India Markets open in 4 hrs 7 mins

Classic take: 1978 Moto Guzzi Cross 50

Firoze Irani
Capsule-shaped exhaust is stock.
Breather pipe from the fuel cap lubricates the steering head bearings.
Yezdi Patel is the proud second-generation owner of this Moto Guzzi.

If you’ve ever heard motorcycle tales from those who rode in the ’60s and ’70s in India, you’ll notice one commonality. The majority of them involve either a Yezdi, Jawa, Royal Enfield, Bajaj or a Lambretta. After all, it’s only in the last two decades that we’ve seen a huge influx of international brands. And like in most countries, even in India, Japanese motorcycles followed by American ones are the most common foreign brands. Even today, Italian bikes are thin on the ground and that’s why we knew we had to tell the interesting story of Yezdi Patel and his Moto Guzzi, from a time when most Indians didn’t even know about the brand’s existence.

In 1978, Yezdi’s parents flew to Italy for a month-long holiday. When they landed in Italy, they found out how unreasonably expensive relying on taxis and renting a car were. While most would consider public transport as the best alternative, it wasn’t their cup of tea. Instead, they decided to buy an economical motorcycle to get them around the country. That bike turned out to be the Moto Guzzi Cross 50 you see here.

With its efficient 50cc motor, 5-speed gearbox and go-anywhere suspension and tyres, the little Guzzi made for the perfect candidate. Can you imagine what a thrill it must have been riding around Italy on this little trail bike in the ’70s? Apparently, it was so much fun, they opted to bring back a rather large two-wheeled souvenir to India – the Moto Guzzi (just another reminder of how Yezdi’s folks were different).

Fast forward 40 years, to 2019. There I was at our shoot location, watching Yezdi approaching on the taxi-coloured machine at a pace that belied both his and his motorcycle’s age. Yezdi is famously known for his scooter rally wins, but judging by how comfortable he was riding the Cross 50 in the dirt, I suspected there had to be a story here too. A few minutes later, he got off the bike and effortlessly handed it over to me with just one hand. The age, rarity and the amazing story behind this machine had intimidated me at first, but that disappeared the moment I took the handlebar from him and felt... almost nothing. At 78.5kg, this Moto Guzzi is easily the lightest motorised vehicle I have experienced. It felt like a toy and I couldn’t wait to play with it.

The engine’s ‘flowerhead’ design promised more efficient cooling.

Despite having owned and ridden a number of two-stroke motorcycles, I stalled this one while starting off the first time. Turns out the tiny engine demands much more clutch slippage while setting off than I expected. With the kick-starter flipped out, I coiled my leg up and was just about to lash out on it, when Yezdi rushed over to tell me to take it easy – all the 50cc motor required to start-up was a slight tap. To demonstrate what little effort it took, he leaned down and started it with his hand!

Sufficient revs provided this time around, the little Guzzi and I set off. Riding the trail bike around was quite a bit of fun, and while 50cc sounds tiny, this is a two-stroke we’re talking about, so it packed a small little punch. The third gear was the sweet spot; it was in this gear that the two-stroke peppiness was most apparent. This is also when the hollow but quick-revving RX-style exhaust note sounded its best.

Two-stroke smoke and smell never fails to bring back memories.

On the bumpy trail, the Marzocchi suspension proved to be impressive for its age, especially since it hasn’t been rebuilt in 40 years. I can’t imagine what it must have been like back in the day. Not only was this the lightest motorcycle I’ve ever ridden, but also the narrowest. It was extremely easy to grab onto with my legs and the wide handlebar put me in just the right stance. I was daydreaming of riding this little Moto Guzzi on a proper off-road trail, while Yezdi was worriedly looking at me go up and down a dirt road.

Not wanting to get his BP up too high, I decided to hand over the bike to him. Turning the key off (the bike never came with a key and an ignition socket, so Yezdi installed one himself), I pointed at the dual-cradle frame and suspension and told him how I thought they could easily handle more power. That’s when he chuckled and said that he had once plonked in a more powerful motor from the BSA Falcon for one of his races. Races? Engine swap? I needed to know more!

Flexible tail-light rubber mounting is off-road ready.

Yezdi proceeded to tell me that this was his first race bike. He learned how to ride on a 39cc model from Japanese manufacturer Dandy (one of the first minibikes in the world), but the Cross 50 was the first bike he raced on. He was around 12 years old when he took part in the first Bombay Motocross in 1985 at the Brabourne stadium. The race was especially for youngsters and the organisers were forced to call the competition “a demonstration”. This was a loophole because the rules at the time didn’t allow a competition to be held if the participants didn’t have a license.

Yezdi was with 10 others on the grid and stood a good chance at winning, but an unfortunate crash meant he finished at the back of the pack. He pointed at the clutch lever and told me that it was the same one that got bent during that crash. It took him three days to bend the clutch lever back into its original position, and he’s done such a good job, you just couldn’t tell. It is Yezdi’s determination to keep the bike as close to original as possible, without any fancy restoration jobs, that makes this such a special motorcycle. Every single scratch, ding and crack tells a story.

After his first race, Yezdi went on to participate in many others and even won a couple of small competitions in Pune and Kolhapur. Many of these were with the more powerful BSA engine installed, and he even won slow-speed balancing competitions in Mumbai, which he said was a testament to the Guzzi’s lightweight and dynamic chassis. The regulations of many races, however, were not on the side of the Moto Guzzi, or imported machines in general. That’s when Yezdi tells us he shifted to his custom TVS Supra in 1988 and his racing career spanned over 50 races with around 35 podium finishes. He also tells us that he still holds the record for the most consecutive scooter rallies won in India, with five wins back to back. Both he and his younger brother Kaizad Patel were LML-sponsored riders as well.

While the Moto Guzzi Cross 50 served him only for three years, it had a heavy influence on the formative years of his racing career. I meet ‘motorcycle enthusiasts’ often, but very few of them look at their bikes the way Yezdi does. His eyes show the respect and awe he has for the machine, and the way he treats it gives an idea of the gratitude he has towards it. This black and yellow Italian has served two generations of his family, and it’s already getting warmed up for the third.