Collection of the Gilbert Family, Los Angeles, California

Sponsored by: 
Friends of Mark H. McCann, Sr.
in honor of
Mark H. McCann, Sr.
Montford Point Marine
USMC 1943–1946
Congressional Gold Medal Recipient


From the outset when the company was established in 1921, Moto Guzzi was a force to be reckoned with in the panoply of Italian road-going and racing motorcycles. The company was conceived by two Italian air force pilots and their mechanic just before the end of World War I. Unlike their counterparts who settled on one engine configuration and repeated the practice, Guzzi’s bold engineers knew no boundaries. That fact was hardly in doubt with the marque’s most radical machine, the 1955 V-8, which also became known as the Otto.

The Otto’s engine was largely hidden by a streamlined “dustbin” fairing and developed a remarkable 78 bhp at twelve thousand rpm (revolutions per minute). Even more impressive, it’s top end, with tall gearing, was 172 mph, an unheard-of speed in that era for a racing motorbike, and about as fast as most Grand Prix (GP) cars. Guzzi V-8s were fast qualifiers and they often led races, but they suffered some truly spectacular crashes before the concept could be fully developed.

While a number of manufacturers have tried dustbins, there’s arguably never been a better-looking midcentury GP racer. The swoopy, humped fuel tank features large cutaways for the rider’s knees, the abbreviated seat tapers into a raised tail section to keep the rider snugly positioned, the raucous V-8 engine is almost completely hidden, and there’s an organ cluster of eight small exhaust pipes, producing a cacophony of noise you would never expect to hear on a race bike outside of a Honda six-cylinder.

Over time, the Otto has become the stuff of legends. The Moto Guzzi factory owns two original examples. The bike in this Frist Art Museum exhibition is an exact replica, built using a spare factory V-8 engine and other original parts. We’ll likely never see another racing motorcycle as brilliant, complex, and scary as the Moto Guzzi Otto.

—Adapted from the exhibition catalogue essay by Ken Gross

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