When Joni Mitchell lived in California and lamented humanity's tendency to "pave paradise and put up a parking lot", the West Coast was the coolest place in the world to ride a motorbike. Strangely, the coolest bike was not American made.
Moto Guzzis, the charismatic mounts from Lake Como, were the apogee of two-wheeled sophistication. The Italian manufacturer called one of its top-selling models of the era the California in tribute. Early 1970s America was also wowed by Ambassador and Special versions of Guzzi's elegant, stable 90-degree v-twins, pairing a laid-back easy rider feel with sophisticated European design, offering a comfort, speed and reliability that Harley Davidson could not match.
Moto Guzzis have never lacked kudos. First conceived in 1920 by the blacksmith Giorgio Rapamonti and his friend Carlo Guzzi, they won 14 World Championship racing titles between 1921 and 1957. In 1935 Moto Guzzis achieved the distinction of being the first non-British bikes to win the legendary Isle of Man Tourist Trophy.
But despite everything Moto Guzzi's recent history has been deeply troubled. Poor sales resulted in low investment, and Guzzi's parent company, Aprilia, was paralysed by debt so was unable to finance new models or promote the existing range. Moto Guzzi seemed marooned. Then Piaggio, Europe's biggest scooter manufacturer, agreed to buy Aprilia. The deal will be finalised soon and future investment and promotion of the range looks secure.
Already revamped under Aprilia's guidance, the existing 2004 Moto Guzzi stable ranges from the £4,915 Breva V750 IE and Nevada Classic 750 IE to the seriously rapid V11 Le Mans Corsa at £8,365. The California range elegantly incorporates the relaxed style of its famous predecessors but with the power of a modern fuel-injected engine and handling designed to deal with Tuscan hillsides as well as US freeways.
Earlier this month I rode the Nevada Classic and California EV Touring bikes on Italian mountains, motorways and urban streets. They convinced me that Moto Guzzi can still compete with the best. These bikes are smooth and fast with oodles of torque. They more than compete with their direct counterparts in the Harley Davidson range. The Nevada offers women riders a practical alternative to the low-slung version of the Harley Davidson Sportster. It is more than fast enough for motorway running but light and agile on twisting roads as well. Its redesigned engine and fuel injection system renders it a totally different motorcycle from the unreliable old Nevada 750.
The California EV is a grown-up cruiser with vast luggage-carrying capacity and a ride quality that still feels comfortable after hundreds of miles in the saddle. Its linked braking system works well, allowing the rider to control front and rear brakes simultaneously with just the right hand.
The conundrum for Moto Guzzi is whether these bikes can appeal to a new generation. Guzzi, like Harley, are hampered by the perception they are bikes your grandfather rode. The new 2005 range is designed to confront that perception.
The MGS-01 Corsa is an all new sports bike aimed at the amateur racing fraternity. If Guzzi can manufacture it in sufficient numbers, this machine looks set to be a popular choice for track days and adrenaline junkies.
Its naked counterpart, the 1064cc Griso, is styled to compete with the Ducati Monster, and promises to give that other Italian icon a serious run for its money. Topping the range of new offerings from Moto Guzzi is the Breva V1100. This sports tourer is aimed directly at the American market for long distance muscle bikes.
It is impossible to ride a Moto Guzzi without being impressed by their rich blend of style, power and handling. These are non-conformist motorcycles for riders who want to stand out, but not by being left behind in a road race. But their charm cannot guarantee success; good promotion and a new dealer network are necessary for these gorgeous Guzzi bikes to regain cult status.