Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Magni Sport 1200S - Italo-Asian Hybrid

Magni Suzuki Sport 1200 S
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When it comes to exotic Italian motorcycles, few brands can claim the prestige and history of Magni. The bikes that have rolled out of Arturo Magni’s shop are the sort of two-wheeled art that become instant classics right out of the showroom. Magni's decades of experience with Gilera and MV Agusta during their respective glory years have informed the development of some of the most iconic and beautiful sports machines ever produced in Italy, powered by classic engines from MV and Moto Guzzi. Magnis are fast and elegant, and are powered by sonorous, red blooded Latin engines.

So when Magni introduced their swansong production model in 1999, it only made sense that it would be powered by a Japanese four yanked out of a Suzuki Bandit. Wait, what?


Magni Suzuki Sport 1200 S Engine
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This is the story of the Magni Sport 1200S, one of the most incongruous products to ever emerge from the Magni works, and arguably the sexiest bike to ever be powered by the Suzuki air-oil cooled four cylinder.

Arturo Magni MV
Arturo Magni with one of his creations
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The Magni story begins with the namesake of the company, Arturo Magni. Magni was perhaps one of the most important single figures in Grand Prix motorcycle racing during the mid-20th century, a man who helped craft and maintain the dominance of the most winning-est GP team of all time - MV Agusta. He was a man who operated fervently behind the scenes to keep MVs on the podium and develop their four and three cylinder racers into an all-conquering force that dominated the 500 and 350 GP categories. All told, MV won over 200 GP races under Magni's direction.

Gilera 500 4 Four
Gilera 500 Four
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Arturo Magni began his career in 1947 with the legendary Gilera racing team, working under engineer Piero Remor as the team's chief mechanic. Remor had made an indelible impression on the motorcycling world by introducing the first modern four cylinder racing engine - the Gilera GRB. The GRB was developed in 1923 and was the first engine to use the setup we now take for granted - a transversely mounted inline four, set across the frame. The GRB begat the GNA, which was developed into the water-cooled Rondine pre-war supercharged engine, which was then reworked into the post-war air-cooled double cam 500-4, which would serve Gilera well until they retired from Grand Prix racing in 1957. The Gilera set the standard for racing fours and would serve as a key inspiration for Magni and his subsequent work. But it would be Magni's work at a rival company, who were making waves in the 125 category, that would define his subsequent career.

MV Agusta 500 Four Count Agusta
Count Domenico Agusta and his team
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Meccanica Verghera Agusta was the concern of wealthy aristocrat Count Domenico Agusta, heir to the Agusta aviation dynasty. He began working on a motorcycle project in the 1940s as a way of diversifying his aviation company, but was interrupted by the war and a German occupation of his works at Cascina Costa.  After the war ended, he restarted the project to employ the employees of Agusta aviation factory - as you'd imagine, there wasn't much demand for Italian aircraft parts once the Allies took over. Many Italian companies turned to the production of inexpensive motorcycles as cheap transportation for a war-ravaged economy, and MV was no exception. Racing was a natural progression for most Italian companies, and in the late 1940s MV began to successfully campaign in the 125cc category with simple but competitive two-stroke singles.

MV Agusta Count Agusta 500-4
The Count with his four
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When these two-strokes were eclipsed by highly developed four-stroke engines from rivals like Mondial and Moto Morini, MV needed to find an expert with experience in designing four-stroke racing mills to stay competitive in the quickly evolving sport - the exact opposite of what would happen in the 1970s with the re-emergence of two-strokes as the dominant design. Here was where Remor and Magni proved invaluable. Remor had been chastised by Gilera management for a string of mechanical failures and was ripe for poaching by MV. Magni had left Gilera to join MV in late 1949 and Remor followed shortly thereafter. Some sources claim Remor left first, others that both went together - regardless of the chronology they were both working for MV by early 1950. Remor was tasked with developing a new overhead cam 125cc single to beat Mondial at their own game, and a 500cc four with which MV could compete against the all-conquering Gilera team at the highest level of racing.

John Surtees Count Agusta 1955
John Surtees signs up to race for MV in 1955
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The 500 four would be developed over the subsequent years, with only moderate success due to a weak chassis design. That would change in 1955, when MV hired rider John Surtees. Surtees, who was skilled at communicating with engineers and well versed in frame and suspension setup, would prove invaluable in developing the 500's into a competitive racer. It would win its first World Championship in 1956. Gilera took the top spot in 1957, and then withdrew from racing as part of  gentleman's agreement among Italian manufacturers to stop competing in an expensive category that offered nothing in the way of profit. MV were supposed to discontinue their GP effort as well... But Count Agusta had other ideas, and continued to compete while his Italian rivals bowed out. Thus began MV's legendary championship streak - MV Reparto Corsa would win every 500 World Championship from 1958 to 1974, as well as ten 350 championships during the same period, with Arturo Magni at the head of the race department for every single season.

John Surtees MV Agusta
Surtees on his mount
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Magni helped develop the MV racing department into a well organized and highly professional team that would dominate competition. Magni reported directly to the Count and ensured that development was swift and efficient. The Count dictated what he wanted, and Magni made it happen - with no bureaucracy or bean counters to interfere. The goal was always to win races, at any cost. When Remor left MV, Magni managed to keep development rolling despite the lack of a singular engineer overseeing development, even designing some of the components himself - impressive when you realize he was a mechanic by trade. The whole operation was notoriously secretive, with deliberate disinformation spread to throw off competitors seeking to copy the design elements of the MV racers. Count Agusta even went so far as to make certain that retired machines were crushed and buried, lest they be reverse engineered or bought by privateers.

MV Agusta Corsa Race Team Department
The MV racing department. Based on the legends about the MV works, I presume the photographer was politely asked to hand over his camera before he was shot and buried in the back along with last year's bikes.
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After the Count passed away in 1971, development slowed and the MV juggernaut began to face stiff competition from a new wave of powerful two-stroke racers. They nearly lost the 1973 500 championship to Kim Newcombe and his outboard-powered Konig, and probably would have beaten if Kim had not been killed before the end of the season. Their championship streak was finally broken in 1975 by a two-stroke Yamaha, ridden by their former poster boy Giacomo Agostini. They won their final World Championship in 1976.  By 1977 the party was over and the company withdrew from racing. The race department was broken up, and the bikes and spares were sold off. Production of road motorcycles continued in limited quantities until 1980 when the company was shuttered. MV Agusta was dead.

Giacomo Agostini MV Agusta Ago
Agostini, Spa 1970
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Magni left MV in 1977 to start his own company, Elaborazioni Preparazioni Magni. The company began as a specialist producing go-fast parts for MV road bikes. Arturo's years of experience with the MV race works gave him a particular insight that allowed him to build some of the sexiest, fastest machines of the era. When most people think of a Magni, they picture a big MV four from the 70s, with curved black quad pipes and race-replica bodywork.  And this was true for the first few years. While MV was still producing bikes, Magni was modifying them, either as complete turn-key machines or as customs based on customer-supplied bikes. The results were some of the most iconic Italian machines of the era, and today Magni MVs command serious money. And there has never been a road-going four cylinder that sounds better than an MV with Magni four-into-fours at wide open throttle.

Magni Honda MH 1
Magni MH1 - the MH2 was the same except for a addition of a bikini fairing


Once the MV factory shuttered in 1980 Magni continued assembling bikes from spares and modifying customer machines, but it was clear that using MV bits was not sustainable. So Arturo set about building a production chassis kit that used an existing motor. Magni was skilled at building chrome-moly steel tube frames and applied his skills at developing a classic hybrid - Asian motor, European frame. He took the air-cooled four out of a Honda CB900F and built a series of machines called the MH1 and MH2, an Italian bruiser of a street bike that happened to be powered by a Japanese motor. Such hybrids were not a new concept - Bimota had been building chassis kits and complete bikes around Honda and Kawasaki motors since the 70s. At the time Japanese frame and suspension design was still behind the Europeans and there was a thriving cottage industry putting powerful and reliable Japanese engines into proper frames.

Magni Suzuki Sport 1200 S
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The Honda-powered MHs were followed in 1982 by the 1000cc MB1 and MB2, motivated by BMW R100 boxer twins. Frame kits were made for various engines, and you might still occasionally come across a hitherto forgotten "Magni-hyphen-somethingorother" at a vintage track day. In 1985 Magni began a long-running partnership with Moto Guzzi with the Magni Le Mans 1000. The company would continue to produce a line of exclusive and fast Guzzi big-block powered bikes into the 1990s, with plenty of race-prepped machines along the way that competed successfully in various categories. All the Magni bikes shared the qualities introduced by the MV and MH specials - custom chrome-moly frames, the best suspension, wheels and brakes available, beautiful and purposeful bodywork, and some fettling with the motors to keep things interesting. The chassis design was inspired by Arturo's years of racing experience, but never really evolved beyond that - he stated in the early 1990s that alloy beam frames were a passing fad he had no interest in. He was half right: beam frames weren't a fad, but a good steel tube design could still cut it against modern machines - just ask Ducati.

Magni Suzuki Sport 1200 S
Either the single best or worst use of Comic Sans of all time
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So Magnis were uncompromising, expensive, a bit old fashioned, inspired by years of racing heritage, and completely lust worthy. They were quintessentially Italian and made use of the best components available. They were exotics of the highest order... So why in the hell did they build the Sport 1200S around a Suzuki Bandit engine, one of the most ubiquitous motors of the last 20 years?

Suzuki GSX 1200 Inazuma
The Donor - Suzuki GSX 1200 Inazuma
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The Sport 1200S was a throwback machine that recreated the style and presence of the MV 750 Sport at a significantly more affordable price. For 15 492€ you got the Magni hand crafted chrome-moly frame with right-side-up Ceriani forks and Brembo brakes and a pair of Showa shocks at the rear. The engine breathed through a set of signature black curved four-into-four megaphone exhausts. The alloy swingarm was taken from the Bandit - or, to be more accurate, the GSX 1200 Inazuma which was a retro-styled variation of the Bandit that had a dual-shock rear suspension. In fact most of the parts were straight off the Suzuki donor bike - the instruments, wheels, switchgear, master cylinders, carburettors, and airbox were all unmodified Suzuki bits. Dry weight was 430 lbs. The 1156cc powerplant was untouched and power was quoted as 100 hp and 67 lb/ft, the same as a stock Bandit/Inazuma. The whole kit was finished off with some retro flourishes like chromed mudguards and a sculpted fuel tank painted in the classic red-white-blue scheme made famous by the 750 Sport. The seat was also inspired by the Sport, resplendent in bright red with an upholstered bump stop. This was a strictly solo machine with no provisions for a passenger, just as any proper sport machine ought to be.

MV Agusta 750 Sport 1971
The Inspiration - 1971 MV Agusta 750 Sport
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While the Honda-powered MH made sense at the time it was released, using an antiquated Suzuki four out of a dull-looking standard that sold by the boat load was an odd choice for a company so well-versed in building tasty exotica. At face value, anyway. Dig a little deeper and you'll see that the 1156cc four is really quite a good option if you are looking to build a classic air-cooled special with some modern grunt, even if it is a bit common.

Suzuki SACS Engine Cutaway
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The GSX/GSF 1200 mill was a direct descendant of the legendary GSX-R1100 engine produced from 1986-1992, which in turn was a bigger brother to the groundbreaking GSX-R750 motor. These early GSX-R motors bucked conventional wisdom by skipping liquid cooling in favour of a proprietary air-oil cooling setup that Suzuki dubbed the Suzuki Advanced Cooling System (SACS). Rather than adopt a heavy liquid-cooled setup that added weight and complexity, Suzuki engineers chose to develop an air-cooled engine that was capable of producing the power of a contemporary water-cooled mill. The big barrier for producing power in an air-cooled engine is heat - air-cooling alone isn't capable of sufficiently lowering the temperature of the heads and pistons enough to allow a high compression ratio. Try to tune an air cooled engine like a water cooled equivalent and you'll quickly end up with cracked heads and melted pistons. SACS solved this problem by adopting a trick from air-cooled aircraft engine design - using oil jets to cool the heads and pistons. While many air cooled engines will feature oil coolers to keep the overall engine temperature in check, only a SACS motor uses the oil to actively dissipate heat with a second set of channels and a special double-chamber pump that direct high-pressure streams of oil at the tops of the combustion chambers and the bottom of the pistons, in a circuit that is seperate from the regular lubrication system. Extra fine cooling fins were cast around the barrels and heads to further aid cooling. In other respects the engine was relatively conventional and modern, with flat top pistons, double overhead cams, and four valves per cylinder in a shallow combustion chamber with a 40 degree valve angle.

Suzuki SACS Cutaway
The SACS combustion chamber cooling passages
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The SACS system worked remarkably well and allowed the GSX-R to undercut the competition significantly when it came to weight, while still producing competitive power. It also made the engines stupendously reliable. The SACS fours developed a cult following, on the street and on the track, and earned a reputation for being utterely indestructible. They became the mount of choice for privateers looking for a relatively inexpensive but reasonably competitive option. While GSX-Rs never conquered the race track, they did win the hearts and minds of street riders and became the prototypical lithe sport bike that could race on Sunday and tear up the backroads on Monday. The fact you could beat the everloving crap out of it and it would keep on ticking was a bonus that endeared many riders to the air-oil cooled GSX-Rs.

Suzuki GSX R 1100 Brochure
Suzuki GSX R 1100 Brochure


The GSX-R began as a 748cc Superbike-legal machine, with a 1052cc "1100" following shortly thereafter. The 1100 wasn't eligible for road racing classes but became a legendary street bruiser, a huge and massively powerful machine that competed against the equally brutish Kawasaki ZX-10 and ZX-11. The 1052 engine began with a claimed 128hp and power rose steadily over the years. The engine was eventually bored out to 1127cc with final variants producing a claimed 145hp before a new liquid-cooled engine was introduced. In 1996 a detuned version of the GSX-R1100 engine was put into a sport-standard chassis to create the GSF 1200 Bandit and GSX 1200 Inazuma, which were the big boys in the GSF/GSX range that had begun with a humble 250-four in 1989. Engine modifications included a 1mm overbore to give 1156cc, milder cams, and a 9.5:1 compression ratio instead of the 10:1 of the GSX-R. Claimed power was 100hp, but with a broad spread of torque that gave the 1200 a reputation of being a stump-pulling wheelie monster. It was also quite easy and inexpensive to tune the 1200 mill back up to GSX-R power levels without compromising reliability. The Bandit 1200 remained in production until 2006, when it was killed off by increasingly strict emissions regulations and replaced with a liquid-cooled successor.

Magni Suzuki Sport 1200 S
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The 1100/1200 family of engines have a strong cult following and are as good a street motor as anything else - broad, useable power and ample reserves of torque with a reputation for being unkillable. So despite being rather "ordinary" it wasn't a poor choice to stick it into a Magni by any means.

Magni Suzuki Sport 1200 S
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The finished product was, however, a bit underwhelming. Aside from prejudices against the choice of motor, the 1200S used so much of the donor bike that it looked very much like a tarted-up Bandit with a fancy seat and different gas tank. Even the custom, tig welded frame appeared similar to the original Suzuki item. It cost double the price of the donor bike, inexpensive for a Magni but a lot of money for what amounted to a fancy frame some different cosmetics. Reviews noted that the bike successfully channeled the spirit of a classic sport bike - it was uncomfortable, impractical, difficult to ride slow, and not particularly good at the limit either. While the frame and brakes were good the suspension wasn't up to snuff and reviewers complained about poor setup from the factory. Funny enough nobody bitched about the engine, which remained the torquey peach that has endeared so many to the Bandit, and top speed was in the region of 140 mph if you could stand the wind blast. Despite the Magni pipework it didn't sound nearly as good as an MV four, but then again nothing else does.

Magni Suzuki Sport 1200 S
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Despite being rather underwhelming, reviews still praised the charm and beauty of the 1200S. It wasn't practical or good value, but that wasn't the point. It was a hand-built exotic that just happened to use an engine you could fix at the local Suzuki dealer. It was built to order in limited quantities and for discerning clients who wanted the classic Magni experience on a more limited budget and without the headaches of an antique motor. Production details are scant but it appears that the run of bikes was completed around 2000-2001 and Magni returned to what they did best - building and tuning Italian iron. Today Magni continues to produce parts, but series production (such as it was) ended with the 1200S. However, Arturo and his son Giovanni will still produce a custom bike to order if you have the means. Their most recent creation was the R3 Rocket, a classic Magni special built around a tuned vintage Meriden Triumph triple, unveiled at Quail in 2012.

Magni Suzuki Sport 1200 S
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Magni remains one of the classic Italian boutique manufacturers, a small and passionate family company informed by decades of experience in one of the greatest racing organizations of all time. And the Sport 1200S remains one of their most curious and obscure specials - a beautiful Italian machine built around a rather pedestrian Japanese engine.

Magni Suzuki Sport 1200 S
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Interesting Links
Magni website
1993 Magni-MV 861 auctioned in 2008
Motorcycle Classics profile of Magni
MCN review of the Magni Sport 1200 S
Magni Sport 1200S photos

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