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Living With the Moto Guzzi California Vintage

April 8, 2017

A Week with the Moto Guzzi California Vintage Street Cred without the “wannabe” Moto Guzzi has more “cruiser street cred” than most people give it credit for. They’ve been around continuously since 1921; longer than anyone but Harley Davidson. But for Harley Davidson, Guzzi’s been building cruisers longer than anyone els – their first cruiser in the incarnation you see above coming out in 1967 with the V700. Guzzi has always liked building “big” bikes, but we must adjust scale. Italy, which was Guzzi’s biggest market for most of it’s life, had production street bikes with less than 100cc for decades – a bike above 300cc was considered “big”.

Guzzi was at the top of the heap early on, with production 500cc bikes that were reliable and sporting. The 500cc Falcone of the 50s is an excellent example of this, a bike with incredible reliability, to the point where an American Guzzi Club member is an original owner of two, both ridden on close to a daily basis for more than 50 years! Guzzi builds cruisers, and they have built them for a long, long time. This is no late-comer, me-too, bandwagon cruiser, built to exploit a market niche that came about from Harley-Davidson’s renaissance. Moto Guzzi toughed it out for years when companies with better resources and larger dealer networks walked all over them.

The thing is, they never gave up, they never stopped building the platform, and they stayed true to their mission. The current “cruiser” platform is built around the laterally-mounted V-twin motor (originally 700cc, now 1100), running through an in-line, automobile-type transmission straight through to a drive shaft and bevel-drive final. After more than 40 years, it’s a highly refined system. The motor could best be described as a “two cylinder small-block, American V-8?. This really isn’t a stretch. The cam is in the vee, there is a conventional sump, it has a hemi-head with pushrods and rockers. It also makes gobs and gobs of torque, is insanely easy to work on, and is dead-nuts reliable. The California Vintage is a celebration of this linage, from the first V-twins, through the Police Bike era and up through today. The first California appeared on the Eldorado platform, all white-pin-striped black with a white-trimmed “buddy seat”. So what did Moto Guzzi do with this (arguments start here) most popular platform cruiser bike ever to come from Europe? The second-oldest continuously built cruiser platform in existence? They continuously refined it

The refinements are many. Brakes are sport-bike-standard Double Brembos in the front and a single in the rear. The 1094cc engine has a smooth, stumble-free injection system. The exhaust meets the tough Euro-3 standards, and the standard bags are best-of-breed huge and integrated perfectly into the design. The seat is just plain sweet. The windscreen has been tested to assure smooth flow around the rider. The suspension comes with a Marzocchi hydraulic telescopic fork with rebound and compression adjustability. The rear suspension is ubiquitous twin shock, with preload and compression adjustability. That Guzzi sound is still there. It sounds like no other v-twin engine, unlike their more “me-too” cruiser late-comers. It’s kind of V-Twin, but more “small block”. Brings smiles by the bag load, and you don’t get into that “Harley patented their sound” conversation. Unique is good. It looks like a real, honest-to-goodness, Magnum Force police bike. The Cal weighs in at about 560lbs, and it really shows when the turns appear in front of you. You have a choice of three gears at any “happy speed”.

The Engineers didn’t give in to the drag-racing-slick-rear-tire look. It’s ALL Guzzi, and that means it’s not a Harley, Harley-clone, Harley-wannabe; Harley anything. It’s the anti-Harley in the cruiser market. It’s the non-wannabe. It’s the Cruiser Bike for someone that rides a lot of sport bikes The combination of suspension, brakes, handling and balance make this a bike for a non-cruiser-cruiser-buyer. Guzzi didn’t give in to fads, it stuck to its principles. No fat tires or huge cubic-inch motors; just not needed. The Goose will definitely go “fast enough” (Jim Barron of Rose Farm Classics claims well over 135mph).

If you want to ride a bike a lot, anywhere, anytime, in a comfortable riding position that doesn’t require a kidney belt and three bottles of Advil for your sore arms and buffeted neck, this is your bike. I Got up at 5 o’clock that Friday morning, knowing that I was going to ride the California Vintage to work. I had just wrapped up a two-week test of the Moto Guzzi Breva 1200 Sport; this was different — it would be three hundred miles of riding on a real, honest-to-goodness sumbitchin made-for-the-long-road cruiser. I picked the bike up and gingerly rode off. I was thinking that it would be a much heavier bike than I’m used to, but after a few miles I was surprised by the nimble feel. It was nowhere near as light and “zippy” as the Breva 1200, but it moved nicely and the not-too-fat tires had superb turn in. I knew that I would have to tweak the suspension a bit, but not nearly so much as the Breva. Funny, it has almost as many adjustments, more than my Ducati even. The steering shock is also a nice addition, as the windscreen requires it. This is the first floorboard-equipped bike I’ve been on in about 16 years. I didn’t know what to expect. Friends of mine said that the Cal’s floorboards were small, that “it needed highway pegs”, and “there’s no place to move your feet around”. Well, I have a size 12 shoe, and I found a couple of things off the bat:

  • I had never heard of full floating floorboards before, and I like them.
  • I was able to move my feet in different positions while cruising long distance.
  • The big jugs on the Vintage don’t prevent highway pegs, although I found a spot where I could hang my heels very comfortably without them.
  • The little peg used as a pivot for your brake lever is a very smart idea.

General Riding Effortless.

The big-pulled back bars take some getting used to, especially after the Breva’s motard-y rack. Once underway, the big 1100 pulls like a rhino, even from beneath 2000 rpm. Gearchange is “guzzi effortless”, which means that you “press and hold” each gear until you release the clutch. If you want something a little quicker, get the 6-speed on the Breva Sport/Griso/Norge, as it is much more refined. The five-speed on the Guzzi, slow as it is, is fantastically spaced to ride on the street with. First gear is completely useable, and I found myself cruising the streets of Santa Barbara in first between lights, only shifting when I had some yardage between me and the next stop. The first-second combination allows for easy maneuvering and nice “zippy” moves on the streets. If you’re expecting the slouched-over, “lone, unloved and apathetic biker” riding position that many cruisers offer, you’re going to be disappointed. The best position on this bike is a standard straight up and down, nearly cop-like. It’s comfortable, gives you tons of visibility – you’re eye-to-eye with drivers in all but the tallest SUVs. Friends that see me on the road say that I look better on this bike than the others that I’ve ridden – time to have a chat with the wife and see if she likes white or black.

The controls have a nice “retro” look, but they are most definitely modern. Italian bike owners will be familiar with this layout. The clutch is butter smooth, allows for a lot of feathering and never gives a hint of any wooden or binary grabbiness. The instruments all have a slightly retro character, and this is also attractive, down to the speedometer that reads about 10% optimistic.

Looks like Guzzi had some left over parts from my old one, as they read almost identically. Brakes took a little getting used to. I’m more of a “front braker” person, so I usually apply the fronts and then ease the back brake in for a settling effect. Turns out that the Guzzi Linked brakes work well for this, although I adjusted my technique slightly to just use the front brake lever to peel off speed, and the rear lever to get down to business. For those of you unfamiliar, the linked brakes on equipped Moto Guzzi bikes operate the left front disc in conjunction with the rear disc. The front brake lever operates only the front right Brembo.

The combination is both effective and safe. Hard to high-side a bike with linked brakes when used correctly, since you can modulate the speed of both wheels with the rear lever. The Cal’s narrower than current vogue tires allow for the bike to turn in beautifully. I had to adjust the steering shock for high speed turns, as it tends to have an uncomfortable wobbling frequency around an indicated 80-90 in the big sweepers without it. Once dialed in it all disappears. The adjustments of the suspension are also welcome, giving me a very comfortable ride with dynamic handling capabilities. Lightness, if a word like that can be used with a cruiser, is apparent. The bike weighs in at only 560-ish pounds, and this translates into the “flick-ability” of this Guzzi when compared to it’s rivals, and also accentuates the already-high-standard Brembos abilities. The 1100cc engine is matched nicely to this bike – no more engine needed because you’re traveling smart and light, not loaded up with needless accessories, googaws and an extra 700cc or more to pull it around. Riding in traffic The first few miles northbound on the 405 from picking up the bike revealed a nice easy cruise in moderate traffic.

As I neared LAX, the traffic backed up and the commuter lane ended, giving me the choice of splitting lanes or sitting. Like most California riders, I chose the former, but with caution as I was adjusting to the big Guzzi’s systems and controls. I have to thank Clint Eastwood and others for putting the look of the Guzzi into people’s minds. My black jacket, white Shoei helmet and the windscreen/light combo parted traffic like Charlton Heston in a red bathrobe. My urban camouflage was highly successful. Even so, the bags on the Guzzi, big as they are, don’t protrude past the bars or floorboards (I think this is part of the philosophy of their engineers as exhibited by the Norge’s similar layout), and the upright stance gives you so much control over the bike that splitting lanes is not the thrill ride I had expected. Puppies and Kittens to that.

The cavernous bags are a commuters’ delight. I was able to pack all my goodies in the side bags, and the real show-stopper was the ability to put my 17? Mac Laptop in without having to take a running start. I could have easily fit five a side! We’re talking grocery bags in here. The bags come with an inner liner, they open very wide and of course have locks. I was advised to keep them locked down at all time to prevent accidental opening, didn’t try to find out what would happen if I didn’t. The only note about the bags would be to expect to paint the lids once in awhile as you’re going to hit them from time-to-time when mounting the bike. I don’t think this is a big deal if you ride it a lot, as stuff happens and that’s just part of riding.

The Guzzi is so much fun to ride I don’t think any of them are going to be bought as hangar queens anyway. This is a real, he-man, ride-me-everyday kind of bike. I like the way I feel and look on it. I like being seen on it, but I wouldn’t ride it just to be seen on it. Does that make sense? Cool vs. Checkbook Cool. Looking for a Cool Cruiser or Big Bagger? The California Vintage is “Seriously Cool” Cool is Fonzi before the Shark Tank. Cool is James Bond before Roger Lazenby. Ford before the Pinto. The Blues Brothers before Belushi died. While it is most definitely true that some people that ride motorcycles from “The Motorcycle Company” are cool, it’s not because they own Harleys. They are cool AND they chose to ride Harleys.

But there are people that are cool and they choose to ride Vespas. The issue here is the great number of people that buy Harleys and other “lifestyle” motorcycles because it will make them cool. This is “checkbook cool”. No work needed, just add money and you’re cool. To whom?

Well, definitely to other people that did the same thing and wrote a check. After all, one chink in the armor there, and the whole house of cards could come crashing down! If, all of a sudden, object that everyone was spending all their money on to be cool all of a sudden isn’t cool anymore, then the now familiar “bubble” in that particular “market for cool” would burst, and you’d have a lot of equipment and associated bits flooding the market, and everyone would be trying to get something else that is cool. A classic example of this is the Ferrari market just after Enzo died. It went through the ceiling, then burst as speculators paying exorbitant prices couldn’t find anyone to purchase, and dumping began that, nearly 20 years later, only has about 50-75% of the values at that point. I’m not saying that the Harley market is going to crash. I’m also not insinuating that people will stop buying cruisers. My point is, buy something based on facts, what YOU want, and consider all options. Too often, I’ll be talking to people that want to get a cruiser, perhaps their first one, and they are fixated on the Harley, and ONLY the Harley.

Sometimes you’ll have the Yamaha, Suzuki, Victory or others in the mix, but I don’t hear anyone saying, “What about that big Guzzi”, or “I considered the Guzzi but want the Roadliner”, etc. The California Vintage isn’t on their radar. Why? Lack of logo underwear? No lifestyle? What!?? The Guzzi is a great bagger for the serious rider. Guzzi gets in the magazines, but the European editor of one of these really doesn’t like anything without 150 horsepower or a Munich nameplate, and just continuously “bags” on Guzzi to the US public. Shame on him. The Guzzi is well-suited to the US buyer and market. Big, long roads, lots of friends with bikes, a loyal following and a requirement for reliability. The California Vintage is a freeking bargain. If you were to load up any other cruiser with great bags, custom seats, windscreen, sportbike-level front fork and adjustable rear shocks, -you’d be lucky to get under $20-22,000. Yet, here’s your California Vintage, with an incredible seat, best-of-breed suspension, mongo bags and nicely integrated screen on the basic platform, standard, for $15K. Some editors lump it against the sportster because of its weight and engine size, but the real comparison is the big baggers. If your idea of cool is:

  • Light and maneuverable
  • Reliable
  • Heritage and Style without too much bling
  • Comfortable Two-Up seating, but not barcalounger
  • 43mpg
  • Something Different
  • An incredibly open and friendly owners’ group
  • You want a great commuter cruiser.
  • Oh, and you aren’t buying a hangar queen. You’re hittin’ the road!

If you think the above list defines “your cool” – You should consider the Guzzi. You should ride the California Vintage and see if it’s for you. Find out when the dealer is going to have rides available and get on the bike. Fill up the bags. Bring the white helmet and sunglasses, and you’re CHP – 1972. Retro with some serious riding chops, that’s the California Vintage. The California Vintage leaps into the modern world from 1972 like Bob Beaman’s long jump. It may not be your bike, but it’s worth your consideration. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. Your First “Big” Cruiser I’m going to go out on a limb here and recommend the California Vintage if you’ve never had a bagger before. Reason for this is that it’s light. Some of the really big bikes are incredibly difficult to get in and out of parking spaces, let alone get around parking lots. They are not easy to get the hang of, and can be downright dangerous to someone that doesn’t have a lot of experience, or doesn’t ride much. The Guzzi is well-suited because it’s conservative geometry and low center of gravity allow a less-experienced rider to easily get around a parking lot, and build serious confidence on the open road. Sweepers and bumpy turns become no big deal in no time, and the linked brakes and featherweight controls allow the rider to stop on a piece of newspaper. It’s a very easy bike to ride, and if you ride a lot, it’s very rewarding as you’ll just be able to DUST some of the big cruisers through the twisties.

They may pass you on the straights (but I DOUBT IT). If you’re like me, that just doesn’t matter, as I don’t ride much with anyone that is trying to die or attract too much attention from John Q. Law. The Cal is your friendly neighborhood happy speed bike that is the cruiser that sport bike and sport-touring types should buy. It’s the cruiser for the rider that is going to reel in some big miles next year. A side-by-side comparison of the California Vintage and Harley Davidson Heritage Softail… After riding the California Vintage around, I thought it would be nice to compare it to the “standard” of the group – The Harley Davidson Heritage Softail. I chose the softail because it has similar look and purpose. It is a luxury touring bike with a clear windscreen, bags, etc. It’s purpose is “retro”; cop-like, long miles, touch of retro and, as the name suggests, “Heritage”. I think this is probably an accurate description of the big Guzzi as well. Price Price was slightly difficult to figure. Moto Guzzi has a single price, $14,999. There are no “ups” involved. You can buy only three accessories, and they’re all luggage, a trunk bag, tail bag and a cover. That’s it. If you want to add 40lbs of leather and logo items, you’re pretty much out of luck here. Bonus in my opinion, because you’re not going to get sold a whole bunch of stuff you don’t need just so the dealer can load up your out-the-door price. The Guzzi is unique enough as it stands. The Harley’s base is $17,999. There’s a “freight” charge of $330, Wire wheels are another $500, Emissions in California are another $200, and a security system is $345. So now you’re at $19,199. Oh yeah. Guzzi has that killer Marzocchi fork. Harley’s got that too, but that’s another $1400. Hard bags similar to the Guzzi will be another $800. So now we’re up to about 21,399. That’s an extra $6400 to pack it like the Moto Guzzi California Vintage.

So what do you get for the money? You do get that Harley name plate, so all you’re friends will instantly know that you are part of the crowd and “stayed in the box”. You get the same warranty (2 years), but I didn’t see roadside assistance, which is what is offered by Guzzi. How about power? Do you get more power for your money? Well, the Guzzi’s 1094cc motor lists it’s horspower as 72hp. Harley doesn’t list it’s horsepower figures anywhere on their site, but after a Google Search I found the highest output listedas 82hp for their 96 c.i. (1570cc) lump. When you factor weight in, I get 9 lbs per horsepower for the Harley, and 8 lbs per horsepower for the Guzzi. So the $6400 does give you one more pound per horsepower for the Harley, given that the highest figures I could find are accurate (I found lower, too). Harley also delivers an extra 11 ft/lbs of torque, which indeed is nothing to sneeze at. So, dollar-wise, it costs $640 per extra horsepower, and $582 for each extra foot-pound of torque. Of course, Harley will be most happy to put more ponies under your butt for an extra charge.

You could also just live with the stock leather soft bags on the Harley and save more money… I fell in love with the Marzocchi forks. You can take them off the Harley if you want, but the handling will definitely suffer and the Guzzi will just walk away from you in the twisties. Maybe that’s not you’re thing, but frankly, I believe that if you’re considering a Guzzi, you’re probably very interested in how the bike will handle and move. Guzzi doesn’t publish it’s lean angles, but from my experience they are extremely sporting. Harley states their lean angles are 29° or thereabouts, and I’m sure that Guzzi stomps this mercilessly. The big, bad brembos are something else that Guzzi has that Harley doesn’t; I didn’t couldn’t find this available from Harley – I’m sure they are available aftermarket, just pony up the bucks. I guess it depends on what you want. Many people find it extremely important to belong, and I appreciate that very much. Harley’s community is very strong and definitely has a long and storied lifestyle.

You’re never going to have much of a “bad boy” image on a California Guzzi, excepting the bad cops fromMagnum Force. The Guzzi is pointed directly at riders that want a great handling, comfortable and reliable bagger to soak up long distances. After all, once you’re going 80, ride, comfort, handling and braking become very important. The Harley will definitely hit the road, soak up the miles, and you get to belong to “the club” – and pay the extra $6400 in “dues”. I’ve never been much of a “joiner”. I am a Guzzi enthusiast and I will readily admit that I am glad that the Guzzi compares so favorably. The Moto Guzzi National Owner’s Club is a great organization that I just haven’t gotten around to joining, and yet my friends in the club still invite me on their rides and treat me like a member when I show up. I think guilt drives membership there. The club is very family-oriented and friendly as all-get-out. The meets definitely have nothing “racy” about them, in fact, they are more anarchic than anything else.

I think I’ve met the club’s president, but nobody ever discusses club politics, so I think he got elected by missing a meeting. I guess it depends on what you want, but I believe that a side-by-side comparison of the Heritage and the California Vintage is a worthy one. The big Guzzi really packs a tremendous value for the money, and it’s a real delight to own and ride. I knew this day would come… Ok. It’s not my bike. I’ve shared that. I had less time with it than the Breva 1200 Sport that GuzziUSA was kind enough to let me ride. I took the Breva back, loving the bike, but I knew that it had to go on, eventually, to a happy owner. This time it’s different. The Guzzi got under my skin. This bike is the “girl you take home to Mom”. I wasn’t ready to let go. I woke up early and decided to take the bike from Northridge down to Newport Beach in Friday Morning Rush Hour to have lunch with a college buddy. I hadn’t really experienced the center of Los Angeles in very heavy traffic, and I figured that I-5 at 9am would be a perfect crucible. This isn’t a short trip. Over 70 miles on LA’s inner city freeway into the heart of Orange County. I would be traveling across areas that are some of the busiest in the US.

Names like East LA interchange, where the 110, 10, 5 and 60 all meet in a pasta bowl of roads, and further south, the “Orange Crush” near Disneyland beckoned. I would definitely be doing some lane splittin’ today. I hoped that the big, police-bike-inspired Guzzi was up to its heritage. For a Cruiser, the Guzzi isn’t exceptionally wide. The seat is pretty mellow, really, and the bags don’t stick out further than the handlebars, as far as I could tell. The mirrors protrude slightly further, but not so much. Ride height is perfect for heavy traffic. You sit up high and can look all but the largest SUV drivers right in the eye. When you’re in the canyons between them, this and a good set of headlights is definitely a plus. The day started out warm and proceeded to heat up to the typical, Santa-Ana winded Indian Summer day that is famous in the region. A great test for the bike. Stifling hot, heavy traffic and a big cruiser. Not as much fun as canyon carving, but if you live in LA or any big city, considering the purchase of this wonderful, big Guzzi, you sure as heck want to know that it can live in traffic in tough conditions. Once onto the 5 South, I cruise in comfort until I reach the northern reaches of downtown LA. Traffic is backing up. I began to weave between the well-spaced cars as they moved along at 45-55 mph. Absolutely no problem.

If anything the front windscreen was too efficient in that it moved the air around me instead of through the vents in my jacket. I continued as the traffic deepened and the myriad ramps of the East LA interchange approached, signaling that stopped traffic and real, slow-speed splitting was in my future. As I worked my way through the traffic, I noticed that I was splitting through cars like butter – only the narrowest of passages had me slowed or stopped, and this had a lot to do with the Cal being “someone else’s bike”. Lane splitting is a black art that involves profiling the vehicle/driver combinations around you, spotting goof balls on cell phones, putting on make-up (sharp objects near your eyes at speed? stupid!), or even reading the paper. It also involves people looking back and forth in their rear view mirrors making eye contact with you. These are the real scary ones, because you don’t know if they are going to move out of your way or commit Assault with a Deadly Weapon. So I take it easy. Hey! I’m on a cruiser.

There are a few squids that I let by, happy to risk a little more. I’m 47, taking my Friday off, and headed for lunch on a bike given to me for a week. I’m sure as hell not going to screw this up, the ’09 Guzzis are coming out and I want my butt on them as soon as I can arrange it! The roads widen and smooth out into Orange County. Big HOV lanes, smooth roads and I’m in business all the way to Newport Beach. Arriving off the 55, I realize that my buddy, Dean, has moved his office. I call, and he’s in a meeting. I need to get gas anyway, as I want to fill up the tank before I return the bike. Time to bring up one thing to remember about living with the California. The tank is kind of on the small side. I KNOW that it says that it holds 5 gallons, but I’ve ridden it 25 miles with the reserve light on and still only put about 3.8 into it. Jeeeeezzzussss! Can the Engineers at Guzzi give us our 6 gallon tanks back from the 60’s? With these wonderful bikes turning 43 mpg, we’d have some RANGE! The seats and riding position are comfortable enough for two-plus hour stints, let’s make some tanks that extend the ride. Ok. Rant over.

Had a nice lunch, a few laughs and realized that Mall Food in Newport Beach is very different than the Post-Nuclear-Battlefield food that is served in the East San Fernando Valley Shopping Centers. Time for the final ride up the 405 in rush hour traffic to the California’s final stop. More lane splitting, lots of bumps (the 405 is unbelievably rough) and final arrival. I get here one week after picking it up, only 10 miles short of 1000 miles total. I really rode the bike hard, enjoyed it thoroughly and left with a sweet taste in my mouth. Time to go home and negotiate with the wife…

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