In the blood: MV Agusta marks 75 years of building soul-stirring motorbikes

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Few motorcycle marques have combined racing success with showroom sex-appeal quite like MV Agusta. With 38 Grand Prix World Championship titles, the Italian brand have enjoyed the most on-track success of any European manufacturer and helped contribute to the tally of the sport’s most-decorated rider, Giacomo Agostini.

Since the late 1960s, the MV monogram has become a byword for exotica, having graced the tanks of jaw-droppingly beautiful bikes including the 750 SS, F4 750 and F3 800 Serie Oro. Yet the firm’s history goes back a little further than that and owes its success to the creativity of its founding fathers as well as two other passionate biking families along the way. 

Take a moment to stop and look at that familiar logo, unchanged since the motorcycle company was incorporated 75 years ago in February 1945. Inside the cog and submerged beneath the lettering you may not have noticed the pair of outstretched wings in honour of the aeronautics company from which all that two-wheeled beauty and racing success would later come.

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Military and commercial helicopters are still made under the Agusta name, the same company that Count Giovanni Agusta founded in 1923. In 2000 Agusta merged with Westland to form AgustaWestland. Agusta designed Europe’s first military attack helicopter called the A129 Mangusta.

Agusta flies high

Count Domenico Agusta

Pioneer of flight, Sicilian Count Giovanni Agusta set up his aeronautics firm in 1923 but died a few years later aged 48, leaving the business to his widow Giuseppina and four sons, Domenico, Vincenzo, Mario and Corrado. The end of WW2 saw Italy’s economy crumble, whilst post-war treaties also forbade the country from producing aircraft, which meant the company had to think quickly if it was to survive.

In 1943, Domenico switched the firm’s focus from planes to cheap transport and began designing a basic 98cc two-stroke, three geared, motorcycle called the Vespa 98, which was launched in Milan in October 1945 with the letters MV emblazoned on the tank – the monogram for the new company’s name, Meccanica Verghera: ‘Mechanics of Verghera’, the region in Lombardy where the operation’s factory was based.

Success quickly followed – both in the showroom and on track. Copyright issues with Piaggio, who had their own Vespa range, meant that the Vespa 98 went into mass production as the MV98, and its popularity grew at the same rate as Agusta brothers’ newfound passion for competition.

Conte Agusta with John Surtees

With race series for small capacity bikes rapidly popping up all over Italy, MV took their first win in 1946 in a local trial, something that saw the construction of a dedicated racing version of the MV98 later that year. The next year saw the MV98’s range expanded to include three variants - a Lusso (luxury), Normale and Sport – as well as a 125cc two-stroke twin and a 250cc four-stroke single, demonstrating the determination and drive of the fledgling company.

Not all projects were successful, a 500cc boxer twin and 175cc two-stroke single developed in 1949 both failed, but MV certainly weren’t afraid to explore new avenues and built a scooter in the same year and later a prototype two-seater small car and even a hovercraft!

Taking it to the track

Giacomo Agostini

Despite having raced with a degree of success at the International Six Day Trial (ISDT) and also in motocross, with sales on a high in the 1950s thanks to their 175cc four-stroke single overhead cam models and 125cc two-strokes, MV took to the tarmac and in doing so started a domination of circuit and road racing that lasted throughout the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s - cementing MV Agusta’s name in riders’ minds.

Competing at first with an unreliable 125cc four-stroke, it was at the hands of British rider Cecil Sandford in 1952 that a revised twin-cam version gave MV their first of 38 world rider’s championships and 37 world constructors’ titles.

It wasn’t long until MV expanded their racing bike range and very soon they were racing in the 125, 250, 350 and 500 GP classes with riders such as Carlo Ubbiali, Tarquinio Provini, John Surtees, Gary Hocking, Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini all taking titles in an era when MV totally dominated GP racing.

In fact, so successful were MV that between 1958 and 1960, the firm won all GP championship classes for three years in a row! But that masked unerlying problems and with the Italian motorcycle industry in turmoil at home, MV’s road range remained limited to small capacity models – something that changed in 1967.

The rise of the four-cylinder models

MV600 four stroke

With the Italian motorcycle industry now showing signs of recovering and looking to the export market for growth, 1967 saw MV release their first inline four-cylinder four-stroke – the MV 600. Although marketed as a tourer (it even had a shaft drive), MV weren’t shy about claiming its technology was based on the marque’s conquering 500GP bikes.

The range soon expanded in capacity to 750cc with the launch of the Sport and Super Sport in 1970 and finally the 800cc Sport America. Yet despite the company’s best efforts, the four-cylinder bikes never took off and when Count Domenico Agusta died in 1971, the firm lost direction and by 1980 having been briefly owned by public financing company EFIM, MV stopped making bikes and shut their factory’s doors.

The Castiglioni era

Claudio and Giovanni Castiglioni

In 1992 Claudio Castiglioni bought the rights to use the MV Agusta name and added it to his portfolio which also included at that time Cagiva, Morini, Husqvarna and Ducati. Behind the scenes, Castiglioni invested heavily in R&D and even brought in revered Ducati 916 designer Massimo Tamburini to create a new model for him – the result of which was unveiled in 1997 at the Milan motorcycle show.

When MV pulled the covers off the F4 the motorcycle world stood still and jaws dropped. Tamburini had done it again and with an inline four engine that had been developed with help from Ferrari, the F4 promised much. Sadly, however, despite its glorious looks, the litre bike class had taken over and the 750cc F4 was left underpowered in comparison.

MV responded by expanding their model range in 2003 with the naked Brutale and making the F4 litre bike in 2004, but with finances tight and debts high the company needed fresh investment.

In December 2004 the majority stake of the MV Agusta company was sold to Malaysian company Proton for a reported €70million, however just one year later it returned to Italian ownership as Proton pulled out.

Claudio Castiglioni with Massimo Tamburini

Then, in 2008, Harley-Davidson snapped up the company also for a reported €70million, then history repeated as after less than two years they also sold it back to Claudio Castiglioni for an undisclosed sum. Happily, during their American ownership, MV’s R&D team had been given the cash to develop an all-new motor.

The inline triple F3 was released in 2012, a year after Claudio Castiglioni’s death and with his son Giovanni now at the helm, MV invested heavily in a fresh model range with the Brutale, Rivale, Turismo Veloce, Stradale and Dragster soon following using 675cc and 800cc versions of the triple.

MV appeared on a roll, attracting the attention of Mercedes-AMG who bought a 25% stake in 2014. But all was not well and the company hit financial troubles in 2016, requiring refinancing from the Black Ocean Group to stay afloat and then investment from ComStar Invest in 2017, both of which were owned by the Russian Sardarov family.

What followed was a rocky few years before Giovanni was replaced as MV’s CEO, taking up a role as MV President instead, when the company was wholly bought out in 2019 by the Sardarov family.

New family, new chapter

Timur Sardarov

Now headed up by CEO Timur Sardarov, MV Agusta are looking towards the future with an all-new 1000cc inline four engine just revealed in the Brutale RR Serie Oro and a larger capacity inline triple, believed to be 930cc, waiting in the wings alongside an all-new F4 superbike and a 350cc bike aimed at the booming Asian market.

The firm even entered GP racing for the first time in 42 years in 2019 with an MV-backed Moto2 team, finishing the season in 19th and 22nd place overall. With targets of producing 25,000 bikes a year with 20 new models planned over the next five years, one thing is for certain, whatever the future holds for MV Agusta, it’ll be well worth watching.

The bikes that shaped MV Agusta

1945 MV Agusta MV98

1945 MV Agusta MV98

The MV98 was launched in 1945 and was MV’s first road bike. Powered by a 98cc two-stroke single, it came with the option of a two or three-speed gearbox and made 3.5bhp. Initially called the Vespa 98, this name was quickly changed.

1954 MV Agusta 175 CS

1954 MV Agusta 175 CS

The 175 CS was the first four-stroke MV to go into mass production and formed the base for many early race bikes. Powered by a single-cam 175cc motor, it had four gears and a variety of styles.

1967 MV Agusta MV600

1967 MV Agusta MV600

MV’s first inline four signalled the company were looking towards the export market. The MV600 made 50bhp and was later expanded in capacity to 750cc and finally 800cc for the American market.

1997 MV Agusta F4 750

1997 MV Agusta F4 750

Marking new generation of MV models, the F4’s 750cc inline four engine was developed with the help of Ferrari while its bodywork and chassis weres styled by Massimo Tamburini. What a way to announce your re-birth…

2012 MV Agusta F3 675

MV Agusta F3 675

Under the control of Giovanni Castiglioni, MV built the all-new 675cc inline triple. The F3 uses the same lines as the F4 to keep a family similarity, however it is a ground-up new model that is soon expanded out to 798cc.

2020 MV Agusta Brutale 1000RR

2020 MV Agusta Brutale 1000RR

Saradov’s swipe at super naked glory, the 998cc inline four Brutale is claimed to produce 205bhp and 85ftlb torque, wrapped up in a styling package that makes the other nakeds really look as though they should put some clothes on.

Read the latest stories causing a buzz this week in Advice…

Jon Urry

By Jon Urry

MCN contributor, original 916 & R1-owner, human labrador