The original 1970s MV Agusta ‘4’ is legendary for its beautiful lines, and collectors scrabble when they come up for sale.  To dare approach Count Domenica Agusta’s glamourous baby, intent on customization, is almost unheard of. In modifying a ca.1974 MV Agusta 750S, Shinya Kimura has kept the chassis intact, to the point of retaining the Count’s ‘you’ll never race this’ shaft drive, the first item every MV hotrodder in history has ditched.  Why?  ‘I really like the radial fins on the final drive, it’s very pretty’.  His attitude fits his self-described role as a coachbuilder; respect your chosen chassis, but clothe it in a bespoke suit.  MV fours, though expensive and coveted, are hardly rare, and plenty have been racerized by the likes of Arturo Magni and Albert Bold.  None look like the naked aluminum creature in these photos.

Shining like a diamond in the grit of a forge; Shinya Kimura’s masterpiece of coachbuilding

Shinya didn’t study Motorcycle 101 at university, he was an insect man, with a degree in entomology.  The bug world bears eerie parallels with bike design, as a hard, shapely, and functional carapace protects the vulnerable moving parts of a mobile creature.  Insect shapes aren’t clean or uniform; when magnified, their antennae, legs, and heads are exotically imperfect and frighteningly alien.  Because humans have a bony structure on the inside, we need protection while riding – helmets and body armor, just like our insect cousins.  While never outright mimicking critter shapes, Shinya’s work has a similarly alien beauty, clearly influenced by his years peering into a microscope.  What sets him apart from makers of horrid Skeleto-bikes or Gigercycles is restraint; while his hand-wrought shapes (he prefers a hammer to an English wheel) are exotic and unique, they stay inside the lines as recognizable motorcycle parts.  That’s the tank, there’s the seat, up front is a fairing, those are side panels; if you unfocus your eyes, the silhouette is pure café racer, but open your eyes, and you’ll wonder, just which café we talkin’ about?

Before taking the MV for a blast up San Gabriel Canyon Road, Shinya mentioned it had ‘never been really ridden’ by a member of the press, they’d all done short spins around the block, fearful of marring those stunning alloy panels.  Clearly, he expected me to cane the animal, and I would comply, once comfortable with its quirks.  That took surprisingly longer than I expected; the last four-cylinder bike I’d ridden was a BMW S1000RR, an object of immense power and modern ultra-competence, ridiculously fast yet kitten-docile.  The MV chassis and beating heart are 1950s high tech, swelled to ‘70s avoirdupois and hard suspension.  Despite Shinya’s lightweight bodywork, the 750S breaks the bathroom scale at over 540lbs, and the upper-cylinder complexity of that gear-driven DOHC engine mean the center-of-gravity cross-hairs aim right at your knees.

With stock power output about 66hp at a modest (today) 8000rpm, that kind of weight won’t be setting quarter-mile records.  If the MV is to be ridden quickly, you need to employ the old single-cylinder racing trick of ‘maintaining momentum’, ie, fast into corners, hard over, don’t brake unless you’ve seriously underestimated the turn…or overestimated your gumption.  Easy on a 350lb hotrod Velocette Thruxton, not so natural on a quarter-ton Latin legend with masterpiece bodywork.  

Firing up the MV is easy with its electric boot, although the starter mechanism, and subsequent whirring racket from the engine, make noises we don’t hear out of bikes anymore.  Fifties GP technology means straight-cut gear-driven twin camshafts with wide valve clearances; the whole spinning, meshing, and lashing machinery resonates through massive aluminum castings, with a high note of air-sucking open carbs and those lovely curved Arturo Magni pipes barking a macho basso profundo.

Shinya’s Chabott Engineering test track is conveniently located just out the back door; past a few blocks of SoCal suburbs and you’re into god’s playground, a big canyon winding upwards to Crystal Lake and Angeles Crest Highway.  There’s little traffic, and after Shinya herds me in the right direction, we swap positions; it’s time to see how Count Agusta’s creation feels in proper terrain.   I’ve got every kind of machinery under my belt or in my garage, and I’m as easy on a 1915 Harley as a 2012 Diavel, but it takes time to figure out the MV.  I bypassed the four-cylinder craze of the 70s and 80s, so never learned to throw top-heavy flying bricks around swervery, but as miles and a few awkward corners pass, I begin to understand the MV’s dialect.  There’s a sweet spot around 4200rpm, when the power comes up quickly, the engine smooths out (yes, it vibrates a bit), and begins to sing a melodious, deep-throated aria.  Ok, so the fat boy can sing, but can he dance?  

Keeping up corner speed on a bike whose physics would prefer to blast straight through the Armco is a matter of Will.  Not just ‘will it or won’t it’, because it most assuredly tracks true when cranked over, with no attitude changes on a varying throttle hand.  It’s rock solid, but getting that rock to roll over is a mind game, and the MV won’t suffer willy-nilly riders… any hesitation in corners screams ‘wimp aboard!’   That’s a painful sight; a careful MV rider looking utterly foolish, like some gawky nebbish with Sophia Loren on Dancing with the Stars.  It takes willpower, decisiveness, and a bit of force to get the best from the beast, and probably more physical effort than you’ve ever needed for a sports bike (unless you own a ‘70s Laverda).

The reward, once you sort out who’s boss, is a beautifully smooth, almost lyrical, luke-hot canyon ride.  With enough bottle (and forgetting you’re on a unique work of art), the MV can be cranked right over with the throttle open, and rocked to the opposite sidewall smoothly before the next corner, with grace and little effort, once you find the sweet spot in both power and weight slinging.  Just stay off the brakes, as it takes a while for the mighty MV to build up speed.  When needed, that big 4-leading shoe Yamaha TZ brake doesn’t grab, and quickly throws out anchors to stop the big boat.  I never noticed any ‘shaft drive’ torque effects as one might on a hard-driven BMW, probably due to the transverse power plant and lack of mass rotating around the direction of travel – there’s just the mass of the bevel gears and shaft, a mere breeze against this brick house.  The period-correct Ceriani road race forks aren’t as hard as we used to think best ‘in the day’ (I once even tried 20-50W in mine!), and the Marzocchi shocks never announced themselves; overall it was a solid but not jarring ride, all fillings and kidneys intact after 50 fast miles on the eternally maintenance-deferred Cali backroads.

To be honest I could ride rings around this gorgeous fattie on a hot Norton Commando, but the Count didn’t make his roadsters anything like his GP bikes, which dominated the World Championships from the 50s thru 70s.  He so loved his begotten racers that MV race-neutered their road bikes with high weight, large capacity, and shaft drive; no way were his customers going to compete on the track with the factory team!  But the MV is a thoroughbred, and can be hammered through canyonland as fast as you dare.

The Chabott Engineering MV Agusta exists in its own universe, a stunning mashup of Shinya Kimura’s brilliant artistry and Count Agusta’s nearer-to-thee-oh-lord engine. In the automotive world, the best ‘coachbuilders’ – Pininfarina or Saoutchik or Fleetwood – are hailed as megabuck masterpieces, but lop two wheels off, and the best of the best will rarely fetch six figures. Fifteen years after the ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ exhibit hit the Guggenheim in NYC, and mere weeks after the death of art critic Robert Hughes, who championed custom motorcycles in Time magazine as pure expressions of ‘folk art’, bikes still occupy the lowliest of spots in the highbrow world of art collecting.  The finest hand-built expressions of two-wheeled genius metaphorically languish in the parking lot.  There’s never been a major museum show of hand-built motorcycles, but when it comes, Shinya Kimura will be crowned one of the finest moto-artisans of all time.  Best of all, these are Rembrandts you can Ride.