SWM is one of those companies that, if you're of a cetain age, will stir vague echos in the deep recesses of your memory. If you do well you may remember that they were big in the seventies. If you do very well, you may remember that one Martin Lampkin (father of Dougie) rode an SWM to a World Championship in Trials in the early eighties. You may also remember that the company, like so many other well established but perhaps slightly niche manufacturers, vanished with barely a ripple in the mid eighties as attitudes toward bikes, biking and independent compnies all hardened.
Like many of those companies, SWM has reappeared recently with a massive injection of money form the Far East. But with one criticsl difference. While many of the resurgent brands are exercises in badge engineering at best, all being made in factories local to their new owners, with virtually no input from anyone associated with the original brand and with engines and frames sourced from a local parts bin of licence-built Japanese engines and modular identikit rolling chassis, SWM are funded by a company who wants them to do what they do well. And lets them do it.
So with a vast injection of cash, SWM acquired, and overhauled, the old Husqvarna factory near Varese in Italy. Not only that, but they also acquired the rights to use Husqvarna engines, and apparently acquired a fair chunk of their local know-how too. All perfectly fair as historically there had been links between the two companies in the past.
But what happened next was actually a bit special. There was a fantastic opportunity to produce something cheap and mediocre, trading on a highly pulicised history and just becoming another cheap far Eastern manufacturer using a popular European brand to shift units. SWM didn't do that. Instead they took stock, looked at what they had to work with and diligently set about improving it. Sometimes that meant using components from outside, sometimers it meant improving and refining in-house items and sometimes it meant designing and negineering new stuff from scratch. Drawing on the experience and heritage of the team they'd recruited, SWM set about making a new generation of Italian motorcycles with the reliability and build quality that we have a right to expect in the twenty-first century.
And you know what? They did a pretty damn' good job of it.
I recently had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in the company of two of their current models, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The two bikes I got to try are about as different as you could possibly get in every way, one being a very new 500cc supermoto, the other being an older 440cc cafe racer. We'll look at the Supermoto elsewhere...
The SWM Gran Milano 440, to give the bike its full name, is one of the first models released by the company after their relaunch. As such, it preceded the updated Husqvarna engine, and instead is powered by a derivation of the Honda XBR500 motor. In this case it has the 500 bottom end married to a 440cc barrel, with air and oil cooling. The result is a surprisingly free-revving, massively understressed motor. Ultra-modern fuel injection takes care of the inlet side, while the exhausts are a neatly siamesed pair of high level pipes which are just noisy enough. Styling is sharp and personally I think it looks great though I accept that you may not. It is absolutely tiny. Build quality is exemplary, with neat welds and a reassuring amount of metal insteadof plastic. Paint is thick and the engine cases are lacquered nicely, always a good sign as a lot of manufacturers don't bother. Stylistically, the front is reminiscent of an early eighties naked sportsbike. Think of a tricked-up LC Yamaha with clip-ons and rearsets but no fairing and you're on the right lines. The twin clocks add to the effect and it looks great. The side profile gives you a classic cafe racer look...with a modern twist. The dropped bars and neat single seat unit are pure cafe racer, while the scuplted tank is ultra-modern. Looks are subjective. I like it but several people I spoke with vigorously didn't. From behind, the twin upswept exhausts give a classic accent to the very modern triangular LED rear light. The forks are substantial upside-down units while the rear is suspended by a single remote reservoir shock. There is plenty of adjustment at each end. Braking is handled by a massive single disc at the front, gripped by a meaty radial caliper, while the rear is also a single disc. Whells are spoked and ooze quality. Tyres as standard are Pirelli Scorpion Rally - chunky, almost balloon-like, and grip well despite their almost off road tread pattern. Personally I found them a slightly strange choice as their profile made the steering a little too slow and slightly remote. I would probably pop a pair of Supermoto road legal wets on, and then just have a hoot.
Talking about having a hoot, how about we go for a ride? Hop on the Gran Milano and the lack of size becomes even more apparent. I'm no man mountain, but I could get both feet flat on the floor with my knees comfortably bent. It's very light, but manages the seemingly impossible trick of being tiny but seeming to gain size as you ride away - there's no way that anyone of reasonably normal proportions could complain about being cramped, that's for sure.
The motor starts firet press of the button, settling into a fast but smooth tickover almost immediately. Blipping the throttle at standstill reveals a pleasantly sharp response as well as showing that, while not in any way noisy, the Gran Milano certainly has a bit of a bark. Not too much of one, but a bit nonetheless.
Pulling away is a straightforward business. The clutch is light and sensitive, and the gearbox is positive. It's not, I have to say, the slickest box ever created, but it's far from obstructive and this one is also a bit tight because it has so few miles on the clock. I wasn't expecting the acceleration to be as good as it is. It's obviously not a superbike, but it's far from gutless and throttle response is surprisingly good. Off the line it's plenty quick enough for all but the most dedicated traffic light GPs, and once rolling there's definitely plenty on tap up to a nice cruising speed. At no point did I find myself bemoaning the lack of power or considering the performance to be in any way lacklustre, depsite spending most of my time more recently on something with around five times the claimed 30bhp of the Gran Milano. It's all about delivery, you see.
The Gran Milano, like any single cylinder engine, is more about torque than revs. The gear ratios are well matched, and as a result it's very easy to keep the revs around the sweet spot where throttle response is bang on and the torque curve is fattest. These two points may just be related. Add the eager motor to a chassis that is a delight around town and even more so on the open road and the picture is rosy. Handling is on the nimble side of stable - plenty predictable enough but still agile enough for quick lane changes, filtering and so on. Out of town that ttanslates into a bike that is exceptionally easy to tip into corners but remains stable and planted. I stand by my earlier comments though - some sharper profiled tyres would make the handling quicker and even m ore sporty. As it stands, the Gran Mialno, for all its diminutive stature, is very reminiscent of an early Desmo Ducati in that it is super stable and perversely easy to turn both at once.
Despite the appearance of low bars, the reality is a comfortable riding position which doesn't put too much weight on the wrists. The sculpted seat is almost cosseting, and the cutouts in the tank fit someone of my sort of size (absoutely average) perfectly. It's possible to move around enough for spirited riding, though the Gran Milano didin't seem to care if I climbed all over it or just dropped a shoulder as far as handling was concerned. I never approached the limit of any ground clearance, though I suspect my knee would have touched had I been hanging off. Obviously a naked bike is never going to be a fantastic place to be at very high speeds, but up to around the ton it was just fine. High speed stability seemed OK, and the kicked up seat back allied to the low-ish front end meant that I didn't need a death grip oin the bars, which no doubt aided stability further.
Brakes and suspension, often a weak area on bikes at the less expensive end of the market, are both excellent. With what looks exactly like a 1980s Brembo Goldline caliper gripping the large front disc, the good braking should be no surprise. Though unlike the Brembos of yore, this setup gives stacks of power and actually has some feel and sensitivity as well. Brakes on 1980s Ducatis and the like had the finesse of hittiong an unlit skip. I don't know if it's the improvement in friction materials or the design of modern master clylinders, but these are way, way better. Suspension is far better than it has any right to be as well, with plenty of adjustment at each end should you feel the need. Though for my slightly above average weight the out of the box setup was pretty much perfect.
So we've got a sweet handling, well mannered comfortable and sylish bike with a pretty decent performance that is still legal for an A2 licence holder, It's got decent quality suspension and brakes, and feels well screwed together. Indeed, Inta Bikes in Maidstone, who are the local SWM dealer, have yet to have one come in for anything other than routine maintenance, which says something in itself. And the price? Beleive it or not, with current offers from SWM, you can pick up a new Gran Milano for just £3799. Which is quite astonishing value. Honestly, If I didn't need to cover the sort of distances I do then this would be a serious contender as my road bike. Because I bloody love it.
There's a video from SWM here which you may like. Or hate. But at least it shows the bike in action.
Thanks as always to Inta Bikes in Maidstone for their demonstrator. They are the main SWM dealer for the South East of England and probably the best in the country for advice and information. You can reach them on 01622 688727