Flashback Friday: Moto Guzzi MGX-21 Flying Fortress First Ride

This past Monday as the clock struck midnight on the morning of March 15th, Moto Guzzi commenced its centennial celebrations.  We haven’t had the opportunity to test out many Guzzi’s over the years, but Costa spent some time with a MGX-21 Flying Fortress on a trip to Sturgis back in 2016. His impressions on that brief ride are as follows.DW

STURGIS, South Dakota—There are two ways to look at the bagger, which is a stripped and slammed version of a full dresser. It’s either the devolution of the dresser, sacrificing touring practicality for a streamlined silhouette, or it’s the evolution of the cruiser, adding saddlebags and a fairing to a low-slung foot-forward machine. It is a purely American phenomenon, and it’s important enough that Honda stripped the Gold Wing into the FB6, and even BMW experimented with the Concept 101, a bagger based on the K1600GT and built in conjunction with American custom bike guru Roland Sands.

On Main Street in Sturgis, the Flying Fortress does its best to look right at home. All photos by Kevin Wing and Costa Mouzouris.

The classic bagger, however, is based on American-made machines, so one made in Germany might be a stretch (pun intended). Perhaps equally unlikely is a bagger coming from Italy, but here it is: the 2017 Moto Guzzi MGX-21 Flying Fortress. Like the WWII bomber after which it is named, the Flying Fortress is massive, boasting a 1,695 mm wheelbase, which is 70 mm longer than the Harley Street Glide, 27 mm longer than the Indian Chieftain, and 25 mm longer than the Victory Cross Country — heck, it’s even 5 mm longer than the Gold Wing. However, unlike its American and Japanese counterparts, it’s not a dressed-down dresser but rather a spiffed-up cruiser, based on Guzzi’s California 1400. Aimed squarely at the North American market, Moto Guzzi chose the mother of all biker rallies to launch the $23,990 MGX-21, so here we are in South Dakota at the 76th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, where the Black Hills provide the ideal backdrop for this blacked-out behemoth.

Hey- what’s that cylinder head doing poking out the side? Shouldn’t it be pointed forward?

It’s all about the look Although MGX-21 designer Miguel Galluzzi now heads Piaggio’s Advanced Design Center in California, he’s created a few memorable machines along the way, including the 900SS and Monster for Ducati when he was at Cagiva, and the Aprilia Dorsoduro, Shiver and RSV4 among others during his tenure at Piaggio. The guy has a keen eye for style, and this comes across as soon as you see the MGX-21 because it strikes an imposing silhouette in the metal. Or carbon-fibre might be a better term – the big Guzzi is adorned in the lightweight material almost from axle to axle. Galluzzi took a more sinister approach to the bagger, avoiding chrome entirely and instead using matte black and the composite material throughout. The only highlighted items are the bright red cylinder heads and front calipers.

It’s an air-cooled engine, but the oil cooler down below helps keep the heat under control.

The angular batwing fairing contrasts the rounded lines on the rest of the bike, but the overall effect is quite stylish. Even hardcore Harley riders take notice of the bike while parked on Main Street, and most of them have nice things to say — at least those who are actually aware of brands other than Harley. Many passersby had never heard of Moto Guzzi, and some thought the company had stopped producing bikes decades ago, which is why the Italian bike maker came to Sturgis in the first place: to increase brand awareness. One guy wondered how we’d managed to get the engine in sideways… Beneath the bodywork, a 90-degree, 1,380 cc eight-valve V-twin that produces 95 hp and 89 lb.-ft. of torque drives the rear wheel via a six-speed gearbox and a shaft final drive. The cylinders are air-cooled, but there’s an oil cooler to help things along. The single-plate clutch has a moderate pull at the lever but releases smoothly with a wide friction point. One thing I really like about the engine is that it shakes side to side at idle due to its rubber mounts; it’s very reminiscent of a V8 in a hot rod. The rubber mounting also quells vibration to an almost electric smoothness once you get rolling.

None of those four presidents ever rode a motorcycle, so who knows what they’d think of the big Guzzi.

The ride Seat height is low at 740 mm (29.1 in), but ergonomics are man-sized, with lots of legroom to the footpegs, which are comfortably mounted just a smidgen ahead of mid-position. The handlebars are a moderate forward reach, but they are comfortable, especially since the fairing cuts wind to the torso, so you’re not always pulling forward at speed. The handlebars are non-adjustable cast aluminum items, probably designed that way to deter armpit-airing ape-hanger types from swapping them out. As mentioned earlier, the Flying Fortress is big, and quite heavy at 341 kg (751 lb) wet. It takes a heroic effort to lift it off the side stand, and manoeuvring it around the parking lot is a good enough workout to save you money on gym memberships.

Feet and arms just a bit forward, but not too much – Costa bombs some local roads on the Flying Fortress.

In fact, at low speeds it’s probably the heaviest-steering motorcycle I’ve ever ridden. The combination of raked-out steering geometry, a cast 21-inch front wheel (carbon-fibre covers conceal the spokes), and a fork-mounted fairing with incorporated sound system really add heft to the front end, causing it to flop over when turning at low speeds. So much so that Guzzi engineers had to fix a small spring-loaded shock under the lower triple clamp to counter the heavy weight as the fork reaches its steering stops. Fellow moto journo Bertrand Gahel and I were so curious about this device that we propped up a bike with the front wheel in the air just to see how it works. When the fork is centred there’s no resistance, allowing free movement. However, as the fork nears the steering stop on either side, it takes progressively more effort before hitting the bump stop, my guesstimate being about 5 kilos at the handgrip. This system is invisible once speed picks up, as it’s designed to assist parking lot manoeuvres.

That’s a tiny shock absorber under the triple-clamp, taking the pressure off when the forks turn to full lock.

The road less travelled Gahel and I took some empty back roads south from Sturgis toward Custer State Park, where we discovered after about 30 km that the pavement ends. Ever the adventurers we continued on the dirt roads, where the big baggers nonetheless rolled along unperturbed. The only hitch was that we weren’t briefed on the full operation of the bikes, and couldn’t figure out how to turn off the three-level traction control. We managed by finding the sweet spot in the least intrusive level 1, feeding just enough throttle to keep the rear tire on the edge of spinning. We later discovered that to turn off the TC you scroll down to level 1 and then hold the button down for a couple of seconds. Maybe it’s better the TC was still on because we returned the bikes to our wide-eyed hosts covered only in dust instead of peppered in rock chips.

Not really one of the roads the MGX-21 was designed to cruise along, but we ride them all, just for you.

The engine is remarkably smooth and it has a wide-ish powerband, though if you want to get by slower traffic quickly (of which there is plenty during the rally), you have to drop at least two gears: the engine pulls hardest between about 5,000 and its indicated 7,000 rpm redline. The Brembo supersport-spec radial front calipers provide very strong, two-finger braking, though the rear feels a bit wooden. ABS is standard if you tend to squeeze too hard on the lever. On pavement the steering is neutral and relatively light but the bike prefers long, flowing bends to tight turns. It flows through sweeping curves quite gracefully at speed, unless there’s a dip or bump mid-turn, which causes the bike to weave quite noticeably. Despite its swept-back appearance the MGX-21 has abundant cornering clearance, and it leans surprisingly far before footpeg-feeler sparks fly. I added 10 clicks of rear preload (the only suspension adjustment available), which added further cornering clearance without inhibiting the ride. It should be noted that the roads in the Black Hills — even the dirt roads — are impeccably maintained, so it’s no surprise that I found the suspension quite compliant.

Getting dusty on a South Dakota back road, Costa wonders when the asphalt will return.

On the highway the fairing protects you from the windblast to about shoulder level, and what wind you do feel above that is free of buffeting; a taller touring screen is available for added wind protection. The saddlebags are very easy to open and close with a single latch, but capacity is a scant 29-litres per side and they are shallow — my leather jacket alone was enough to fill one.

It’s a stylish-looking saddlebag, but there’s not a lot of space in there.

Nit-picking The bike also has cruise control, but it lacks a resume function, so it has to be reset anytime the brakes are applied. It also has a USB port that allows you to connect a device to the sound system, but the port does not charge your device, which is curious since you can also connect your device via Bluetooth — so why the port? Another oversight is that the ignition switch does not have an accessory position, which would allow you to listen to the sound system without turning the ignition on. And finally, since I’m nitpicking, the turn signals are not self-cancelling. Of course, no ride in Sturgis is complete without a slow cruise down Main Street, where I discovered that the MGX-21 really turns heads, and it doesn’t bake you with excessive engine heat.

Above all, baggers are about looking cool, so you decide: does Costa look cool here on the MGX-21 Flying Fortress?

Conclusion Moto Guzzi won’t sell boatloads of the MGX-21 Flying Fortress, and the company doesn’t expect to do so. It is a unique take on the bagger, and like all baggers it is designed primarily to look good. And it does. It a premium motorcycle with excellent fit and finish, and it is also fairly exclusive, which adds to the appeal for potential bagger buyers. However, it also demands a premium price of just under $24,000, and that alone might make it difficult to swing buyers away from the traditional made-in-USA baggers to one with an Italian flair.


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