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MOTO MORINI CORSARO 1200 ZZ Road Test: Better Stil

First test of the latest model produced by historic Italian marque Moto Morini

Even by Italian motorcycle industry standards, Moto Morini – founded in 1937 - has had more lives than lasagna-loving Garfield the Cat or any of his other feline friends. In modern times it’s involved the Bologna-based company briefly going through the hands of the Castiglioni brothers back when they owned Ducati, but before reviving MV Agusta. They shut Morini down to make a real estate killing by bulldozing its factory and redeveloping it, only for the firm to be revived from the scrapheap of history in 2003 via a joint venture between the Morini family and the cash-rich local Berti brothers. This led to the company’s former chief engineer Franco Lambertini, creator of the classic 3½ model’s Heron-headed V-twin motor, designing the all-new 1,187cc 87º V-twin CorsaCorta engine powering the Corsaro (it means ‘pirate’ in Italian), the reborn marque’s first model. This Naked streetfighter entered production in 2006, later to spawn a family of spinoff models like the 9½ and 11.5 roadsters, Granpasso adventure tourer, and Scrambler – well, street scrambler. 

These established a well-earned reputation for muscular performance and mechanical reliability, which saw the Corsaro win successive Naked Bike magazine shootouts against its twin- and three-cylinder competition, as well as allowing Franco Zenatello to twice win the Italian Roadster Cup series for Naked sportbikes in 2009-10 on his tuned-up Morini Corsaro, which had the consistent beating of its Aprilia, Suzuki, MV Agusta, Triumph, Buell, Benelli, KTM, Honda and, yes, Ducati rivals. Indeed, the Moto Morini CorsaCorta motor was the first of the new generation of 1200cc V-twin engines, setting a trend later followed by Ducati and others which was subsequently recognised on the World Superbike stage via a change in the capacity rules.

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Having re-established the Moto Morini marque with a sound product and a solid corporate structure, the Bertis accepted an offer to cash in their share of the business in January 2007, transferring their half of the JV partnership to the Morini family, and exiting the motorcycle industry. Good timing for them, but disastrous for the Morinis, as the global downturn one year later stalled the company’s growth, and sent it into the red. Moto Morini was shut down once again in 2010, up to which point 4,000 bikes had been manufactured during its five years of born-again existence, with a maximum of 1,600 made in a single year – albeit with a high level of customer satisfaction for what was essentially a hand-built product. After narrowly escaping the clutches of Paolo Berlusconi, brother of Italian prime minister and bunga bunga boyo Silvio, it was sold by the liquidator in 2011 for Euro 1.96 million minus the freehold of the MFM/Motori Franco Morini factory in Bologna which had been its base ever since it was revived. 

The new owners were two Milan businessmen, investment banker Sandro Capotosti, then 58, and corporate investor Ruggeromassimo Jannuzzelli, 51. Each was the enthusiastic owner of two rather different Morini V-twin models – Capotosti a new Granpasso 1200 adventure tourer, and Jannuzelli one of the classic Morini 3½ V-twin models. As part of the sale package, they also obtained two years’ free use of the cavernous old Morini factory, and began working to restart production. This duly kicked off in April 2012, but rose to a mere 180 bikes in 2013, all sold via the internet. The partners then moved the company to a new, much smaller 3,000m² base at Trivolzio, near Pavia, in the risotto rice fields south of Milan.

There, they struggled to lift production much beyond the 140 bikes claimed to have been sold in 2016, leading to Capotosti’s exit last year from the company, which is now wholly owned by Ruggeromassimo Jannuzzelli. He’s now restructured it as a boutique business, with every bike essentially hand-built according to the demands of each customer, and has also invested substantially in both product, and personnel. “We are the only manufacturer in the world which assembles our complete motorcycle, engine and chassis, entirely by hand in house,” he proudly states. “We don’t purchase engines from someone else and install them in our frames – everything in this entire motorcycle is created here in Trivolzio, and each bike is assembled by a single person, whose name is attached to it. Our objective is to raise production to never more than 400 bikes a year by 2020, each of them hand-assembled to the highest standards of quality. And we will in future only be selling our products through dealers established in each country, and no longer on the internet, as was the case before.” 

This commitment to the cause has entailed Jannuzzelli spending the money needed to upgrade Morini’s core product, the Corsaro streetfighter, to Euro 4 compliance, while also refining and refreshing its looks via detail changes courtesy of noted designer Rodolfo Frascoli, creator of several Moto Guzzi models like the Griso, Norge and Stelvio during his 13 years at Milan’s Marabese Design. The result is the ABS-equipped Corsaro 1200 ZZ launched at the EICMA Milan Show last year, now fitted with twin ellipsoidal headlights while preserving the same overall aesthetics, and selling in Italy for Euro 20,150, including 22% local tax. But key to the technical update this incorporates was hiring Massimo Gustato as R&D Manager in October 2015, a role he previously held with Bimota where he was responsible for putting an array of bikes into small-scale production, from the DBX Supermoto to the BMW S1000RR-powered BB3, via various iterations of the hub-centre Tesi and the Ducati Testastretta-engined DB9 Brivido. This is a man who knows how to develop small-volume models cost-effectively without sacrificing the quality coupled with individuality that’s a small manufacturer’s USP. He also knows how to ride hard and fast, as I found for myself during a 190-mile/300km day aboard the company’s Corsaro 1200 ZZ development bike, chasing him through the network of roads running into the hills lining the massive River Po running close to Morini’s new factory.

As regular readers will know, I’m a morinista by conviction, as the satisfied owner of a Corsaro 1200 that’s still just as exhilarating and plain good fun to ride as it was the week I rode it back to Britain from Bologna in the summer of 2007. You can tell how much I like it by the fact that, when the most recent Morini shutdown was announced in 2010, I hastily bought another in the form of my Spanish importer mate’s Corsaro demonstrator, so as to be sure I wouldn’t run short of spare parts for a bike which raises a smile on my face every time I ride it. Apart from an electronic dash replaced under warranty after it stopped working the first time it was exposed to British rain, I’ve had no problems with either bike in around 35,000km of accumulated mileage, although the older one did have a mapping upgrade at its second service. This made the pickup from a closed throttle a little less abrupt, without sacrificing the 1,187cc 87º V-twin CorsaCorta motor’s muscular zest which is the key benefit of Morini ownership, and has had pretty much everyone I’ve ever lent either of my bikes to come back smiling, asking how come they never knew how good a ride this was.

So I was particularly interested in evaluating the 1200 ZZ – named after the best-selling Corsarino ZZ 50cc boy racer moped that Morini introduced in 1965 – and especially to discover how much engine performance had been sacrificed in obtaining Euro 4 compliance, as on every other such bike I’ve tested from various manufacturers. Well, there’s an easy answer to that, which is – none at all! In fact, as I found out the first time I gunned the ZZ hard exiting a second-gear roundabout on the outskirts of Trivolzio, it has way more meaty a midrange than either of my Euro 3 bikes. Massimo Gustato and his team have pulled off quite a trick here, which he modestly puts down to a switch in ECU suppliers from Magneti Marelli to Athena, while also developing an all-new exhaust system courtesy of Zard [see Technical sidebar]. Whichever way he did it, it’s a real technical tour de force. 

Indeed, the secret of how to combine a claimed 7 bhp increase in top end power with a wider, 3Nm fatter spread of torque is something I’m sure Ducati and Aprilia engineers, not to mention Triumph’s, would like the Gustato gang to share with them. Because in every case of meeting Euro 4 with their existing models, it’s meant sacrificing outright performance in favour of increased torque – either that, or cubing up the motor to increase capacity in order to compensate for lost peak power. But as I was – am – perfectly positioned to compare and contrast with my older Euro 3 bikes with identical engine architecture, there’s a really noticeable improvement on the ZZ when actually riding it, not just on paper. 

So you can gas the ZZ’s CorsaCorta engine wide open in sixth gear at 2,200 rpm, and it’ll pull hard and strong in completely linear mode all the way through to the fierce-action 9,300 rpm revlimiter, without a trace of transmission snatch. This is quite unexpected for such a format, which you’d normally figure to have to rev quite hard to obtain this kind of performance, but while the motor apparently has a serious appetite for revs – designer Lambertini has claimed it runs safely to 13,000 rpm (some going, with a 107mm piston!) – it’s also content to lug along off the cam in traffic, then report for duty ready for immediate action when you simply twist the wrist, and ask it to deliver. Which it does with seemingly greater punch than on older such bikes, making almost inadvertent third-gear wheelies a fact of life when riding the ZZ.

This flexible and forgiving yet potent engine character means you needn’t use the gearbox nearly as much as you might expect with that short an engine stroke, since the CorsaCorta motor is especially happy to operate in the 4,000-7,000 rpm area, so you find yourself surfing the torque curve to hold third or fourth gear over a twisty stretch of road interspersed with short straights. There’s an average of 1,200 rpm between each of the evenly spaced top three gears, and in fact with this kind of engine performance there’s really no need for closed-up ratios in the six-speed extractable cluster – just point, and squirt. That’s a pity in a way, considering how smooth and precise the Moto Morini’s Japanese-quality gearchange is, now fitted with a sweet-action wide-open powershifter for upward gearchanges. But, sorry - there’s no clutchless autoblipper system for downward shifts, though, since the ZZ still doesn’t have a ride-by-wire digital throttle. 

This also means no choice of riding modes on a bike that’s an in many ways refreshing throwback to the Way It Was in the analogue era before the latest and greatest specced-up supernakeds from other manufacturers got so thoroughly kitted out with electronics that they risk their owners ending up feeling it’s the computer riding the bike, not them. There’s no such concern on Moto Morini’s latest model, because the ZZ has a delicious feeling of connectivity between what your right hand is doing and the way the bike puts the power to the tarmac. There’s no digital filter to dilute your desires, just an analogue link between the throttle and the rear tyre that’s refreshingly old school, but deliciously direct.

However, on a dusty surface like on many of the roads around the basin of the River Po it was all too easy to get the rear wheel scrabbling for grip on the ZZ if I leaned on the throttle to access even a part of that hefty grunt. The addition of TC/traction control operated by retarding the ignition that’ll be installed shortly as standard will be very welcome, even necessary, and according to Massimo Gustato it’ll be retro-fitted to bikes built previously. But apart from that there are no plans to invest in RBW technology, so just as KTM demonstrated three years ago in becoming Europe’s best-selling manufacturer with its hitherto electronics-lite onroad models before the advent of the 1290 Super Duke, there are lots of customers who are happy to and even prefer to ride products embodying the axiom that simple is best, and the new Morini ZZ will continue to offer that alternative route to sporting satisfaction, where you don’t need to check out the manual before working out how to switch off the electronics so as to wheelie the bike. 

The addition of ABS to meet Euro 4 compliance is a definite plus, though, as I once again discovered on those dusty roads – it doesn’t cut in too early or abruptly, but it’s there to provide a safety net. And on clean surfaces the Brembo radial brake package is its usual peerless self, hauling down the Corsaro ZZ from high speed with lots of feel and loads of effect, as you work the clutch lever to back down the gears and access the decent amount of engine braking that the Gustato gang have left dialled in to the APTC slipper clutch’s operation. However, the clutch lever action is stiffer than on my bikes, presumably thanks to the ZZ motor’s greater torque. No longer quite as light and positive in action, it also has a rather sudden bite towards the end of the lever travel, which makes it easy to stall the engine when manoeuvring the Corsaro at low speeds until you get used to it, and you can’t use just a single finger to operate it any more.

But the light-action 54mm single-butterfly throttle bodies give a smooth, controllable pickup from 3,000 rpm upwards out of tight turns, now with not too jerky a response from a closed throttle, thanks to the updated mapping. In fact, just like on my remapped older bike, the legendary Connection which GP riders dream of is present in spades, here – you can feel with your right hand exactly how much power is reaching the tarmac via the rear Pirelli. You soon learn to appreciate how much confidence the well-sorted, balanced-feeling chassis with its 53/47% weight distribution gives you, especially with the much more compliant Mupo suspension now fitted that’s specially developed for Morini, offering a greater 135mm cushion of wheel travel compared to the much more stiffly sprung Marzocchis used until now on all Morini V-twins. This prevents the Corsaro skipping around unduly on rougher surfaces, and you can use the engine’s meaty torque to hold third and fourth gear in order to cruise that 4,000-7,000 rpm comfort zone for long periods along winding roads, using the good leverage from the one-piece handlebar to flick the Corsaro from side to side, then powering effortlessly and smoothly out of turns in a way that’s undeniably satisfying, thrilling - and fun.  

 

While the Corsaro ZZ’s 860mm seat height will be a little daunting for shorter riders, Gustato says that Moto Morini has ways of reducing that as part of their custom build package, and matched with the meaty one-piece Accossato handlebar sourced from its Scrambler model it delivers an upright straight-backed posture that’s pretty comfortable for riders of differing height. The footrests are ideally positioned, too, high enough to avoid dragging your toes but without cramping a normal-sized rider’s knees unduly, while ideally placed to let them snuggle into the flanks of the well-shaped aluminium fuel tank, giving a good sense of control, of being at one with the bike. In spite of the tall seat height you snuggle into the Corsaro, rather than sit perched aboard it, so thanks to it narrowing where it meets the fuel tank I could touch down both feet at rest. 

 

On the Corsaro ZZ with its massive hit of torque Morini has understandably opted to fit the wider 190/55-17 rear Pirelli Diablo Rosso III compared to the 180-section tyre on my bikes and later Corsaros, but the wide handlebar gives sufficient leverage for this not to be a problem in depriving the ZZ of too much of the agility that’s always been a feature of the trellis-framed Morini V-twin models. The 10mm longer 1440mm wheelbase helps keep the front wheel a little closer to the tarmac under hard acceleration, but in spite of quite conservative steering geometry (24.5º rake with 103mm of trail) the ZZ is pretty responsive and light steering. Nice. It was hard not to be impressed with the new model after spending a day aboard it, and the main reason is the way Moto Morini has retuned that wonderfully torquey CorsaCorta motor to be so flexible and forgiving, fast as well as friendly. With its excellent handling, good steering, decent performance and upright riding stance, this truly is an everyday bike for all seasons, and all reasons. 

“Capotosti and I spent €1.96 million to acquire Moto Morini, and we then invested over €6 million more to start transforming it into the kind of company we could be proud of, and wanted to run,” says Ruggeromassimio Jannuzelli. “But if it takes more than that to do the job right, the money is there – and it’s important to stress that there is zero outside debt. All the funding comes from me personally – this is my project, and I will see it through. Look, Moto Morini is a hidden secret that everyone who discovers it falls in love with. It’s a genuinely historic Italian brand, with a successful road racing history, and we have to make it more widely appreciated, not only for its traditions, but for the excellence of its products today.“

 

Under such enlightened ownership with deep pockets, Moto Morini has picked up where it left off, making great real world motorcycles that are full of personality, and are rewarding and entertaining to ride. Let’s hope that this time around, their appealing character won’t be such a best kept secret as before….

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