Moto Guzzi Airone 250: Birds of a feather

Bike Profile

Jim Scaysbrook's 1953 Airone Sport.

Moto Guzzi had a thing about birds. Their famous motif that adorns virtually every petrol tank features the eagle emblem of the Italian Air Force – a throwback to the flying skills of Carlo Guzzi, Giovanni Ravelli and Giorgio Parodi. At various stages since the Moto Guzzi company was formed (initially as the Società Anonima Moto Guzzi in March, 1921), models acquired names derived from feathered flock, most notably the lusty Falcone (Falcon) 500cc single that played an enduring role in the company’s history. Others included the racing 250cc Albatross (1939-1948), Egretta (1939-1940, Egret or white heron), Astore (1949 – 1953, Goshawk), Galletto (1950 – 1966, Cockerell), Cardellino (1954 – 1965, Goldfinch), Lodola (1956 – 1966, Lark), and the subject of our story here, the 250cc Airone (Heron), produced from 1939 to 1957). 

Story and photographs: Jim Scaysbrook

From the very first production Moto Guzzi, the 500cc Normale of 1921, the distinctive silhouette was established – Carlo Guzzi’s horizontal single cylinder engine with narrow crankcases and outside flywheel. It is a mark of the brilliance of that basic design that it was still in production (as the Nuovo Falcone) in 1976 – an incredible lifespan of 55 years. 

After a long line of 500s (which included the ingenious Tre Cilindra three cylinder model of which only a handful were produced form 1932 to 1933) Moto Guzzi decided around the same time that a move into the ‘Lightweight’ market would be a shrewd move. It was a decision taken with the parlous world economic situation very much in mind, and to take advantage of a sales tax benefit in Italy for models under 175cc. What became the Airone actually began as the P 175 – visually very similar to the 500s but in fact bristling with new features, many of which were subsequently incorporated into the larger models. But as the financial crisis eased, the buying public seemed to be less concerned with saving a few lire and more with increased performance. As sales of the 175cc P 175 slowed to a trickle, Moto Guzzi engineers were hard at work on a larger model of 232cc, the P250.

Fergus Anderson hams it up on his works 250cc Moto Guzzi Albatross outside the Tilbrook factory in Adelaide in 1949.

The P 175 utilized a brand new cylinder head design with valves inclined at 31º controlled by exposed double hairpin springs, with 59 x 63.7mm bore and stroke for 174cc, a three-speed hand-operated gearbox, and a rigid frame with girder forks. The steel crankshaft of 27mm diameter was a two-piece affair running on a ball bearing on the right and a roller bearing on the left, with the conrod on needle rollers. The fuel tank was a sleek chrome job with panels painted in amaranth red – a styling exercise that was soon extended across the entire range of models. 1,503 units were constructed between 1932 and 1937.

The P 250, with 68 x 64mm dimensions, first appeared around 1936 and quickly became available as three separate models. In basic form, the P 250 used a virtually identical chassis to the P 175, but as the P.E. came with a fully sprung frame. The cantilever rear suspension had its twin spring units contained in a compartment below the engine, with damping controlled by friction dampers. This pair was soon joined by a third 232cc model, the P.E.S. which boasted a more highly tuned engine and was good for 115 km/h. Most of the 75 examples built ended up in some form of sporting use which usually involved ditching heavy items like the steel mudguards for alloy versions. Moto Guzzi also prepared several P.E.S. models for important events such as the Milano-Tarranto road race, where the lightened and tuned bikes were reckoned to be capable of 125 km/h. The 232cc power plant, with iron head and barrel, still employed a 3-speed gearbox, but with a foot operate change.  Both the P.E. and the P.E.S. weighed 135kg and ran on 19-inch wheels. Up till 1939, a total of 1,886 P 250s and 1,568 P.E.s were built. A further variation was the P.L. (later called the Egretta) which was an economy model with a pressed steel frame, and pressed steel blade-type girder forks, and all chrome replaced by paint. Pushing the economy envelope even further, the Ardetta, made just in 1939 and 1940, used coil ignition rather than magneto, the old 3-speed gearbox in either hand or foot change, and drab grey paintwork with white striping. At 3,950 lire, it was 10% cheaper than the P.L. – itself a budget model.

Glory days: Maurice Cann after winning the 1948 250cc Ulster Grand Prix on the racing ‘Albatross’ model.

In late 1939, the engine was redesigned with the bore size increased by 2mm to 70mm to a full 247cc, and a four-speed, foot operated gearbox. At this point the bird-lovers stepped in, and the new machine became the Airone, or Heron. First models were virtually indistinguishable from the P.E. but very early in production received a sprung pressed steel frame derived from the P.L. with pressed girder front forks. With Italy’s involvement in the war escalating rapidly, very few were built in 1940. The 247cc cast iron engine, still with exposed hairpin valve springs, ran on 6.0:1 compression fed by a Dell’Orto SBF 22mm carburettor. Inside the engine, the conrod was now of the bolted-up type, with 25mm mainshafts running on two roller bearings. In keeping with the country’s rapidly escalating inflation, price had jumped from 4,300 lire for the P.E. to 6,200 lire for the Airone.

Alan Graham’s 1939 model P.E. – forerunner of the Airone. Petrol tank is from the later 1950s model.

Italy was a far different place in 1945, when production restarted on the Airone, naturally in its pre-war specification. 875 were built that year, accounting for nearly 50% of the factory’s total output. But it took little time for mods to be implemented, and by 1947 (when 1,100 were made) the Airone appeared with Guzzi’s revolutionary telescopic forks – which in the parlance of the 1990s were ‘upside down’ with the sliding tubes connected to the front axle. At the rear were very long hydraulic dampers, replacing the trademark friction type, but these lasted only one year before the Airone reverted to the original style. The following year the engine gained an aluminium alloy barrel and cylinder head with the valve gear completely enclosed, and a Sport version was introduced alongside the standard model. This used a combination pressed steel and tubular frame, with alloy Borrani wheel rims, 200mm alloy-finned brakes, sportier handlebars and a fishtail silencer. Compression on the Sport rose to 7.0:1, breathing through a 25mm Dell’Orto SS carburettor. Valve springs were slightly thicker in diameter, With 13.5 hp on tap, top speed was quoted as 120 km/h. 

Moto Guzzi was pushing hard for export markets by this stage, and in late 1948 assisted English star Fergus Anderson to undertake a tour of Australia, which was largely organised by Adelaide accessory manufacturer Rex Tilbrook. Anderson was equipped with a works 250cc ‘Albatross’ single and a wide-angle 500cc ‘Bicilindrica’ 500cc v-twin, plus a 65cc Motoleggera single to use as everyday transport. Australia was seen as an export market with high potential, and although Anderson’s tour produced not a single win, he was far from humiliated and his exotic machinery captivated enthusiasts wherever he went.

By early 1951, Moto Guzzi had appointed agents in Adelaide and Melbourne and launched the assault with the latest versions of the Airone, which was now available in either Tourismo or Sport specifications, plus the innovative but underpowered Galletto – a combination scooter/motorcycle with fully enclosing bodywork, a 160cc engine and a single-sided swinging arm rear that appeared many years later on the Elf GP races and subsequently Honda and Ducati superbikes. The firm was riding a wave of success, with works riders Bruno Ruffo and Tommy Wood finishing 1-2 in the 1951 250cc World Championship (Ruffo had taken out the inaugural 250cc title in 1949) and Enrico Lorenzetti gave Moto Guzzi a third 250 championship in 1952 before the all-conqurering NSUs arrived on the scene and dominated for the next three years. The Australian delivered Airones sported all-alloy engines and chrome petrol tanks with panels and cycle parts in maroon. At £297 plus sales tax, the Airone was rightly seen as a very expensive 250 (when a new 350cc MAC Velocette could be had for £219/10- including sales tax), and in the name of maximising performance and overall appeal, only the Sport version was imported. 

Gianni Minisini’s beautifully restored 1954 Airone Sport with a special ‘sculptured’ fuel tank.

Back in Europe, the Airone received a makeover for 1952 with the chrome tank replaced by a larger capacity and much more round styled, finished in traditional Italian red with black panels at the knee area, and gold pin striping. The Sport now further varied from the Tourismo in having an optional package of the footrests and the rocking pedal gear change set slightly to the rear, and the rear brake pedal changed from the curious bell-cranked style hinged from the front, to a more conventional pedal that pivoted from the kick starter shaft. Moto Guzzi seemed to adapt certain parts according to availability, and the Airone magneto alternated in various years from manual to automatic advance/retard. 

But time was running out for the Airone. There were sportier, faster and less antiquated looking 250s now on the market from a wide variety of manufacturers, but the real killer was the price. By 1956, the final model year (although the Airone Sport continued to be made into 1957 and a handful of Turismos in 1958), the price of the Tourismo had rocketed to 349,000 lire and the Sport to 364,000 lire. 

The rampant inflation, the influx of cheap cars (notably the Fiat 500 in the home market), repressive legislation and insurance costs, even forced Moto Guzzi to abandon Grand Prix racing at the end of 1957 – a field where its svelte 35occ singles were well-nigh unbeatable on which Australia’s Keith Campbell became Moto Guzzi’s last World Champion. The factory had expended vast amounts of capital on the complex V8 500cc racer (and built a 350cc version which was never raced), and perhaps if these resources had been diverted to modernising models such as the Airone, the factory’s fortunes may well have taken a different course.

All-alloy engine appeared in 1948. Footrest, rear brake mount and gearchange are the optional ‘rear-set’ type.

With the demise of the Airone, Moto Guzzi’s entry in the lightweight stakes was the 175cc Lodola, an altogether different type of bird with a more conventional looking engine that sloped forward in the frame at about 45 degrees and used the now standard swinging arm rear suspension with spring/damper units. In fact, the Lodolo offered performance levels very similar to the Airone, in a far more modern looking and marketable package. After this (in 1960) came the Stornello, in 125cc and later 160cc form, but to the Airone goes the distinction of being the final 250cc motorcycle produced by Moto Guzzi. 

Local birds

Although very few Airones were imported into Australia during their period of production, a surprising number exist here today. Like many enthusiasts with only a perfunctory knowledge of the road-going Moto Guzzi singles, I was under the impression that only the 500cc Falcones frequented these parts. That was until I visited Gianni Minisini at his immaculate workshop in Adelaide, where he has restored a large number of motorcycles, most of which he privately imported from his home town of Udine, in the far north east of Italy. The moment I clapped eyes on his 1954 Airone Sport I was totally captivated. It looked like, and in fact is, a miniature version of the 500cc Falcone – or maybe the Falcone is a scaled up Airone! Whichever way you look at it, this is one stunningly beautiful motorcycle – a Latin lovely, to be sure. By 1954, the Airone had put on a few kilos, to 140 from the earlier 135, but it still feels incredibly light, and can be rolled on and off the centre stand with just one foot and one hand. 

Rear and front brakes are massive by 250 standards, with alloy-finned drums.

Gianni’s Airone belonged to a local Udine doctor, who ordered it from the factory with a special, rather voluptuous fuel tank, and the factory option Giuliari dual seat. This one item probably adds several kilos to the overall weight, so massive is the construction, but it sure is comfortable when compared to the traditional sprung saddle. Usually, the rear mudguard carries either a luggage rack or a pillion pad. Gianni’s Sport has the optional ‘rear sets’ and I have no doubt that the rear brake is much easier to operate from this position. 

One hour took care of the photography, but the impression lasted much, much longer. This was a motorcycle I simply had to have, not that Gianni’s was for sale. However by chance I happened upon an Airone for sale in northern NSW and I was duty bound to inspect it as soon as possible. By this stage I had done quite a bit of research on the model, so I had a better idea of what I was looking for, or at. This one was a 1953 model that had been imported from a dealer in UK to Melbourne, in restored condition. It looked like a pretty good restoration too; everything appeared correct and intact. There was fuel to be had, so I couldn’t start it, but there was plenty of compression so I could see no reason why it shouldn’t run well. 

Left: 25mm SS Dell’Orto carburettor distinguishes the Sport model. Right: Battery sits neatly inside the pressed centre section of the frame.

In a few weeks it was back at my home in Sydney, and I could run a closer eye over my latest acquisition. Much investigation revealed it was indeed a Sport, with the 25mm SS carburettor, big brakes, ‘Ace’ –type handlebars and alloy, rather than steel components in the rear friction dampers. But it had the forward mounted footrests, rear brake and gear lever, which I can only guess was a cost decision since they were optional components. One tasty extra included in the sale was one of the very rare Giuliari dual seats, in excellent condition. One quirk of Moto Guzzis that I knew about was their use of odd sizes for fittings, and these extend to 7mm pins in the gear linkage. During the restoration, 6mm pins had been used, resulting in a sloppy assembly, so that was cured, although not easily as 7mm stuff is very hard to find. 

The first decent run revealed a few things. One – the Airone is no powerhouse, but it is smooth and revs freely. The gearchange is a delight, and so is the clutch, and despite the antique appearance of the rear suspension, it handles superbly. The front end feels very modern and those big brakes certainly work well. What the run also revealed was a lot of oil escaping from the area of the final drive sprocket and onto the muffler, where is baked itself into a thick crust. This was no easy fix, since the Airone, and indeed all the Guzzi singles, have a very unusual arrangement whereby the clutch is mounted on the left side, with a pushrod screwed into the outer plate and running through to the right, where also is mounted the clutch spring. There is no seal as such on the gearbox bearing, just a series of O-rings, which had all gone brittle and had ceased to perform any worthwhile function. Once again, Trevor Love from Surfside Motorcycle Garage at Brookvale came to the rescue, rectifying the problem while learning all about the quirks of the design along the way. Now the Airone is ready for action, which it shall see at the next suitable rally.

John Ferguson’s yet-to-be-restored 1949 model Airone Sport.
John Ferguson’s 1949 Airone Sport has the pre-war style chromed petrol tank and maroon décor.

I have also had contact with a number of Airone owners, both in Australia and overseas. Clearly, this is a model held in high affection by owners, and I now know why. Beautiful it is, gentle rather than spirited, and a guaranteed conversation starter where ever it is parked, although the chat generally starts with a correction, “No mate, it is not a Falcone…” When it comes to identifying Moto Guzzis, it pays to know your birds. 

Specifications: 1953 Moto Guzzi Airone Sport

Engine: Horizontal all-alloy single cylinder overhead valve and exposed flywheel.
Bore x stroke: 70mm x 64mm
Capacity: 247cc
Compression ratio: 7.0:1
Ignition: Marelli magneto with automatic advance/retard
Carburettor: Dell’Orto SS 25mm
Output: 12hp at 5,200 rpm
Gearbox: 4-speed foot change. Wet multiplate clutch.
Chassis: Pressed steel with tubular steel sections
Wheelbase: 1370mm
Suspension: Front: Moto Guzzi telescopic forks Rear: swinging arm with friction damping.
Dry weight: 135 kg
Wheels/tyres: Front: 300 x 19 Rear: 3.25 x 19
Top speed: 95 km/h
Fuel tank capacity: 10.5 litres
Oil tank capacity: 2.5 litres

This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 46.