Is it real?

Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans Production Racer

A publisher once said I didn’t like any Moto Guzzi story I didn’t write. I’ll admit it now as I did then, but the reasons have less to do with vanity and more from being excluded from the experience. Guzzi being my personal machine, thirty-plus years of journo work has expanded my interests to include mental movies of twisting a Works MV through the banks at Misano, or crawling under the paint of a Harris Z1. That said, Guzzi history remains a strong passion, and thanks to excellent coleagues (and luck) we’ve cracked a few Guzzi-related mysteries, but there’s always more to learn. Dated back to it’s mid-60s origins and continuously developed, this writing focuses on Guzzi’s Le Mans flashbike. Subtitle: 850 Production Racer.

Growing annually as a premium collectible, the Le Mans 850 is arguably Mandello’s most popular motorcycle. Introduced in 1975, the 850 followed three sports 750s produced (and sometimes imported to the US) between 1971 and 1975. There’s more behind those words than a simple lead in, as a tremendous amount of twin-cylinder development was happening both in and outside the factory gates. Invested heavily in his multis, the existence of the Le Mans is proof that Guzzi boss De Tomaso accepted the SEI’s failure as a marquee leader. This information comes from trusted sources, who added that few shared De Tomaso’s enthusiasm for the inlines, leaving the owner to learn what his customers wanted the hard way. 

Historic tuners like Duilio Agostini, Bruno Scola, Dutch wizard Jan Kampen and the iconic Charles Krajka carried on the work began by Lino Tonti, and the Le Mans V850 was ready by 1975. In the thick of the Euro performance wars, Guzzi’s 844cc twin gave no ground to Ducati’s 900 SS or the Jota. Making unexpected speed but largely forgotten, Guzzi’s AMA superbike wins from Berliner/Baldwin and Roy Armstrong’s Avon Production Championship are proof. Geared for 140-mph, Armstrong’s bike was boosted using the factory uprating kit, and that aspect (I reasoned) evolved into claims of works-built PRs. Finding no mention of it from my factory contacts, I considered the Le Mans 850PR a hoax.

Now I’m pretty sure it’s true.

There’s still plenty of questions, but the kit’s validly isn’t among them. Truly the stuff of legends, the Le Mans would grow well past its original displacement and ultimately return shocking top speed numbers, but things didn’t look good after De Tomaso closed the factory race shop in 1972. Both Agostini in Mandello and  factory insiders developed horsepower and reliability into experimental V7 Sport-based racers in 850, 950 and 1000cc tunings. Lacking the funds to sign top riders Mandello’s fastest battled honorably at high profile endurance races all over Europe. With every component evaluated, those refinements shaped 850 production.

One important update to mention here involves a new book written and complied by Antonio Cannizzaro and Alberto Pasi. Filled with many interesting things I’m sure, “Le Mans 850 – 1000” includes information on a previously unknown (to me) model called the “VB” 850 Le Mans. Homologated in 1973 (see illustration) and production ready, the machine is based on the V7S platform in 844cc with twin-disc brakes and a small, fiberglass tail. Assisted by Bruno Scola and other insiders at the factory, Cannizzaro has successfully drawn out some long silent notables. As I’m hearing it, De Tomaso axed this project too, and more is the pity. Allowed to develop as Tonti and others believed it should, the buying public could have taken delivery of the 850 Le Mans two years sooner than when the bike did actually appear, and the advanced development might have made a sizable difference in Guzzi’s technical (performance) timeline. Available only in Italian, I remain anxious to take delivery. For those interested, it can be purchased here:

From this heroic, often thankless effort the factory uprating kit came together as part number 14 99 97 40. Offered by various importers in part or whole, a pair of open 40mm Dellorto PHM 40A carbs attach via angled intakes to one side of the cylinder head, opposite an open, lightweight 2-into-2 exhaust with short megaphones. Behind, Guzzi’s close ratio, straight tooth gearset included a selection of lower and higher rear drive pinion options, a key element in the PR’s improved track performance. Unlike the production racing prototypes, most PRs fit stock bodywork.

Another rumored part is a longer but similar-styled 24-liter aluminum fuel tank, but the ex-factory workers posting on social media say few were made. There isn’t much to distinguish a PR from the stock 850, the truncated exhaust being the biggest hint, and Guzzi continued to offer the kit for both Le Mans 850II and 850III (1980 model 850II in red) production. The kit disappeared in 1984 after the factory 1000cc Le Mans’ release but remained in stock for years. “Note the exclusion of a lightened flywheel,” says Guzzi LSR record champion Billoni Ross. “Apparently less isn’t always more.”

Digging deeper, credit both veteran Guzzi maven Joe Caruso and Ross for sending long collected docs from their files. No question the most telling of these was a 1980 advert from UK importer Coburn & Hughes. Looked at but not studied I was mildly stunned to see ‘Le Mans 850 ‘Production Racer’ listed among C&H’s docket of available models. Now English lore the “PR” label was an instantly recognizable catch phrase, calling up visions of proddy built Commandos and Thruxtons in the land where the term originated. To be sure Colburn and Hughes were responsible for several home market specials, including the Le Mans 850II black & gold and a line of SP 1000 tourers in black-tie livery. We haven’t seen another importer list the PR, but we haven’t seen everything. Period tests from Italy and Holland both showcased this tuned Le Mans, some with 1000cc cylinders and Lafranconi slip-ons in place of the open PR exhaust. Waiting on clarification the question hangs: did Coburn & Hughes order the PR built, offer the kit, or both?

True to form, the core of enthusiasts who frequent the RealClassic magazine Facebook page came through, starting with former Triumph engineer Martyn Roberts who shared a memory of running a tuned Le Mans 850 around the TT course. “It was shockingly good,” recalled Roberts. “I remember telling the owner it was the first bike I’d ridden around the Isle of Man that handled well enough to keep the power on where you’d normally shut it off.” “I ordered a new Le Mans PR in the late 1970’s from Apple Motorcycles in Hinckley” says Tony Harris, who won the BFRC proddy championship in the UK with it (pictured #71). “I rode for two days doing about 600 miles then stripped to fit the kit. It came with 40mm carbs, race exhaust, cam, tuning info in Italian, etc. We actually discovered the bores were oval and tapered – only about .0007-tenths of clearance. No wonder everybody says it takes 15k to run them in! I honed the bores and gave them proper clearance. It then revved to 9k and was a different motorcycle. It handled very well; much better than the Ducati 900SS  I raced later.” When I asked Tony why he (or Apple) didn’t order a factory assembled PR, his answer was simple; “I did. When the Le Mans arrived it was a stock 850 with a big box of extras. I thought they all came that way.”

Not so, according to author Sean Hawker, who penned a cover-worthy article on a factory-built PR published in Classic Bike magazine’s December 1994 issue. This machine (^ above in racing trim)  was presumably a factory-prepped PR  imported from Italy by Bryants of Biggleswade and was clocked with rider Charlie Sanby at 155-mph in the 1978 TT. Purchased by Roger Hamilton in 1979 after unsuccessfully trying to order one the year before, Hamilton was thrilled after being told each were made to order, half was needed up front and the wait was six-months. There’s nothing in writing I’ve found, but with enough sources saying the same thing we’re looking for fire under that PR smoke. Good sources say it was possible to buy direct in Mandello, but only after trying to pursuade customers towards the nearest import dealer. Created to generate interest and income, accessories are geared for dealership profit and Guzzi’s own published documents strongly suggest the PR kit be installed by a ‘certified technician’. There’s no doubt the majority of PRs were kits, but how many secrets can one motorcycle keep?

“The Works PR is quite rare, not many of them were sold,” says Cannizzaro. “The Le Mans was originally intended as a tuned ‘R’ of the latest declination of the V7 Sport; the 750 S3. This model was meant to receive the most relevant interest. The Le Mans (as in, the 850 Production Racer) was to be offered only for the sporty customer; those people who could finish the transformation into a full on racing machine. Moto Guzzi believed they would sell only a few, but instead the Le Mans had a much greater success than expected.” This does explain the original S3 homologation, showing the engine in a much higher state of tune. Instead, the Le Mans was a hit and the S3 didn’t last a year. “The racing kit could have included an large 24-liter tank, which was longer. The original seat was shaped to fit it, and the empty volume under the front made it prone to breaking. According to Bruno Scola, only a few of the extended tanks were made. It was never entered into the catalogue.” Looking over to rival Ducati, it’s interesting to note the same type of demand bumped the 900 Desmo Super Sport from racing special to production as well.

(Racing kit components displayed from several sources – gearing, intake, exhaust all for competition or fast street use. Some remain available

That’s where I stand on the project, and here’s hoping this writing shakes some more fruit from the tree. With over 5000 Le Mans 850 models produced between 1976-77 it isn’t hard to envision a couple-hundred knocked out in PR tune. That is, before the order desk exploded. Anyone out there have an original Le Mans 850 homologation doc? Some mention the flat-plate tail lamp bracket as an identifier, but I’ll need more to accurately identify a factory PR from the kit version. Not surprisingly the varying details illustrate what was available and where, as Bill Ross summarized. Most dealers (like Harpers in Missouri) bought what they thought was interesting or would might sell. Judging by the mails and messages, we’re not the only members of the faithful interested in this topic, and the feedback has been amazing. We’re always looking for more! Nolan Woodbury

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