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Arguably the best European bike of the 70s
6 years apart in build date....but lightyears in design
brakes to match the engine at last
Morini 350 Sport
Built: 1976
Originally built as an Italian market Strada touring model with higher bars and a flat seat, this machine arrived in the UK in 1994 and was "Sportized" by the late and legendary Phil Smith. Although the history that came with the bike goes back a fair way, it doesn't give a lot of clues to the condition or earlier history of the bike in Italy. However, on arrival in the UK, the bike seems to have been given a full restoration by Phil, with a refinished frame indicating that a full strip down took place. Although I've not taken the engine apart to see if the softer profile Strada cams were replaced with lumpier Sports cams, the rest of the bike was certainly given a through reworking and working on it recently has shown that there are none of the stripped threads and butchered fasteners normally found on 30-year old machinery. The bike was rewired and indicators (off a Yamaha DT175MX) were fitted, looking very much at home. All the alloy fittings were stripped back to bare metal and polished and the bike was fitted with a pair of adjustable Tomaselli clip-ons and a set of neat rear sets of Phil's own design. The performance 2-1 exhaust (a period 70s item made by a Californian tuning shop going by the unlikely name of Ricky Racer) was probably also fitted while this work was going on. The bike was finished off with a Sport bum-stop seat and a version of the colour scheme used by the earlier drum-braked Morini Sport, although using a much darker burgundy red than the bright tomato red favoured by Morini. The bike must have looked great when it finally rolled out of Phil's shop in Croydon.

The bike spent the next few years based in South London, until the owner moved up to Leicestershire. I acquired the bike in 2002 from the original owner who admitted that he'd neglected the bike of late and it had spent most of the last couple of years under a cover in his garden. Nevertheless, he was sorry to sell it and couldn't face watching me load it into the van for the journey back to South London. Morinis get you like that.

Although the bike looks much the same as when I bought it, it's had a lot of work done to it. As bought, it was in fair condition, but desperately need the front brake sorting out. On the test ride, pulling the lever in produced a scraping noise but no obvious reduction in speed, but luckily the rear brake is fairly powerful. Fitting new pads and bleeding the system out produced a degree of retardation, but also an unbearable screeching. So, girding my debit card, I completely rebuilt the front brake system, fitting a braided hose and a new disk as the original was scored. Yet more new pads went in and at last there was acceptable braking performance from the front end, though the bike feels a little underbraked, especially two up. A bike that can be ridden with such verve cries out for a really good front brake though and I wanted braking that was Good rather than Acceptable. I could have fitted a double disk from a later bike easily enough, and this was always an option on new bikes at the time but the single disk somehow looks more in keeping. The main problem with the standard set up is the standard master cylinder which is not a good match for the single disk (though fine for twin disks!) and replacing this with one from a Morini 250 goes a long way to increased lever feel without losing any braking performance. Sadly though the bike is afflicted with a front disk that keeps scoring, despite the entire braking systyem having been stripped and overhauled. The pads recommended for the standard disk are soft and tend to break up, possibly due to the better performing brake and so I've now fitted a floating disk (from a Ducati) which with EBC pads has transformed the braking performance. While on the subject of brakes, a cautionary tale: the piston in the Grimeca front master cylinder on the Morini is held in the bore purely by the limit to the travel of the front brake lever. Normally this isn't a problem, but if the lever pivot wears out of round or the tension on the lever is slack the master cylnder piston can move out of position and potentially jam the front brake. Something to be aware of.

After a few months, I discovered that new clip-ons were needed as the mounts of the originals had a hairline crack developing around the bar sockets. As taking the clip ons off means dropping the forks though the yokes, I also replaced the headlight mounts as the chrome had peeled. It seemed worth checking the entire front end over while this was going on, but the bearings all seemed fine so all that was really needed was the renewing of the fork oil and cleaning up the alloy and chrome fitting which had suffered while the bike had been inactive. The fork stanchions were in good condition, having been protected from the weather by fork gaiters, but these detracted from the skinny look of the bike and as it now lives in a heated garage I felt no unease in removing them. Autosol got most of the rust off other fittings, but a new instrument bezel was needed as the old one had rusted. As standard, the Morini Sport has a steering damper, but Phil Smith hadn't had fitted one as part of his restoration and Sportization work as the bike doesn't really need one. However I had a White Power unit on a shelf in the garage, so it seemed worth fitting, which meant getting the frame bracket. Morini used a common frame for both the Sport and Strada models, so the mounting holes on frame and lower yoke were in place making this an easy mod.

A few months on, and a smell of petrol in the garage and a discoloured patch on the side of the tank made it obvious that I had a leak. Scraping the paint back revealed no rust, to my relief and just a tiny pinhole in the metal which was enough to let the fuel seep under the paint. Much bodgery ensued over the next few months, but fuel is strong stuff and it defeated all my efforts with plastic metal, cold welds and resin-based glues. Over the winter of 2004, while the bike was off the road for some deeper restoration work, I had the tank repaired properly and repainted. While considering alternative paint schemes, I decided like the way it had looked so had the scheme reproduced using a slightly redder red - an Audi colour to be exact, albeit still a few shades deeper than the Morini shade. The pin striping was painted in place of the tacky stick-on stripes used on the previous paint job which had constantly enraged me by unpeeling.

The engine needed little attention with close on 48,000KM (30,000 miles) showing, but a new cam belt was fitted for peace of mind as the history didn't show any recent belt replacement. A full service was also undertaken and new clutch plates were fitted, along with a new final drive chain and sprockets. New rear shock absorbers of the "Dial-A-Ride" type were fitted and have proved to give a much more supple ride than the rather harsh original Marzocchis.

The loud 2-1 exhaust needed refurbishing as it hangs quite low and can scrape against curbs and the road surface if given enough encouragement. Stripping back the old exhaust paint revealed a strange layer of thick, dull silver plating that was in places peeling away from the mild steel underneath. This in turn had allowed some surface rust to get started but all in all the exhaust was in good order. Cleaning it down to bare metal revealed a couple of small holes that needed plating and the whole lot was given several coats of Spirex heat resistant paint. Finally the bike was taken to Sones Tyres of Croydon as the rear tyre had squared off and the unknown condition of the tubes was a concern. Peter, the tyre technician at Sones estimated the old tyres to be about 10 years old, and when told about the bike's provenance said that he had probably fitted them as Phil Smith had generally used Sones for his tyres. With the new rubber, the bike felt much more surefooted.

At 32 years old, this Morini is in fine fettle and ready for many years service. It's always a blast to ride and for an old bike, it's relatively reliable and easy to live with. The ulitimate classic bike? It gets my vote.