MV Agusta Quattro 500

The Undisputed Champion

By Alan Cathcart, Photography by Kyoichi Nakamura

The greatest winning streak in Grand Prix roadracing history was born of a single man’s will to win. By all accounts, Count Domenico Agusta was a beast of a boss—demanding, ruthless and capricious. But nice guys finish second, and the Count’s determination to win and the ceaseless stream of funds provided by the family’s aviation business led to an enviable racing record: 75 world championships, 270 GP victories and no fewer than 3027 race wins in the 28-year period from MV Agusta’s 125cc debut in 1948 to the day the last of the “Italian fire engines” crossed the finish line in 1976.

MV’s success in the 500cc class had its genesis in ’49, when Count Agusta decided to add a luxury four-cylinder, shaft-drive machine to the company’s line of humble two-stroke streetbikes. With work on the new 500 underway, the Count had a characteristic change of heart and instructed his engineers to transform the streetbike into a roadracer!

The resultant MV Agusta Quattro, still using shaft drive and torsion bar suspension, debuted in the Belgian GP in July 1950, finishing an impressive fifth. A podium finish in the Italian GP at Monza, run just across the road from then-current 500cc world champion Gilera’s factory, served notice that MV was on the rise.

But while undoubtedly fast, the new bike’s handling was compromised by its roadster origins. Accordingly, the machine was completely redesigned for the ’52 season, with a telescopic fork and a more conventional duplex frame that housed what was essentially an all-new five-speed engine with chain final drive. Delivering an initial output of 58 bhp to the rear wheel, the updated Quattro came in second in the 1952 World Championship. All seemed set for a victorious ’53 season, but in the opening race rider Leslie Graham lost his life. In the British star’s absence, Gilera dominated.

When Norton retired from GP racing in ’56, Count Agusta signed John Surtees. At 22, Surtees had already made a name for himself aboard the British singles, and on the Quattro he won the first three races of the six-round 1956 GP series, including MV’s first-ever Isle of Man TT victory. A broken arm forced Surtees to sit out the second half of the season, but he had already accumulated enough points to clinch MV’s first 500cc world title. The Count’s dream was being fulfilled.

For ’57 Gilera came back with a vengeance, sweeping to first, second and fourth in the 500cc points table. Gilera then promptly retired from racing alongside fellow World Champions Moto Guzzi and Mondial, a clearout precipitated by the slump in motorcycle sales occasioned by the arrival of affordable automobiles. With profits pouring in from helicopter sales, the Count had no such concerns.

The evaporation of competition in ’58 opened the door to uninterrupted supremacy for the red-and-silver Quattro and its three-cylinder successor. It would be 17 years before a bike other than an MV would win the championship. Surtees won three more world titles, then handed the baton to Rhodesian Gary Hocking, who won in ’61 before being replaced by Mike Hailwood.

In Mike the Bike’s hands MV entered its most dominant phase, with the versatile British star achieving the remarkable record of winning all but three of the 500cc GP races he started for four years. But in that final year of ’65 Hailwood saw the writing on the wall with the arrival of a 22-year old teammate, who in addition to being incredibly talented was also Italian. After finishing second to Hailwood five times that year, Giacomo Agostini won his first 500cc GP in Finland on the now obsolescent four, prompting Hailwood to switch camps to Honda for ’66.

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