THEY LAUGHED WHEN I SAID I WAS CONSIDERING BUYING A SHAFT-DRIVE SPORTS BIKE, BUT TIME HAS VINDICATED THE MOTO GUZZI LE MANS
I was walking down the street one day when I heard this boof-boof-boof over my shoulder. There was a long, low red motorcycle slowing for the lights. It made a right-angle turn and disappeared: boof-boof-boof. No drama, not many revs.
We usually buy a motorcycle for its looks, its power or the sound it makes on full-noise. But suddenly I was hooked by the boof-boof of a Moto Guzzi Le Mans running at only 15mph. It was a sound that spoke of deep torque and of the ability to sustain high average speeds over substantial distances.
Guzzis hadn’t registered with me until then, but in that early-eighties’ [STYLE?] summer, I began clocking the few that you saw and tracking down road-test reviews. I had to admit that the Le Mans seemed full of contradictions – an Italian V-twin sports bike with 81bhp, yet it had only pushrod valve gear, and nothing like the sophistication of Ducati’s overhead cams and desmodromic valve actuation. The Guzzi also splayed its cylinders sideways, which looked nothing like as elegant as Ducati’s in-line configuration.
And the Le Mans had shaft drive. A sports bike with shaft drive – totally incongruous, or so it seemed. Friends ridiculed me when I said I was thinking of buying one. ‘Torque reaction,’ they chimed, as though it were some voodoo curse. It was actually believed by many people at the time that a motorcycle with shaft drive could hurl you into a tree if you down-changed incorrectly.
I went ahead and bought one anyway, as you do when the motorcycle lust strikes. I handed over £3200 garnered from the uncertain trade of freelance journalism to Three Cross Motorcycles in Dorset to acquire a new Le Mans Mk III. Now I had my own boof-boof-boof machine.
I instantly loved that bike. At the time I was doing a lot of 200 to 250-mile runs to motorcycle shows, racetracks and magazine offices, and the Le Mans was perfect for that role. It loped across England serenely in the 80 the 120mph envelope, with that balanced V-twin never sounding stressed. I often carried quite a bit of kit, but I couldn’t bear to sully the Guzzi’s looks with the scaffolding of pannier racks, so I used a tank-bag and throw-over panniers.
Let’s deal with the torque-reaction hysteria before we go any further. Yes, the Guzzi would lock up and chirp its rear tyre if you down-changed cack handedly and I imagine this could chuck you off on a wet road or if you were leaned over. But if you applied the right technique there was no problem. As you eased in the clutch lever on the downchange, you blipped the throttle to spin the crankshaft to the rate at which it would be turning in the new, lower gear: the equivalent of double-declutching in a car without a synchromesh gearbox. It was just normal riding practice.
It was said that the Mk III Le Mans would achieve 130mph, which I thought was manufacturer bullshit. But when we put a III through the speed trap at Bike magazine, it recorded 132mph – a rare case of a motorbike’s performance matching the factory’s claims. The Guzzi’s riding position, and probably the flyscreen, contributed to this impressive lick. You moulded yourself around the fuel tank, settled into the low seat and reached for rearset bars. You could easily maintain this prone position, settled beneath the wind, for the three hours before the 844cc motor had sucked in its full load and demanded more.
There were certainly quicker-handling bikes around than the Le Mans, but I loved it for its long distance stamina. It seemed to recall bygone times when testers from the Vincent factory would use the Great North Road – the A1(M) to us now – as a ton-plus proving ground, or TE Lawrence would race an aircraft on a Brough Superior V-twin. The Le Mans series Guzzis never excited the same level of emotion as Ducati’s 900SS mileageeater, but they were a heck of a lot more practical, and barely any slower.