How many vehicles (and products) claim to be from one country only to be built elsewhere (i.e., China)? A few years back in Taiwan, I found a swing arm for a Ducati manufactured there. It didn’t make the Ducati any less Italian, but my media colleague, who was Italian, was appalled. Ducati is also owned by the Volkswagen-Audi Group – a German company – gasp!
Italians are passionate about many things – art, food… and motorcycles. But the reality today is that it doesn’t matter as much where a vehicle is built; it’s the sum of its parts. Moto Morini is a perfect example of this. It is owned by Chinese motorcycle manufacturer Zhongneng Vehicle Group (ZNEN), yet it still claims to be an Italian brand as it was founded by Alfonso Morini in Italy in 1937. That was a challenging time in Italy and world history. However, it flourished through the trials and tribulations of Europe back then and became one of the first manufacturers to succeed in post-war Italy.
Today, Moto Morini boasts a legacy that has contributed to motorcycling around the globe (but mainly in Europe). While it is one of the oldest motorcycle brands in the world, it is also arguably one of the least-known brands, particularly in the U.S. However, Chris McGee, COO of Moto Morini USA, says where the brand sits today is the next evolution in its long history.
“Moto Morini contributed to the innovation of early motorcycling through those eras. From championship caliber Grand Prix racing, with the small displacement engines (250cc – 350cc), which in that era was the big boys,” says McGee.
“The incredible style, high quality, and innovation are really the hallmarks of Moto Morini,” he remarks. “It always has been and always will be. But the brand, like many brands in the motorcycle industry, has gone through several incarnations and ownership groups over the years.”
McGee notes that Moto Morin’s story is like many other brands in the industry that have changed ownership groups, including icons such as Indian Motorcycles and Harley-Davidson. “Many manufacturers have had the same trajectory. Some have failed, and some have flourished. After Alfonso’s death, the company was still run by the family. It was owned by Ducati at one point and bought back by the family (e.g., Harley-Davidson),” he explains.
The brand was always about evolution, according to McGee, who says it never really disappeared. “Moto Marini here in the U.S. looked very different than in Europe. It was brought here in the mid-to-late ’60s via different importers. In other words, it wasn’t a factory effort. One importer tried to bring them to the U.S., and it didn’t work out, and another importer took over.” McGee says that’s why there were different models and not a consistent model range in the U.S. compared to Europe. “It was a very European-focused brand.”
According to McGee, one of the most popular forays into the U.S. market happened in the early ’60s, with the Mini Bambino. It was a little bike that was private-labeled as an Indian. “I think the first three or four years of those were made by Moto Morini. After that, Italiajet picked them up. But my first motorcycle was a Moto Morini Mini Bambino that I got when I was three years old!”
While the brand is less familiar in North America, it has been continually manufactured in Europe for decades until recently. The entire company was purchased in 2018 by ZNEN, whose factory is about 250 miles south of Shanghai. ZNEN is a prominent manufacturer of scooters and small-displacement motorcycles. McGee notes it was “perfect timing” for Moto Morini to be acquired.
Moto Morini Italy was at a point of wanting (or needing) to evolve when the merger opportunity came about. “It was a purchase,” says McGee, “But it really feels more like a merger because it infused the company with capital and the highest standard tier-one OEM manufacturing capabilities on the planet. It was the best-case scenario where the bulk of the manufacturing could now be done at our proprietarily owned, state-of-the-art, fully automated manufacturing facility used for tier-one manufacturing. ZNEN is also contracted to manufacture other brands (which are confidential, of course). It was the perfect opportunity for ZNEN to invest in a legacy motorcycle brand on a vertical (growth) path.”
Moto Morini’s Italian heritage is legit, despite some keyboard critics. Its design, development, and engineering offices are located in Milan. And McGee claims there’s zero influence from the home office (in China). “This is truly an Italian ground-up initiative. All the styling, all the innovation, all the high-quality components, parts, everything are done in a state-of-the-art design studio in Milan; you’ve got Gucci up the road and Ferrari down the road. It’s a wonderful environment where we’ve got everything from pencil and paper to the highest quality computer modeling, 3D printing, and clay modeling. We do all that in-house with all of these resources available to get to the end result: a purely designed, world-class Italian motorcycle.”
When Moto Morini Italy delivers the finished prototype to ZNEN, it has all the right components and all the graphics, and then those pieces and parts go into manufacturing. “It’s a great partnership because Moto Morini Italy works, I don’t want to say autonomously, but it’s absolutely in control of all the development and engineering, all the styling and everything,” McGee explains. “We own all the design studios and have the best engineers and designers in Italy. And we have the best tier-one OEM manufacturing facility in China.”
McGee says the U.S. market is very much part of Moto Morini’s global development. “We believe the U.S. market will probably end up being the largest segment for us, as it is with others. The bikes were in dealer stores in Europe for a year or two prior to coming to the U.S. They are well-engineered and designed bikes with the best components from around the world, whether it’s Bosch electronics or Brembo brakes or Marzocchi forks. We’ve got good stuff.”
Even though the brand debuted at AIMExpo last February, the bikes began shipping to dealers in April/May. “We’re still in our infancy here in the States,” McGee adds. “But Moto Morini is very much on a global vertical trajectory. The bikes have been very well received by the dealers because of their Italian styling, quality components, and great performance. But we’re also delivering to the dealers some of the highest margins in the industry.”
McGee says it’s an excellent opportunity for American dealers to come into the fold. “If they’re existing European brand dealers, or they’re a big four (Japanese) multi-line dealer, this is the perfect opportunity for dealers to access an Italian legacy brand that’s been part of the motorcycle industry since 1937.”
Moto Morini will also embark on a full-scale demo tour throughout 2024. “We’re going to do a demo tour with our dealers,” says McGee. “We’re currently working with our dealers on dates. We’ll have a demo tour schedule on our website (MotoMoriniUSA.com). It’s a huge initiative of ours to be a part of the process with our dealer partners with the demo tours that we bring to the dealership. We will continue to innovate as Moto Morini does and deliver that same great Italian design, delivering the same value to the customer and the dealer in a portfolio of motorcycles with different displacements.” And this was before the big announcements at EICMA, where the company rolled out several new bikes for 2024.
McGee assures us that Moto Morini’s investment in the U.S. is long-term. “We went into our compliance standards properly and aggressively, so we know we’ve got sustainability. And that’s really the key component. The brand will continue to evolve, and we will continue to offer dealers more exciting models. Consumers of all types will find a motivating model to which they’ll have a great time riding.”
McGee concludes: “We are fully invested in the American market by being here with a factory-backed effort. All our bikes are here, and we’re shipping all models. We have plenty of parts in stock to support dealers, and we have an enriched dealer portal that is easy to operate, where they can do all their ordering online and see all their parts.”
Moto Morini is proving that a brand is more than the sum of its parts. It can have the heart and soul of an Italian, be built to high standards in Asia, and find a path to success in America.