A friend of mine, Bob Hovey, has a great site (www.bhovey.com/Masi/index.html) that contains several very interesting and useful articles about MASI bicycles. The following article (last updated 2006), and photographs above, are used by permission.
Italian or American?
This should be such an easy question, but it isn't...
Let's begin by asking a another question: If an Italian builder moves to the US, begins producing his Italian bike design and outfits it with all-Italian components (except for a set of American Hunt-Wilde handlebar plugs), is it Italian or American? Let's ask another question: If the tubes are brazed in Italy and the frame is imported into the USA unpainted, then it is numbered, painted, decaled, built up and sold by Masi USA, is it an Italian bike or an American one?
Whether a bike is an Italian or an American Masi is a more complex matter than knowing the country where the frame was brazed. Most often, the guiding factor is the nationality of the parent company that is selling the frame. For example, Masi USA had several models built in Italy under subcontract (not by Alberto Masi), and while that might appear to make them American bikes in name only, anyone familiar with Alberto's work would certainly deny that these bikes are Italian Masis. So what are they? These days, we seem to be able to accept the idea of US and European branded bikes built in Taiwan or China, but back in the days of lugged steel it was not an unreasonable assumption that a bike would be built in the country of origin. Masi may have been one of the first well-known instances where this was not to be so and even today the matter causes much confusion.
Perhaps we should begin with the easy cases. If you own a Masi from 1972 or earlier (this would be an early Gran Criterium, Masi Special strada or pista, or a Masi Speciale Corsa) then it is Italian, end of story. If you like Masi bikes and the whole mystique of Faliero "The Tailor" Masi and the tiny shop under the Vigorelli, and you are annoyed by any trace of ambiguity, then these are the bikes for you (OK, so some of the Gran Criteriums were subcontracted to other builders, but they were all Italian and from shops in northern Italy where Faliero could keep an eye on production quality).
In 1973, Masi production began in the US, first under the guidance of Faliero Masi, later under Mario Confente. These bikes began as nearly identical reproductions of the Italian twin-plate Gran Criteriums that were being produced in Italy at the time, but while the Italian models only have a frame size stamped on the bottom bracket (with a one or two letter prefix) and perhaps a matching size stamp and date stamp on the steering tube, the US Masis were serial numbered with only a small handful of exceptions. So here's another easy case: If you find yourself in possession of a Gran Criterium with both a frame size stamp (prefix A, MC, SMC or M) and a serial number, then it is a US-built Masi. The serial number could be two, three or four digits or four digits with an A-D prefix. For more specific information on Masi USA serial numbers, go here.
The third easy case is that of the Masi Prestige. This one is all-Italian. No argument there. The Prestige was Alberto Masi's baby, and was not legally sold in the US (except by rare special order thru High Country Imports for a very few years in the 80's). We should note here that Alberto did market a few of his own bikes (mostly Prestiges and 3V's) in the US under the "Milano" name, a practice that still continues. Probably identical to their Italian counterparts, the Masi name was often not seen anywhere on the bike, not even Alberto's small signature on the top tube.
Another easy call: If your bike is a Team 3V, it is American. But not necessarily American built... it may have been built elsewhere under subcontract (probably by Billato or Mondonico), but it is considered a US bike.
The same goes for the Gran Corsa and Nuova Strada... they were US bikes, but were never built here. They were built in Italy (again, probably by Billato or Mondonico), imported as bare frames, then numbered, painted and decaled here by Jim Allen.
Finally, if it is a Gran Criterium built after 1978, it is American (many people are under the impression that the Italian Gran Criterium was quickly phased out following the introduction of the Prestige in 1974, but they were actually built in limited numbers and sold in Europe until at least 1978). Again, the American Gran Criterium's origin will be confirmed by a four digit (or four digit with an A-D prefix) serial number, in addition to the frame size stamp.
After 1974, most Italian Masi Prestiges, Gran Criteriums and 3V's had two or three digit date codes (two digit year followed by one or two digit month). Some time in the 90's I believe the year and month were reversed and sometimes a day was added as well (so in this case the date code might contain as many as six digits). These date codes are usually recognizable because they were done with a smaller size stamp than the frame size stamp. Some 80's Italian bikes, mostly 3V's, do occasionally turn up with serial numbers. They are usually three digits and are in the larger sized stamp that was used to stamp the frame size. These bikes are immediately recognizable as they are about the only Masis with three sets of numbers. There is one other instance of a third number appearing on Italian Masis, most often one, but occasionally two digits. This stamp is said to be a repaint number, applied when one took the frame back to Alberto for a respray. The number is usually located on the lower drive side chainstay tang of the bottom bracket, but once in a while it is seen on the BB shell itself below the date code or frame size stamps.
The 3V (Tre Volumetrica) began as Alberto's design and the first ones were probably built at the Vigorelli until sales began to outpace the capabilities of the small shop, at which time production probably moved to (or was augmented by) one or more subcontrators. The bike's growing popularity began to be felt in the US as well, but Alberto was still bound by the agreement that his father had made in 1973 (that Masi USA would retain all rights to the Masi name). But here was a bike design that was popular enough to potentially heal the rift, or to at least open the door to allow Alberto's bikes back into the US. Around 1983 or 1984, Alberto and Masi Worldwide struck a deal to allow the 3V to be sold in America. It is these mid-'80's 3V's that are probably the hardest to differentiate as being American or Italian. Sometimes there will be red, white and blue banner stripes (or US flag banner) on the seat tube (see the seat tube page of "Masi Bits") but the earliest bikes sold by Masi USA in the mid 80's looked exactly like the Italian ones. That's because at this point in Masi USA's sales agreement with Alberto, these were the same bikes from the same builder and had the same paint (often a pearl or opalescent topcoat) and decals. It is these 3V's that stretch our basic premise (that the nationality of the bike is considered to be that of the company selling it) to the breaking point... here we have two bikes, one (supposedly) American and one Italian, that are for all practical purposes identical with no real way to tell them apart. Any reasonable person would consider both bikes Italian, but some might argue that technically (or legally) they were different products.
Around 1987, 3V production began in the US and these 3V's are more easily recognized by Jim Allen's Imron paint and the Campagnolo dropouts (the Italian 3V dropouts were proprietary and socketed, like the lugs) as well as the Henry James crown. Alberto's 3V's and the earlier US-marketed 3V's had Alberto's slot-shouldered crown.
By the mid 90's most of the American 3V, Team 3V and Gran Criterium production went to Italian subcontractors (though a few custom orders continued to be built here, probably by Ted Kirkbride) so as with the Gran Corsa and Nuova Strada, we have a case of Italian frames that were sold as American. Some of the Team 3V's were painted in Italy with a few basic colors, but the greater majority of these frames were painted and decaled here by Jim Allen.
A recent appearance of Alberto's Italian Masi in the US is the model Nuovo Prestige. This bike is brazed in Italy (with Richard Sachs' Richie-issimo lugs and a Duomo symbol on the fork crown flats), and imported painted or unpainted. They've been spotted here with "Alberto Masi" downtube decals and a "3V" head tube and seat tube badge (3V in this case refers not to the bike model but a more generic reference: "La Vera Volumetrica del Vigorelli," meaning "The true Volumetrica from the Vigorelli."
These days, it is probably easier than ever to distinguish the American Masis from the Italian ones. Their logos and graphics are completely different and Alberto does not seem to be a big fan of sloping top tubes which the American bikes use almost exclusively. As for where these new Italian and American Masis are actually built... well, we'll leave that for another day.
Photos: a few of the Masi headbadge photos in Bob's collection, see http://bhovey.com/Masi/MasiBits/Head.htm
Search within blog for "Masi" for more photos and stories. Stories, including cycling trip stories, for the Italian Cycling Journal welcome; contact firstname.lastname@example.org