Anyone involved with the international road racing scene in the 50s felt very privileged to see at close quarters the fabulous Italian road racing fours either in the pits or as they came to the start line before a race. At that time the only British-made four was the Ariel, an excellent touring mount that was also particularly well-suited to hauling a sidecar. An early example of the genius of Edward Turner it did what was intended very well, but there was never any pretence of it being used in road racing or in speed events where high performance allied with reliability was an essential requirement. That was soon to be changed by two Italian manufacturers.
The Italian designs, fitted with a transversely-mounted dohc four cylinder engine, created quite a sensation when they arrived on the scene. To most it was obvious it would be only a matter of time before the currently all-conquering single cylinder British racing motorcycle would be eclipsed by them. No one even considered there might eventually be road-going fours based on these designs which, in the fullness of time, would dramatically change the whole face of motorcycling and create a pattern for the Japanese to follow.
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As far as the road racing models were concerned, Gilera set the pace well before World War 2, when, during 1936 their Arcore factory showed interest in a 500cc four cylinder design originated by Carlo Gianini and Piero Remor in 1923 and progressively developed by them. By 1936 it had a dohc water cooled transversely-mounted four cylinder engine equipped with a supercharger, alleged to produce something like 86bhp at 9,000rpm. Known as the Rondine it already had some local racing successes to its credit in the hands of Pietro Taruffi, another who had become involved with its development. After further development by Gilera, which included fitting it with full streamlining, Taruffi made several successful bids at world records, taking the absolute speed record to 170.15mph over the flying kilometre. By 1939 it was regarded as the fastest racing motorcycle in Europe and when ridden by Dorino Serafini it beat the BMW works riders in the 1939 German Grand Prix. This would not have been looked upon favourably when the fatherland were striving to ensure German supremacy in events of international status.
After the war, superchargers were banned in road racing events, which virtually ruled out most of the already existing pre-war designs.
Bearing the Gilera name
The Rondine, now officially bearing the Gilera name, again had to be extensively modified, to make its debut in unblown form during 1948, looking more like the model we know today. Largely the result of Pietro Remor's efforts, it was now air-cooled and built in-unit with the gearbox, its forward sloping cylinders arranged in pairs, each sharing a carburettor. Sadly, it was bedevilled with lubrication and high speed handling problems, which put it out of contention during the 1948 racing season and were not fully rectified until the racing season that followed. Finishing as runners-up in the first World Championship series it looked as though success was just around the corner, that is until Piero Remor, Chief Mechanic Arturo Magni, and works rider Arciso Artesiani left Gilera to join their rivals, MV Agusta for reasons not disclosed. This will no doubt explain the marked similarity between the Gilera and MV four cylinder engine designs.
It would seem that MV were also experiencing high speed handling problems with their 500 four, with the result that they were successful getting Les Graham to forsake the AJS racing team and join them during the winter of 1950 so that they could benefit from his experience. Over the next couple of years several changes were made to the front and rear suspension, as well as to the frame, the latter modifications becoming possible after the final drive had been changed from shaft to chain. The engine itself had been modified too, each cylinder now having its own carburettor which, with other changes that included a five speed gearbox raised the power output to 56bhp at 10,500rpm.
Sadly, Graham's term with MV proved to be short lived. The day after winning his first TT, the 1953 Lightweight on a 125 MV single, he crashed heavily at the bottom on Bray Hill during the second lap of the Senior Race and succumbed to his injuries. His loss was felt by the entire racing community and motorcycle enthusiasts alike.
From this point on the MV story is well documentated elsewhere, although it was not until 1956 that MV began to make real headway again after John Surtees had joined them. Other famous names ensured these successes continued right up to 1974, when the all-conquering Japanese two-strokes finally overwhelmed the might of MV. Amongst the many who had helped ensure MVs continuing run of success were Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood, Gary Hocking and Phil Read. The sound of an MV on full song will never be forgotten by anyone privileged to hear it.
Road-going MV fours
When the first of the road-going MV fours appeared during 1965 they broke new ground. Although 'over-the-counter' race replicas had been produced before, no one had attempted to manufacture such an ambitious version of a highly successful Grand Prix racer, albeit at a price. Yet strangely, much of the initial impact was lost by giving it a sombre black finish, far removed from the brilliant fire engine red of its racing counterpart. For that matter its styling was not very attractive either, its petrol tank having the appearance of one of the early Japanese 'back to front' designs.
It somehow seemed to tower above the two level dualseat and was relieved only by its chrome plated sides which carried the MV motif and a pair of stick-on knee grips. If that were not enough, the telescopic front fork carried an ugly-looking rectangular headlamp with the instruments recessed into its top, surmounted by high rise handlebars which created anything but a racing image.
The frame was of the duplex tube type, featuring conventional pivoted fork rear suspension.
Although the unit-construction engine could be readily identified with the racing engine, it had only two carburettors and two exhaust pipes on each side that terminated in a single silencer. Good points were a protective engine crash bar and shaft final drive. Although the front brake looked impressive with its twin discs, it was cable rather than hydraulically operated. The rear brake was of the single leading shoe drum type. With an engine capacity of 592cc, the 58x56mm engine had a compression ratio of 9.3:1 and a claimed power output of 50bhp at 8,200rpm. Weighing 221kg, it was alleged to have a maximum speed of 110mph. Only a very small number of these models were imported into the UK, one of which was given away as a prize in a competition run by a weekly motorcycling newspaper. Many considered it suffered the appropriate fate of being won by a reader who promptly shackled it to a sidecar!
It seems to have taken the company the best part of four years for the message to sink in that their new model was unlikely to attract the more affluent rider with a pronounced sporting instinct. As a result, the model was completely revamped during late 1969. Increasing the bore size to 65mm increased the capacity to 743cc and by giving each cylinder its own carburettor the power output rose to 69bhp. A more shapely and colourful petrol tank, a dual seat with a hump at its end and a slim line Ceriani front fork improved its appearance considerably, aided and abetted by two megaphone type silencers on each side of the machine. A massive twin drum front brake heightened the overall effect, as did the clip on handlebars with their ends projecting beyond the grips. Catalogued as the 750GT model, the first arrivals in Britain were delivered to Gus Kuhn Motors in October 1972, who had started to show an interest in the fours. It was supplemented by the 750S model, in effect a similar model in sports styling. When production of the 750GT model ceased in November 1973, the 750S featured an improved cylinder head and continued into production until September 1975.
A further capacity increase resulted in a 790cc model, the America, which was expected to sell particularly well in that country with its $6,000 dollar price tag. Further styling changes had taken place which made it resemble even more closely its racing counterpart. Another increase in bore size to 67mm and raising the compression ratio still further to 9.5:1 helped raise the power output to 86bhp. For those who required something even more exclusive there was the alternative 750S America DX model, which featured aluminium alloy wheel rims and a rear disc brake. By this time, both models had hydraulically-operated twin disc brakes, and both continued in production until February 1979.
A larger capacity version of the America models, built to the same basic specification became available in Britain during July 1977. The increased capacity of 832cc had been achieved by taking the bore size out by another 2mm. Initially, this new model was listed as the Boxer, an unfortunate choice of name as it inferred the engine was of the flat four type, When Ferrari objected to its use, the name was changed to Monza in February 1978. For the owner who still sought extra power, an 862cc version was listed during April that year, the Monza Arturo Magni. The master himself personally supervised the provision of a specially tuned engine, which remained in production for only a year before MV motorcycle production came to an end. There was, however, one last fling that came about during late 1978.
With the bore size already stretched to its limit, by increasing the stroke to 62mm the capacity could be raised to its highest ever figure – 955cc. Thus was born the Ago, named after Giacomo Agostini, one of MV's most successful riders. It was based on the 1978 Corona model he had raced in the 750cc class at Imola and developed 99bhp at 10,200rpm. Sadly, very few of these awesome models were made before the factory finally closed its doors to concentrate on their main business, making helicopters. Although there was all the difference in the world between Britain's most expensive motorcycle, the legendary 998cc Vincent vee twin, and the four cylinder MV in its various guises, they both shared one common factor. Every red blooded enthusiast dearly wanted to own one, but only a very small number could actually afford to do so. That situation still exists today, when a considerable sum of money is required to buy a good example of either machine. This underlines the fact that both have left their mark in motorcycling's history and we are all the poorer without them. Somehow their Japanese counterparts fail to qualify for comparison.
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