Touring the Moto Guzzi Museum at Mandello del Lario

MotorcycleUSA Staff | September 8, 2015

Objectivity: The state or quality of being true even outside of a subject’s individual biases, interpretations, feelings, and imaginings.

Objectively I should say the Moto Guzzi museum, at Mandello del Lario on the banks of Lake Como in northern Italy, has relatively few motorcycles on display for a world class museum.

It is also important to add that the museum is housed in an old building, dating from the 1920s, and that the displays are plain and utilitarian.

Moto Guzzi Museum Tour

View from the Guzzi factory over Lake Como.

And, in purely objective terms, visitor facilities are poor. Admission to the museum is free of charge and so there is no blank faced, and emotionally absent, ticket vendor to prepare the visitor for the shock which will soon assault them. There are no audio guides or booklets to lend a helping hand. This is a museum fit only for the dedicated Moto Guzzi acolyte. Voyeurs, by-standers and tourists need to seek their historical thrills elsewhere.

All this is factually and objectively accurate. The tour is over. Now let’s move on.

The problem is that I cannot move on nor can I ever be objective about the Moto Guzzi museum because, despite all its faults – or maybe even because of its foibles – this is a shrine not only to motorcycling but to human endeavor. Nowhere in the world will you see human creativity more clearly and overtly manifested than in this rather dowdy display of motorcycles and motorcycle engineering.

You know that something special is about to happen when you enter Mandello del Lario. Like all the lakeside villages, towns and small cities in this sub-Alpine region, it is squeezed tight up against the mountains on one side and the water on the other. The difference is that Mandello del Lario proudly proclaims that it is: Citta dei Motori.

Drive a few hundred yards further along the narrow road and there on the left is a small, somewhat grubby, car park but, uniquely in the world, it bears the plaque: Piazza Carlo Guzzi – for Mandello del Lario is Moto Guzzi and Moto Guzzi is Mandello del Lario with each enjoying their mutually symbiotic relationship.

Moto Guzzi Museum Tour

Exhibits at the Moto Guzzi Museum are laid out simply.

The Moto Guzzi factory was built in 1921 – and looks as if it was. The Piaggio Group, who now own the Moto Guzzi brand, are starting to re-build the site as Guzzi production ramps up but the iron framed windows, carrying over 90 years of paint, bear testimony that this is an authentically historic building.

The entry to the museum is anti-climactic in the extreme. There is no huge artwork proclaiming what the visitor is about to see; no theme park welcome by gleaming-toothed hostesses and no offers to dine in an “authentic” 1930s Italian restaurant. Instead, one ascends a set of worn stairs and, quite suddenly, you are thrust into the presence of greatness. The experience is almost the equivalent of finding Michelangelo’s “David” stood in the corner of a garden ornament shop.

Tucked away in a glass case, on the left-hand side of the corridor, is Carlo Guzzi’s first ever motorcycle and it represents the fanfare of trumpets which launches the show.

But first, a short digression. For something over 1.7 million years our ancient ancestors made hand-axes formed from pieces of flint or obsidian. During this whole period, the design remained more or less the same. A piece of stone was fashioned into a shape which fitted inside the user’s hand and was then used as a tool or weapon as the situation demanded.

Then, just a mere 100,000 years ago someone came along and said: “You know, you could put that little hand axe into the end of a stick and make a spear, or an arrow or scraper or…” And technology was born.

But it took some enormous creative genius to say that what had been happening for a million and a half years could have been improved – things could be different.

Moto Guzzi Museum Tour

The original 1919 Guzzi GP.

So when Carlo Guzzi produced his first motorcycle in 1919, it wasn’t a modified bicycle with a proprietary engine brought in from Switzerland or England. Guzzi said that there was a better way of making a motorcycle than just adding an engine to a bicycle.

The better way was a forward-facing single cylinder engine which could be air cooled because it was in the correct place to catch the airflow. The engine had an overhead cam and four valves so that it breathed well. There was an outside flywheel, which came to be called “The Bacon Slicer,” so that the crankshaft was stiff and the motor had low vibration. The primary drive was by gear, rather than chain, with a three speed, unit construction gearbox, and automatic lubrication at a time when riders were expected to pump oil to the engine manually. Guzzi did not so much improve motorcycle design as rip it to shreds and start from new. These same ideas were to dominate Guzzi’s thinking for the next 50 years.

Carlo Guzzi was only able to develop his superior hand axes because his partner was Giorgio Parodi. Guzzi and Parodi had been colleagues in the Italian Servizio Aeronautica during the First World War and it was the Parodi family fortune, made from shipping and armaments, which bankrolled the whole project.

Guzzi was an aircraft mechanic and Parodi a pilot. A close friend and confidant of the pair was another flyer named Giovanni Ravelli. Tragically, Ravelli was killed in 1919, just after the end of hostilities, but Guzzi and Parodi were determined to keep his memory alive by using the legendary soaring eagle on every motorcycle they made.

In fact, the first Guzzi is actually called a GP – to recognize the Guzzi/Parodi link – but the young Giorgio’s family were so concerned about the adverse publicity if things went wrong with the new venture that they had the Parodi element of the name dropped and so Moto Guzzi was born.

Moto Guzzi Museum Tour

The 1921 Moto Guzzi Normale was an instant sales success.

Guzzi was fortunate in having Parodi for a business partner because young Giorgio’s Dad, Emanuele Parodi, was a seriously smart businessman and made sure that if he was going to back the new motorcycle business it would be profitable.

Mr. Parodi deemed the GP too complex and expensive to make and so in 1921 the much simpler Moto Guzzi Normale went on sale and was the beginning of one of the outstanding success stories in Italian motorcycling.

Now, we tend to think of Moto Guzzi being a rather quirky, niche manufacturer but until the marque’s decline in the 1970s, they were the most successful Italian motorcycle manufacturer with a stunning record of making popular, reliable motorcycles which customers wanted to buy.

After the GP the next gallery proudly displays a Normale Norge which went to the Arctic Circle and the little Airone which was Italy’s bestselling 250 for 16 years.

I was particularly impressed by Guzzi’s own interpretation of a truly practical scooter which the factory first produced in 1950 – in direct response to a post war Italy starved of personal transport. The Galletto 160, carrying the nickname “The Priest’s Scooter”, was a 160cc, six horsepower machine which enabled the local Priest – and there were an awful lot of the clergy in Italy – to get around their parishes quickly, economically and safely, even on poorly made roads. With an alloy cylinder and barrel and, naturally, a horizontal engine, the Galletto was safe, easy to ride and a real workhorse – and it made Guzzi a huge amount of money.

The road bikes are remarkable but for me the visit was dominated by Guzzi’s incredible range of racing motorcycles.

Moto Guzzi Museum Tour

Bill Lomas’ 1955 350 Moto Guzzi, the ultimate manifestation of the single cylinder racing motorcycle.

Guzzi’s belief in mass centralization and low drag gave them five consecutive 350cc World Championships from 1953 to 1957. These sweet handling single cylinder machines, developed in Guzzi’s own wind tunnel, allowed Fergus Anderson, Bill Lomas and Keith Campbell to carry enormous corner speed on the rough, public road circuits which formed the GP calendar in this period.

It is a joy to be able to get close to these wonderful bikes and admire the craftsmanship. I took a particular delight in looking at the magnesium alloy fairing on Lomas’ bike which still shows the working of the English wheel and planishing hammer where the Guzzi craftsman stretched and beat the metal into shape over 59 years ago.

Not that Guzzi was addicted to single cylinder racing. Towards the end of the gallery, there is a magnificent display of supercharged Singles and V-Twins – and the utterly sublime three cylinder “Tre”.

In an act of incredible generosity and kindness, my hosts allowed me to cross the barrier and touch the Tre and to do so was a quasi-religious experience. The three inclined water-cooled cylinders would be state of the art for 2015 – as would be the neat supercharger tucked away above the engine. The 500cc engine produced 65 hp at only 8000 rpm so it is reasonable to think of 120 hp plus for a 1000cc engine – or about what a current sports touring machine is making. The difference is that the Guzzi dates from 1940!

Along with a science fiction sophisticated engine was a spine frame containing the engine’s oil. Neat, compact, and barely any wider than a 500cc Single, the Tre was destined for stardom except for the FIM’s ban on superchargers. I simply stood in awe next to it.

Moto Guzzi Museum Tour

The legendary 1940 Guzzi Tre, a motorcycle so advanced it would be a sensation today.

There is a huge display of Guzzis derived from the V7 military, ATV engine and these are fascinating. Dr. John Wittner’s Daytona race bikes are magnificent as is the regal Moto Guzzi California Police bike. The problem with the V-Twin displays is that they are too near to the one reason why you should, must, make the journey to Mandello del Lario because you are about to come into the presence of greatness.

There on an imperially raised dais – as well it might be – is the Moto Guzzi Otto Cilindri: Giulio Cesare Carcano’s legendary V8.

Carcano joined Moto Guzzi in 1936 and worked alongside Mr. Guzzi until they decided that the single cylinder race bikes could never compete against the “Fours” of Gilera and MV Agusta. In another smashing of the hand axe, Carcano designed an eight cylinder racing motorcycle which was so neat, small, and aerodynamic that it looked barely bigger than the singles it replaced.

With a top speed in excess of 175 mph in 1957 – so fast that Guzzi’s factory riders did everything they could to avoid riding the machine – the Otto would have been one of motorcycle racing legends had Guzzi not withdrawn from GP racing in 1957.

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Incredibly, you can stand inches away from the V8 and get even closer to the eight cylinder engines displayed in the gallery.

There are many fine motorcycling museums but, regardless the effort, this is one you must visit.

My thanks to Fabio and Walther for all their help with this article.

You can read what it is like to ride a Moto Guzzi V8 here.

Opening times:
Monday to Friday 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
In the month of July: Open from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The Museum will be closed:
– 4, 5 and 6 of April
– 1st May
– 2nd June
– From 1 to 31 August
– The 8 of December
– From the 20 of December to 6 of January.
Free admission – guided tour