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22nd July 03

Nearly New vs Nearly Old

Never afraid to plough a new furrow, Paul Friday introduces a new concept in road-testing: the nearly-new versus the nearly-old. What an idea! (What... an idea?)

So there you are, money in your pocket, gagging for fun wheels. Your list has been honed down to two possibles: a lean and mean KTM Supermoto or a lardy old New Falcon. You are torn - is it to be the wheelie monster or the reliable and characterful classic? RealClassic can make everything clear with this specially commissioned head-to-head test.

(The other way of looking at it is that I swapped bikes with a mate at the weekend, and thought I'd tell you how much fun we had).

First the similarities. Both bikes have half-litre single cylinder four-stroke engines. Both bikes have wide handlebars. Both bikes are rugged.

So, are there any subtle differences between them that explain the 1500 difference in secondhand price? Well, the KTM does have an electric starter.

This is a 520EXC with trail riding wheels and tyres. Note the riders wide-eyed stare as he realises how close he's getting to the gate that the photographer is leaning against. Photographer's wide-eyed stare not shown..

Enough levity, you want to know what they're like to ride.

The KTM 520 EXC is an off-road bike that makes a very sound road machine. It weighs about 250lbs, and it really is as thin as a pencil. Lean angles are limited only by your imagination. Fit some sticky road tyres and you can amaze your mates down at the pub by showing off the scuffs on your elbows. With a bit of practice you could be grinding the knee-sliders taped to the sides of your crash helmet. Nothing on the bike will touch down.

The seat height can be a problem. I've got a 34-inch inside leg, and it was a tippy-toes job for me. Of course, real men just balance the bike upright as they wait for the lights to change. The rest of us will have to find a kerb, or rest a foot on the bonnet of a handy car. My mate tells me that the seat is made for standing up. What he means is that after a few miles, you have to stand up to get some blood back in your cheeks. The whole bike is so slim that, once you're aboard, there's no stretching and no need to assume the wishbone position.

It starts on the button, which is a great relief as the kickstarter is about four feet off the ground.

Once running, it thrums like a nice tame modern single. The tickover is faster than anyone conditioned to old singles would be used to. Nice and quiet though, so the neighbours will barely notice as you slip out of the garage for a thrash. The exhaust system is stainless and the engine casings are magnesium. Ride it in the winter and the engine will dissolve, but at least you'll still have the sinuous pipes to admire.

To a classic bike rider, the first real shock comes when you get moving. Unlike the Guzzi, the gearbox is light and precise, with a tiny but exact lever travel. It snicks into first, so you grab a big handful of throttle and drop the clutch, expecting that shuddering surge as the bike slowly gathers momentum. Instead, you find yourself looking at the front mudguard. The front end comes up so easily and stays up so long, that this thing must be automotive Viagara. The exhaust note takes on a hard edge and the bike hurls you down the road. You hook second, and the front comes up again. Same with third. By fourth gear things are beginning to calm down and the horizon has risen past your ankles. But then it's time for a corner, so you barely brush the powerful disc brakes, drop a couple of cogs and wind on the gas as you come off the brakes.

A SuperComp. On a private road, of course. No, really.

Even leaned well over, the power can be fed in hard to drive out of the corner.

Come up behind a car and you can see right over the top. Crack the throttle and you are past and looking for the next one.

This bikes turns decent human beings into hooligans. The only difference between its rider and the race-rep crowd is that you will be getting your kicks on the A66. The natural hunting ground of a KTM is twisty A and B-roads. You won't be going much faster than the limit, and you won't be making enough noise to wake the sleeping policemen, but your head will fall off when the sides of your grin meet at the back.

The only thing that will bring you back home will be the knife-edged seat or the pathetic nine-litre fuel tank. You won't want to stay out after dark either, as the lights are small and direct. Approach a corner in the dark and you will be forced to slow down. As you do, the revs will drop and so will the brightness of the headlight. No, this is a toy for bright sunny days, when the devil on your shoulder is telling you to get out and spank a few sportbikes into submission.

The only possible cloud on the KTM's horizon is build quality. My mate tells me that bits keep falling off (the bike). Even when we were out playing, the sidestand fell off when the bolt that forms the hinge sheared through. So we salvaged the leg and the springs, and leaned the bike on walls to park it. Attitude; it's what a KTM is all about.

Attitude. Usually a vertical attitude, one way or another.

The Moto Guzzi New Falcon is the end of an illustrious line. For a while, the quick and fine-handling flat singles were all-conquering. Moto Guzzi stopped making them to concentrate on the big twins and small singles. Then they resurrected the beast in 1969. The new version produced more power than the old one, but was much heavier. It was a lumpen dinosaur in an age of Japanese multis. They never sold a single machine in the UK. Instead, the factory outfitted the Italian Army, Police Force and Fire Brigade. Watch the Italian Job more carefully when it's next on TV, and look at the bikes that are chasing the Minis...

Moto Guzzi also sold thousands of them to the poorer Mediterranean nations. Albania and Yugoslavia bought them by the bucketload - perhaps they saw them as a cheap and self-propelled source of metal for making saucepans and tractors? The Italian public saw the bike as an impostor not fit to wipe up the drips from the 'real' Falcone. As a consequence, there are warehouses full of low mileage Guzzi thumpers just waiting to be loved.

The New Falcon was built for the Army, so the construction is massive. Everything on it is huge and robust, and if it's not then it's just heavy. This is a bike that you want under you when you come across a Volvo driver. Side impact protection means nothing when you can make the sides meet in the middle.

The author's bike. That's a Norton silencer, and a pair of gloves above the cylinder barrel, rather than one of the Munsters...

As you might expect, it's heavier than the KTM and the seat is lower. The bike is a soft old pussycat to ride. The engine has an enormous external flywheel, which means that once it is over compression you can spin it over with just your hand on the kickstarter. The coil and battery ignition always works, and the bike will always start. It will chuff gently away from rest and will gather speed in a sedate manner.

Unlike tap-dancing through the KTM gearbox, the Guzzi needs slow deliberation and your foot to be lifted off the peg to tread the massive lever through its arc. The wheelbase is short and the 'bars are wide, so with the weight all carried low it can be trickled along feet-up and threaded through traffic like a courier. Both bikes will do full-lock slow turns with the clutch fully out, but it's easier on the Guzzi as the flywheel smoothes the engine to a gentle throb. The KTM just makes you want to gas the engine and spin the bike round in a smoking donut. Get the Guzzi into a full-lock turn though, and the handlebars will hit you on the knee. Slow turns mean getting your knee out like a racer, or standing on the pegs.

The Guzzi has drum brakes. Nice efficient Italian twin leading shoe drums, but drums all the same. Stopping is related to the strength of grip in your right hand. Try that on the KTM and you will be eating front tyre - even a single incautious finger can pogo the front end.

Out on the road, the Guzzi is all about momentum. The engine has a short rev range, like a diesel. Tickover is 1000rpm, and everything is over by 5000. What you find yourself doing is reading the road ahead so that you can avoid slowing down. Get the speed up though, and the flywheel mass will carry you up even steep hills with alacrity. Get it wrong and you will be grinding up in second. If you do, you can amuse yourself watching the headlamp rise and fall with each power stroke of the engine.

Despite the narrow tyres and hard suspension, the Guzzi corners well. Nothing scrapes or touches, and the frame holds it all in line. It ought to: it's made out of scaffolding poles. It's the only steel tubing frame I've seen that can make a modern alloy perimeter frame look a bit effeminate.

The size of the engine fools your eye into thinking this is a small bike. It's not; it's a very big engine.

On any normal road, the KTM would be over the hills and far away before the Guzzi got into second gear, but the Guzzi rider would return home with a glow of satisfaction at having captained this supertanker safely back to port. He will also have stayed out longer, getting at least 160 miles before reserve out of the 19-litre tank. And no need for the pile ointment either, as the plush sprung saddle floats the rider over anything the suspension lets through. I'm told it's a disconcerting sight from behind, to see a New Falcon rider on a bumpy road. The rear wheel will be leaping from rut to rut while the rider bobs up and down to a different rhythm. A bit like an exercise machine, but you get to eat flies and see the countryside.

Even the lights on the Guzzi are halfway decent, with the battery kept fresh by a genuine Bosch 150W dynamo, driven by a V-belt from the end of the crankshaft. You won't be doing much overtaking though. There is precious little urge left in the 50 to 60 range, so an overtake needs plenty of planning and a good run up. Pick your spot though, and feel the earth shake as the mighty Nuovo Falcone blats past, engine firing just once a yard.

So, which one do you pick?

Forget all this facts and figures nonsense. Orange or green, that's the real choice...

No contest - if you want to have more fun than should be allowed without a health warning, buy the KTM. Indulge it with sticky tyres, but save money by only keeping one of them on the road at a time.

If you want a solid old classic that can be ridden hard without breaking, have a look at the Guzzi. You'll probably buy an Enfield though, to get the electric starter.

KTM or Moto Guzzi. Can you guess from this silhouette?

Got any more "Nearly New vs Nearly Old" suggestions?


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