Is it Real?

Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans PR

A publisher once told me I didn’t like any Moto Guzzi story I didn’t write. I’ll admit that now as I did then, but the reasons have less to do with pride then being excluded from the experience. Blasting a Magni Lemans 1000 at Misano or crawling under the paint of a period Bol d’Or racer are experiences I’d order if the way-back machine worked. This leaves only the realities of time and distance to comb through history for its answers. Thanks to excellent contacts and some handy luck I’ve cracked a few Guzzi-related mysteries but the mojo runs low. The subject? Guzzi’s Le Mans flashbike. Subtitle: 850 Production Racer.

Those still reading should be familiar with the Le Mans, arguably Mandello’s most popular model. Introduced in 1975 the 850 followed three sports 750s produced (and sometimes imported) 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 Benelli, 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 close, trusted sources who added that few shared De Tomaso’s enthusiasm for the inline, yet the owner learned full well the nature and desires of his customer base. 

Thanks to hometown hero Duilio Agostini, Bruno Scola, Dutch wizard Jan Kampen and others the work began by Lino Tonti was carried out, and the Le Mans V850 was ready in 1975. In the thick of the Euro performance wars the 844cc twin gave no ground to Ducati’s 900 Desmo or the Jota triple. Making unexpected speed then and largely forgotten later, Guzzi’s AMA superbike wins from Berliner/Baldwin and Roy Armstrong’s Avon Production championship are proof. Good for one-forty with taller gearing, Armstrong’s Le Mans was boosted using the factory uprating kit, and that aspect (I reasoned) evolved into claims of works-built PRs. Sadly, with no factory records to support those claims I proclaimed the Le Mans 850 PR 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.

Combining info from other sources it seems fair to credit Scola and Kampen for the uprating kit, coming together as part number 14 99 97 40. Offered by dealers in part or whole, a pair of 40mm Dellorto PHF 40A carbs attach via angled intakes to one side of the cylinder head, opposite an open, lightweight 2-into-2 exhaust with short megaphones. For the change up Guzzi’s close ratio, straight tooth five-speed gearset included a selection of lower and higher rear gearing options, a key element in the PR’s flexible track performance. Not listed on Guzzi’s release dated March 1977, the factory’s sports B10 camshaft was generally included, especially as Guzzi offered stiffening valve spacers and a set-up sheet.

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 (<left 1980 model) 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 speed merchant Bill Ross, who says 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. “The bike 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 (right>). “I rode for two days doing about 600 miles then stripped it and fitted the kit. It came with 40mm carbs, race exhaust, cam, tuning info in Italian, etc. We found the bores oval and tapered with only about seven-tenths of a tho 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 bike. It handled very well; much better than the 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 thinking there’s 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?

There’s more. Le Mans enthusiast Antonio Cannizzaro added a new element to the story, and much of what he discovered through former factory types helps explain curious aspects of the 750-850 merger. “Yes the Works PR is quite rare, not many of them were sold. 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.” It’s interesting to note the same type of demand bumped Ducati 900 SS production too.

That’s where I stand on the project, and here’s hoping this writing shakes some more grapes from the vine. 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 very cool and/or would sell. I’m not the only Guzzi enthusiast interested in this topic, but I’m among the few silly enough to devote this much time to it. We’re down to the details. More to come. Nolan Woodbury

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