The Moto Guzzi factory at Mandello del Lario on the shore of Lake Como has witnessed many triumphs since it opened in 1921. They are celebrated in a trophy room that contains an array of prizes ranging from the decidedly parochial Copa di Citta di Varese to assorted world cups.
History matters to Moto Guzzi, and the launch of the radical new Griso 1100 was drenched in nostalgia. Here were posters celebrating the "Otto Cilindri" made between 1955 and 1957 (yes, that's right, an eight-cylinder motorcycle) and the gorgeous 1970s V850 Le Mans, after which I lusted hopelessly through my teenage years.
The important question was starkly framed. Is Moto Guzzi a legend from motor cycling's past or a force for the future? Until the company was absorbed by the giant Piaggio group, Europe's largest maker of two-wheelers, prospects looked grim. Now, with the launch of the Griso there is a chance that this innovative Italian manufacturer can be both.
Griso is a hero from the novel The Betrothed. He is an Italian Robin Hood willing to fight all comers in the defence of justice. Moto Guzzi says its motorcycle is cast from the same mould, a macho machine designed to grip the tightest bends and blast up the steepest straights. It says it is unclassifiable according to traditional bike types.
The last bit is a claim too far. This is a naked performance bike designed to win business in the most rapidly expanding segment of the market for machines over 700cc capacity. But it is not dramatically inaccurate because the Griso does have a charisma and style entirely its own.
The first impression is of size. This is a muscular, chunky motorcycle. Its trademark Guzzi V-Twin bulges assertively from the tubes of a truly substantial frame. Viewed from behind the massive single exhaust resembles the business end of a Gatling gun.
Nothing since the 2400cc Triumph Rocket III has given such an instant impression of bulk. But this is not fat. The Griso resembles a fighting-fit boxer, not a dinosaur.
On paper, the Griso's characteristics offer little to suggest that it can compete with rivals such as the Yamaha MT01, Triumph Speed Triple and BMW K1200R. It generates maximum power of only 88 bhp. But this is about the most usable power I have ever encountered. Moto Guzzi claims the Griso was designed to "dance around the hairpins". It does, and it powers out of them, too, with that big Guzzi twin throbbing delightfully in your ears and up your spine.
Do not be fooled by the long, power-cruiser profile. The Griso's super-rigid frame delivers genuine agility. For most of my test-ride I carried a pillion passenger. Even two-up through a long series of tight bends the Griso brought a smile to my lips and a growing sense of confidence.
The shaft-drive system is sumptuous. Guzzi's classic design has been totally modernised to produce smooth, silent power delivery. It is integrated inside the single aluminium alloy swinging arm and gives charmingly precise, jerk-free power delivery. The six-speed gear box is admirably precise as well.
Many riders will be attracted by the Griso's looks. They are as distinctive as any Moto Guzzi have produced. The twin side panels that crown the cylinder heads just below the fuel tank are absolutely distinctive. Each bears Moto Guzzi's well-known eagle trademark. A blend of matt satin and high gloss chrome adds to the feeling of classy modernity.
The Griso is a traditional Moto Guzzi in the sense that it is distinctive and charismatic. But it has none of the agricultural performance characteristics or indulgent eccentricities that blighted its predecessors. The new engine is, of course, a 90 degree V-twin. Nothing else could carry the Moto Guzzi name. But it is lighter, smoother, slimmer and cleaner than any that have gone before.
It is only occasionally that a motorcycle emerges that is distinctive enough to deserve the term "classic". The Griso has that potential. It is beautiful enough to appeal to established Moto Guzzi fans but sufficiently sophisticated to delight newcomers to the brand. There are blemishes - the indicator switch is badly positioned, the pillion seat is a little bit too small, and the steering feels a little too light at high speed. But as a return to form the Griso is about as good as it gets.
If you haven't risked a Moto Guzzi because of fears about performance and reliability, I suggest you give this one a try. It will do more than turn heads.