Le Mans Trifecta

And now for something just a little more masculine. Around 1996 a guy called me out of the blue and asked me if I could help him fix his Moto Guzzi. The bottom end of his ex-race 850 Le Mans had gone clankity clank on the interstate. Dave Vendola had hauled the bike to our mutual friend, John Hoffman, owner of Cycle Specialties of Athens. Ga., a seriously old-school Euro-bike shop. John gave Dave a big fat estimate, and then my phone number and his motor in a box. I happened to have a good 850 crank and rods, and Dave had a set of goldline Brembo calipers in a box, and I needed a set for a project. We've been friends ever since.

Dave's battered Le Mans had been his race bike in the Battle of the Twins production class races in 1981-82, and had crashed and burned at least once. Considering its history it didn't look too bad. After its racing days were done, and the "production" rules ceased to apply, the motor had been significantly modified, and disassembling it was a treasure hunt. The oversized forged Venolia pistons and trick valve-train work were undamaged by the blow-up, and we had it up and running well in a few weeks. Dave still rides it, maniacally, but at the moment it's disassembled for a badly needed paint job.

Dave's bike is the classic Le Mans 850 color scheme: red with a day-glo accent panel on the bikini fairing, avant-garde by 1976 standards. It looks great in the brochure, but in use the day-glo faded rapidly and unevenly, depending on UV exposure. A less-common option was an ice silver-blue, with the same day-glo accent panel. Even rarer was a small batch of white bikes. Our friend John Hoffman, who died in 2007, had one of these white machines.

A few years ago Dave's friend Russell Johnson gave him a second Le Mans 850, this one with 95,000 miles on the clock. (CNN Headline News Italy headline: Veglia Odometer Functions for 95,000 Miles!) Russell's bike had been in the family for as long as Dave's bike and it too was red/day-glo. It was in amazing shape for the miles, and much closer to stock than Dave's "old" Le Mans. It had been sleeping for many years in Russell's basement in North Carolina, but after a trip through the carburetors and a fresh battery it started right up. The only departure from stock was a period-optional "riservato competizioni" (competition only) exhaust system, with Lafranconi's signature whizzer cone outlets.

To complete the trifecta, Russell's brother Glenn, now in Houston, Texas, has a third red Le Mans, bought at the same time as Russell's bike.

Infected by exposure to Dave's two bikes, I kept a casual eye out for an 850 Le Mans. Of all of Guzzi's early bikes, the first Le Mans has always struck me as the most machismo, stripped down for racing, with matt black frame and tank-top panel. Even in stock form, the Le Mans ran Guzzi's hottest motor of that era, with 36mm Dellorto pumper carburetors, unfiltered velocity stacks, and oversized valves. Dave and Glenn and Russell seemed to know the whereabouts of every Le Mans in Tennessee, and one day Dave mentioned that a fourth bike, the "Sammy bike" on Signal Mountain, might be for sale. It had been parked for 20 years.

"Signal Mountain Sammy" was a nickname given by Glenn to Phil Levi, a friend who had bought a new Le Mans in 1977 (also red). Dave and I went to look at Phil's bike in the spring of 2007, and despite its depressingly corroded condition, I bought it and dragged it back to Knoxville, promising Phil I wouldn't part it out. This Le Mans also has some race history, but was past any sane definition of patina. The tank was a colander.

I feel some sense of duty to paint the Sammy bike red again like it was in its glory days on the track. But I keep going back to a dog-eared factory brochure photo of the Le Mans in that ice blue. The day-glo clashing across the color wheel with the ice blue is even more avant-garde than against the red, at least for the year or two before it fades to the color of urine.

Is the color of your friends' bike(s) a sane reason to choose a different color for yours? Dave and I berated our reluctant genius painter into digging the day-glo paint chips out of the way-back machine, and we agreed on a shade Andy Warhol would approve. Dave selected a gorgeous red for the rest of his bodywork. (Guzzi was infamous for lack of uniformity in its shades of red, so there's really no "official" Le Mans red.) But for the Sammy bike I might have to go with that beautiful ice blue, just so I can find the bike in the parking lot. It seems you can't swing a broken speedometer cable around here without hitting a red 850 Le Mans.

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@fredsgarage.net.