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Reflections: Oh mamma mia. Moto Guzzi Le Mans 850

Published: 02:55PM Sep 2nd, 2011

By: Roland Brown; Photography: Red bike Oli Tennent, Silver bike Phil Masters

Moto Guzzi has produced many great bikes in its 90-year history. But if Guzzi fans had to choose one model to sum up the marque’s appeal, it would probably be the original Le Mans 850. One of the most charismatic superbikes of the mid-Seventies, the Le Mans was a V-twin sportster with as much unmistakably Italian style as Sophia Loren.

The Guzzi importer’s advertising line was ‘Long legged and easy to live with’ accompanied, in typical Seventies fashion, by a photo of the Le Mans with a female model who was similarly attractive, suitably long of leg, and would doubtless have proved considerably more high maintenance than the glamorous but reasonably undemanding V-twin.

The Le Mans’ heart was an enlarged, 844cc version of the air-cooled, transverse V-twin unit from Guzzi’s 750cc S3, itself an excellent unfaired roadster. The two-valve pushrod unit benefited from higher 10.2:1 compression ratio, bigger 36mm Dell’Ortos, plus twin exhausts which, although quite restrained by Seventies standards, gave out a healthy bellow. Max output was a healthy 80bhp at 7300rpm.

Several chassis parts were borrowed from the S3, including the twin-cradle steel frame and Guzzi’s own forks. Brakes were by Brembo, operated via Guzzi’s linked system that used the foot pedal to work one big drilled front disc, as well as the rear. Attractive 18in cast wheels normally wore Pirelli Phantom tyres that seem impossibly narrow now.

Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans

But if some of its components look undeniably dated, few bikes have aged as gracefully as the Le Mans. It’s a masterpiece of automotive art, from its rakish screen, through the way its petrol tank is embraced by the raised front of the angular seat, to the bulging grey lump of an engine, the slatted sidepanels and subtly upswept black silencers.

And the Le Mans had the performance to match, with a top speed of 130mph that was more than most bikes could approach in 1976. Equally addictive was the smooth, relaxed feel which, in combination with the flyscreen’s protection, slightly leant-forward riding position and well-padded seat, allowed prolonged high-speed riding in reasonable comfort.

The Le Mans was not particularly light or agile but it handled well, its stiff steel frame and firm suspension generally overcoming any distracting effect of the shaft final drive. At speeds that would have the riders of high-barred Japanese superbikes weaving, the Guzzi remained stable, its rider tucked down at the clip-ons behind that neat flyscreen. Guzzi’s linked brake system was literally yards ahead of most rival set-ups, too, especially in the wet.

At £2000 in 1976 the Le Mans was too expensive to be a best seller, but it gained a cult following, and opened many riders’ eyes to Guzzi’s charismatic V-twins. The Le Mans remained in production into the Nineties, through four updates, though Guzzi’s attempts to keep the aircooled, twin-shock V-twin competitive were doomed to failure.

Where the Le Mans is concerned, the original was definitely the best.

• Read the full article in Motorcycle Sport Leisure magazine — October 2011!

Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans
Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans
Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans


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