The Moto Guzzi California has had the criticism of representing a marketing exercise designed to simply cash in on the success enjoyed by a certain brand from Milwaukee in the USA. But, that’s desperately unfair.

It has to be said that none of this was helped by the name chosen by the marketers at Guzzi’s Mandello HQ, all those years ago.

Of course, there can be no doubt that there are Harley design cues inherent in the bike, and offering a European cruiser gave Harley-leaning buyers another option, but the Cali gains its own identity and credibility due to the length of the bike’s production run.

Indeed, the first Cali landed right back in 1972, known as the 850 California.

California cruiser
The bike that started it all. The 850 of 1972.

The bike featured the then-new, Tonti frame. Engineered by Lino Tonti, it offered an up-to-date structural backbone for Tonti’s V7 Sport of 1971.

Incredibly, the hugely talented engineer designed the engine for the V7 Sport as well. It’s a shame, we’ll never see that sort of project freedom again.

Tonti’s frame was built with racing as its focus, with the well-achieved goals of mass centralisation, lighter weight and compactness. The frame is especially light and strong, and remains in use to this day in modified form through parts of the Guzzi range.

The California underwent many model changes and simultaneously attempted to hop categories via add-on factory goodies at standard, a cornerstone of the California designation right up until the present day.

For currency, we’ll deal with the 1100 and 1100i. Strangely, you could buy the carbed model up against the injected one for the full five years of the run, prior to the launch of the EV in 1998. Strange at times, those Italians…

Used cruisers
1998 Cali in two-tone signature colours.

Significant milestones along the way saw the EV introduced in 1998, running through until 2006 when the Vintage Cruiser took over.

The retro-cop-bike Vintage represented a huge leap for the Cali with a whopping new price of $27,900 and a heap of up-spec goodies that included driving lights, standard fitment hard saddlebags, chrome fenders and large diameter chromed crash bars fitted front and rear.

You see, the Californian Police Department made use of the Cali for some time (well, they only had H-D with which to compare them), and identifying with that history was not a bad idea if the Yanks were going to ever get fizzy about the bike.

To keep showroom interest in the Cali, Moto Guzzi hit the market with many model tweaks and accessory-based badge identities. The following may go some way to clearing this up:

From 1994-’98, the model was known as the 1100i, the bike getting fuel-injection for the first time. From 1998-’06 it was designated as the EV. Alongside the EV was the EV 80 which ran until 2003. Mixed in were the EV Touring (2001-06), the Special Sport (2001-’02), the Spec Sport Aluminium Cruiser (2003-’06), the Spec Sport Titan (2003-’06), the Stone Cruiser (2003-’06), the Stone Touring Cruiser (2003-’04) and the Vintage Cruiser (2006-2010).

Moto Guzzi California
EV Touring got nice long-distance add-ons.

We hope you got all that because there will be questions later.

The bike makes use of an air-cooled, 1064cc, two-valve, 90° V-Twin, good for 54kW at 6400rpm and 94Nm at 5000rpm.

There’s the Tonti frame, and the Magneti Marelli fuel injection gives the old donk modern fuelling characteristics.

Of course, Guzzis are known for feeling ‘different’ (the first time you rev the bike at lights and it falls to the right will get your attention), and low-speed operation is a bit of a lumpy affair, but it is a near perfect match for the chassis, both in delivery and look.

The area where the Cali really excels is in its handling. Guzzi has been at this motorcycle gig for a while now, and the engineers at Harley-Davidson must have stared out the window into the mid-morning traffic on many an occasion wondering how those damned Italians had managed to build something that made their offerings seem positively cumbersome.

Nimble steering from seemingly lazy geometry numbers, nice but not absolute top-end, rebound adjustable twin shocks, 45mm rebound and compression adjustable Marzocchi forks (with a hefty fork brace) and a neat shaft drive, coupled up to the delightful Tonti frame arrives at a bike that is totally happy in its skin, and no-one gets off a Cali whingeing about handling.

Moto Guzzi California dash
Vintage Cruiser clocks were retro cool.

Linked brakes have been the subject of controversy ever since they first made their appearance, but the fact is, if they are ever going to work it will be in the cruiser configuration due to better rear brake effectiveness. The Cali’s (two 320mm discs up front gripped by Brembo four-piston calipers, and a single 282mm disc in the back gripped by a Brembo two-piston caliper) work a treat. Again, it all seems a bit like luck, but it’s anything but. It’s all about intelligent design and Moto Guzzi has been getting that right for a long time.

What hasn’t been as healthy a report card for Guzzi over the years has been the issue of fit and finish. You’ll be out with the metal polish, and running around the bike with a regular nipping-up won’t hurt either.

Another quibble is the five-speed gearbox. Nice ratios, but that’s about where the romance ends on the tranny front. Imagine placing your foot into a bag of spanners and waving it about a bit. Both the noise you’ll hear and the feeling you’ll experience is what it’s like on the Cali. Pretty damned rough and clunky, and a bit of a low point. Well, a lot of a low point actually. It’s tough though, and will never break, if that’s any consolation.

California cruiser
2008 Classic. Back to minimalism.

Seat height varies a bit between the models, but it does a fair job of suiting a wide range of riders. The position places a fair bit of weight on the butt, with the feet placed forward, bumps transfer to the kidney area. This is an issue with all cruisers and the Cali doesn’t have it alone.

Oh, and footboards are an acquired taste, you’ll love them or hate them. They are nicely rubber-mounted, so vibes that can be a bit of a Guzzi bugbear, don’t intrude via the feet. The same can’t be said for the bars however, and at cruising speeds the buzz can be a bit annoying.

Reliability is reasonable but there are a few things to take into account. In particular, noisy tappets can require cam and followers replacement and you’ll be heading to the bank if that’s the case.

Moto Guzzi cruiser
2012 Vintage in copbike white.

Summing up

Slightly offbeat, the California calls for a degree of commitment. There will be a lot of people that simply won’t get it. They’ll think you couldn’t afford a Harley.
But for those that understand subtlety and individuality, you’ll be sought after company.

For what it’s worth, Guzzis are cool in our books.

Then there’s the bike’s sheer road competence. These things handle and clearance is good (for a cruiser).

In short, if you are looking to move into a more comfortable option, but haven’t given up on the thought of a bit of spirited running, the California will present as a better choice than many of the more traditional choices in the cruiser category.

Moto Guzzi California used bike prices

1994-1998 ­– $5800-$7500

EV Cruiser
1998-2006 – $6500-$9000

Vintage Cruiser
2006-2010 – $7500-$13000

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Andy Erskine
Andy Erskine
3 years ago

Just between the complete redesign of the Cali’s to 1400 models, the 940 Bellagio was sold. Single rear shock, twin spark and with a lot of the problems sorted this is a fun and reliable bike that goes hard!. I know, I’ve got one.

Peter Williams
Peter Williams
3 years ago

The Labrador of motorcycles, Terrific tourers and handlers with the cruiser bugbear of the upright seating. This overcome by the speed you can cover distances with a stop of a few minutes to stretch. Sheepskin helps. The economy and tank size are also pluses, the minuses are the questions you get on it when you stop for lunch, coffee or drink somewhere. When I bought mine the bloke thought I’d pinched it. A test ride around the block tells you nothing. The longer you are on it the more it bonds with you.
What’s the old saying? If you try to explain they will never understand.