Aaron Frank: 1973 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport - Resurrection Road

The Life-Affirming Power Of One Very Special Motorcycle

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 cafe 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."

Not done with it yet?! The freewheeling, curve-chasing hippie was long gone. It was the mid-'90s, and Jim was an executive at a tool-and-die company with two kids and a split-level on a few acres outside of town. The Guzzi had long been banished from the living room and now languished under an old blanket in a dark corner of the basement. It hadn't been started in at least 20 years.

I eventually gave up trying to buy the bike. Instead, I tried to talk Jim into getting it running again. Maybe I could at least ride this motorcycle that had animated my imagination for so long. But Jim wouldn't have it. At times he seemed unwilling even to uncover the bike. He'd just repeat his familiar refrain: "I'm not done with it yet."

Jim's cancer stayed in remission for nearly 25 years, until 1999. Within weeks, he was gone. His life got complicated at the end, with a large estate, properties, multiple collector vehicles, lawyers and another woman. The Guzzi got tangled up in a nasty probate battle, and an estate auction looked inevitable. After multiple letters and a few desperate phone calls, I managed to buy the V7 in advance of the estate auction. It was professionally appraised before the sale, and I had to write a surprisingly large check, but in September 2003-just days before my 29th birthday-the title to "my" '73 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport arrived via certified mail.

My father and I retrieved the bike the next weekend, on a dismal, rainy day. It had been moved out of the warm, dry basement years earlier, into a shed that had been rented to a concrete contractor, and flecks of cement dust coated every surface. I trailered the bike back to my house and went straight to work. I soon noticed that the carbs were spotless inside. Jim had been working on the bike before he died. Next I lifted the seat, and stopped in my tracks.

There was no battery. Instead, I found a pile of license plates and unused registration stickers from '76 through '99. On top of the pile was a well-worn leather belt with the famous Guzzi eagle embossed across the back. All these years Jim had dutifully kept the bike licensed and registered-waiting to work up the nerve to ride again. Of course it made sense. This bike had already saved Jim's life once before. Was a second miracle too much to ask?

Excepting those spotless carburetors, almost every component on the bike needed to be rebuilt or replaced. The sealed fork cartridges (the first cartridge fork on any production motorcycle) no longer compressed. A shift lever return spring deep in the transmission was broken, but the transmission had to be pulled anyway to replace clutch plates fouled by a leaky main seal. The felt seals in the final drive were hopeless. The 30-year-old tires were worthless, too, as were the rock-hard brake shoes. And there were a half-dozen broken spokes.

The engine wasn't much better. Chrome-plated cylinder liners shouldn't be dry for three decades, and the Italian electronics weren't robust when new. I rapidly achieved frequent-buyer status with the vintage Guzzi parts pushers at MG Cycle in Albany, Wisconsin, and I know my repair bills funded at least one south-of-the-border moto-adventure for Milwaukee vintage bike guru Tim Schneider at The Shop.

After two years of waiting, wrenching and writing endless checks, I finally got to ride the V7-and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a huge disappointment. The 750cc V-twin is quick-revving and makes a deliciously deep growl, but too-tall gearing means that even my old 52-horsepower Hawk GT could walk the Guzzi in any acceleration contest. Despite the new clutch and rebuilt transmission, communication between the wobbly shift lever and recalcitrant transmission remains more telegraphic than telepathic. Massive shaft jacking makes aggressive cornering an exciting proposition, and then there are those brakes. Even if vintage Guzzi maestro Stephen Kames called it "the best Guzzi drum that ever left his shop," I could stop that bike faster by jamming my boot against the front tire!

The V7 is not without its charms, however. On the right road-preferably a fast, flowing stretch of tarmac where you can dip in and out of the throttle without touching the shifter or brakes-it's a stellar companion, powering through sweepers with the unstoppable authority of a charging buffalo. And talk about charisma: The booming exhaust note, the deep bands of vibration hammering through the age-hardened rubber grips and footrests, and the animal heat radiating from the round cylinder heads make this motorcycle feel alive in a way that precious few bikes can match.

Unlike my Hondas, my Moto Guzzi is not a bike that disappears beneath me. It's a bike that speaks very clearly, in an intimate and uniquely expressive way. I've lately taken to riding it late at night, setting out long after the kids are tucked into bed. I'll disappear deep into the countryside, where the only illumination comes from the dim cone of my sealed-beam headlight. I go where the roads are long and empty and free of distractions, so I can better focus the subtle communiqus issued by this ancient machine. The alarming clatter of worn-out rocker arms. The slight wobble emanating from the front wheel, with yet another broken spoke. The hollow thud over big bumps when the fuel tank, riding on its weary rubber mounts, contacts the valve covers on either side. Some nights, if I listen closely, I'll hear a familiar voice uttering a message I waited more than 30 years to hear: "It's all yours, Aaron-I'm done with it now."

The odometer still shows less than 20,000 miles, and except for aftermarket mufflers and resprayed paint, the bike is exactly as equipped when it rolled off the Mandello del Lario assembly line in November 1972.
The late-'72 build date marks this as the last of the good V7 Sports, before De Tomaso cost-cutting junked the model up. It still has right-side, reverse-pattern shifting, a cable-actuated rear brake and a gear-driven cam.
Lino Tonti's design brief for the V7 Sport was simple: 200 kph (124 mph) top speed, 200 kg. (441 lbs.) wet weight and five gears. The new model was revealed at the Monza 500 in June 1971, finishing third.
There was no battery under the seat when I finally acquired the bike, just a stack of license plates and this battered leather belt that my godfather Jim wore every day.
After 30 years of bouncing between bedrooms, basements and barns, my godfather Jim's V7 Sport is back where it belongs: out on the open road.