Start of something…
The Moto Guzzi V-twin has enjoyed 50 years in production and this relatively early version proves the formula was right from the off.
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Words: ANDY WESTLAKE Photographs: GARY CHAPMAN
With the rumbling of the big ‘V’ reverberating across the water and the late autumn sun dappling through the trees, it took little imagination to picture myself cruising along the shores of Lake Como. Okay, I own up, it may not be Italy and the lake is not Como, but the rather smaller one of Shearwater on the Somerset/Wiltshire border, but as I’m riding one of my favourite motorcycles – in the form of a Moto Guzzi V-twin – I’ve got a big smile on my face.
Since I bought my first Guzzi in 1982 I’ve covered more than 250,000 miles on three of Mandello’s big twins but this was my first ride on the bike that carries the model name of ‘V750 Ambassador’. Launched in 1969, the Ambassador – or the V7 Special in the UK – was the first Guzzi that made a mark in the lucrative US market and, when compared to the established opposition, its regal riding position, oil-tight 60hp engine and low maintenance shaft drive unit offered
an air of luxury and reliability previously largely unheard of.
How many of the Ambassadors were sold in the US isn’t clear – the Moto Guzzi factory doesn’t have any records of Stateside sales during this time – but following a time of uncertainty for the Italian giant, it faced the new decade with renewed optimism.
While sales were good in the US, few of the V7 Specials found their way to the UK and our test bike is one that was imported by a Midlands dealer and later sold to a Yorkshire enthusiast. Since early 2017, it has been owned by West Countryman Roger Chapman and joins his collection of numerous British, European and Japanese exotica from the last 60 years.
I was keen to fire the Ambassador into action, but before we press the button – there’s no kick-start – perhaps we should reflect on the launch of the Guzzi V-twins. To most enthusiasts the name of the bikes from Mandello Del Lario had usually been associated with the horizontal singles that carried works racers like Bill Lomas, Fergus Anderson and Bruno Ruffo to world championship glory, but by the early 1960s the Mandello management was acutely aware that the 500cc single (Falcone road bike) was now past its best and a new engine was needed. It was to come from a most unusual source.
In addition to their range of road bikes from their early days, Guzzi (founded in 1921) produced numerous two and three-wheelers for the Italian military and it was through this association in 1960 that the first V-twin appeared. The brainchild of General Garbani, the 3×3 was a bizarre-looking vehicle driven by a 90° V-twin that could climb virtually everything.
Although only produced in relatively small numbers, the power unit and drive chain sowed the seeds as the perfect one to power a two-wheeler and the first prototype development of what would later appear as the 700cc V7 began in 1964. The new departure’s first public appearance was at the following year’s 39th International Milan Show (in which the new Guzzi was the star exhibition) but it would take another two years before the first production models appeared.
By 1969, an enlarged version, with a capacity of 757cc called the V7 Special, was introduced and for those looking for more performance the engine was turning out a respectable 60bhp at 6000rpm, giving a top speed of around 115mph. In addition to the ‘basic’ Special, between 1969 and 1971 Guzzi produced the Ambassador for the American market. The imports were handled in America by the Premier Motor Corporation – an off-shoot of the Berliner Motor Corporation – and although the bikes were fundamentally the same as the V7 Special, they were fitted with US-market accessories including side reflectors on the mudguards, the round rear light from the earlier V7 and Ambassador V75 artwork on the side panels. It’s in this specification we find our test bike, but as this is a mark two produced in 1970, it also includes an upgrade of a separate rev counter on the handlebars. Roger’s bike – which carries the registration number XHH 156H – is very much as it was bought but as I discovered from the previous owner/restorer (who preferred not to be named) it needed quite a lot of work after arriving from the US. He takes up the story…
“Roger originally came to look at an early Moto Guzzi T3 California I had recently completely rebuilt, he liked it and he nearly bought it, but he was keen to learn about the Ambassador I had on the table waiting further fettling. The earlier, almost 1950s styling attracted his eye and when I cracked it up for him, I saw his face break into a big grin. The sound of a fresh V-twin with unbalanced exhausts is quite something to hear in a confined space!
“He phoned me back a few days later to say he would like to buy the Ambassador and could I do some more work on it to meet his requirements. We agreed a price and I fitted some stainless exhaust pipes, a single seat and some other bits and bobs.
“I’d originally bought it from a Midlands dealer who specialises in importing bikes from the States. It was in a bit of a mess and had been stood for some time. Having rebuilt several Guzzis previously and run them as my main bikes for many years, I felt confident of taking on this earlier project, but I knew there were several significant differences to the later [Lino] Tonti-framed bikes I was used to.
“The engine was stripped right down and the bottom end was found to be in excellent condition. The main issue with the earlier engines is with the chrome bores. These are fine as long as the bike is being used but they will deteriorate rapidly once a bike is stood for any length of time. The chrome bubbles and peels off just like an old chrome bumper. The solution is to fit cast iron liners, which is what I had to do here. Everything was rebuilt with new parts as required, including a full overhaul of the cylinder heads and fitting them with the later valves and guides, which are more durable.
“The original four-speed gearbox was stripped and given a full set of new bearings – I had to use some novel extraction techniques to get the old ones out. The rear drive box is a common source of problems, so it was stripped down and all new bearings were fitted. New clutch plates were sourced and fitted and the rest of the bike went together surprisingly well, with lots of stainless fixings. In addition, I treated it to a full rewire, the brake shoes were relined, the painting was done locally, the seat was recovered and new tyres and tubes were fitted. I am indebted to Guy and Ed at Gutsibits in Huddersfield who managed to supply many of the required new parts, however some were not obtainable in the UK and these – including the brake pedal, side panels and grab handles – were sourced from the US.
“With the bike finished, it flew through an MoT so off I went to get some shakedown miles under the wheels. It soon became apparent that despite the new bearings the gearbox was very noisy. I found out later that this is a well-known ‘feature’ of the four-speed boxes and I suspect the gear profile was changed with the advent of the five-speed box. The brakes bedded in after a 100 miles or so and after a bit more fettling the whole bike ran and rode like a new machine. It has quite a turn of speed too, when asked.
“I could have left the gearbox, knowing that it was mechanically as good as it could be, but it was around this time that I decided I liked the bike and would be keeping it, so the best way forward was to fit a five-speed box. Some brief research indicated it had been done, but I could not find anything definitive to be sure of the problems I would come up against. Gutsibits had a low mileage Le Mans II in stock, which was being broken for spares. We negotiated a price for the five-speed box and I stripped the Ambassador down again to do the work.
“There were four main problems to address. Firstly, the gear linkage was going to need major surgery. I fabricated a new offset arm to fit the existing cross shaft and a new shaft bearing bracket to mount on the back of the gearbox.
“Secondly, the original starter motor would not fit. While it was working okay, it was a bit slow in turning the engine over, so I decided to get the latest Valeo starter and do the necessary modifications to that.
“Thirdly, the clutch lever on the back of the gearbox came out on the opposite side. This was solved with a cable from another model slightly modified to fit.
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