In honor of Giancarlo Morbidelli, who passed away earlier this week, here’s another look at Jason Cormier’s wonderful piece on the Morbidelli V8 from February of 2019.
One of my favorite motorcycle websites is OddBike, a collection of musings by Jason Cormier in which he ‘obsesses over weird motorcycles from around the world’. I appreciate his writing because it’s thoroughly researched and incredibly informative. My daily posts here are typically quick hits, but a story from Jason is worth grabbing your favorite sipping drink for because you should take your time to enjoy it. So…grab a drink and get ready to learn about the Morbidelli V8, because I’m honored to share of one Jason’s pieces here today:
Morbidelli V8 – Eight Cylinder Exotica
Story and Photos by Jason Cormier
There are two factors in the motorcycle industry that can and usually will doom any bike from the beginning:
1. An extremely high price tag.
2. Styling courtesy of an automotive design house.
The subject of today’s profile applied both of these deadly sins to their full effect. It was certified by Guinness as the most expensive motorcycle of all time. And it was declared the ugliest motorcycle of all time by anyone who had the misfortune to gaze upon the bodywork penned by Pininfarina.
This is the Morbidelli 850 V8. Technologically fascinating and produced by a company that should have had no right to build an eight-cylinder grand touring machine, it was an ambitious attempt to break into what has traditionally been the black hole of motorcycle genres: the boutique luxury motorcycle.
Morbidelli as a company had a long and successful history building small bore two-stroke racing machines, but oddly these were a side gig for what was otherwise a successful woodworking equipment firm founded in 1959 by Giancarlo Morbidelli in Pesaro, Italy. That company’s legacy continues under the SCM banner. Stranger things have happened; Bimota had its roots in HVAC after all.
What we are concerned with began in 1968 when Morbidelli entered two machines, a Benelli and a Motobi, into the Italian Junior Championship. This foray inspired the creation of Morbidelli’s first Grand Prix machine in 1969, a liquid-cooled rotary-valve 50cc machine designed by Franco Ringhini. The machine achieved success right out of the gate, with a 1-2 win in Yugoslavia and a 6th place finish in East Germany. Success continued in 1970 when Ringhini developed a twin-cylinder 125cc, followed by four-cylinder 350cc machine.
In 1974 Morbidelli hired ex-Van Veen engineer Jorg Möller. Möller helped develop a new 125cc twin that proved to be the factory’s most successful design, winning the 125 GP in 1975, 1976 and 1977. After years of factory effort Morbidelli was now in a position to sell machines to privateers in partnership with Benelli Armi (oddly this was the small arms factory rather than the motorcycle company; the latter had been acquired by Alessandro De Tomaso in 1973). These 125s became so dominant that by 1977 they accounted for more than half the grid in their class.
The 125 begat a 250cc twin (which was also campaigned in 350cc guise) which won the 1977 championship. By 1978 the factory effort became Morbidelli Benelli Armi (MBA), whose machines won the 125 championship in 1978 and 1980. MBA 125s remained competitive right up until 1988, when FIM rule changes made twin-cylinder 125s obsolete in favour of single-cylinder entries. The ultimate evolution of MBA’s efforts would be their luckless attempt at a 500 GP entry ridden by Graziano Rossi (you may have heard of his son Valentino?), which suffered a series of failures and prompted Morbidelli to wind down their Grand Prix campaign.
So how did Morbidelli go from woodworking to Grand Prix racing to building a V8 powered sport tourer?
The truth is it wasn’t “that” Morbidelli that built the V8. Rather it was produced by a new company that bore the Morbidelli name but was distinct from Giancarlo’s previous business, which had been a woodworking outfit first, with motorcycles being an elaborate hobby funded by the principal operation. Giancarlo sold this company in 1990 to focus solely on motorcycles, with the V8 being the first (and ultimately only) machine produced.
Sometime in the early 90s the project began with the development of an 850cc, quad cam, 32-valve V8. With a 90 degree Vee angle, word was that the Morbidelli V8 was a scale copy of the venerable Cosworth DFV and was penned by designer Giorgio Valentini, though actual insight into the development and engineering of the powerplant are sorely lacking from most sources.
What is known is that the engine featured a 55mm bore and 44.6mm stroke netting 847.8ccs. The intake valves were 21mm, exhaust 17mm with a 28 degree valve angle, and the four camshafts were driven by a pair of toothed timing belts. The crankcases were sandcast magnesium. Peak power was reached at 11,000 rpm; the prototype produced 100 hp and 54 lb/ft of torque, abiding by the (rarely observed) early 1990’s gentleman’s agreement to limit output to no more than 100 horsepower. Later revisions upped this to 120 hp and 60 lb/ft via an updated injection system that utilized spherical throttle valves. Fueling was via Weber-Marelli fuel injection metered through eight 25mm throttle bodies, the airbox sharing space with the radiator above the longitudinally mounted engine to keep the front free of clutter. This injection system was based on the P series Alfa-N system fitted to contemporary Ducatis and featured swappable EPROM chips that contained the fuel and ignition mapping for easy on-the-fly tuning.
These were relatively modest power numbers, particularly for a V8. One advantage of going to more cylinders is the ability to reduce piston speed and increase the rev ceiling significantly; Ian Drysdale’s remarkable little V8 easily revs to 17,000 rpm in “street” guise and 19,000 rpm in race trim. At 11,000 rpm the Morbidelli is slinging pistons at a leisurely 16.4 meters per second; for comparison Yamaha R6 pistons are moving 23 m/s at 16,000 rpm.
The answer as to why Morbidelli didn’t push the V8 to the limit is the application. It was not intended as a sport bike, and racing was never a goal despite Morbidelli’s history. The V8 was conceived as a luxurious gentleman’s sport touring machine aimed at a wealthy clientele. If you are struggling to picture that motorcycle niche in your mind then you are not alone; efforts to create the two-wheeled equivalent of an expensive grand touring machine are almost never successful, unless they appeal to existing brand loyalty (Harley) or rose-tinted nostalgia (Norton and Brough-Superior).
Given this modus operandi the choice of shaft final drive was not surprising. It made sense given the longitudinal layout of the V8, with a twin plate clutch bolted to the rear of the engine ahead of a separate five-speed gearbox ala BMW or Moto Guzzi. In fact this layout gave the machine more than a passing resemblance to a contemporary BMW K-bike, down to the single-sided swingarm, left side exhaust, and straight-rate monoshock acting directly on the driveshaft housing/swingarm. Even the three-spoke Marvic wheels fitted to the V8 had more than a passing resemblance to what BMW had on their flying brick at the time (though they aren’t identical).
The frame was a chrome moly steel trellis designed by Bimota that featured 27 degrees of rake and a 58.7 inch wheelbase. As you’d expect for a high-falutin’ machine the V8 was equipped with Brembo goldline brakes and fully adjustable GCB suspension. The dash featured a digital display set into a slab of burled walnut, and interestingly the mirrors were power operated. Dry weight was quoted as 441 pounds, not particularly light by modern standards but impressively svelte for an early 1990s tourer with eight cylinders. Top speed was somewhere between 140 and 150 miles per hour depending on what source you trust.
So far so good, but things began to unravel as soon as the Morbidelli V8 was unveiled to the public in 1994. Presented (appropriately?) at the Milan Woodworking Show the V8 featured bodywork penned by renowned Italian styling firm Pininfarina – the result was, in a word, horrifying.
I am one to give credit where credit is due and I respect anyone who attempts to break the mould in motorcycle design. I’m one of the few people who appreciates the distinctive styling of the Bimota Mantra (which, despite what you might think, was one of Bimota’s best-selling machines of all time). I often find myself defending otherwise maligned designs because I appreciate alternative ideas in what has become a staunchly conservative industry.
That being said, even I cannot call the Pininfarina design anything but bug fuck ugly.
Then there was the price. Initial estimates projected the retail around $45,000 USD, which was unprecedented for a motorcycle. It was unfathomable for something so hideous. Morbidelli claimed that they would produce one V8 per month and utilize a direct sales model. Customers would have the machine sent directly to them, and for service work, they were expected to re-crate the bike and send it back to the Morbidelli factory “at no cost”. Whether this A. partly justified the price tag or B. made it obvious that you were completely on your own if your V8 broke down wasn’t noted.
After the (understandably) poor response to the Pininfarina prototype, the V8 was reworked and re-unveiled in 1996 with far cleaner styling courtesy of Bimota. It was so clean and simple that most pundits thought it was a bit boring, making the V8 look like a bank advertisement’s interpretation of an anonymous sporting motorcycle. The styling went from Lovecraftian horror to Cream of Wheat bland; something in between the two might have been more appealing, but Morbidelli was no doubt burned well enough by Pininfarina’s work to play it as a safe as possible with the redesign.
Along with the revised styling , output was increased to 120 hp and the upside down GCB forks were replaced by conventional Paoli units. By this point the retail price had ballooned to $60,000. Shortly after it was quoted as $70,000. By 1997, the magic number was $160,000. The latter figure was enough to make the V8 the Guinness World Record holder for “Most Expensive Motorcycle in Production” until 2004, when the MTT Y2K Turbine Superbike took the crown with its $185,000 price tag.
By 1998 Morbidelli had spent 4 billion lire (approximately 2.7 million USD) on the development of the V8 and had built a grand total of four machines – the Pininfarina prototype and three restyled examples. It became evident that producing a return on their huge investment was going to be well-nigh impossible, even if they could find a handful of buyers willing to pay six figures for a motorcycle. Orders were pending and homologation was nearly completed (the prototypes even have catalytic converters in their eight-into-one exhaust) but Giancarlo was unable to secure further investment. Thus the Morbidelli V8 was quietly shelved. Giancarlo kept one, the Barber Motorsports Museum bought one, and a third ended up in the hands of private collector Robert D. Arnott and has recently been exhibited at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. I wasn’t able to determine the fate of the lone Pininfarina machine.
In 1999 Giancarlo converted his former factory space in Pesaro into a highly-regarded museum displaying around 350 machines. The 32,000 square foot building also houses a full workshop to preserve and restore the other 250-odd motorcycles that Giancarlo has in his collection, making him one of Italy’s most prolific motorcycle collectors and the custodian of one of Europe’s largest motorcycle museums. Naturally the museum has examples of all of Morbidelli’s work, including the V8 which sits at the entrance.
Sometime in the mid-2000s word got out that Giancarlo was working on another exotic project, this time a 750cc V12 designed to fit into the frame of a Honda CBR600. Pictures of a wooden mockup of the powerplant were circulated and a few scant details were provided. However this was not the rebirth of the Morbidelli name, rather it was a one-off project funded by Giancarlo as a fun engineering exercise to satisfy his personal fascination with 12 cylinder machines. Working without computer aided design, Giancarlo has been designing the engine the old fashioned way with pen, paper and wooden mockups. The V12 features a 60 degree Vee and is a remarkably slender 380mms wide, which will allow it to be mounted transversely in a frame that was originally intended to accommodate a 600cc four.
Editor’s Note: Jason was later provided photos of the museum by Phil Aynsley, including this photo of the V12 motor in a prototype state. Click here to see Phil’s other photos from the gallery – go to page 5 to see shots of the V12.
Unfortunately after a flurry of interest around 2007 nothing seems to have come to fruition. At the time it was noted that they had spent around 6 years working on the V12 concept, 2 years on the crankshaft alone, and it was still in the early conceptual phase. With recent murmurs that the Morbidelli Museum might be in financial trouble following disagreements with the local government it seems increasingly unlikely that we will see the V12 come to fruition.
So what do we make of the Morbidelli 850 V8? Unlike many other boutique machines, this is not the tale of a project gone awry due to massive financial mismanagement or poor execution. By all accounts the V8 was and is a lovely machine, smooth and delightful to ride with a sonorous exhaust note that only a eight cylinder engine can provide. It fulfilled its mission as a gentlemanly sport touring machine of unparalleled exclusivity. Reliability and quality is hard to judge with only four prototypes in existence, but nobody has blown one up as of yet.
So what went wrong?
The motorcycle market is notoriously fickle and conservative, and one niche that has yet to be cracked is the one of the exotic, expensive boutique motorcycle. Many have tried and continue to try to build a no-expense-spared machine in an attempt to craft the two-wheeled equivalent of an exotic automobile. But time and again we as a market have rejected these machines as frivolous, overpriced, and elitist devices.
At its core motorcycling is a populist pursuit. When a $30,000 machine is considered extremely expensive and will forever be berated for its “high” price tag, there isn’t much room for six-figure exercises in moving the motorcycle upmarket.
It isn’t a question of value or craftsmanship or design justifying the cost. It’s simply a mental barrier that forbids anything from succeeding should its retail exceed the accepted median. The constant barrage of negativity surrounding price from the moto rags just reinforces this fact; how many times have you read that Moto X is “the most expensive in our test” because it retails for 500 bucks more than Moto Y and Z? Expensive boutique machines from companies like Midual, Horex, Confederate/Curtiss, Ecosse, Ariel, and many others are damned from the beginning by persistent criticism of their price tags and inevitable comparisons to far less expensive machines. How many auto mags dare whine about the price of a Ferrari compared to a Dodge?
(I may be harboring some bitterness on the subject due to the recent failure of Motus, a brand I had high hopes for producing an exceptional machine I fell in love with after riding it through the backroads of Alabama. The persistent and unfair criticism leveled against the MST was its “high” price tag, which still undercut a CVO Harley by a fair margin despite being built from the ground up with top notch components and a bespoke engine using expensive American labour.)
The other factor that doomed the V8 was the atrocious initial styling by Pininfarina, a result that was incongruous with the output of a styling house that has produced some of the most beautiful automobiles of all time. The ridicule heaped upon the design made the machine seem like an expensive joke, a reputation that followed the project even after the clean-sheet restyle. It wasn’t the first nor the last time an automotive styling house got it wrong – look at the Giugiaro Ducati 860, or the Zagato MV Agusta F4Z. There aren’t many examples of auto designers trying their hand at two-wheeled designs, but most of them are quite terrible.
In the end the Morbidelli V8 proved to be an untenable concept. It aimed to create a new niche for an expensive and exotic gentleman’s express, and had little hope of ever being a profitable venture given the complexity of the design and the relative lack of interest from buyers. It perhaps wasn’t exotic enough to justify its high price, though it would seem that any two-wheeled machine with a six-figure retail is doomed no matter how appealing it might be. The fact that the V8 was a real machine and not conceptual vaporware was a remarkable achievement.
It is a credit to the vision of Giancarlo Morbidelli and the team he assembled that the V8 went as far as it did, even if it didn’t achieve the success that would have justified the expense of development. It stuck in the hearts and minds of many motorcyclists entranced by the possibility of a howling eight-cylinder machine. It would be immortalized by its inclusion in the Guggenheim’s Art of the Motorcycle exhibit and its place in the permanent display of the Barber Motorsports Museum. Despite all the criticisms and its failure to find a niche, the Morbidelli V8 was, and is, an impressive achievement that showed what could be done by a small company driven by passion to create a new high water mark for motorcycle design and engineering.
Post script: In 2014 a documentary film called Morbidelli – A Story Of Men And Fast Motorcycles was released, profiling Morbidelli’s history as a racing outfit.