Old-School Italian Favorite – 1949 Moto Guzzi Airone

In Italy, Standard by Tim HuberLeave a Comment

Moto Guzzi was founded by three friends who met while serving together in the Corpo Aeronautico Militare (the Italian Air Corps) during the first World War. Two of the three men were pilots – Carlo Guzzi and Giovanni Ravelli – and the third – Giorgio Parodi – served as an aero-mechanic. The trio were stationed just outside of Venice and in their down time discussed their love for motorcycles, before eventually kicking around the idea of starting a marque of their own after the war.

Each of the three had something substantial to bring to the table: Guzzi could engineer the bikes, Ravelli was a fairly well-known professional racer who could promote the company and its machines, and Parodi came from a wealthy family of ship-owners and had a father who was able to bankroll the company with an initial loan of 2,000 Lira in 1919. Parodi’s brother Angelo would also join the three Italians in starting the business…or rather two Italians, as sadly shortly after the war Ravelli would perish in a plane crash. Supposedly, the airplane and motorcycle pilot’s untimely death was commemorated via the wings in the marque’s logo.

Guzzi would complete his first prototype bike in 1919; a half-liter four-valve single that was horizontally mounted. The company would hire a plethora of engineers who would churn out an array of other engine layouts, though Guzzi’s ”flat single” would quickly become the company’s then-trademark feature. In 1921, Carlos Guzzi and the Parodi brothers would found “Società Anonima Moto Guzzi” – setting up shop in Mandello, Italy. The earliest machines produced were known as “Guzzi-Parodi” or GP bikes but shortly after this the name was changed to “Moto Guzzi”. Despite the moniker bearing his name, Carlos Guzzi didn’t actually have any ownership of the company at this point, though he did reportedly earn royalties on each bike made.

That same year (1921) the company would have its first bike go into production – a very small production-run of just 17 units – an air-cooled, 498.4cc four-stroke “flat single” with an exposed flywheel dubbed the “Normale”. The company’s inaugural model was heavily derived from Guzzi’s 1919 prototype, though to save on production costs the decision was made to reduce the number of valves down to two instead of the proto’s four. The horizontal single made a claimed 8 hp at 3,200 rpm and had a top-speed of just over 50 mph. The Italian scoot’s engine was married to a three-speed transmission and wrapped in a double-cradle frame. The Normale reportedly weighed in at 286 lbs dry and sold new back in 1921 for 8,500 Lira.

Moto Guzzi’s first production model: The 1921 500cc Normale

Contrary to what the Normale’s moniker may suggest, the bike was objectively an unorthodox design and in the years that followed a range of different setups were utilized: OHV, OHC, “F-head’s”, and DOHC. In the mid-’30’s Guzzi’s OHV roadsters would truly “get it right”, leading to these bikes being produced for the next couple decades. In addition to what had quickly become the company’s trademark engine layout, these models also sported equally distinctive components such as rear suspension that utilized “scissor-style” friction-dampers (shocks) which were first tested by Carlos’ brother Giuseppe Guzzi – who was an early test rider and racer for his brother’s company – famously piloting a GT Norge on an “Arctic Circle Raid” in 1929.

Like the founding trio had initially discussed back in WW1, the marque used racing – and other high-profile moto-endeavors – to promote its bikes. In 1935, Stanley “The Irish Dasher” Woods would earn Guzzi its first ever TT win, claiming the top spot of the podium in both the lightweight and senior TT’s that year while simultaneously becoming the second person ever to pilot a non-Brit bike to victory on the island. Tommaso Omobono “The Black Devil” Tenni would also achieve a total of 47 victories aboard a Moto Guzzi from 1933 till 1948, before an accident would claim his life during a practice session at the Swiss GP. While there’s no denying the skill Guzzi’s riders possessed, the bikes certainly didn’t hurt, and the public took notice of this, keeping inline with the grand tradition of the “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” adage.

Woods riding down Bray Hill on the iconic mountain course in 1935.

Moto Guzzi’s 250 PE models – produced from ’32 to ’40 – saw satisfactory sales and further established the manufacturer’s reputation for high-quality, reliable sport bikes. In 1939, the company would revise the PE and re-release it under the name of the “Airone” – Italian for “Heron”. This was reportedly done in an effort to better fit in amongst the rest of the marque’s animal-named models, plus all the revisions earned a new moniker. The Airone would stay in production until 1957, but before the plug was pulled Guzzi would introduce a Sport model in ’48, at which point the original Airone became the “Airone Turismo” (tourer).

The 12hp Airone Sport was capable of at least 60 mph, which was an impressive feat for a 250 at that point in time. The model would further earn a reputation as a solid, sporty, lightweight, luxury bike. Thanks to a higher compression ratio and larger carb (25 mm), the Sport-spec was more powerful than its Turismo counterpart. The sport-specs’s lightweight aluminum wheels probably helped too. Eventually the Airone Sport would supposedly become the most popular mid-sized sport bike in Italy for a decade and a half. This was a fairly big deal considering after WW2, small economical bikes were selling like crazy. On a semi-unrelated note, in 1946 the business would finally become formally incorporated as “Moto Guzzi S.p.A” (an S.p.A. is more or less an Italian version of a publicly traded company).

The Airone – which was the little brother of the popular 499cc Falcone – was powered by an air-cooled 246cc, horizontal, single-cylinder, four-stroke, overhead valve engine with external “bacon slicer” flywheel that made a claimed 9hp at 4,800 rpm and was equipped with a four-speed gearbox with multi-disc clutch and chain final drive. The engine and transmission housing, cylinder and cylinder-head were all made of aluminum. The Airone was fitted with a 22 mm carb, pedal ignition with kickstarter, 19-inch wire-spoke wheels with half-hub drum brakes of which the rear brake was operated via a foot lever on the left side of the engine while the helical four-speed gearbox was operated via a rocker switch on the right side of the engine.

The popular 250’s power-plant was initially wrapped in a double loop tubular frame with tail boom but starting in 1940 there was a new chassis made of pressed metal parts. Along with the frame, Guzzi engineers opted to simultaneously introduce a swing-arm supported via tail boom friction dampers. The earlier models supposedly came from the factory with parallelogram forks with barrels springs but would later be replaced with upside-down telescopic units in 1947. The following year the engine would be upgraded with an alloy cylinder head and barrel instead of the previous cast iron parts.

For just two years, Guzzi would make the Airone with external hydraulic rear shocks to damp the swing-arm. By, ’52 both the touring and sports variants would receive new larger red and black fuel-cells as well as a Magnetti Marelli ignitions with automatic adjustment of the ignition timing. Starting in ’54, the tank of the Airone Sport was partially chrome-plated though the engine power had been slightly reduced.

This particular 1949 Airone example is reportedly all original and in “great” running condition. It is by no means perfect, but this bike sports a lot of fine patina and the weathered look adds character. This bike also happens to have ultra low serial numbers: 00053 for the frame and 00027 for the engine. The Moto Guzzi Airone is simply an iconic Italian scoot that wonderfully represents the post WW2-era that it was born out of. Though this one could benefit from a little TLC and a few minor additions – the lack of tank emblems is killing me, that’s one of my favorite little features on old bikes. Either way, this is one cool motorcycle.

You can find this original 1949 Moto Guzzi Airone for sale here on Craigslist in San Dimas, California with a price of $7,999.