Woodbury Moto-Media

Journalism • Photography • Lifestyle • Events

Le Mans 850III 1981-1984

In the thick of the Euro and English performance wars the Le Mans gave no ground to rival Ducati’s 864cc Desmo or the big Jota triple. The Guzzi’s competitiveness was quite unexpected, but Mike Baldwin’s Berliner-backed AMA superbike winner and Roy Armstrong’s 1977 Avon Production championship gave proof. Good for a reliable 140-mph or more with taller gearing, Armstrong’s Le Mans was boosted using the factory uprating kit, and that aspect evolved into claims of works-prepped PR specials. But with no factory records to support the claims, I proclaimed the Le Mans 850 PR a hoax.

That’s where I stand on the project, and here’s hoping this writing shakes some more apples from the tree. Over 5000 Le Mans 850s were produced in 1976-77; a sizeable amount for Moto Guzzi, so it isn’t hard to envision them knocking out a couple-hundred PRs before the order desk exploded. Come to think of it, I do not recall ever seeing the original Le Mans 850 homologation document. Some mention the early taillamp shroud as an identifier, but I’ll need more to accurately identify a factory PR from the kit version. Not surprisingly, the varying details often illustrates what was available, and as Bill Ross summarized, most importers (like Harpers in Missouri) bought what they thought might sell. I’m not the only Guzzi enthusiast interested in this topic, but I’m among the few crazy enough to devote this much time to it. More details will be uncovered. Stay tuned. Nolan Woodbury

Behind, Guzzi’s close ratio, straight tooth gearset included a selection of lower and higher rear drive gearing options, a key element in the PR’s improved track performance. Despite some confusion concerning Guzzi’s release dated March 1977, the factory’s sports B10 camshaft was indeed included, supported by Guzzi offering stiffening valve spacers and a set-up diagram. Far rarer it seems is the 24-liter aluminum (or fiberglass) fuel tank, but those who know in Italy say few were made. Despite the fact that every photo I collected showed the kit fit on an original series 850, Guzzi offered the PR uprating kit throughout Le Mans 850II and 850III production. The kit disappeared in 1984 after the (B10 cam) 1000cc Le Mans was released, yet remained in stock for years. Note the exclusion of a lightened flywheel, this mention straight from the mind of Guzzi speed merchant Bill Ross 

There’s still plenty of questions, but the kit’s validly isn’t among them. Truly the stuff of legends, Guzzi’s path to the Le Mans was led by former racing director Scola and a host of talent. After De Tomaso closed the factory racing shop in 1972, Scola and his team carried on building special/experimental V7 Sport-based racers in 850 and 1000cc, then Guzzi’s best riders were put into privateer action at high profile events all over Europe.(right>) Every component was evaluated, and these refinements shaped 850 production. 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 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..

Le Mans 850 first series 1976-78 

^ Standard 1976 Le Mans 850 with PR exhaust

Not so, according to author Sean Hawker, who penned a cover-worthy article on a factory-built PR published inClassic Bike magazine’s December 1994 issue. The Guzzi, ordered as a factory-prepped PR then imported from Italy by Bryants of Biggleswade was clocked with rider Charlie Sanby (below, in mid flight)  at 155-mph in the 1978 TT. Purchased by Roger Hamilton in 1979 after unsuccessfully trying to order a PR the year before, Hamilton was thrilled. "I was told by several dealers that each were made to order, there was a six-month wait, and half was needed up front." There’s nothing in writing I’ve found elsewhere, but there’s enough sources to believe there’s fire under that PR smoke. Trusted sources have assured it was possible to buy direct, but usual practice steered inquiries towards the dealer. Created to generate interest and income, accessories are geared for dealerships and Guzzi’s own documents suggest the PR kit be installed by a qualified technician. There’s little doubt most of PRs are kits, but how many secrets can one motorcycle keep?

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 nothing to do with pride and everything to do with being excluded from the experience. Making no apologies, blasting a Magni Lemans at Misano or crawling under the paint of a Scola-tuned Bol d’Or racer are experiences I’d order if the wayback machine actually existed, but the realities of time and distance means my research combs through history for its answers. Thanks to excellent contacts and good old fashioned luck I’ve solved a Guzzi related mystery or two in the past, but my bottle of magic potion is running low. The subject? Guzzi’s Le Mans flashbike, subtitle 850 Production Racer.

Digging for more, credit veteran Guzzi tuners Joe Caruso and the aforementioned Ross for resending documents when I posed the PR question again. The most telling of these was an old advert from UK importer Coburn & Hughes. Viewed before but never really looked at, I was mildly stunned to see the Le Mans 850 ‘Production Racer’ among C&H’s docket of available models in 1980 (right, second from bottom>) An instantly recognizable catch phrase in that region, the PR label instantly called up visions of proddy Commandos and Thruxtons, which earned great clout in the land from which the term originated. Remember please Colburn and Hughes had produced several special, home market models like the Le Mans 850II black & gold and a line of custom SP1000s. I haven’t seen another importer list the PR, but I haven’t seen everything. Period tests from Italy and Holland both showcased a proddy spec Le Mans. Some were fit with 1000cc cylinders and Lafranconi slip-ons because the open PR exhaust was rule-smashing loud. Now, I wait for contacts to clarify if Coburn & Hughes ordered the PR built, offered the kit, or both. 

There’s more. Le Mans enthusiast Antonio Cannizzaro added a new element to the story, and much of what Antonio says fits very well with certain unexplained aspects of the late 750-early-850 models. “Naturally, the PR was quite rare, not many of them were sold by Moto Guzzi. The Le Mans had been originally intended as an 'R' (works) version of the latest declination of the V7 Sport, the S3, which 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 750S3 homologation, showing the engine in a higher state of tune. The Le Mans was a hit and the S3 didn’t last the year. “The racing kit should have included a larger aluminum 24-liter tank, which was longer. The original seat was shaped to fit the longer tank, and the empty volume in the front using the standard tank made it prone to breaking. According to Bruno (Scola) only a few of the extended tanks have been made. It was never entered in the catalogue.”

Is it real?

Moto Guzzi Le Mans Production Racer

^ Le Mans PR from John Sear, nearly identical to the PRs ridden by Castrol-sponsered teammates Ian and Roy Armstrong

(< Left) part of a PR exhaust and Dell'Orto 40A carbs collected by Bill Ross. (^Above) Harpers USA PR kit. Many thanks to Joe Caruso, Tony Harris, Antonio Cannizzaro and Brother Billoni.

Le Mans 850II 1978-1980

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 very impressive,” 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 (<top left, in action) who won the BFRC 1300 production championship in the UK with it. “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 clearance. No wonder everybody says it takes 15k to run them in. I honed the bores round and gave them proper clearances. It then revved to 9k and was a completely different bike. It handled very well; much better than the 900SS Ducati I raced later.” When I asked Tony why he (or Apple) didn’t order an assembled-at-the factory PR, his answer was telling; “I did. When the Le Mans arrived it was production stock with a big box of extras. I thought they all came that way.”

Most will be familiar with the Le Mans, arguably the most popular model from the Mandello maker. Introduced in 1975 the new 850 followed a line of sports 750s built from 1971-75. That’s more than a simple lead in, as a tremendous amount of development for the twin was happening behind the scenes. Guzzi owner De Tomaso had invested instead in his inline Benelli, but the existence of the Le Mans 850 is proof De Tomaso had given up on the SEI. Thanks to Bruno Scola, Dutch tuner Jan Kampen, and many others carrying on for Lino Tonti, the Le Mans was ready when it needed to be.

Now I’m pretty sure it’s true.