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Not a Lemon

The bike that should never have been built – the Moto Guzzi Le Mans. When Alejandro de Tomaso bought Moto Guzzi he arrived at the factory declaring “no more stupid twins”. He had seen the rise of the Japanese and intended to take them on – head on. 125 and 250cc two-strokes, with a range of four-stroke fours, were to be topped with the Sei (Six). All the four-strokes were built at the Moto Guzzi factory on Lake Como, and the strokers at the Benelli factory in Pesaro. But Lino Tonti persuaded de Tomaso that he could build the V7 Sport much more cheaply, yet make it faster by taking it out to the 844cc the factory V7 Sport was punched out to for the 24 hour race at Le Mans – hence the name. The camshafts’ gear drive replacement with a chain was the most obvious cost cutting, the lack of chrome actually because the factory’s chroming tanks needed refilling, but couldn’t be easily emptied; there was Lake Como to consider, after all. So matt black paint replaced chrome, and fibreglass mudguards replaced steel. This, like the Le Mans in the previous post, is a very early model, with the taillight moulded into the rear mudguard. Subsequent “Mark 1s” (as they were retrospectively called, although never listed as such) had the bolted on black plastic light shared with the Spada and Convert. These are fabulous motorcycles to ride, even if the low seat means taller riders have nowhere to put their knees – if you can still bend them that tightly. A far more practical motorcycle than the Ducati 900SS – electric start! side stand! – and just as engaging. For what it’s worth, I do much prefer the liquid smooth bevel twin with its snickerty-snick gearbox. But back in the day the Ducati and Moto Guzzi cost about the same, where now even an early Le Mans is half the price of a 900SS. And it’ll cost a lot less to fix if it goes pop. Which either makes the 900SS overpriced or – more likely – the Le Mans something of a bargain. More on these beauties and their fellow traveller the Laverda Jota in Benzina 3.

Despite De Tomaso’s scepticism about racing, the Le Mans did well. Roy Armstrong bought one to race in the prestigious Avon championship alongside Steve Wynne’s rider, John Sear. While Sear had the factory PR kit (with a new gearbox, camshaft, valve springs and 944cc pistons) Armstrong's bike was initially standard Armstrong was aided by factory mechanic Bruno Scola who was particularly scathing of standard Guzzi forks and Armstrong worked hard on fixing the Le Mans’ weaknesses. His diligence and wait for a PR kit were rewarded: against all expectations Roy beat the Laverda Jotas and Ducati 900SS to lift the 1977 Avon championship. Across the Atlantic, Reno Leoni also had success with the Le Mans. Leoni was a Ducati tuner of repute but in 1976 and ‘77 was persuaded by US importer Berliner to turn his attentions to the Le Mans for riders Mike Baldwin and Kurt Liebmann. Baldwin and Liebmann had been the men to beat on Leoni’s Ducatis, making the trio’s switch to a bike based on a mild mannered tourer look perverse. But between them they turned the Le Mans into an AMA Superbike winner, the breakthrough win coming at 1976’s Loudon Superbike round with Baldwin dominating. His 16 second lead by the end of the race stands as one of the largest margins of victory in AMA Superbike history, beating the previous nigh-unbeatable factory BMWs of Gary Fisher and Reg Pridmore. However with just four rounds in the series a failure to finish one round and starting the year on treaded tyres meant Baldwin finished the championship in fifth. Perhaps the finest moment was the Guzzis finishing one-two at the 1977 Charlotte AMA Superbike race, Baldwin winning by 23 seconds. These wins helped the Le Mans sell out in America and become a motorcycle of choice for up-and-coming racers. This and much more in my Moto Guzzi book available on Amazon. The bike in the photo is a later “Mark I”, with the revised tail light and seat. I’ll be honest – I prefer this ice blue colour scheme (very BMW R100RS) to the red. Restored and photographed by Fred Sahms it features in Benzina 11 (available via my bio link) as part of the story of Dave McClure’s Le Mans success in Battle of the Twins

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