Classic Choice: BMW or Moto Guzzi?

A while back we wondered which 1970’s sports-tourer would you want to call your own, if you had to choose between a pair of Continental classics? We’re talking big twins: one boxer, one V-twin, both shaft drive. If you could own either, then which one would you want in your shed?

We asked RealClassic readers – in an entirely imaginary exercise, you understand – whether they’d opt for Teutonic efficiency or Latin charisma. We ruled out the really sporty and iconic models from each manufacturer (on the grounds that we’re still cheapskates, even when we’re virtually giving away a make-believe motorcycle), and offered people the choice between the Guzzi 850 T3 and the BMW R90/6, with the slightly smaller R75/6 as a wild-card option. So not a Le Mans or the R90S: if you want to fantasise about being given one of those then you’ll need to read a better class of zine…

On paper, our two models aren’t too far apart. The T3 of 1975-onward came in roadster or touring trim so you could have either of those if your tastes turn Italian. The R90/6 was unfaired as standard, but we’ll let you add an aftermarket fairing if you want to travel big miles. The T3 boasts an entire 844cc from its air-cooled OHV engine, 83mm by 78mm bore and stroke, 9.5 to 1 compression giving 68bhp at 7000rpm. The BMW produces much the same power at a few revs less, but it does have a slight capacity advantage: 90mm by 70.6mm giving 898cc, using 9 to 1 compression pistons to produce 67.5bhp at 6700rpm. So you’d expect the R90 to be slightly softer and marginally more mellow than the T3, but not by a lot.

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Both machines weigh in at 460lb or so, both have a top speed somewhere around 115mph, and both come with electric start (although we’d only rely on one of them actually, you know, working). They both have a pair of 32mm carbs apiece: we’d probably prefer the Dell’Orto option but some people out there actually say nice things about Bings…

The bikes differ quite a bit in the braking department: the T3 features triple discs and Moto Guzzi’s linked braking system – something of an acquired taste but very effective when you get the hang. The R90/6 only uses one disc up front and has a single leading shoe rear drum brake. That rear drum is an efficient stopper, but you can’t help thinking the R90/6 would have benefitted from the extra disc which BMW saw fit to give to the R90S.

So. Which of these two classic twins would you choose, and why? Here’s what RealClassic readers had to say on the subject:-

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‘I would love an R75 or R90,’ said Martyn Roberts. ‘Having owned two Guzzis and a lot of airhead BMWs I have only a mild and passing fancy to buy another Guzzi (probably a T3 Cali) whereas I feel almost magnetically drawn towards another BM.’

‘Guzzi every time for me,’ said Paul Morgan-Knight. ‘Having had both I can appreciate the BMW’s reliability and easy mile munching style. However the Guzzi had that certain “something” that you couldn’t put your finger on but it made it nice and fun. If I had a choice to buy back either it would be the Guzzi no question. Which is surprising as the BMW handled better and was faster. I used to smile a lot on the Guzzi even though with foot boards on it grounded far too easily, and was a smidge slower, but felt better at motorway speeds.’

‘BMW. Without question,’ said our own Martin Gelder without the faintest hint of equivocation. ‘For quite some time in the 1980s I had both a BMW R100S and a Mk1 Guzzi Le Mans. The Guzzi had more “character” but the BMW took me to better places, on better rides, and then brought me home again. With the Guzzi it was a lottery. It was probably sorted by the time I sold it, but I’m into bikes for the riding and while the Guzzi was some of the time, it was ghastly too often.

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‘Post-1979 the BMW quality control went right off, possibly as the factory started thinking about the K series. And don’t get me started on the early oilheads… But the earlier “heavy flywheel” airheads are beautifully engineered and put together. Riding (and owning) them requires a certain mindset but once adjusted, they become a joy to own.’

On the other hand, Carl Wadkin reckoned he’d choose the ‘Guzzi T3 without question. I had a Mk1 Le Mans which I had to sell before I got around to sorting out its little “foibles”. Despite the latter I really liked it. Test rode an R65 when they were launched then rushed out and bought a CX500! Because I really wanted a Guzzi but couldn’t afford one at the time. Have fancied a BM now and then but don’t like those big lumps that stick out on either side.’

‘I have a Beemer,’ said Otto Uldum, ‘but would really like the Guzzi too. Not to replace it, because it is there to make sure I always have a working bike, which it does with great reliability. So given just one choice: BMW.’

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Ieish agrees. ‘Lovely braking system on the Guzzi, and better handling than the BM. But…. Oooh, tricky. The Cali riding position always felt odd to me, but I loved our Spada. Our Guzzi was finally defeated by dodgy electrics (natch; it’s Italian), very heavy clutch and a tendency for many minor things to fail – regularly. So, in the end, I’d probably plump for a BM. Model wise: R75/6, less lumpy than the R90, but perkier than the R60.’

Julian Lucas has made exactly this choice and put his money where his mouth is. ‘Guzzi. I was looking for a touring bike in the 90s and narrowed the choice down to BMW/Guzzi – the Guzzi was a bit cheaper at the time and was a bit different. Still have the Guzzi Spada now. It has only had a few very minor issues, was high mileage but well looked after when I got it and so far has always got me home.’

Ditto, said Mark Bird. ‘T3 for me I had one in the 1990s and, yes, it was idiosyncratic. But once a bit of moisture was in the air it was a pure pleasure to ride, so comfortable and in command of the road. Very happy memories!’

Karl Bentley couldn’t quite make up his mind. ‘Having ridden many Guzzis and Bimmers I’d have either, or both, though I confess I’m very fond of my airhead boxer which ticked over the 80,000 miles point yesterday with only normal wear and tear (tyres, brakes etc). Oh and a rear shock and a timing chain… Never had a moments trouble from the Bimmer’s electrics. The secret seems to be to clean up all the connectors under the tank now and then. Have worked on a couple of Guzzis, mainly to undo POs dodgy aftermarket ‘interventions’. Both bikes are pretty similar although later Guzzis added on extras that seemed to make the wiring a tad busy.’

Dick Sadler wanted to try something different: ‘I’ve had various BMWs, never a Guzzi, so the T3 please.’

But Ian Beckett reports a less-than-impressive experience with a Guzzi back in the day. ‘I suffered from the silly notion that a new 1980 Guzzi could take over from a 750 F2 Honda on the daily commute over the South Downs to Portsmouth. Italian electrics? I had to kick the starter motor to make the bendix engage or it just clicked at me. Corrosion in the main wiring loom connector was a test of memory, as all electrics could cut at any moment leaving me to remember where I was on the road and where the next corner was at 70mph with dead engine and lights extinguished. The tyres were so tight on the alloy wheels that tyre services wanted to charge me for equipment damaged trying to break the bead.

‘And alloy corroding before my eyes… after a month of commuting, I took my wife on the pillion. Try to turn shock preload: stuck. Lots of WD40, still stuck. Add ‘son of Thor’ hide mallet: ting! Tinkle-tinkle as the collar breaks in half. So thanks to Guzzi, Scintilla and Marzocchi and you may see why I have an affection for a reliable UJM and mocking scorn for anything from Mandello or indeed anywhere in Italy!’

‘I have the T3 roadster,’ said Stuart Coales; ‘just because it looks so…perfect.’

Mike Love went with the German machine. ‘I had a 1981 R100RT years back, after I sold a Commando Interstate, and it was a lovely quiet smooth fast bike. Too fast actually, as with that big fairing and the effortless motor you didn’t know exactly how fast you were going at any particular moment. The battery and starter motor combination wasn’t up to frosty mornings, and I never was happy with clutch actuation dependent on a 10mm bolt. I treated it with Slick50 when it had a good few thousand miles on the clock, and it made it much better (smoother and felt like it had a lighter flywheel). Nice bike. Smoke red.’

‘I have ridden an 80’s BMW’ said Darren Carter, ‘and thought it OK, but I was still young. I’ve never tried a Guzzi so the choice would be the T3 just for the experience. If I didn’t like riding it then it would become a café racer and beautiful!’

‘R75/6 for me please, with RT bars,’ said Ron Cartwright. ‘It’s light enough to be manageable and I think the flat twin airhead just looks RIGHT. It’s everything a classic bike should be – good looking, shaft drive, economical, reliable, comfortable and it’s got the right badge. Easy to get spares and a great dealer network and independent suppliers.’

Richard Johnson opted for the T3: ‘ better handling, performance, brakes, styling, sounding engine, economy, etc. And it’s a vee twin! Also, just compare used prices for a good T3 versus a good R75/6 or R90/6.’

Geoff Hosking had an internal argument to resolve. ‘As a finance professional (can’t say accountant or I’ll be accused of destroying our glorious motorcycle industry) my head says BMW. As a human being my heart says Guzzi. And I always follow my heart!’

Andrew Shortridge agreed: ‘The heart would choose the Guzzi, the head would take the BMW. I am fortunate to own both, the R90/6 gets ridden all the time the Guzzi gets looked at all the time. The BMW is the best kept airhead secret and feels like a two-wheeled Rolls Royce.’

‘I have a T3,’ admitted Gordon Milburn, ‘and it’s a good reliable bike, bags of character and a 200 mile tank. Like all bike of this age there are always things that need attention and it feels like a work in progress. It seems to handle better than a Le Mans Mk2 I had a while ago, although this makes no sense as it’s basically the same bike but with more weight and smaller carbs. I’ve never had an airhead BMW although I suspect the R90/6 would be a more practical everyday bike.’

Terry Dobney has ‘done over 200,000 miles both types of bikes. The Guzzi has more stamina, grunt and roadholding. The BMW is more comfy and better finished.’

Enter an expert on Italian bikes, Roger Slater: ‘One must assume that either bike is in good sound fettle or any comparison is meaningless. I have had more break down experience with airhead BMW electrickerty than any other manufacture bar none. I find the tourer Guzzies to be very pleasant and ultra-reliable. Much smoother than the BMs, at lower revs and superior handling. My Guzzi automatic was a lovely bike. The 800cc airheads I find to be nicer than the larger versions but still as unreliable in the electrics. So my choice would be the T3.

‘I also was influenced by old pal DLM on the choice of the RT80 over the 100. I fettled his model for him to ride to Yellow Knife up’t north. Despite all my efforts the bloody thing still conked out with no charge to the battery up in the wilderness surrounded by bears. My flying brick was sold within a few weeks after the thing stranded me twice with Herr Bosche’s electrickerty failing to perform as advertised. It also vibrated like a paint mixer. My RT1200 was a mile eater but very top heavy with endemic final drive concerns. I sold my last BM just a few months ago.’

Meanwhile, Ken Oaff said he ‘had the misfortune to own a Guzzi T3 once: the most unreliable bike I have ever owned. would never touch another one.’

But Jayne Simmonds said: ‘as a proud owner of a T3, it’s got to be the Guzzi.’

‘It’s got to be the Guzzi,’ agreed Ady Bolton. ‘If it’s like the V50 I had then it would be a bike to remember. Linked brakes, twitching on rolling the throttle off, and an alternator that packed up in Bordueax! All the people in favour of the Guzzi seem to have tales to tell, but the Beemers seem just to have arrived in loads of different places. I’d rather stick to the T3.’

David Harris came up with an unusual angle. ‘I would take the Guzzi… to remind myself how lucky I am to ride a BMW! Bryants of Biggleswade used to sell both brands and it was easy to see the BMW were better quality.’

The final comment goes to Martyn Gaunt: ‘unquestionably the Guzzi. Because I have a soul.’

And how did the numbers work out, when all the choices were counted? Unquestionably, people preferred the Moto Guzzi T3 to a BMW /6 Boxer. 66% voted for the Italian; almost twice as many as chose the BMW.

Looks like the R90/6 is going to stay BMW’s best-kept secret for a while longer…

Archive Hour: This article originally appeared on RealClassic over a decade ago. Some of the people who commented have since passed on, but they’ve left an indelible mark on our small corner of classic motorcycling. We hope you enjoy recalling their wit and wisdom…

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