If you’re afraid of moto Italiano you don’t need to be. Signor Guido is here to bust the myths and guide you through the fears of the marques’ pitfalls
Over the years, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on questionable engineering, all in the name of fun. The end result has been generations of traumatised motorcyclists, the worst examples of whom will show an odd twitch when you mention terms like ‘electrics’ or ‘Italian’ in the same sentence.
While many have been scarred by some genuinely horrific experiences, in fact a little research can ensure your chances of getting a reliable ride are pretty good. Let’s walk through the minefield, shall we?
Of all the Italian brands brought into this country, this is the one with the greatest fund of horror stories. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, there have been a couple of clangers over the years.
Second, and more significant, is Ducati has been by far the biggest-seller in this sphere, to the point where Australia has long been regarded as a hugely important market for the brand. Per capita, we seem to buy more Ducatis than any other nation outside Italy. Therefore, there are lots more opportunities for something to go wrong.
You can break the complaints down into three main areas: reliability, cost of servicing and cost of rebuild.
Electrics on older bikes have long been an issue – and this goes for all Italian brands. It also applies to older British and even Japanese bikes as they age. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind: motorcycle electrics across the board have improved greatly over the past few decades.
A modern-era Ducati (say from 1990-on) is not significantly better or worse than any other brand. However, buy something out of the ’70s and you can expect trouble unless it’s been rewired. Why? We’re talking of 40-year-old wiring looms working in a hostile environment, long past their use-by date. The 1980s? Much will depend on how the bike has been treated.
To give you another example, my 1996 916 Strada lunched an ignition pick-up a year or so ago. Now it’s tempting to rant about Ducatis, but it’s something that can and does happen to any brand as it ages. In most other respects, it’s been no more or less reliable than anything else in the shed.
Let’s move on to the ugly topic of maintenance. For early Dukes with conventional sprung valves, servicing costs are fairly normal. You could argue that they can be fragile, though the parts exist to fix most problems and they should not be any worse than most other classic machinery.
Machines with desmodromic heads (search the web for ‘Bluming desmo’ to see a very good animation of how this set-up works) you are up for additional expense. Typically, the heads need to be removed from the bike and the cost will be, depending on specific model and who is working on it, around the $800-1200 mark. Some workshops are happy for you to deliver the bike minus the tank and bodywork, which can save cost.
There are two main types of desmo engine: bevel drive and the more current belt-driven design. The latter is more reliable.
Desmo valve intervals were around the 6000km mark for years and then, in 2007, Ducati doubled the intervals – much to the relief of owners. The factory argued that improvements in materials and manufacturing methods allowed this to happen. Cynics said it was a way of hosing down the bad publicity surrounding maintenance costs. Both sides had a point.
My advice? Go in with your eyes open and think about what you’re buying the bike for.
If it’s touring and big distances, check out the servicing costs before you buy. If, as for me and many other sportsbike owners, the bike is just a Sunday toy, running costs really aren’t a big concern as you’re not racking up the kays.
The biggest expense I’m copping at the moment is the regular cam belt change at 20,000km or two years – which ever happens sooner. (For me, it’s always time.) That costs about $350 and you’d be insane to let it go as a failed belt can lead to big bills.
One thing to keep in mind is the more exotic the spec, the higher the running costs. High-end sports variants such as SP and, particularly, SPS models have traditionally required more attention than their Strada equivalents as they’re producing more power and are higher stressed.
So should you be scared off?
No. My experience with the 916 is this: I bought a good one with a little more than 30,000km that had all the servicing up to date. Minor tasks such as oil changes are actually a pleasure to do as the bike is nicely designed and very easy to access. The main cost so far has been the belts, which is reasonable on something that’s meant to be an exotic sportsbike. With the exception of the ignition pick-up (availability and cost were no better or worse than most brands), it’s been reliable and stress-free. In part, that’s because I bought it as a Sunday bike and not daily transport, which is what it was intended for.
If I were in the market for a new Ducati (and have to admit a Panigale would go well beside the 916 in the shed) I’d be treating it in much the same way. I would check the running costs and make a decision from there. Reliability really isn’t an issue.
With the exception of electrics (more on that in a moment) Moto Guzzi enjoys an exceptional reputation for building robust machinery. Much of that comes down to mechanical simplicity and the fact most of its bikes over the years have had big and under-stressed engines.
However, there are some exceptions. The V65 series of the mid to late 1980s, particularly the Lario and the TT, has a question mark over it. That’s in part because both machines set high expectations – a hard-edged sportsbike in the Lario’s case and a true cross-country adventure bike in that of the TT. Neither was really robust enough to live up to those goals and many failed.
If you’re looking at either of those bikes now, treat them more gently as potential classics and you’ll probably be okay.
As for the bigger machines, the more highly strung Le Mans range needs very regular attention simply because hard riding equals higher wear. There’s nothing too daunting to deal with, for example tappet adjustment is simple screw and locknut and easily reached.
The bikes that are getting a whole new lease of life with a second generation of owners are the G5s, V7s and older Californias – in the latter case, particularly the pre-fuel injection models. Of this group the Calis are the most effective. They’re a good-handling tourer that’s incredibly robust. Your biggest problem will be finding a nice one, as they tend to be sold by word of mouth.
Electrics on older bikes can be a drama. In many cases this is a combination of neglect, sheer age and the deterioration that goes with it, along with a tendency for older Guzzis to run current through fairly fragile switches. This is where a good resto is worth paying for.
Performance models like the Daytonas of the 1990s need to be treated with a little more caution. The air-cooled motors now ran cambelts and timing gears rather than the traditional pushrods, and need to be checked carefully. Maintenance is critical and your mechanical check should include the entire driveline.
There’s no doubt that the acquisition of the company by Piaggio in 2004 lifted its game when it came to quality. This is particularly evident in the current line-up where, again, I have to say the California is the stand-out.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that Aprilia made its presence felt in the road bike scene, first with the RS250 two-stroke and then the litre V-twin performance bike series.
In case you missed it, two-strokes have become hot property in the collector market and a decent RS will now set you back more than 10-large.
They’re seriously quick and great fun, but high maintenance and many will have seen a race track. Competition can be a mixed blessing: on one hand the bike will have been used hard, on the other it will have (or should have!) been maintained to within an inch of its life. In any event, this is very much a case of buyer beware.
Perhaps the best-kept secret in the market at the moment is just how cheap you can get a red-hot performance twin like the RSV1000 or Mille (from 1998) and Tuono naked (from 2003). The one thing they share is a variation of the robust Rotax powerplant, but there are myriad models with differing specs and cosmetics.
A very quick litre twin in excellent shape can easily be found for the $8000-10,000 range – less if high miles don’t scare you. Owners – both current and former – praise these things to the sky, pointing to good performance, sharp handling and very straight-forward requirements when it comes to care and feeding. These are very high on the recommended list.
As for the more recent RSV4 series, from 2008, there was noise about recalls and mechanical issues, though none catastrophic. Many of them were minor and generally they were sorted in the first couple of years as the models developed. So I’d be surprised to strike any problems on a new example, but would check out an older used bike with a bit of care.
You really have two main choices with this marque – the big fours of the 1970s and earlier, or the relatively recent models from 1999. If it’s the former, you’re talking serious classic machinery and something that has to be tackled on a case-by-case basis.
If it’s 1999-on, the choice has expanded to include what’s now a baffling array of models, first as fours and now including triple-cylinder powerplants. The most collectable machines still at sensible prices are the early F4 750s. As with any revived or effectively new maker, your big concern will be reliability.
I had this to say about the F4 in a recent Future Classic piece (MT #303): Their reputation for reliability is mixed, but the legend seems to be worse than the reality. Owner groups report no serious mechanical issues with the powerplant. The injection can be a little snatchy at low revs but otherwise seems robust. The F4 can also tend towards hot running.
The best fix appears to be an ECU modification which addresses the low-end fuelling and brings in the fan earlier to tackle the heat. Some owners feel neither glitch is serious enough to bother with and I tend to agree. You can get too obsessive about these things. Fuel injectors can and will clog up if the bike is left sitting too long (months) and replacements are expensive.
Its most serious issue is rear hubs seizing, usually brought on by over-tightening the chain. Owners say there is an aftermarket improvement available. Overall, the view seems to be that an F4 rewards careful set-up and maintenance while generally proving to be reliable.
Those teething troubles aside, the engineering has generally been solid and the best bet is to check out the road tests for any model-specific quirks.
This is another of those names that disappeared off the radar for a while and eventually made a successful comeback.
For me, the pick of the older models is any variant of the Tornado 650S twin, launched in 1968. It was conceived with the British and US markets in mind and enjoyed a pretty good reputation for quality and reliability while having a respectable turn of speed. Surprisingly, there are still good parts resources for them.
The factory relaunched with the Tornado Tre 900 sportsbike in 2002 and that’s going to have collector interest some time in the future. Reliability of that series seems okay, but the general opinion seems to be the overall finish and detail improved with the launch of the second 1130 series motors in 2004.
Overall, their reputation is good and there seem to be some attractive deals in the used market, such as a fairly low-mile Tornado Tre 1130 for $11,000, while the more versatile K versions are less than 10.
The more I deal with Italian machinery, the less it worries me.
Sure there can be issues, but we’re mostly talking about degrees of difference. The fact is, any exotic motorcycle will cost more to run per kilometre than a commuter. The same goes for cars or any other type of vehicle.
It’s got to the point where rubbish or serious mistakes in the new market are rare. And when it comes to buying used it always pays to do your research. Some machines cost more to own and run. If it looks too hard, walk away. There are plenty of choices.
And Not Forgetting:
It once looked certain to ride the wave of the scooter revival of the late 1990s, this one sank without trace. Before it did, the gem in the catalogue was the 180 or 250 Dragster with an innovative front end, space-lattice frame and serious sporting ability.
It’s nothing less than a tragedy that Laverda has become a ghost. The big 1000cc triples of the 1970s and ’80s are by far the cream of the crop and each bike needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
This is very much a boutique brand that’s had a patchy ride over the years. Famous for matching propriety (and well-proven) engines to its own chassis and bodywork, the company’s volumes are so low that you really need to look at each bike on its merits. Good cosmetics are critical, as spares will often be hard to source.
Article by Guy ‘Guido’ Allen