Irrespective of his biking background, every European biker grows up with one particular exploit firmly entrenched in his mind, namely the odyssey to Cape North.
Every year this trip drives thousands of bikers to take on the narrow Scandinavian national roads that skirt along the fjords to get to Nordkapp. This is often a long and tiring trip but it is something that any rider can manage and has long since become a kind of rite of passage that any bike tourer would find very hard indeed to resist.
Not everyone knows, however, that behind this legend lies a truly Italian story, a story that bears the Moto Guzzi hallmark, a story that is 90 years old this year and that saw Giuseppe Guzzi, brother of Carlo (the founder of Moto Guzzi), take a magnificent and revolutionary bike known as the G.T. 500 on an odyssey that smacked of the incredible at that time.
In order to tell this story we have to begin by telling you something about Giuseppe Guzzi and the kind of guy he was. Carlo’s older brother was nicknamed “Naco” (every member of the family had a nickname and Carlo’s was “Tai”) and he was a brilliant mechanic and engineer. Having graduated as a civil engineer, he had designed some of the company’s factory buildings, as well as the power station that provided the company premises with hydroelectric power (it was also he who designed Moto Guzzi’s famous wind tunnel after the end of the Second World War).
Unlike his brother Carlo, who was extremely outgoing and extrovert, Naco was a somewhat quiet and contemplative individual who loved his design work and worked all alone in his office at the Mandello del Lario works. Since he couldn’t handle hot weather, he was known for working bare-chested at his drawing board, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the summer holidays when he could finally head off on one of his much-loved solitary bike tours in search of the cooler mountain climes.
Whereas Carlo was the racing soul of Moto Guzzi, Giuseppe was the one who loved touring and adventure and year after year, with his Sport 13 (known as the Sport 500 at the time) he would head off on ever longer and more extreme trips, during which the dirt roads of the time would put a lot of strain on his Moto Guzzi’s mechanicals and often force him to rely entirely on his own ingenuity and mechanical ability.
In 1926, while he was riding in the Carpathian Mountains, the rigid tail-end of his Sport bike frame snapped. Far from being disheartened, Naco used some tyre inner tubes to hold the tail-end triangle of the frame to the saddle part of the front section and managed to get all the way back to Mandello del Lario with a bike that was no longer a hardtail but somewhat more “flexible”, although perhaps it would be more accurate to use the word “bouncy”.
When he got back to the factory and met his brother Carlo, Giuseppe said just a few words in strict Mandello dialect that would soon go on to change the entire bike industry all he said was “Te set che la va mej insci?” (“You know what? It’s better this way.”).
Thus Carlo and Giuseppe got the idea to create a suspension system that would allow the rear section of the bike frame to pivot up and down independently of the rest of the frame. This system was something totally new for the biking world in which, at the time, the rigid frame was still synonymous of sportiness, and the only possible solution to the problem was the decidedly inefficient and even less reliable static drive-wheel assembly.
So Giuseppe sat down at his drawing board and designed a pivoting rear fork assembly connected to a series of springs positioned under the engine in such a way that the heavier springs would come into play when the lighter springs were totally compressed. Thus the G.T. 500 (or Granturismo) was born.
Unveiled in January 1928, the bike had the same 500cc, opposing-valve engine as the Sport model and was equipped with a new, racing derived, triple-spring front fork assembly, drum brakes and balloon tyres, as well as the very first pivoting fork rear-suspension system available on the market.
Riding on the wave of public enthusiasm for another great Italian achievement a year earlier, when Umberto Nobile and Roald Amundsen flew over the North Pole in a hot air balloon called the Norge, the new bike was immediately renamed the “Norge”. This was a purely promotional move but one that resulted in the publication of a number of negative press releases issued by Moto Guzzi’s competitors, accusing the company of unfair exploitation of the popularity of the aforesaid achievement.
In addition to the already negative press releases, the G.T. 500 was met with a somewhat chilly public response, mainly due to the public’s doubts regarding the “softail” sprung frame.
Thus, in the red-hot summer of 1928, Naco put his reputation on the line and decided to tackle an adventure that was even more extreme than all of his previous exploits. His aim was to take the bike out on a field trip that would follow the same route as that of the hot air balloon with the same name and would prove to everyone that the new G.T. 500 was not only reliable and competitive, but that it was indeed worthy of bearing the “Norge” name.
The bike he chose for this undertaking was indeed a G.T. 500, but actually it was the very same “Sport” bike that Naco had ridden back in 1926, although it had since been updated with all the new components fitted to the latest Granturismo model and customised by the addition of some special accessories for the trip, including a metal pipe mounted under the headlight to house all his maps, a side-mounted gun-case and a heavy-duty side-stand that could be flipped down from either side of the bike.