Top ten pant-dropping Italian exotics

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ITALIAN BIKE firms have pulled off a clever marketing trick; somehow their country of origin automatically graces them with a base level of exoticism that’s already several steps above machines made in other countries.

But even among the already rarefied ranks of Italian exotics there are certain machines that stand out as being head-turning.

While it’s impossible to quantify exactly what ingredients are needed to qualify a bike as ‘exotic’ it’s clear that some carry that magic ingredient at higher levels than others. These are the ones we reckon have it in spades…

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10: Benelli Tornado LE

The Benelli Tornado is one of those bikes that promised so much that it was never likely to meet expectations. Emerging in the late 90s, the reborn Benelli brand came hot on the heels of MV Agusta’s revival with the F4, so perhaps it was the success of that machine that put everyone’s hopes so high.

Not only did the Tornado look spectacular (those under seat fans are still an unparalleled element) courtesy of British designer Adrian Morton, but the initial ‘LE’ version carried enviable specs; carbon everything, top-end suspension and brakes, lightweight wheels and that unusual three-cylinder engine. Its price was also jaw-dropping at over £20k (it seemed a lot at the turn of the millennium).

Typically, the reality was a disappointment – electrical gremlins, injection mapping problems and a lack of dealer support meant owners were in for a rough time. Later Tornados were better and much, much cheaper, but even then never threatened the top of the class in terms of performance or handling. However, the LE’s specs, styling and the sheer anticipation that grew around it prior to launch mean it’s a gold-clad exotic, whatever your definition of the word.

9: Moto Guzzi MGS-01

If this was a top10 list of forgotten motorcycles, the MGS-01 might well be in there as well. It was a bit of an oddball from day one, and its slow development and minuscule production run meant that it was almost forgotten before it even became available.

But it remains an exotic purely for the fact that it’s such a weird bike for Moto Guzzi to have made; the firm has never really tried to compete with modern superbikes, and so its decision to shoehorn a tuned version of its shaft-drive V-twin into a sports bike was a strange one.

In terms of power, performance or handling there are dozens of better alternatives, and if you’re dead-set on a sporty Guzzi, a special from the likes of Ghezzi & Brian (which actually did much of the MGS-01’s development) is probably going to be easier to get hold of. But the MGS-01 is the real deal, made and approved by the Guzzi factory, so makes it onto this list.

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Ducati Panigale V4 tamed

8: Mondial Piega

Another bike that’s probably slipped from most people’s memory, the Mondial Piega briefly made headlines back in 2002 when it first appeared. The Piega was built around the engine from Honda’s then-dominant VTR1000SP-1 – gained through a strange deal that was payback for a favour Mondial did for Honda back in the 1950s – and used a Ducati-style trellis frame.

The plan was to enter WorldSBK with the hope that the combination would be a winning one. It wasn’t, of course, but the road-going Piega was a good-looking, sharp-handling machine with reliable Japanese power, even if limited production, sky-high pricing and a lack of dealers meant that few were ever sold. Exotic? Definitely.

7: Bimota Tesi

We’re fast establishing here that ‘exotic’ is by no means synonymous with ‘good’. No, rarity, styling and sometimes pure weirdness are also keys to gaining the ‘exotic’ tag. And the Bimota Tesi scores on all those fronts.

Made in tiny numbers, but over a surprisingly long time and with a variety of styles and specs, any Tesi is exotic purely for Bimota’s dedication to the concept of hub-centre steering, which also endows all versions of the bike with attention-grabbing looks and a level of mechanical intrigue that few other two-wheelers can match. Again, you don’t buy a Tesi to gain a tangible advantage over other bikes, but for the enjoyment of having something so wilfully different.

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6: Ducati Supermono

Of course you’ll find Ducatis on this list. But the first isn’t a V-twin or even a V4, but the last single-cylinder machine to come from the firm. The Supermono is almost mystical thanks to its rarity – only 65 were made – and the fact it’s got a unique engine that’s derived from the company’s V-twin, with a balancer weight replacing the rear piston to make it smoother than a 549cc (later 572cc) single has any right to be.

Very much hand-built from 1993-1997, the Supermono’s styling was the work of Pierre Terblanche, with a shape that would later be influence his 900SS redesign. Even the 999 and first-generation Multistrada – both Terblanche machines – have elements of Supermono in their shapes.

5: Bimota Vdue

Remember that we said exotic doesn’t mean the same as good? Never has that been more true than in the case of the Bimota Vdue. The ambitious direct-injected two-stroke V-twin was supposed to be the machine that proved strokers could be both powerful and clean-running, breathing new life into the format just as other companies were deserting it.

Instead it hammered the last nails into the two-stroke coffin by being unreliable and all but unrideable even when it was working. Could it ever have worked? Maybe, with the right development, but the Vdue’s exotic status is sealed in part by its very position as a glorious failure.

Most bikes were bought back from their original owners by Bimota, bankrupting the company in the process, but they later filtered back on to the market – for a brief time you could have bought one for a fraction of their original list price, and it would have proved a canny investment, since they command strong money now.

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4: Ducati MH900e

Pierre Terblanche caught a lot of flak during his time at Ducati; after all, he had to fill the shoes of Massimo Tamburini and was charged with designing a replacement for the 916, which was always going to be a poisoned chalice. But the MH900e that he penned back in 1998 stands out even 20 years later as a prophetic prediction of the rise in retro bike popularity.

In fact, it’s far from being retro – its cues might come from the past, but the shapes and proportions stand out even today as a resounding styling success. What was supposed to be a one-off commemoration of Mike Hailwood’s 1978 TT win was ushered into limited production in 2000. Eventually 2000 were made, and the original concept’s styling was faithfully retained.

The MH900e also broke ground in commercial terms, since it was sold exclusively through the internet – the first bike to have been marketed like that, and a system that’s been copied for endless limited-editions since. These days you’ll still need to spend the thick end of £20k to get one.

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3: MV Agusta F4 Serie Oro

We had to have an MV Agusta here, but picking through the endless limited-edition machines that have peppered the firm’s history – particularly since its rebirth under Claudio Castiglioni – is a mammoth task. While there are plenty of exotic F4s – the 312, for instance, or perhaps the Senna or F4 1000CC, named after Castiglioni himself – we’ve picked the F4 Serie Oro as the most exotic of the lot.

Built as the introduction to the then-new, 750cc F4 back in 1999, the Serie Oro was limited to 300 bikes and combined the classic red/silver colour scheme with a host of gold-coloured magnesium parts to cut down weight. Later MVs might be fast, rarer or even more expensive, but the Serie Oro was the machine that kicked off the whole MV rebirth, and hence gets our nod.

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Ducati Panigale V4 review | Visordown test

2: Ducati Superleggera

Whether it’s the magnesium-framed 1199 version or the all-carbon 1299 that followed it, the Panigale-based Ducati Superleggera machines have been the most desirable Ducatis in recent years, offering insane power-to-weight ratios thanks to innovative materials and construction combined with the ultimate evolution of the firm’s V-twin engine. While Ducati is sure to create even more spectacular bikes around its new V4 motor, the V-twin format remains synonymous with the company, so the most advanced two-cylinder that it ever made is an undeniable exotic. Add in the £70k price tag and limited production of the Superleggera and it ticks every box.

1: Ducati Desmosedici RR

The new Ducati Panigale V4 has already got rave reviews and objectively must be categorised as the ‘best’ superbike Ducati has ever made. But the Desmosedici RR has the edge over it when it comes to exotic status. While other companies offered MotoGP replica paint schemes on their mass-made superbikes, Ducati went straight ahead and bolted lights and mirrors to a machine that was basically a detuned version of its real racer. At the time, its £40k price tag seemed high, but in light of later machines – the Superleggera, for instance, or Honda’s insanely expensive RC213V-S MotoGP rep – the Desmosedici RR even looks like a bargain. Prices are rising fast now, though.

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