There’s Gold in California
The California 1400 Touring and Custom remain solidly entrenched in the heritage of Moto Guzzi while embracing the very best new-tech has to offer.
Moto Guzzi realized early they would need a cruiser for the North American market. At the end of the last millennium and the beginning of this one, cruisers were without doubt where the market (and the money) was. The California model first appeared in the early 1970s as a GT bike but by 1987 looked very much like a cruiser with a hint of Virago or Intruder. Back in the earlier 2000s Canadian Biker tested several Moto Guzzi models including a dressed Touring bike and the California Stone, which was the purest of the unadorned cruisers. While the bikes were blessed with the iconic Moto Guzzi opposed V-Twin, the styling was unusual and the proportions not quite correct. Dramatic improvements came in 2014 with the introduction of the new California 1400 Custom ($15,950) and Touring ($19,040). These two models were not reconfigured from other platforms but engineered as a cruiser, and this time the proportions were right. Long, low, and wide, the California Custom has presence. That it looks like nothing else on the road is partly the result of the laterally opposed V-Twin, which at 1380cc is the largest engine ever placed in a Moto Guzzi.
The motor is an influence on the styling as the lines of the bike are low but the cylinder heads sit high protruding up into the molding of the 5.4-gallon tank. The cooling fins are front and centre as there is no way to hide this monster of an air/oil-cooled motor. But why would you want to? Beyond the tank and motor the lines flow over the one-piece seat and wide rear fender covering the 200mm rear tire. Dual LED strips are integrated into the rear fender, acting as turn signals and brake lights.
The only hiccup in the styling of the Custom is the headlight nacelle which is large and odd shaped in an effort to house many different lighting features. On the Touring version, with its additional light bar and windshield, the headlight is less of a focal point.
The fresh styling aside, the 96-hp mill is the epicentre of the California, and it really is a wonder. The isolated engine is so smooth, Moto Guzzi refers to it as “floating.” All the engine components, including the exhaust, are isolated from the frame by elastic connections, and through the open face helmet and earplugs I wore to sample the 2015 California bikes, I detected virtually no engine vibration that might otherwise provide a clue to engine speed. Often I realized the bike was still in third or fourth gear even though it was clipping along at vigorous highway speeds. This was great amid the hills and canyons of northern Los Angeles where Moto Guzzi chose to introduce the 2015 California models to press in July.
The roads there are remarkable for their twistiness; it’s amazing they exist at all—carved into steep hillsides to service only the occasional home. Mulholland Highway isn’t a place you truly need a windshield and hard bag equipped touring bike. It’s not the typical after-lunch run for cruisers with floorboards that will scrape without extreme provocation and be the most limiting factor to handling. Launching a cruiser in a sportbike environment is a measure of the company’s confidence in the California’s brakes and suspension, and the engine’s ability to tackle the challenge. Perhaps this is the Italian notion of things—these are the kinds of places you should ride your motorcycle. Windy bits can be ridden hard on and off the excellent Brembo brakes, or on and off the throttle while keeping the revs high and relying on the anchor-like engine braking to slow the bike through the corners. Peak torque of 87 ft/lb. is reached at a very low 2,500 rpm, virtually off idle, and remains very flat up to 5,500 rpm.
The throttle-by-wire twin has four valves per cylinder fed by Magneti Marelli fuel injection and managed through three riding modes: Turismo, Veloce and Pioggia (tour, sport and rain). From a stop on any pavement covered with a patch of sand or gravel the rear tire would invariably spin. The three riding modes limit or enhance engine braking and torque, while three-stage traction control is provided to further manage the immediate torque of the motor.
With tall gearing, down-low bull torque and shaft final drive, you can let the revs drop and the bike will pull well from first, second or third. The sixth gear overdrive is for those times when you are setting cruise control at triple digits—but more on that later. There’s excellent braking via dual 320mm front discs with four-piston calipers, and a single rear 282mm disc. And of course, there’s ABS.
The 46mm front forks are set firm and resist diving. The Custom version has rear shocks with a separate reservoir and are adjustable for preload and dampening. The rear suspension can be set quite stiff to aggressively attack twisty California canyons, but they will soften up for freeway rides.
Inside the cockpit, a single round instrument gauge displays a great deal of information including ambient temperature, fuel, digital speed, riding mode, gear indicator and flick-through data for odometer, trip, average speed, fuel consumption, etc.
When you add all the indicator lights for, amid others, ABS and traction control, the tachometer seems almost secondary as only a small portion of the sweeping needle appears behind the overlaid digital component.
While Moto Guzzi exists as a heritage brand, the California 1400 is packaged with most new tech advantages known to motorcycling. The ride-by-wire system leads to all sorts of wonders, one of which is the cruise control, which can be activated from 40 kmh to, enthusiastically, 180 kmh in third through sixth gear. Where you might have the opportunity to set cruise at 180 kmh is unclear—maybe a German autobahn or back in time to that brief era when Montana’s only daytime speed limit was to be “reasonable and prudent.” If for some reason you do have cruise set to 180 kmh and need to pass another Moto Guzzi rider with his cruise set to 179 kmh, the system will deactivate at 181 kmh. Keep that in mind. Changing gears, hitting the brakes or rev limiter, losing traction (180 kmh in Piogga!), steep ascents or descents will also deactivate the system.
At its centre the California 1400 Touring is the same bike as the Custom with accessories added. Remove the windshield, auxiliary lights, hard bags, grab rails and change the handlebars and you are pretty much back where you started. Not surprisingly, the Tour is a more relaxed ride due to touring bars that replace the Custom’s flat bar to provide a lighter steering feel while neutralizing the seating position with less forward lean. A little change goes a long way.
The Touring has more styling elements paying tribute to the classic American touring cruiser and is a little too much of a good thing compared to the clean lines of the Custom. The Custom could dispense with floorboards in favour of pegs to accommodate the performance that the bike aspires to beyond its Touring counterpart. It’s a shame that floorboards limit lean angle when the bike is intended for performance.
At 300 kg and 322 kg respectively, the Custom and Touring seem heavy off their side stands and during slow speed maneuvering, but the laterally opposed engine is well balanced left to right and the lower engine block sits deep in the cradle frame. This allows the heads to top out a bit higher than the seat height, which is 740mm. On the road both bikes easily transition from side-to-side—again limited by the floorboards as to how far you are going to lean it over. To be fair, most roads will not pose any problems in this regard and the limitation was brought about only because of the technically challenging nature of the California roads.
Many companies and consumers consider California to be ground zero for motorcycle design, and for that reason Moto Guzzi’s parent company Piaggio Group maintains its Advanced Design Center in Pasadena. Miguel Galluzzi heads this brain trust tucked innocuously in a heritage building above one of Pasadena’s trendiest streets. If there is any doubt that California, in particular Los Angeles, is the epicentre of motorcycling in North America, Moto Guzzi’s presence here should dispel that notion. Other manufacturers, both American and international, also have advanced design centres in California hoping to feed off this dynamic environment and perhaps tap into the next big thing before it is a big thing.
But it’s ironic to consider that the much-heralded Italian design may owe something to LA influences. What happens at the Piaggio design centre may also effect Aprilia, Piaggio, Vespa and in this instance Moto Guzzi because hipster cruiser chic is never far away. But behind it all, a European heritage is still very much in play. When asked why an individual would choose to ride the California 1400 or any of the other Moto Guzzi models, Galluzzi’s answer was simple: because it’s a Moto Guzzi. Meaning, motorcycle riders are well aware of the brand’s long history, and choose the marque for that reason.
As part of the Piaggio Group, Moto Guzzi has the resources to devote to expanding and improving the range fueled by the sale of hundreds of thousands of Vespas. There’s little doubt that Galluzzi sees the Moto Guzzi brand as the flagship of history and tradition while Piaggio’s other motorcycle brand, Aprilia, is the “anything goes, it’s worth a try” brand. If it’s going to be outside the box it will be an Aprilia. If it’s going to be steeped in history and pay homage to a long line of famous nameplates, it will be a Guzzi. Galluzzi confirmed a variety of new Guzzi models would be available on the market within the coming years. Because of their relative scarcity it would be easy to think of Moto Guzzi as a small company quietly producing unique bikes but that would be similar to considering Victory or Indian without acknowledging Polaris.
The California and the company’s other offerings like the V7 Sport are intriguing for their heritage but the California 1400 is particularly fascinating for how Moto Guzzi has brought a load of modern technology to a traditionally inspired motorcycle without making either aspect of the bike seem out of place. The technology is there but it’s never intrusive or overwhelming. Much of it operates in the background in an attempt to keep the rider out of trouble, but it is fluid should you need it. Yet what is really most important is the prominent, potent and not-so-subtle air and oil-cooled V-Twin.
Large displacement traditional cruisers built outside North America are now harder to find as some manufacturers transition to a “new” cruiser that will appeal to the “new” rider or they allow their big bore cruisers to simply ride out the trend.
In LA, although perhaps not the rest of California, sportbikes are predominant. Perhaps this is why Moto Guzzi places equal emphasis on performance and style with its two cruiser offerings and makes it easier to answer this question. Why buy a Moto Guzzi California 1400? Because it is a Moto Guzzi.
By John Molony