The poor man’s Harley? That’s how the Guzzi California has been labeled over the years, but this lazy engineered, V-twin cruiser has got its devotees all around the world.
The reasons are simple; it delivers steady, comfortable travel, with low maintenance, for mile after mile.
The 850 twin has grown to 1100cc over the years and gained fuel injection too, with better transmission packages, plus a greater array of luggage and accessories. But underneath all the updates from the 70s to the 90s, the California remains the only serious long distance Italian motorcycle.
Enjoy the next 80,000 miles…
When Moto Guzzi launch a new version of the California, you don’t expect radical changes. After all, the big lazy V-twin cruiser-cum-tourer has been the Mandello mob’s best-selling bike in almost every single year since being introduced in 1970, and every California model since then has been recognisably related to the first.
That’s as true as ever of the latest EV (standing for Evolution) version of the California, which at a distance can barely be distinguished from its predecessor. But the new bike contains over 150 new components, and incorporates some significant changes that give a distinctly different feel.
Several of those new parts are cosmetic, although the bike’s distinctive, high-handlebarred look is almost completely unchanged. Guzzi have done a lot of work recently with customer clinics: visiting rallies and other events to ask motorcyclists, particularly existing Guzzi riders, for comments. One strong reaction was that Guzzi owners appreciate a high-quality look and feel so the old California’s plastic covers at the steering head, lower frame rails and to the rear of the sidepanels have been changed to chromed steel on the EV.
Guzzi’s traditional steel spine frame is retained, but the rest of the chassis has been given a thorough work-out. Front forks are now 45mm units from Marzocchi, adjustable for compression and rebound damping, and the shocks are damping-adjustable units from WP of Holland. Wheels are new, too. They’re still wire-spoked and in 18inch front, 17inch rear sizes, but a new design allows fitment of tubeless Metzeler tyres for the first time.
Brakes are also uprated, most obviously by the introduction of 320mm Brembo discs and four-piston Gold Line calipers up front, in place of the old model’s 300mm discs and twin-pots. Guzzi’s age-old linked braking system has also been revamped, by the addition of a valve that adjusts pressure between the rear disc and the one front disc that is also operated by the foot-pedal. (The hand lever operates the second front disc, as usual.)
Instead of applying a constant proportion of braking force to each wheel as before, the Evolution system varies the pressure according to the bike’s load, as measured by a device connected to the swing-arm. Under most braking situations, the system first applies more force to the rear disc, then gradually shifts the emphasis to the front as weight-transfer reduces the load on the rear wheel (and thus the rear tyre’s ability to grip). The system also allows the rear disc to apply more power when the bike is loaded down with a pillion.
There are few changes to the engine, which remains essentially the softly-tuned, 90-degree pushrod-operated 1064cc transverse V-twin of old. The EV motor’s Weber-Marelli fuel-injection system has new 40mm throttle bodies, the conrods are borrowed from the 1100 Sport, and the exhaust is a new stainless steel system. Claimed peak power is increased by a couple of horses to 77bhp at 6400rpm; max torque rises by a similarly small amount, to 70lb.ft at 5000rpm.
The EV looks so similar to the old 1100ie Cali that at the start of the launch, at a big villa in the countryside near Como, I almost hopped onto the photographer’s old-style model by mistake. But there are a few noticeable differences, even before you pull away. The white-faced Veglia clocks sit in a chromed console borrowed from the V10 Centauro, the seat is slightly lower (though at 770mm still higher than most cruisers’) and there are neater details including a flush-mounted filler cap, and a steering lock incorporated into the ignition switch.
Guzzi say they didn’t want to change the California’s gearbox, with its trademark “cluk” sound that is “much loved by enthusiasts”, but the old five-speed clunker’s appeal escaped me when I reached the first set of traffic lights and spent ages tap-dancing on the lever in an attempt to find neutral. (Predictably, the green light could be relied on to let you down.) By the end of the test I’d just about perfected the technique, and had also got used to treading on the heel-and-toe gearlever to change up simpler than squeezing my boot between lever and footboard.
Braking on a Cali also takes some getting used to, due to the more frequent than normal need to use the foot-pedal which in turn requires lifting your foot off the footboard. Inevitably this means a slight delay, which is far from ideal when you need to stop suddenly. Even without that drawback I’m not convinced that linked brakes give an advantage in most situations, but Guzzi’s revamped system is clever and a definite improvement on its predecessor.
The whole Brembo system is considerably more powerful, too. The handlebar lever’s single front disc now gives a useful amount of power on its own, if you don’t need to slow too sharply. Adding the foot-pedal brings in all three discs and pulls up the big Guzzi, which at 251kg dry is no lightweight, very hard. I didn’t have a chance to ride with a passenger, but without one you can stamp pretty hard on the pedal without locking the rear wheel. How much of that is due to the variable-rate system is hard to say, but the EV does have a very well-balanced feel on the brakes.
The Guzzi’s ride is also improved by the quality of its suspension. For a bike that’s as much cruiser as tourer the California handles very well, proving that having high bars doesn’t mean you have to wallow round corners. Both ends are fairly firm, and attacking bumpy bends occasionally got the rear end hopping about a bit. Guzzi say production bikes will have slightly softer shock springs, which combined with a little more rebound damping should give an even better ride.
Despite the Cali’s weight and lazy chassis geometry (28 degrees rake, 98mm trail), its steering was light, thanks partly to the width of the bars. There was plenty of grip from Metzeler’s tubeless tyres, too, and heaps of ground-clearance on right-hand bends. Under hard cornering the easy-to-use centrestand dug in on a few particularly tight left-hand hairpins not ideal, although most Cali pilots won’t find lack of ground clearance a problem.
Nor will they have many complaints about the engine, which chuffed lazily and pleasantly along, delivering a handy turn of acceleration when requested. Winding open the throttle at 2000rpm and 40mph in top gear sent the Guzzi rumbling instantly forwards. Through the midrange it picked up speed rapidly until it was tramping along at an indicated 90mph, still feeling smooth and effortless.
At such times it’s easy to understand why Guzzi’s big V-twin motor has changed so little over the years. The pushrod, shaft-drive layout might be past its best as a sports bike unit, but for the California’s style of motorcycling it still hits the spot. Top whack’s about 125mph, although for such speeds you really need one of Guzzi’s optional-extra screens to hide behind. The 19-litre fuel tank could be bigger, but with reasonable economy and a comfortable seat this is a bike that can cover big distances at a respectable pace.
Whether the California EV will succeed in broadening Guzzi’s market, as the revitalised firm attempts to increase production from just 3000 in 1993 to 20,000 in the year 2001, remains to be seen. One of the drawbacks of listening to your existing customers is that they will have grown used to (often even fond of) idiosyncrasies such as the clunky gearbox and largely foot-operated brake system that riders of other makes of bike might find off-putting.
On the other hand the California concept still has plenty of appeal, and there’s no doubt that those owners’ input has helped make this the best model so far. To the old Cali’s traditional attributes of laid-back charm and respectable V-twin performance the EV adds improved handling and braking, and a greater feeling of quality. At £8499 on the road this bike costs only £250 more than the old model, too. The California’s reign as the best-selling Moto Guzzi looks set to continue for a year or two yet.
Get Moto Guzzi motorcycle insurance for the California.
Engine Aircooled pushrod 4-valve 90-degree transverse V-twin
Claimed power (bhp) 77bhp @ 6400rpm
Compression ratio 9.5:1
Transmission 5-speed box, shaft final
Frame Steel spine
Front suspension 45mm Marzocchi telescopic forks, adjustable for compression and rebound damping,
Rear suspension 2 x WP shocks, adjustable for compression and rebound damping,
Brakes, front 2 x 320mm Brembo discs, 4-piston calipers, Rear 282mm disc, 2-piston caliper,
Tyres Metzeler ME33/ME55A, front, rear 110/90 x 18, 140/80 x 17,
Seat height 770mm,
Fuel capacity 19 litres
Top speed 125mph
Current price £8499