Moto Guzzi 850 California Cafe


Which Moto Guzzi model was the biggest seller? The classic V7? The gorgeous Le Mans? No, the best selling model was the far less glamorous and more functional 850 Caliifornia T3. The reason for the popularity of this model was thanks to the Los Angeles Police Department ordering 10 “made to order” V7 police models in 1968. In 1971 the V7 was replaced by the all new 850T. The T Stood for Turismo or touring. The continued use of the 850T by the California Highway Patrol and other police departments together with its long distance touring ability and agility resulted in huge sales in the USA. In 1975 the California T3 was introduced and remained in production until 1982.


The major innovation on the T3 was the controversial three disc cast iron Brembo braking system which linked the front brakes to the rear brake pedal. Application of the rear brakes resulted in slight but noticeable braking of the front wheel as well. The front brake lever was used to apply full braking power. With its large Lexan windscreen, panniers, floorboards and plush seating, the California was a true Italian Harley alternative. The transverse V twin was easy to maintain and the shaft-drive was maintenance free. The engine was rated at 59hp and a top speed of 160km/h quoted. The fact that Harley was battling with production quality and reliability issues at this time only helped this Moto Guzzi’s success in the USA.


In South Africa in the mid 1970s, touring motorcycles were not big sellers. Performance was what the market wanted. Italian motorcycles were also far more pricey than the Japanese models. Not many Californias were therefore sold in South Africa. Those who could afford a Guzzi generally bought an iconic 850 Le Mans. Our featured 1979 model 850 California T3 cafe racer was built by its owner, Ernie. He bought the bike in George in rotten condition. The previous owner had added extra boxes to the motorcycle and it was a mess.


By stripping the California of all the touring paraphernalia, Ernie revealed the true style of this motorcycle. Having been exposed to the coastal air for most of its life meant that stripping the spokes from the Borrani rims was the hardest part of the  rebuild. After refurbishment, all the original spokes were reinstalled. Ernie built this bike to a budget and so the pitted header pipes were wrapped, not replaced. He shortened the silencers that were on the Guzzi when he bought her and reinstalled them. Nick’s Cycles supplied the new rear shocks.


The engine and gearbox with the shaft-drive are unopened, original and had no need for overhauling. Cosmetic changes include a front mudguard which has been cut and installed back to front, a chopped rear fender, Tomaselli clip-on handlebars and bar-end mirrors. The speedo has been removed and only the original revcounter retained and repositioned. The headlight and taillight were also purchased from Nick’s Cycles.


Ernie is an aircraft maintenance engineer by profession. He formed this motorcycle’s uniquely styled seat’s base and rear hump section from a honeycomb composite material used in the aircraft industry in applications such as the DC9’s floorboards. He used a small sanding disc on an angle grinder to form the laminated black foam seat before covering the complete seat and hollow rear hump.


This motorcycle is named “Aquila d’ Argento” which is Italian for “Eagle of Silver”, referring to the Moto Guzzi logo. Ernie’s Silver Eagle is another example of the owner-built motorcycles which we love to feature. Somehow these highly personal creations  always add something unique to our custom world.

By | 2013-08-08T06:40:52+00:00 August 8th, 2013|Categories: Articles|4 Comments


  1. Braam 8th August 2013 at 6:40 pm

    I like this!!

  2. Wind-blown 10th August 2013 at 8:30 pm

    […] 1979 Moto Guzzi California T3 – Retro Write Up […]

  3. Steve 6th March 2014 at 7:09 pm

    Nice – I really like owner on a budget builds that are done properly, and it’s great to see them featured. Few people can afford the high-end builds, and this kind of bike acts – like Justin’s 550 Brat – as a good incentive. Put in the time, take your time, and have a good eye for the finished article and much is possible.

    This one reminds me of the cafe that kinda got away from me. I picked up an ’82 Guzzi SP2 in Penge (London) for a fiver back in ’06. Well, a bottle of Chianti for 5.50 at Tesco’s made the former owner happy. My wife at the time wasn’t impressed (you’re still busy restoring that old BMW etc etc). My buddy Stu who owned a bike shop summed it up accurately when we loaded – as in dragged – it into his Sprinter with the words, “Mate, it’s ORRible!” Missing half the plastics, others were broken, and it wouldn’t roll backwards but I knew I could at least make money on parts if I had to and could get it cheaply.

    I never got around to ‘caffing it because I had to come back to SA, but Stu sold it as-is on ebay for me and it fetched 200 quid.

    Which ironically makes it the worst bike I’ve ever owned, the cheapest bike I’ve ever owned, and the only bike I’ve every owned that paid me more than the purchase price.

    Nice article, and thanks for jogging the memories.

  4. SoyBoySigh 2nd July 2016 at 4:19 am

    I pretty classy build, easy enough to do when the bike’s a very good looking model in the first place. It’s when a bike is FUGLY and folks still pull off a nice build, THEN we should compliment them on it. My own personal favourite is when an early ’80s Japanese CRUISER or “Chopperette” is turned into an awesome Cafe, aka ‘DE-CRUISER-IZATION”.

    They’re not always that awesome. In fact, one thing people are very critical about on a Japanese bike is when it’s got a SHAFT-DRIVE, ha-ha. Or leading-axle forks for that matter. Stuff that a GOOSE or a BEEMER will always get away with. You just don’t DO that kind of stuff on a Japanese bike. Or so the status quo sez.

    All I’m sayin’ is – from my perspective of doing a wire-spoke wheel swap on both my teenage Ex-Daughter’s “KZ440LOL” and my “CB900K0 Bol Bomber” – along with all of the other subtle mods & upgrades that go along with making it work – When I look at a lot of the most beloved bikes out there, they’ve already GOT the wire-spoke hubs on ’em, or the sexy body-work etc.To whit, the creative work has already been DONE in most cases!

    That being said, they’re still very beautiful.

    But can you really call this type of thing a “Budget Build”? A classic/vintage Guzzi is already out of most folks’ budget range in the first place, even a crappy beat-up clapped-out non-running version of which.

    You wanna talk about a transverse V-twin, shaft-drive motorcycle which folks are making some decent “BUDGET build” cafe racers from these days? It’s the CX500 – And I’m not even saying that ’cause I’m so partial to the Honda brand. But rather, ’cause they’re such a cheap bike in the first place.

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