, the Adriatic seaside town that Tamburini rarely leaves. Here, with the help of 65 assistants and the fortune of arch MV enthusiast Claudio Castiglioni, who owns the MV Agusta brand, Tamburini develops his dream.

Viewed in the cold light of top speeds and standing quarter mile times, the MV is not an outstanding motorcycle. The hard facts are that there are plenty of Japanese machines that are faster than the MV and, many would argue, handle just as well too. But Japanese designers have a huge advantage over Tamburini. They are merely expected to produce an outstanding motorcycle. By contrast, Tamburini had to conceive a new MV Agusta. How do you incorporate Surtees, Ubbiali, Provini, Hailwood, Agostini and 75 world championships into a bike? There’s only one way – you make it different from the rest.

So, look inside an MV engine and you will see a DOHC, four-valve radial design with a very sophisticated Weber Marelli fuel injection system and cassette gearbox – just like Grand Prix bikes. MV claim 134 bhp at 12,500 rpm and, on the track, the bike certainly feels fast. In the wet and cold conditions of winter testing I didn’t have the inclination for flat out runs – and top whack in this case is said to be in the region of 175 mph – but when you knock a bike into third at 90 mph and it wheelies, then it can be fairly said to be seriously quick.

Probably by intent, the speed only comes with a committed attitude on the part of the rider. Below 6,000 rpm, not a vast amount happens. Then the short stroke, 73.8mm x 43.8mm motor comes on the cam hard, and it’s all very exciting.
Best of all, the MV sounds, well, like an MV. The factory takes the noise issue very seriously and describes the neatly tucked-in exhaust as an “organ pipe” system which produces “highly personalized vocals that have been tuned on the basis of musically derived algorithms.”

You wouldn’t think it was possible to get a silenced road bike to make a noise like a works racer from 30 years ago – and it isn’t. But what Tamburini has done is give the F4 a unique and utterly desirable note. The shriek as the motor hits 10,000 rpm is sheer magic and, for us wrinklies who remember the old MV racers, a real heavy-duty nostalgia trip. “And here’s Frank Melling on the MV. And he goes outside Redman on the Honda effortlessly and wins the Senior TT …”

Well, you know what I mean. Even grown-ups can’t help themselves pretending – it’s an MV and sounds lovely.

Away from the track, the motor is biddable but frustrating. Flirt it hard in second and you’re going to lose your license – and that’s with another four gears in the ‘box. Fortunately, at an indicated 80 mph in top, the F4 is just in the working part of the powerband and will drone along quite contentedly at this sort of speed. Content maybe – but boring beyond words.

The rest of the powerplant comes into the same category: you only really feel the benefits on the track. The gearbox – a quick-change cassette design for those of you who fancy popping in a spare set of ratios during your Sunday run – is as sweet as anything in production. Clutchless upward changes are no problem, and the hydraulically operated clutch is feather-light and bomb-proof. This is as good as it gets on a production motorcycle.

The chassis follows the same line as the engine. In short, it’s far better on the track than it is on the road. First, to the technical bits. MV has no fewer than ten patents on the chassis, covering everything from the twin polyellipsoidal lights to the brake and clutch lever master cylinder. The frame is a steel/aluminum hybrid. The front section is steel trellis – very Ducati – with a single-sided swingarm cast in alloy – even more Ducati. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised since Massimo Tamburini designed the seminal Ducati 916.

Not that the MV is a cloned Ducati. On the contrary, there has been serious money put into this project. Take the swingarm as an example. Not only is it a clever piece of engineering, designed using the latest Finite Element Modeling, but it looks the part too. Stick one in a picture frame in a Guggenheim Exhibition and you would have no problem with a $50,000 sticker.

The riding position is extremely committed. Get down, tuck in and everything’s fine. The handling really is top class. Not just good but full race quality. As the bike comes from the factory, there is a lovely neutral feel and it peels into corners effortlessly. There’s just enough sharpness for it to tip into slow corners slightly but nothing dramatic or threatening. On fast bends, you could read a book and have a sandwich the MV is so stable.

I came round a quick right-hander on our test circuit with so much handling capacity to spare that I could have a good long look at the speedo registering a solid 100 mph. On a dry, warm track it could have been 25 mph faster. Very few riders will ever find the limits of the F4 – even on trackdays.

There are top quality components everywhere. The front suspension is by Showa, specially manufactured for MV, as is the rear unit. Both are supple and responsive and as good as you would except on a very serious race bike.

The brakes, too, are exceptional. Not just good but breathtaking. MV claim that the six-pot calipers are derived from the Cagiva 500cc GP bikes. They grip two formidable 310mm discs and require no effort to make the Pirelli Phantoms squeal with anguish.

But then we come to take the MV on the road and, once more, it requires commitment – total commitment. Riding the F4 on the road reminds me of taking my Seeley Suzuki to the start line of a race. By the time you have ridden the length of the paddock, you’re aching to get on the track to have a lie down and take the weight off your wrists.

I’m 5’10” and at this height the pilot is squashed up on the MV like a tourist on a cheap flight to Vegas. Put the bike on full lock and your hands get trapped against the fairing. Unless you are severely vertically challenged, you can forget seeing anything out of the mirrors.

Not that you want to see the mirrors, or anything else for that matter. After half an hour of having your head bent backwards as it tries to find the horizontal from what is effectively a prone position, there is so much neck ache that eye focus becomes impossible.

The riding position is far too radical for common sense or practicality, and 20 minutes of urban traffic will convince anyone that they ought to sell their MV and buy a sensible motorcycle. Then you get to squirt the F4 and everything changes, the “organ pipes” play their music and it’s back to heaven.

That the F4 will be a future classic is beyond question. It was only launched on April 21, 1999, and it already has a cult following. It’s not hard to see why. Even production line MVs are truthfully hand-built with a care that is pure Italian craftsmanship. Every engine is bench-tested right up to maximum revs from brand-new. Every component is individually measured for tolerance. In every way, the F4 is a race shop prepared road bike.

But things are not as straightforward as they seem. The MV is not the best supersports road bike on sale if all that you are buying is miles per hour or acceleration. In truth, it’s not much of a road bike for anyone who wants to go for much more than a pose on a dry, warm Sunday run.

The large number of almost new MVs on sale shows clearly that there have been a lot of disappointed customers who, I would guess, have bought the bikes thinking they are getting the world’s top supersports machine.

You can buy an R1, along with a good dose of aftermarket goodies, and have a bike that will out run a standard MV in every way – and probably still have $2,000 in your pocket.

The snag is that all you will have is a tweaked R1: fast, superb brakes, flawless handling – but still an R1.

Buy an MV and you really do get your own personal slice of the legend. If I had $18,000 to spare, I would have an F4 instantly. An F4 to look at, to polish, to admire Tamburini’s engineering skills and, once or twice a year, to ride for half an hour until my wrists gave way and my neck snapped through being bent double.