1949 Moto Guzzi Airone vintage smart sport Motorcycle

In the unlikely event of a new Moto Guzzi Airone Sport being seen in 1949 Britain, it would have stood out like an orchid in a cabbage patch. Exotic, flamboyant and sophisticated; it was everything the C-lass BSAs (the only quarter-litre four-strokes currently made here in significant numbers) patently were not. Mind you, that’s not the same thing as saving it would have been universally admired. Even without the inevitable postwar aversion towards anything made by a recent adversary, the major characteristic typifying the traditional British motorcyclist was his distrust of unorthodoxy, and to British eyes this motorcycle was (and is) certainly unorthodox_ From telescopic forks whose movement was guided by rollers, to rear suspension with dampers looking like dogs’ hind legs, there was little reassuring familiarity about the Guru Airone. And that applied to the engine at the heart of the machine. True, clued-up enthusiasts were familiar with the concept of the laid-down engine, which Moto Guzzi had exploited for years on its slim and well-balanced racers, but I imagine there was some skepticism about the wisdom of putting the cylinder head where it would be bombarded by road muck and water.

Likewise, those who had studied motorcycle design knew that an external flywheel allowed the crankcase to be smaller and stronger, but they also knew it had been a feature of much earlier machines before being abandoned in order to promote a neat appearance. But while all these and several other features were novel to Brits, they were all well established in the Airone’s homeland. In fact, the model’s history stretched back to 1932 when Moto Gurci prompted by a favourable taxation classification – decided to enter the mass-produced lightweight market with the P175, featuring a lively (7bhp) laid-down 175cc ohv engine with a three-speed gearbox.

With typical contrariness the Italian government immediately reduced the financial benefits enjoyed by small engines, but Mow Guth saw it was onto a good thing and uprated the engine to 232cc to produce both the P250 and the fully-sprung PE. In 1939, the model was given an extra gear ratio and – while still designated as the PE – was christened the Airone – meaning Heron

Other mid-1930s derivative of the P175 had been the PL, which featured a slightly cheaper sprung frame with pressed steel girder forks and other components, and – with development seemingly unhindered by the country’s war efforts – Moto Guzzi immediately mixed and matched components to produce the first Airone not to share the PE designation. Either the girder forks were not particularly successful, or Moto Guzzi was intent on keeping up to date, but 1947 saw their replacement with the iconic telescopic forks – designed by Carlo Guzzi himself – featuring roller-guides and hydraulic damping. At this stage the engine still featured exposed valve gear – perhaps not the cleverest idea with a forward facing engine – and the next year saw the introduction of an enclosed cylinder head which, for the first time, was made in aluminium. This boosted the power output and speed to levels only matched by British equivalents a decade later and, when combined with yet further developments of the frame resulted in the Airone Sports, an early example of which is featured here.

This Guzzi is one of a pair – a larger example will be featured separately – which Sammy Miller purchased a few years back. It came from the estate of a deceased marque enthusiast in the Coventry area, and displaying it somewhere like the Sammy Miller Museum was the express wish of this gentleman’s executors. It’s a superb example of the model, and is correct down to the last detail, including the manufacturer’s name embossed on the sparkling fish-tail silencer. Perhaps I should say it’s correct to the best of my knowledge, because until very recent times Moto Guzzi was notorious for producing its bikes in batches which sometimes exhibited subtle and unadvertised changes, so even marque aficionados have been known to get confused. Whatever, this machine is certainly representative of a model which by 1949 had reached virtually its definitive form. It continued in this guise until 1957 when its place was taken by the recently introduced Lodola which was simpler, cheaper and somewhat more conventional in appearance.

And I guess it’s the Airone’s appearance which makes it a bit of a ‘Marmite’ machine, with some folk unable to stomach so many idiosyncrasies wrapped up in one package, while others (like me) revel in this extent of original thinking. Returning to the suspension, the use of rollers in the forks eliminates the ‘stiction’ and uneven wear associated with conventional bushes, and results in a smooth movement, the extent of which is hinted at by the deep mudguard positioned well away from the tyre. At the rear, perfectionists like Phil Vincent would have appreciated the obvious stiffness of the triangulated structure making up the swinging fork. Unlike the Vincent, however, the fork’s pivot is located at the top of the triangle, while its lower corner is connected to two pairs of springs; long tension ones in a case under the engine providing the shock absorption, with a smaller pair controlling the rebound.

It’s slightly unfortunate that the obtrusive friction dampers distract visually from all this cleverness, but they have the benefit of being easily adjustable, and had obviously been found superior to the hydraulic damping tried out on immediate postwar Airones. The result is superb comfort which would have left contemporary motorcyclists – used to girder forks and rigid frames – absolutely spellbound. What’s more,

The resilient suspension doesn’t detract from road holding which – as you’d expect with a motorcycle from a race-oriented company like Moto Guzzi – is first class. In no time at all I’m cornering confidently, even when Sammy Miller decides to Join the fun in an impromptu whizz round the estate. Comparison with the larger machine he’s riding – and Sammy takes no prisoners when he’s in the saddle – shows just what a brilliant machine this is. Its short-stroke engine revs easily to give impressive acceleration for a quarter-litre job, while the hefty flywheel allows it to pull smoothly at low speeds. The brakes are good too, being generously sized by the standards of the day. Overall, it makes me wonder how Italian bikes ever carne to be regarded as fragile toys. As it happens, Sammy doesn’t entirely share my enthusiasm, mainly because of the deficiencies of his second bike – a pre-Second World War Airone.

Buying it in a semi-dismantled state with the intention of making it into a racer, he found its three-piece crank persisted in moving out of alignment until he had it welded up. Moto Guzzi eventually gave him a later one-piece crank, but by then he’d become disenchanted and moved on. The essential toughness of the Airone, however, is shown by the fact that Sammy’s old bike was still being actively campaigned in vintage racing many years later. It’s an oft-quoted truism that German motorcycles had unbeatable stamina because they were made to survive long, fast, rides on the autobahn, but it seems that the autostrada had an equally beneficially effect on Italian jobs, and I suspect I’d tire long before the Guzzi’s engine. What’s not to like? Very little actually, although there are a couple of things which take a bit of getting used to, and they all concern the foot controls. Firstly, you have to be brought up on continental bikes to feel at home with a left-side kick-start, and like most riders I find it easier to stand alongside the bike and use my right boot. And the heel/toe gear change -despite its undoubted virtue of not damaging Italian winklepickers – is not quite as intuitive as the simple up/down movement we are used to, and neither is the heel-operated rear brake which involves taking the left foot completely off the rest. In compensation, the roll-on centre stand is one of the best I’ve found; needing only modest foot pressure to operate, yet providing reassuring stability.

And then I must return to the appearance, because from its individualistic suspension and engine, to its oil tank uniquely positioned above the engine, the Airone Sport invites attention and discussion. As a result I’d say this is definitely not a machine for the shy and retiring motorcyclist, but if you are a gregarious person who appreciates original thinking, and enjoys comfortable riding on a lively and incredibly smart motorcycle, I can think of few CD better choices

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