Memorable Motorcycle: MV Agusta 750S

April 28, 2011
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

After MV Agustas first failed attempt at a road-going 4  the former aircraft manufacturer released the 750S with an engine derived from its GP bikes.
After MV Agusta’s first failed attempt at a road-going “4”, the former aircraft manufacturer released the 750S (above) with an engine derived from its GP bikes. 

If you’re ever on business or holiday in northern Italy, you might well find yourself in Milan. Perhaps you will be heading to the stunningly beautiful Italian Alps and the elegance of Lake Como, or to the southern edge of Switzerland. If so, keep an eye out for the E62 Autostrada. Then take a diversion and wriggle your way through the back streets of Gallarate until you find yourself at one of the great shrines of motorcycling: the home of Meccanica Verghera Agusta – Verghera being the town where MV Agusta motorcycles were made directly after the war.

On the right there is a small museum which is interesting enough, but nothing special. Continue driving a little way and there, slightly downhill, lies one of the legendary sites of motorcycle history: the Agusta factory. Externally, the buildings are drab 1930s’ factory units, but if you go down to the reception and ask nicely, you might, as I did, find someone who remembers the old race shop which is to the left of the main gate. “Yes,” smiled the elderly guard. “I remember Agostini and the race team.”

Through these gates, like humble vassals visiting a Roman Emperor, came some of the greatest riders in motorcycle racing history. Taveri, Provini, Ubbiali, Surtees, Hailwood, Agostini and Read all drove through the very same entrance and then waited – sometimes for several days – until Count Domenico Agusta granted them an audience.

A clever starter motor also worked as a generator  giving the 750S more practicality for road use.
A clever starter motor also worked as a generator, giving the 750S more practicality for road use. 

MV Agusta was not an ordinary motorcycle manufacturer, and Count Domenico was very far from a conventional CEO. For a start, Agusta was not truly a motorcycle manufacturer at all. They were, almost wholly, a helicopter company.

Initially an aircraft builder, things were not well with Agusta in the immediate post war years for the rather simple reason that Italy had been playing for the wrong team in the five-year conflict. In order to keep his skilled workforce in employment, the Count and his brother, Vincenzo, decided to make bikes.

In isolation this might seem to be an odd decision, but it’s important to remember where Gallarate is located. Thirty miles up the road is the world famous Monza circuit – one of the very few purpose-built race tracks in the world in 1945. Aermacchi was just 13 miles away and the Gilera factory, with its unrivalled knowledge of multi-cylinder racing motorcycles, was only 35 miles away. Critically, FB Mondial, which had so much influence on MV, was located a spanner’s throw away in Milan.

All these factories cross-fertilized each other and surrounding them was an army of skilled, artisan sub-contractors who could make anything motorcycle related.

MV Agusta 750S instrument cluster
Despite a steep  6000 price tag  the MV Agusta 750S sold in decent numbers.

The final influence was not from the world of two-wheels, but rather four. There is no doubt that Count Domenico looked at Enzo Ferrari and the fame he accrued by going GP car racing, and wanted to emulate his success on the bike scene. Like Enzo, Domenico was prepared to spend big money to be at the head of the table.

At this point the story becomes complex. It is doubtful whether MV Agusta motorcycles ever made real commercial sense once the aircraft industry had picked up post war. The bikes were made in small numbers, had tortuous and inadequate dealer networks and were overly complicated. Worse still, the race bikes dominated the GP world with four cylinder, double overhead cam engines at a time when a push-rod, road-going Twin was considered to be the height of complexity.

For sure, the motorcycling world cried out for an MV “Four” road bike, but what was equally certain was that very few riders would stump up the fortune necessary to pay for one. Even so, MV did make one utterly futile attempt. For whatever reason, in 1965 MV produced the truly awful 600cc Quatro. Allegedly, only 135 of these dull, heavy, ugly and underpowered machines were made between 1965 and 1972.

Again, for reasons unknown, Count Domenico was persuaded to allow his staff to have a second attempt at building a road-going “4” and this was the infinitely more spectacular 750S – a bike which was nearly, but not quite, a world beater.

The good news began with the engine which was derived from the early racing MV racing Fours. This meant it had sand cast engine casings, gear driven, double overhead cams and a beautiful but horrendously expensive crankshaft with roller big-ends. The motor is so near to the factory racing four-cylinder engine that a few – very rich – enthusiasts have converted the road bikes into pseudo-replicas of the old GP bikes.

Despite having 50  greater capacity than its race sibling  the 750S can only muster 50 hp.
Despite having 50% greater capacity than its race sibling, the 750S mustered 20 less hp.

MV didn’t cut corners when it came to converting the motor for road use either. They built a very clever starter motor with a dual v-belt. This spun the motor into action with one belt and then used the starter as a generator to charge the battery with the other belt.

The problem was that Count Agusta was worried about road bikes being purchased and converted into racers, and then damaging the iconic MV name by not winning. In an attempt to stop this, he specified that the motor would be in a low state of tune. The MV Fours ridden by Surtees, Hartle, Venturi and the other MV immortals gave something over 70 horsepower while the road motor, despite having a 50% greater capacity, managed only a shade over 50 horsepower. This lack of power comes mainly from tiny valves – 30mm for the inlet and 24mm for the exhaust – and miniscule 24mm carbs.

But Count Agusta’s key weapon was insisting on a shaft final drive which really did militate against racing. Additionally, as a fine example of the law of unintended consequences, it provided a good business for MV technical wizard, Arturo Magni, in converting the shaft drive bikes to chain. The end result was a spectacular race derived powerplant with performance no better than a standard Honda CB750.

If MV made a big effort with the motor, the rest of the bike was very typical of Italian road bikes of the era – and this wasn’t good. The bought in bits – and there are a lot of them on the bike – were of dubious quality and a cheap Grimeca front brake was used instead of the race spec. In objective terms there were faster, better made and vastly more durable motorcycles on sale than the 750S. However, they weren’t MVs. This meant that, despite the $6000 price tag, the 750S still managed to sell steadily, albeit in modest numbers.

Six-time world champion Jim Redman is pictured above on a converted race replica of the MV Agusta 750S.
Six-time world champion Jim Redman is pictured above on a converted race replica of the MV Agusta 750S.

In 1973 I was still just a baby journalist and I remember being singularly unimpressed by the 750S. The gears driving the cams, the huge cylinder head and the gear primary drive all combined to make the most horrible whirring and clanking noises. The MV stood in marked contrast to the sophistication of the Japanese four-cylinder rival of the day.

The performance was nothing to write home about either. MV claimed that the 750 would manage almost 130 mph whilst the reality was that it took a good day to see 115 mph. By contrast, the Kawasaki Z1 would run up to 130 mph all year long, and even the conservative CB750 Four was 5 mph quicker.

The handling was okay, but the standard Marzocchi rear shocks let the plot down. Again, it seemed to be a case of saving a few dollars on what should have been a dream product.

But there is an insuperable barrier to objective analysis for anyone with race oil running through their veins. Get the motor up above 6,000 rpm and the four exhausts wail. Suddenly, you are Surtees coming down from Kate’s Cottage and peeling into Creg Ny Baa chasing Bob Anderson’s Manx Norton. Remo Venturi is there with you as you scream through the Curva Grande at Monza with 100,000 Italian fans cheering your red and silver “Fire Engine.” How can you remain objective with the weight of this history filling the gas tank?

What makes the design flaws in the 750S palatable is its rich history and race-inspired memories.
What makes the design flaws in the 750S palatable is its rich history and race-inspired memories.  

At this point it matters not one iota that the MV is poorly finished and the brakes don’t work and that it’s got a silly shaft drive. Elbows tucked in against the race replica gas tank gives the feeling of riding with legends. That, my friends, is why I would have a 750S. And this too is why you will forgive the bike’s every fault – and then some. You want to be objective, but there are too many illustrious ghosts riding with you every time the bike starts.

So why don’t I own a 750S? The reason is very simple: Pay anything less than $40,000 for a mint example and you’ll have done very well. For me, it’s just too much money for a toy – even one as exotic as the 750S.