The lady I passed on the one-lane bridge on Indian Ridge Road in Grainger County thinks I am a maniac, scofflaw, or, if she's familiar with the term, squid. She couldn't see through my face-shield and sunglasses that my eyes were wide as saucers with terror as I squeezed by. She couldn't see the pucker marks on the seat vinyl, either.
I was on a shake-down ride on a freshly roadworthy (or not) 1973 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, and came up on her a little quickly when she decided that her Taurus was a bit wide for the bridge at 45 miles per hour and would fit better at 25. I saw her brake lights flash on and grabbed a manly handful of front brake. Nothing. I squeezed harder, but continued to hurtle toward the Taurus. Rather than embed the Sport in her rear bumper, I released the brake and grabbed the throttle, roaring around her across the narrow bridge. And I mean roar; this bike has "competizioni" mufflers and I was thankful there was no angry cop around with a decibel meter.
The folks riding with me knew exactly what happened, as they were behind me and saw the V7's cute little CEV brake light come on without other evidence of braking. They passed the Taurus later, legally, on the long uphill past the Nance's Ferry Road cutoff, the driver probably pissed off and/or frightened by now. Not a banner day for motorcycling's public image. This particular ride was ill-fated in another way, but that's a story for a different day.
I was resurrecting the bike for my wife, after dragging it home from Texas, where it had sat for several years. I had carefully set up the V7's front brake, a honking double-sided four-leading-shoe hunk of alloy of Guzzi's own design, meticulously adjusting and lubricating the dual cables and all the monkey-motion linkages that transmitted my mighty hand-squeezing to the four shoes. It proved to be unintentionally exciting, but lacking in any real stopping power. I had been forewarned, and two other V7 Sport owners I know had given up and swapped disc-brake front ends onto their machines, spoiling their bikes' iconic looks, and in one case likely degrading the bike's value by selling off the original brake and forks.
Those early disc set-ups are a far cry from the wave-edged, wafer-thin, full-floating-on-anodized-alloy-button rotors on current sport bikes. Guzzi's first attempt was a pair of thick cast-iron serving platters bolted to the hub, grabbed by two calipers each containing two heavy steel pistons. To ensure as much unsprung weight as possible was located as far as possible from the bike's center of mass, Guzzi mounted the calipers in front of the fork legs. I weighed two rotors and calipers on my postal scale: just over 16 pounds. A bonus feature, the discs flash-rust in seconds after contact with water.
I can't do it. A V7 Sport without that drum brake just isn't a V7 Sport (although Guzzi did sell a few at the end of the run in 1974 with two discs). Guzzi only used this brake on two models, the V7 Sport and a few 1974 850 Eldorados, and it's gorgeous. Both sides bear a cast-in MOTO GUZZI logo, the font borrowed from Mussolini-era propaganda. Slots down the hub's center let in cooling air; finned exits on both backing plates exhaust it. Drum brakes don't necessarily suck, and this bike has two on the same wheel!
Surely the brakes couldn't have been this weak when the bike was new? Contemporary road tests praised the brake's performance: In the September 1973 Motorcyclist, road tester Bob Greene wrote: "Since you can get rubber with either brake, discs are not needed." Hmmmm. Perhaps it's a problem with the ancient friction material on those four shoes. One Guzzi expert I know jokes that the lining Guzzi used was so hard because it was intended to last 100,000 miles.
Other, more mundane-looking drum brakes can be very effective. My 69 Triumph Tiger, sold to Cycle World's Peter Egan after he mooched it at the 2005 Honda Hoot, would squeal the front tire with a two-finger grab. Local road racer Jack Parker, required to use drum brakes under AHRMA rules, uses a CB350 brake on his 175 racer and is using a Yamaha XS1 brake on his "new" 250cc race bike. Both are simple two-leading-shoe items and both work. Back in the day, Grand Prix race bikes were fitted with exotic and beautiful four-shoe drum brakes made by Fontana, Grimeca and Ceriani, in magnesium alloys. CMA/Dresda made an eight-shoe front brake that must have been a nightmare to adjust. But it was light and massively effective, and it looks like pure sex.
I have procured four new brake shoes supposedly equipped with more modern friction material, and hopefully they will allow the Sport to be ridden, errr, sportingly. But first I have one more arcane hoop to jump through: the shoes must be arced to fit the drums' internal diameter. At least they won't be shedding carcinogenic asbestos particles as they spin in the lathe. Until then the bike's owner will have to rely on engine braking, anticipation, and prudence to keep it out of the hedges—and Taurus rear bumpers.
Fred Sahms is a curmudgeonly Luddite who has been soiling his fingernails with old motorcycles for 25-plus years. His garage is located somewhere in North Knoxville. Drop him a line at fred(at)fredsgarage(dot)net.