Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Product Impression - Italian Beauty with Big Jugs

Sometimes the opportunity arises to ride new motorbikes which I don't actually own.  Recently the folks at Aprilia/BMW/Moto Guzzi Motorcycles of Escondido asked me to take a Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom to Bike Night at the local Hooters Restaurant.  If we must. Hooters is located about a mile north of the shop so I immediately set off...to the south. 

So-called cruiser-style bikes are not normally of interest to me.  For the most part form - something the manufacturers take great pains to refer to as 'style' - takes priority over function.  Offerings from American manufacturers and the Japanese-made 'metric' clones tend to place emphasis on largeness; in the size and weight of the machines and also in engine displacement.  Motors are typically big inline narrow-angle V-twins and relatively slow-revving due to significant crankshaft and flywheel mass.  Emphasis is placed on torque characteristics rather than chasing horsepower numbers.  

With their long wheelbases, significant weight and limited ground clearance many of these bikes can be challenging to ride in terms of bends.  The grinding of floorboards (Floor boards? On motorcycles! Good gracious.) at moderate lean angle are an all too early warning sign of potential disaster.  Certain bikes from one 100+ year old brand can sometimes be seen 'wiggling their hips' in bends.  It's often scary just watching.  

Then there's the curious seating position where the weight of your body rests on the base of your spine whilst arms reach out in wide supplication to handlebars which appear borrowed from large wheelbarrows.  It's evident that I struggle to 'get it'.  The cool-aid drinking faithful are fond of saying that if they had to explain it I wouldn't understand. That I get.

Meanwhile over in Italy the cappuccino crowd have their own way of thinking.  Perhaps it's in part because designers who live in the foothills of the Alps are bound to arrive at different solutions than those whose roots are in flat farmland.  Italians produce cruisers alright, but very much on their own terms.  Ducati's Diavel power-cruiser is a case in point. 

So, back to the Moto Guzzi California 1400.  Yes, it appears long and sits low to the ground.  It is stylish; Italians couldn't design a bad-looking toaster.  (Well okay, over at Lancia cars there are some elements of awkwardness.)  The California doesn't look like a copy of anything else.  Massive cylinders intruding into tank space are meant to inform. An artful rear fender/mudguard is graced with LED tail and brake lights.  The instrument pod is simple, round and contains all the info you need.  Like an Armani suit the sum of the parts exude a dignified presence without any need to shout.

The handlebars are great wide tillers.  Yes, there are floorboards - hinged - where you are meant to rest your feet.  There's a substantial looking heel-and-toe shifter on the left and a brake pedal on the right which appears as if it could have been borrowed from a small Italian car.  The saddle is big enough for naturally large persons or someone whose caloric intake occasionally exceeds the recommended daily amount. I felt a bit small on this bike. 

Start me up.  A bit like a radial-enginned airplane there's a big shake and a snort from the 90 degree V-twin and then it just settles.  Before setting off we notice it says Tourismo on the instrument display. The throttle is ride-by-wire and Tourismo is one of three settings; the others being an Italian word for Lame (or possibly Rain) and the enticing-sounding Veloce.  Settings are changed via the starter button once the bike is running and in neutral.  Throttle settings don't appear to be changeable on the fly. 

Off we go then.  Wha' hey?  This thing steers!  No, not like a sports bike or even a sports tourer but with easy deftness that belies its size and looks.  The suspension is another revelation.  It's no indulgingly plush adventure tourer but it's more than compliant and doesn't hint at bottoming out.  With the wide bars and no windscreen there's a good deal of wind blast on the freeway but it's no worse than most naked bikes.  Set on Tourismo the throttle control is smooth and naturally progressive.  

Guzzi's so-called big-block engine is very eager to rev and is anything but slow.  Rumbly vibes at lower revs - quite noticeable but at a frequency that is entertaining rather than intrusive - disappear completely as you reach 4500 rpm and beyond.  Did I really just close up on that quickly on the car ahead?  Off to Hooters then before the shop owner begins to wonder where the Peak fella went with his bike. 

After an evening of hootin' it was time to take the big girl home.  Whilst stopped at a traffic light a large-diplacement Milwaukee twin pulled up in the lane next to me; all rumbles and shakes and blipping of throttle.  Well then, surely this must be the appointed time to see what the Veloce throttle setting is all about?  

Holy Mother of Mary!  Throttle response is instant and accompanied by a mighty surge of forward thrust.  It revs much quicker than expected leading to a series of hurried upshifts.  The other bike is a distant speck in the mirrors.   A couple of turns later I try it again on a street where it's less likely a need will arise to explain these actions to someone 'in authority'.  The shift from second into third sees the front tyre cease contact with the asphalt. 


So, here we have a stylish Italian cruiser which you can ride in a relaxed manner if you so choose.  Or, you can ride it 'con brio' and thoroughly enjoy a bike which neither sacrifices function nor subscribes to tired cliches.  If this is your kind of bike you're sure to have a lot of fun either way.  California dreamin?  Good vibrations are happenin'.

Mike Moloney © 2015

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