Moto Morini: Up from the Ashes

Moto Morini: Up from the Ashes

The year was 1914. Italian teenager Alfonso Morini had just opened his motorcycle repair shop when World War I broke out and the youth was whisked off to serve in Italy’s 8th Motorcycles unit in Padua.

After the war, Morini got back to his passion job and, in 1925, his skills caught the eye of Mauro Mazzetti. He asked Morini to build a single-cylinder 120cc two-stroke racing bike—and to race it as well.

The two joined forces under the brand name MM and won renown, with Morini’s MM 125 bike snatching six world records at the Monza Grand Prix of Nations.

In 1937, Morini and Mazzetti decided it was time to go their separate ways. The former decided to launch his own enterprise and set up a factory in Bologna.

Moto Morini was born.

The Golden Years

Initially, Moto Morini built 350, 500, and 600cc three-wheelers. There was a practical, financial reason for the choice—at the time, Italy taxed three-wheeled vehicles at a lower rate and you didn’t need a license to ride them, which expanded the pool of potential customers.

But just like with his original workshop, war got in Morini’s way. In 1943, Allied bombs demolished the Moto Morini factory.

Yet, Morini hadn’t been deterred by the first World War and he wouldn’t let the second one stop him either. By 1946, he had a new factory, and off of its assembly line rolled the company’s first motorcycle—a little, lightweight 125cc two-stroke Moto Morini Turismo 125.

The Turismo Sport version, introduced the following year, pushed the performance from 4.5 ponies to 5.7 and boosted the top speed from 46 mph to 50 mph.

Look, it was impressive enough for the time that the Turismo Sport earned a place in the races (although the Turismo Competition bike had an extra fourth gear and could go 75 mph).  Over the next two years, Raffaele Alberti and Umberto Masetti would go on to win the Italian Championship for Lightweight Motorcycles on the Turismo.

In 1953, Moto Morini introduced the four-stroke 175cc Settebello, which started being mass-produced at the company’s new factory on Bologna’s Via Bergami in 1955. A race-oriented version, dubbed Aste Corte, went on to win many races with its groundbreaking open duplex cradle, split engine, and hydraulic suspension.

The late ’50s and the ‘60s were something of a golden age for Moto Morini. The company enjoyed continued racing success and launched many interesting bikes, like the Corsaro 125 and Corsaro ZZ. In 1965, Moto Morini landed in the U.S., although the model names had to be changed to things like Thunder Chief, Pirate, and Twister to appeal to American riders.

Yet, the decade closed with a sad event. Alfonso Morini died on June 30, 1969, at the age of 71.

Troubles Begin

After her father’s death, Morini’s daughter Gabriella took the reins of the company. Things got rolling and Moto Morini introduced its first 344cc V-twins—the 3½ Strada and Sport—in 1973 and ‘74. These were followed by 500cc models in ‘77.

These were fantastic machines for their time (and still great fun today). They were pricey, sure, but their sharp handling, excellent performance, and low fuel consumption, aided by the then-unique Heron cylinder heads, garnered rave reviews from riders.

Unfortunately, these motorcycles weren’t enough to keep Moto Morini flying high on their own. In the early 1980s, the company began experiencing strong headwinds.

Late 1981 saw the unveiling of the Moto Morini 500 Turbo at the Milan motorcycle show, yet this iteration of the bike never went into production. An enduro version, dubbed Camel 500, came out the same year.

Other bikes introduced through the early to mid-‘80s include the Kanguro 350 enduro bike in 1983 and the Excalibur 350 and 500 cruisers in 1986. None of them, however, sold very well.

The collapsing sales, together with continuous labor disputes, marked the end of Moto Morini as an independent marque. On February 18, 1987, Gabriella Morini wrote her signature on a contract selling Moto Morini to the now-defunct Italian motorcycle brand Cagiva.

A Company Adrift

Sadly, the change in ownership didn’t change Moto Morini’s fortunes much. Publicly, Cagiva kept repeating how important the Morini brand was to their business, yet in reality, the company did next to nothing and Moto Morini was left to stagnate.

Some new motorcycles came out in the late ‘80s, but they were reconfigured versions of existing bikes—Moto Morini did no new development at the time. The Dart 350 from 1988, for example, was a race-faired motorcycle using the 3½’s 72-degree V-twin.

Some designers suggested doing new things, such as a 60-degree engine, but Cagiva showed no interest in investing in Moto Morini. Designers who had been with the brand for years and decades began to leave and, in 1993, the Via Bergami factory closed its doors for good.

Then, in 1996, Cagiva sold the Ducati and Moto Morini marques to American investment company TPG. A new start for the brand? Not so—TPG stated outright that it wasn’t interested in reviving Moto Morini.

Finally, things took a small turn for the better as Moto Morini changed hands once again. This time, the buyer was Morini Marco Motori—a company started by the original founder Alfonso’s nephew, Franco Morini.

Once more, the brand returned to the Morini family.

In 2005, the first new motorcycle from the revived Moto Morini rolled out, dubbed the Corsaro 1200. This naked bike was followed by the 9½ street motorcycle. Both drew their power from the 1187cc Bialbero CorsaCorta V-twin engine.

The following year came the Corsaro Veloce 1200 and, in 2008, the 1200 Sport. It seemed Moto Morini was back, but that was only an illusion.

The first indication of trouble came toward the end of 2009 when Moto Morini announced the hypermoto Granferro. That bike, however, would never see the light of day as the company declared bankruptcy by the end of the year.

Back on the Road

Over the next two years, Moto Morini underwent liquidation, selling its leftover bike stock for peanuts. Recalled staff also built new bikes out of remaining spare parts, but by April 2011, Moto Morini was up for sale again.

This time, the brand found a buyer in Golden Eagle. And this new owner was determined to drag the marque back onto its feet.

In March 2012, Moto Morini ran an auction for its first all-new motorcycle under Golden Eagle. That bike was the Rebello 1200 Giubileo, a reimagined take on its 1956 namesake. Moto Morini ended up building 20 of these motorcycles to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

By 2013, Moto Morini once again had a bike lineup, which featured updated versions of the previous Corsaro Veloce, Scrambler 1200, and Grandpasso 1200. All of these bikes were built to order as part of the company’s recovery plan.

Moto Morini moved its headquarters from Bologna to Trivolzio, near Milan, in 2014. That same year the Moto Morini 11½ launched, staying in the catalog until 2017.

In 2015, the company introduced the Corsaro ZZ. At the same time, the brand underwent a management change and put all the more emphasis on hand-made, high-quality production.

Moto Morini celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2018 by producing a limited eight-unit series of special Corsaro80 bikes. That same year, the brand’s ownership changed again as Zhongneng Vehicle Group bought Golden Eagle.

Although Moto Morini has a new owner once again, the future looks promising. The X-Cape, introduced in 2021, is a solid machine and the brand is also expanding its reach to North America.

Moto Morini’s road has undeniably been rocky after its heyday in the ‘60s. Yet, the fact that the brand is still with us despite its difficulties speaks volumes about the enthusiasm the motorcycling world has for it.

In hindsight, it’s fitting that the history of Moto Morini motorcycles begins with a bombed-out, smoldering ruin. Come what may, it seems Moto Morini will always rise from the ashes.