Each spring, right here in Chadds Ford PA, there is a classic motorcycle auction. It is my habit to attend this annual event, not so much as a buyer, but as a looker. In 2003, a Moto Morini 500 came onto the block. This was a machine that I had not really considered collecting. They were never very popular in the states, and are on the small end of the ‘big twins’ range. Still, they enjoy a big following in Europe and England, where people really appreciate fine motorbikes. As I looked over the Morini at the Chadds Ford Auction, I began to feel a familiar nervousness in the pit of my stomach. I wanted it.
The Bolgna, Italy factory started as a family business in the 1920’s. Two strokes evolved into four strokes and Grand Prix racing produced many successes for the small company. Then in 1971, Morini shocked the Italian motorcycle industry with the introduction of a 350cc V-twin, followed by a similarly designed 500cc version in 1975.
These fabulous power plants were so innovative and effective, that they guaranteed the company’s commercial success through the 70’s and 80’s.
These motors use Heron head combustion chambers: the roof of the chamber is flat, the ‘hemisphere’ is cast into the piston crowns. One advantage of this construction is that the head castings are greatly simplified, reducing construction costs. Another is that high compression ratios are allowed, in this case 10:1. The camshaft is carried quite high in the cases, and driven by a toothed belt, operating the parallel valves via short push rods. The 72 degree V angle gives good smoothness as well as being compact. An unusual electric starter is backed up by a kick starter. Grimeca calipers squeeze 3 disc brake rotors to slow you down. Ducati electronic ignition provides the spark. Suspension chores are handled by Marzocchi, front and rear, and a hydraulic steering dampener is standard.
The condition of this bike as bought was better than most, especially considering the chance one takes at any auction. As usual, I went over the mechanicals from front to rear, replacing tires, tubes, battery, fork seals, brake pads, cables and handgrips. One problem that had to be solved involved the foot controls. To make the bikes legal in the US, controls had to be standardized, so the rear brake pedal and shifter were reversed from standard. The resulting linkages may have allowed the Herdan Corporation in nearby Port Clinton, PA to import and distribute the bikes, but they did nothing for the control feel. The shifter required too much lever travel, and at an awkward angle. The long, spongy rear brake cable made the hydraulic disc ineffective. Reverting to Italian foot control location was necessary.
The result of a clever design combined with quality components is an effective, lightweight motorcycle. The engine produces 35 HP at 8250 RPM. With a fueled weight of only 350 pounds, acceleration is pleasing, although the motor must be kept on spool. The 5 speed transmission makes this easy and fun. With its decent suspension and brakes, this little bike can stay right with its larger stable mates, making up for less power with heavy late braking and hard cornering. The European sport style handlebar and broad, long seat give a comfortable upright seating position. All in all, this machine is totally non-intimidating, and the ride is….whimsical, just lots of fun. No wonder the factory saw fit to put a cartoon like decal on the tail section. It depicts a blond witch flying across the sky on her jet powered broom, with a huge grin on her face. That about sums it up.