A Golden Era: Intro to 1970s Italian Sporting Bikes

It’s race day at the 1972 running of the Imola 200, and the air is electric with anticipation. A record 70,000 excited Italian fans have packed the 3-mile course, sitting on fences and in trees to better see a field stacked with more factory works teams and big-name riders than the sport has seen in one place since its heyday in the 1950’s.

World champ Giacomo Agostini is the first off the line with his regal red-and-white MV Agusta 750S, but he’s soon reeled in by two new silver Ducatis. The two matching 750 Super-Sports are easy to track from the sidelines with their long, silver-flake-painted fairings shimmering in the sun, and by the unholy sound they’re making—screaming in chorus—as they scorch through the course.

1970-Ducati-750-Super-Sport-Racing

Silver Streaks: Twin 750SS Ducatis took first and second place at the inaugural running of the Imola 200 in 1972.

After 40 laps, Agostini pulls out of the race with black smoke coming out of his megaphone exhaust—but not before tying the fastest lap time with a 101mph average speed.

The rest of the field is too far back to mount a real challenge to the Ducs, and with five laps left the race comes down to the two teammates.

In the lead is hotshot English privateer Paul Smart, who was flown in for the race. Behind him is Ducati factory pilot Bruno Spaggiari, who in the heat of the moment tries one last outside pass for first-place glory. Smart drifts wide and holds him off for the win, nearly sending second-place Spaggiari into the grass.

As the two Ducatis roar by the pits, a tall figure in a neat brown suit with slick black hair beams a broad smile, eyes twinkling behind his dark sunglasses.

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That moment when legendary Ducati engineer Fabio Taglioni witnessed the beautiful baptism of his new Desmo 750SS offers a perfectly good place to stop and consider what makes these “Italian Sporting Bikes of the 1970s” so special.

Freeze the frame and look at what was happening around him. Italian motorcycle manufacturers’ sales had taken a big hit in the early- to mid-60s, requiring Moto Guzzi and Ducati to turn to government aid to stay solvent.

While the 1950’s had been gangbusters for sustaining sales of 75 and 150cc bikes, stiff competition from abroad and evolving views at home about the dignity of commuting on two wheels had conspired to swamp sales. Companies were faced with two options: Roll over and die, or punch their way out of trouble.

By cutting their losses on small bike sales and banking on a new generation of customer that looked to motorcycles for fun and recreation, not just cheap transportation, the Italian motorbike industry sought salvation through the superbike.

 Just look at Laverda, another Italian company racing at Imola in ’72 with its brilliant 750 SFC. Twenty years prior Laverda was a tractor company just breaking into the motorcycle business. By 1954 it was cranking out 9,000 75cc singles a year from its Breganze factory, and when the bottom fell out of that market, a 25-year-old Massimo Laverda took over the company and bet big on big twins—producing fewer units but ultimately more expensive and more revered bikes.

The company jumped from its first 200cc twin in 1964 to cranking out its competitive Formula 750 series bikes just three years later. Then it followed up with 1,000cc and 1,200cc triples in the later half of the decade.

Some companies may have gone smaller, chasing after scooter sales, or switching industries, but these four Italian bands went big—and with style.

“We often hear the term ‘golden era’ and it really was just that,” says Tim Parker, author of the book “Italian Sporting Bikes,” among other titles, and an expert vintage motorcycle consultant for Bonhams auction house. “These were superbikes. We didn’t call them that at the time, but that’s what they were… I don’t know what was in the water or in the air or in the political life at the time, but there’s something about the early to middle 70s that the Italians got ahold of, and whatever they were drinking, the bikes were just absolutely fantastic.”

“Compare them with the Nortons or BSA triples of the time, and they all flounder. BMW couldn’t even match the Italians. Their best effort was the 90S that came out in ’74, and okay it was Big and New and a BMW, but it wasn’t a very good bike. In terms of being great riding machines, none of them match the sporting Italian bikes of the 70s.”

Parker says the secret for the Italians was their engineering integrity: “They were very good at packaging a bike. Italian style backed with well-balanced engineering—the bikes weren’t faultless, but they had a very neat balance. You could ride them and be entertained and stimulated…you might worry about whether it was going to blow up or not—usually they didn’t—but you could really be at one with an Italian machine.”

“And in the Italian way these bikes were very attractive. They were the Lamborghini Countach of every 20-year-old’s dreams. And something one could just about afford, too.” For Italian motorbike production the decade of the 1970′s was absolutely mad. And then as quickly as the onslaught came, it was over. And then came the Japanese. Namely, the Ninjas. “The 1984 GPZ900 was the first water-cooled four-cylinder from Kawasaki—and it was just a fantastic bike,” says Parker. “It handled like an Italian bike and it went like stink, and it was $2000 cheaper.”

So what’s Tim Parker’s most prized personal motorcycle? Why, his old air-cooled Laverda SFC, of course. Stimulating, romantic, fun—Italian motorcycles are many things, but rationality isn’t their strong suit.

And that makes us love them all the more.

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Start Here: Intro 70s Italian Superbikes

The Ducati Story
Ducati 350 Mark 3-D (1968-1972)
Ducati 350 Desmo (1971-1972)
Ducati 750S (1972-1974)
Ducati 750SS (1973-1974)
Ducati 900SS (1975-1982)
Ducati Darmah (1977-1982)
Ducati MHR (1979-1984) 

The Laverda Story
Laverda 750S (1969-1970)
Laverda SF (1970-1976)
Laverda SFC (1971-1976)
Laverda Jota (1976-1983)
Laverda Montjuic (1979-1981)

The Moto Guzzi Story
Moto Guzzi V7 Telaio Rosso (1971)
Moto Guzzi V7 Sport (1971-1974)
Moto Guzzi 750S (1974-1975)
Moto Guzzi Lemans 850 (1976-1978)

The MV Agusta Story
MV Agusta 750S (1971-1974)
MV Agusta 750 America (1975-1977)
MV Agusta Magni 861

BonusThe Benelli 750 Sei
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Illustrations: Martin Squires
Studio photography: David Genat