My father Terry introduced me to motorcycles. I spent countless hours on the back of "Herman," his 1969 Honda CB750, perched on buddy pegs bolted high up where my 5-year-old legs could reach them. My first motorcycles all came from the Land of the Rising Sun: a CL350 Scrambler (free from a neighbor) followed by a gaudy, metalflake-orange CB500 Four and then my first modern bike, an NT650 Hawk GT. This succession of unflappable, indestructible Japanese machines made me a competent and technically proficient rider. But it took an ill-tempered Italian beauty, from an exotic place called Mandello del Lario, to teach me to love motorcycles. Everything I know about the emotional elements of the motorcycle experience-lust, frustration, misery and desire-I learned during my three-decade-long infatuation with one very special Moto Guzzi V7 Sport.
I don't remember the first time I saw the Guzzi, but the machine is imprinted on my earliest moto-memories. The bike originally belonged to my godfather, Jim Van Hogan. I recall visiting his house and racing straight into the living room, where he kept the panther-like V7 on display. I remember thinking how cool this was-"He has a motorcycle inside his house!" I also remember being puzzled, even at age 3, that I never once saw him ride it.
Jim was a hippie. A rebellious pastor's son, he embraced the counterculture enthusiastically. He wore bell-bottoms, long hair and bushy lamb chops that would make Neil Young proud. He drove a Ford Econoline van with a huge mural of R. Crumb's "Keep on Truckin'" comic painted on the side. He lived in an old house on top of a hill, a place he called "Hogan's Haven." Hanging beads draped the front door, and the first thing you saw upon entering was a giant picture of a laughing Christ-take that, dad! The curtains were always closed, and a panel of toggle switches in one corner controlled the stereo and a rack of colored lights. It was a genuine psychedelic playhouse, with the Guzzi the centerpiece.
I didn't know it then, but Jim's seemingly carefree lifestyle was a deliberate response to some dead-serious life events. In '72-two years before I was born-he was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors operated immediately, removing part of a lung, then began aggressive chemotherapy. By the summer of '73 Jim was well enough to resume normal life, but whether he would live days or decades, no one could say. One of the first things he did after leaving the hospital, then, was to buy the most exotic, expensive motorcycle he could find: a 1973 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport.
The V7 was an inspired choice, as that machine represented a resurrection for Moto Guzzi as well. The marque barely survived the '60s, subsisting on low-tech, outdated singles until Giulo Cesare Carcano's transverse V-twin debuted in '65. The Ambassadors and Eldorados that followed may have saved the company, but such utilitarian workhorses hardly reflected Guzzi's racing legacy. This was, after all, the company that built the fearsome 500cc V8 GP racer in the late '50s, and legendary Guzzi engineer Lino Tonti created the V7 Sport specifically to honor this legacy.
The V7 is, in my opinion, the best-looking factory café racer ever made. Splayed cylinder heads let the low, compact frame wrap around the motor. Tonti loved straight tubes and triangulated structures (a vestige of his time spent designing aircraft for Aeronautica Macchi) and the geometric profile of the V7 frame is classic. The main section is a perfect parallelogram, and similarly precise triangles surround the toolboxes and form the junction between the swingarm and shocks. The Apollonian order of the frame contrasts brilliantly with the Dionysian voluptuousness of the 5-gallon fuel tank and those elegant, swan's-neck clip-ons. This very magazine, in September 1973, described the V7 Sport as "More than a motorcycle...a work of art." Little wonder I've been obsessed with it since Day One.
Over the next two years, Jim covered 18,000 miles on the Guzzi. He'd suit up at 2 a.m.-after the bars closed-and roam solo until sunrise. One of these late-night sorties, in the summer of '75, marked Jim's last ride. It was dark and he was miles from home, on County Highway Z near Maribel, Wisconsin. Zinging along at 75 mph, the V-twin's percussive cadence splitting the night, two deer materialized in the weak beam of his Bosch headlight.
Jim hit the second deer straight-on. He hit the ground hard, shattering his shoulder and arm. The Guzzi suffered remarkably little damage. Jim restored it completely, replacing bent fork legs, broken handlebars, a torn saddle and damaged mufflers-unfortunately fitting generic substitutes in place of the original (now unobtainium) Lafranconi "sharkgills." Then he rolled it inside his house and never, ever rode it again.
I spent the better part of my teens trying to buy the bike. I offered Jim more money each time, sums far beyond the reach of a high school student working part-time in a bicycle shop. Jim laughed my offers off, always with the same refrain: "You can have the bike as soon as I'm done with it. But I'm not done with it yet."