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Moto Morini Three and a Half

Looking for a little latin élan? Something small and perfectly formed in the shape of a Morini 350 might just do the job. Rowena Hoseason has met several of the breed...

It was one of those brisk, glowing evenings when I rode my first Morini 350. The air was full of faint shafts of golden sunlight, winter's last leaves skittered everyways in an undecided breeze, shadowy fingers crept across the road ... you know the sort of thing. The time of day when any sane rider heads for home, a bowl of best beef broth and the welcoming hearth. No surprise then that, as the temperature rapidly headed south, instead we intelligently paused for a while to contemplate the artistic light and shoot a couple of dozen action photos.

Insert banana (or custard) flavoured joke here...

Off we spun, gently at first, bearing in mind that this particular 3½ Strada had just celebrated its 17th birthday. Within, oh, mere minutes, every notion of treating the petite Morini with the respect its years deserve had vanished, along with any hope of adhering to the suburban speed limit. A defence of 'it was asking for it, your Honour' sprung to mind as we gurgled along, kicking up leaves and startling squirrels.

Tromping up through the right-footed, six-speed box (bit of a gap between second and third, needs a firm foot there but otherwise generally snickety-click) the 344cc V-twin motor revs, and revs, and then revs a bit more. This is a frisky bike for a supposed classic! It goes all the way to 8500rpm (and probably beyond, but we won't mention that within the earshot of Proud Owner too loudly) where three dozen horses waited, pawing the floor in their enthusiasm to propel the little bike onward.

Which is exactly what designers Marchesini and Lambertini intended when they first conceived the Morini 350 twins in the late Sixties. Lightweight machines, using lots of (then) cutting-edge technology to create a characterful, affordable and exciting ride. Hence the layout of the engine itself as a V-twin. It was cheap -- none of the development costs of a triple or four, and big savings in production with the use of the Heron combustion cylinder heads (as seen in Formula One, Alfa Romeo and Jaguar motors of the time). These have flat heads with parallel valves, a belt-driven camshaft, and the combustion chamber in the piston crown. Heron heads boost torque throughout the rev range, which is vital for a small sportster, while keeping the option open to soft-tune for greater fuel economy. Going down that path, the Strada can reach 60mpg. With another eye on the future, gas-flowing the Heron heads was an easily achieved option for the tuners who intended to race the little Morini.

When it arrived in 1974 the Morini package also proved to be cheerful -- the 72-degree Vee motor not only minimised vibration but also kept the wheelbase compact and thus the whole bike easy to manage. If you're a smaller person looking for a lightweight classic ride, then you couldn't pick a better bike. And of course the complete package bristles with authentic Italian charm; Marzocchi suspension, Ducati Electronica ignition, Grimeca wheels and brakes, and so on...

Although the café-racer Sport was blessed with a greater share of trick bits (steering damper, single seat, swoopy side panels and clip-ons) than its touring partner, it's somewhat inaccurate to consider that this made the Strada the plodding workhorse of the pair. Even with a lower compression ratio (10:1 instead of 11:1), different camshafts and a smaller front brake, the Strada still turned heads -- and corners -- beautifully. What it lost in top speed (the Strada managed just under the ton, as opposed to the Sport which flew to the giddy heights of just over the ton -- what's a few miles an hour amongst friends?) it gained in rider comfort; no bad trade, some might say.

Where both versions of the Morini 350 suffer a little is in their ancillaries: the switchgear could indeed have been supplied by one Mr M Mouse. It is basic, to say the least - perhaps it best suits Mickey's limited digital ability.

Sprightly...Poised aboard the test Strada, ready to fly into the face of the sinking sun, the compromises seemed more than acceptable. Physically tiny and weighing little more than a well-packed suitcase, either Morini is easy to dominate and responds to the slightest encouragement in a horribly eager fashion. A light swing at the left-hand kickstart set the motor chuckling, and while no 350 is going to leave arms wrenched and eyeballs bleeding from a standing start, the Strada was certainly sprightly enough as it sought escape velocity. When it was in production some 20-plus years ago, we should remember that the four-stroke Morini 350 held its head extremely high against the Japanese two-stroke opposition. The RD350 topped out at 103mph and the GT380 at 102mph, while the 3½ Sport could cover a standing quarter mile in 15.1 seconds - only a breath behind the 14.5 second RD.

But it was while hurtling around sundry swoopies that the diminutive Italian came into its own. Having scampered up through the gearbox (to one of the cogs near the top; there's a least a hatful and it's tough to count that high when your a girl in a hurry) to achieve a comfortable cruising speed, there was to be no backing off before crunch-time at every corner. Partly because there was no need; the little twin positively bounded around every bend we met, barely breaking sweat or even leaning over conspicuously, and partly because the ten inch front disc was never going to produce terrifying stopping performance of a tyre-shredding nature. It did however slow the bike in a predictable and stable manner, although the dependable seven inch drum at the back was more than a little comforting when we encountered the congestion of modern-day motoring. This is definitely not a bike for one-finger braking.

On the straight and narrow all was rather less exciting and the fact that the Strada is A Small Motorcycle became very apparent. Light and sparky it may be, freeway firebrand it's not. A distinct tendency toward legal cruising speeds hasn't stopped the current Proud Owner clocking up the miles on our test bike however; since getting together in '82, PO and faithful steed have scampered happily around much of Europe, including trips to Assen, Le Mans and the Isle of Skye. See -- this Strada really is the touring version!

Small wonder (as the 3½ twins could indeed be described by anyone who doesn't mind corrupting an old cliché) then, that the Strada and its slightly sportier sibling became the basis of Morini's success during the Seventies and early Eighties. Back then the general consensus was that this little twin proved to 'embody the best features of Italian engineering while being an economical engine to produce' and was said to have 'endeared itself to many who have long professed an aversion to the blandness of modern motorcycles.' Anyone looking for a lightweight, lighthearted and character-packed machine would, most likely, find the same to be true today.

The well-informed and eagle-eyed will spot that the yellow Strada we rode is a little different from its original incarnation. Firstly, it changed colour to a daffodil-delightful, non-standard shade of yellow long before Ducati and Triumph jumped on the sandy bandwagon. Next, much of the complex (and occasionally unco-operative) wiring had been simplified and the electrical equipment stripped to the bare necessities to keep it all under control. A custom-built 2-1 exhaust replaced the unwieldy original system which snagged on the centrestand -- particular care had to be taken here to ensure that the downpipes remained in proportion. The gearing was uprated by increasing front sprocket size by one tooth, giving first gear slightly longer legs and improving chain life to boot. Finally the standard steel sprockets were replaced with lightweight alloy versions to keep this Strada super-slim!

As rare as a rare thing which you don't get to see very often. This Valentini take on a Morini 350 has just struck a large blue daddy-long-legs.

Be My Valentini

If, back in the 1980s you wanted a Morini 3½ that was even more sporting than the Sport, then Italian Formula 3 tuner Valentini had the answer. He prepared numerous machines for the hotly-contested national race series and offered various performance accessories for the road-going Morini rider. It was almost inevitable that a special Valentini model would arrive, and the prototype is the bike you see here.

Based around a 3½ Sport, the Valentini incorporates all the expected attributes of a high-speed, track-oriented racer. Rather than push hard for more power, however, the emphasis is on weight saving, aerodynamics and grabbing a quick boost where you can. Oh, and then there's a healthy helping of some of that Latin style we all love - as if you hadn't spotted it already!

The fibreglass tank, single seat and sidepanels save weight and make a pillion improbable (who needs a friend on a racetrack?). The performance exhaust is finished in brutal black instead of the standard 70s chrome, with a balance pipe to boost back-pressure and to manage the gases. That's matched with the work inside the engine which has been gas-flowed and with a different profile camshaft. It's also possible that the flywheels have been lightened as the engine revs extremely freely, squalling off the stop in short order. The standard tacho can't keep up with the free-flying throttle - its needle is still spinning up long after the revs have dropped back down!

Like any racebike the Valentini sports uncompromising clip-ons and bare-metal rearsets, polished and perforated alloy abounds and the lighting is minimal. No matter; indicators were always something of a hit-and-miss affair anyway... It's tricky to kick over the motor as the left-footed kickstart now fouls the rearset peg - but bumping is a breeze.

Crouch onto the Valentini and you know for sure that it's a racer. Your nose polishes the petrol tank and your neck and wrists grumble at the loads being forced through them. Crack the throttle and the revs bounce up, the exhaust howls and the whole bike buzzes: it wants to go and it wants to go quick.

But the 8-inch double-sided Grimeca drum needs very careful set-up and even with considerable tweaking still feels unhappily dull and unresponsive. That's not good news when you consider that this featherweight can achieve 125mph on a good day - braking is the Valentini's major flaw just as its superb steering is its strong point. The Pirelli Strada tyres on the 18-inch spoked wheels are ideal in dry conditions, although experience suggests that they would be less wonderful in the wet (not that you'd want to be thrashing this baby around in the yapping rain, methinks).

Even on a quick spin around the block the Valentini is uncompromisingly sportbike, definitively racebike and thoroughly Italian. What it has lost, however, is something of the standard 3½'s charm. The burbling Vee has been replaced by a harsh, spiky rev-monster, and the Strada's sweet nature is almost entirely sublimated by the need for speed. The fast lads might have loved a Valentini - but I don't think us mere mortals would have preferred it to the standard 350 Morinis. And maybe that's why the Valentini never made it to production.

Hey, it was eighties, ok?

Deft Dart

When it arrived in 1988 the Dart 350 was both futuristic and flamboyant. An astonishing bike to look at, the Dart gave an early example of what would happen as the Castiglioni brothers' Cagiva concern got to grips with the Italian industry. For this project they installed a 350 Morini Vee motor into a Cagiva Freccia chassis, formerly used for a 125cc engine. The Freccia's bodywork was given a once-over by Massimo Tamburini to make a marriage of convenience a work of art in itself.

The Dart didn't score too highly at the time as it out-priced the 600cc sportbikes yet under-performed a 500cc commuter, but surely it was beautiful. Jaw-droppingly, street-stoppingly, crowd-pleasingly beautiful. And not all of its attributes were on show; Tamburini took care to tweak the old motor to suit its new home. The Vee's mechanical noise was beaten down by fitting Gilardoni barrels with tighter tolerances, and by revising the air filter system. Then an oil cooler and air-flow ducting were incorporated into the bodywork to keep temperatures under control. Even so a good supply of clean oil is essential and owners are advised to keep an eye on the gauges and warning lights when running in summer! The monoshock rear suspension and modern chassis gave the Morini Vee a new lease of life and a far more comfortable ride - the Dart is a real treat whether you're riding it or just looking at it.

Can't imagine why some people don't like the styling...As with some other Morini machines, the brakes (two single Brembo discs, one at each end) weren't quite up to the job; what worked with a super-lightweight 125 struggled a little with the heavier 350. By modern standards they aren't bad - but they are not sharp and you need to be aware of their limitations.

You may have to look quite hard to find a Dart - the 350 was only produced for a couple of years although a 400cc version was made up until 1991 for the Japanese market. The Dart doesn't suit traditionalists who prefer the exposed mechanismo of the Sport and Strada, but for fans of more recent Italians it is a truly individual and expressive small motorcycle. Try one before you decide...

Going Shopping?

If you're looking to own a Morini - and they're great fun to ride and simple to maintain, so it's not a bad choice at all for a first classic - then check with the experts. Because the Morini Vee stayed in production for a long time, you get have an excellent range of bikes to choose from: wire wheels, drum braked, disc braked, seven-spoke wheels, even electric start.

When new, the Morini 350s were pretty expensive compared to the Japanese bikes on offer - and RD350 would have cost around GB£550 in 1974 while the Morini Sport 350 retailed for GB£877. You could have bought a litre-class superbike for that price! But now the Morini twins offer an inexpensive way to enjoy a traditional (but certainly not dull) ride. Prices start from GB£750 for a basic runner, to GB£3000 for a showroom condition example of the rare early models.

North Leicester Motorcycles in England are Europe's leading Morini dealer, and always have a huge stock of 250, 350 and 500s Vee twins available. Call them on 44 (0) 1530 263381 or visit www.motomorini.co.uk

The Morini Riders' Club will also be happy to help and has a worldwide membership; write to them c/o 1 Glebe Farm Cottage, Sutton Veny, Warminster, Wiltshire, UK. Alternatively, try the Morini Club Italia, c/o Fulvio Surbone, Via G Rossa 2, 15025 Moranu sul Po (AL), Italy.

The best book on Morini motorcycles is Morini by Mick Walker, published by Transport Source Books, 44 (0) 1473 270376.


RealMart fancies of these himself. Is he mad?

They never made them in this colour, and no one in their right mind would combine it with bright green. Yeesh

Photos by kind permission of super snapper and Morini man Simon Everett


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