1974 Laverda 750 SFC
Claimed power: 75hp @ 7,500rpm
Top speed: 135mph (est.)
Engine: 744cc OHC air-cooled parallel twin
Weight (wet/est.): 420lb (191kg)
Fuel capacity: 6.6gal (25ltr)
Price then: $3,520
Price now: $40,000+
Rolling up the long rocky driveway to Scott Potter’s home in the Texas hill country, the barn cats and free-range chickens scurrying about look right at home in these rolling hills. What seem out of place are the four bright and shiny Laverdas parked at the end of the driveway.
There are more treasures in Scott’s workshop, including several Laverdas in various stages of restoration. One machine in particular stands out amongst its brethren, however, and it’s the reason for my visit: a bright orange, super rare 1974 Laverda 750 SFC production racer.
Ask someone to close their eyes and think of something orange and exhilarating and they might conjure up anything from a Lamborghini to a bottle of Fanta. A Laverda 750 SFC is not likely to come to mind, however. These Italian machines are so scarce that motorcycle enthusiasts rarely get to see one in the flesh. Once seen, however, they are hard to forget. Their bright orange livery is striking, their overall styling purposeful, and the snarling noise their parallel twin engine makes sends chills up the spine.
The Birth of the Parallel Twin
Moto Laverda was officially founded in October 1949, and the first batch of 75cc machines left the factory that fall. The 75cc Turismo and a bigger 100cc brother were not only huge commercial successes, but won many of the major Italian races of the time, including the Milano-Taranto. They were designed by engineer Luciano Zen, who would play a major role in the design of later Laverdas.
In 1964, founder Francesco Laverda named his son, Massimo Laverda, general manager. Barely 25 years old, Massimo had big dreams for the company. In 1966, he initiated a project to bring Laverda into direct competition with the major motorcycle manufacturers of the world by building a 650cc parallel twin.
This was a pivotal era in motorcycle development. Contemporary British twins were based on antiquated designs and had gained a reputation for unreliability. At the same time, the Japanese were making inroads with modern, oil-tight, low-maintenance machines. None of this escaped Massimo’s attention, and he was especially eager to serve the American market, where motorcycles were catching on as part of a new, leisure-oriented lifestyle.
Massimo was particularly intrigued by the 305cc Honda CB77 Superhawk parallel twin. Following extensive examination by Zen, Laverda felt confident they could build on the 305cc Honda’s basic design to produce the larger capacity 650cc machine they envisioned.
The target engine was a 50hp air-cooled parallel twin with 180-degree crank phasing, a horizontally split crankcase and a chain-driven single overhead camshaft with two valves per cylinder. For strength and reliability, the crankshaft would run in four large roller main bearings and one outboard needle bearing.
The engine was designed with substantial strengthening as a stressed member to be suspended from the chassis. Electric starting was specified from the beginning, with no provision for a kickstarter. Unlike most other contemporary Italian motorcycle manufacturers, who used Italian made components wherever possible, Laverda chose to use the best regardless of origin and selected Bosch parts for most of their electrical components. The factory also had its own dedicated foundry, with tight control over specifications, producing castings of extremely high quality.
A prototype 650 was built in 1966, and introduced at the Earls Court Motorcycle Show in London that year, where it made a huge impression. Robustly constructed, it addressed the main complaints against the British twins: limited main bearing life due to crankshaft flex, oil leaks, difficult starting and electrical problems. Shortly after the prototype was shown, crank phasing was changed from 180 degrees to 360 degrees (like the British parallel twins) for more favorable torque properties.
In 1967, American motorcycle enthusiast and industry insider Jack McCormack visited the Laverda factory, seeking the rights to import Laverdas into the U.S. Massimo and McCormack agreed to terms, and further agreed that to address the U.S. market, Laverda should enlarge the engine to 750cc.
By the time the Giro d’Italia motorcycle race was held in May 1968, Laverda was experimenting with a 750cc version. Laverda entered four pre-production bikes in that year’s Giro; one 650 and three 750 machines. This was an endurance race held in stages, and Massimo’s goal was simple: to finish the race and prove the reliability of his new engine. The machines did better than to simply finish — the 650 won its class and all three 750s finished in the top 10.
Shortly after the race, the first batch of production machines left the factory, with machines for the American market sold by McCormack under the American Eagle brand. Of that first batch, only 52 were 650s; the rest of the machines going forward were 750s. 1969 gave rise to the more sporting 750S, incorporating a new, stronger frame, engine modifications for greater reliability, and styling features like a humped seat and flat handlebars for a more sporting appearance.
In 1970, the 750SF, for Super Freni or Super Brakes, replaced the 750S. Designed by Francesco Laverda, the SF’s 230mm (9 inch) front drum brake used a lever and rod system intended to eliminate the self-servo effect of conventional cam-operated leading-shoe brake systems that could lead to grabbing of the brakes and wheel locking.
A Production Racer
Laverda 750 SFs achieved notable endurance racing success in 1970, including a win of the 500km of Monza, a 1-2-3 podium sweep at the 24 Hours of Oss in Holland, and a third and sixth in the Bol d’Or in France. The bikes improved incrementally, but so did the competition. By the end of the year, Massimo asked Luciano Zen to think about a production racer version of the Laverda 750 SF.
In May 1971, the Laverda 750 SFC, for Super Freni Competizione, was launched. Compared to the 750 SF, the engine was extensively modified. The reworked cylinder head had bigger valves and a new cam profile (designated 2/C), the rockers were polished and 36mm Amal concentric carbs replaced the 30mm Dell’Ortos. A close-ratio five-speed was fitted, and the crankshaft and rods were carefully balanced and polished. Power output was rated at 70hp, and each engine was dyno tested to ensure output. The frame was strengthened with gussets and the front brake was either the standard Laverda item or an optional Ceriani four-leading-shoe unit. The bikes ran on Dunlop K81 TT100 tires.
The bodywork was also new, with a 23-liter (6.1 gallon) handmade aluminum gas tank, a single seat with fiberglass tail section and a half fairing, all painted in the now-famous bright orange, a color selected to make the bikes easy to spot on the track, especially at night. It was also chosen to please the Dutch importer, Jan Raymakers, orange being the national color of the Netherlands.
Laverda 750 SFC models were produced in small batches between 1971 and 1975. The first batch, built in May 1971, numbered about 20 bikes, all intended for factory competition. SFCs were hand built by a small team and with little regard to cost. They were built to meet exceptional standards of performance, and in particular were intended to excel in endurance races, where bulk and a relative lack of nimbleness would not be so much of a handicap and where their great strength and robustness would give them a competitive advantage.
In their first official race in 1971, the Six Hours of Zeltweg, SFCs finished first and second. That year, SFCs also placed first, third and fourth in the 24 Hours of Montjuic in Barcelona, first and third in the 24 Hours of Oss, and first in Vallelunga (Italy). They also placed second at the Bol d’Or in Le Mans, first and second at Imola, and finished first and second in the 500km of Modena. Not bad for the first year.
In November 1971, 80 more SFCs were produced and some were sold to the public. The aluminum gas tank was now fiberglass (the alloy ones had a tendency to crack), and the bikes had revised gearbox ratios and exhaust systems. They also had a new Laverda drum brake, with the more effective Ceriani a popular option. Another batch of SFCs were produced in early 1972, with slight changes to the shape of the fairing and seat and a new exhaust with a crossover pipe.
By this time, the Japanese had made significant progress in the development of their machines, and while there were SFC victories in 1972, they did not match the stellar performance of 1971. Only three 750 SFCs were made in 1973, and these served as test beds for radical changes like magnesium crankcases, new cylinder head designs and even lighter crankshafts. The results were not impressive, the bikes becoming more fragile and difficult to ride.
1974 would see the largest single-year run of SFCs. For the first time, the Laverda 750 SFC was considered part of the normal product range offered to the public and was no longer reserved solely for racing. The SFC was promoted as a “Production Racer,” similar to Ducati’s 750SS or Norton’s Commando-based production racers, and the changes were numerous. The bodywork was improved and the zinc-plated frame was lowered and modified with revised steering geometry, larger front forks, and triple 280mm Brembo disc brakes. A new, strengthened close-ratio gearbox was fitted and the engine was enhanced by a lightened crankshaft, slim, polished connecting rods, a new camshaft (5/C), a higher capacity oil pump, new 36mm Dell’Orto carbs (without accelerator pumps), modified valves and valve springs, a new exhaust system and higher, 9.9:1 compression ratio. Power was now rated at 75hp at 7,500rpm.
Listen to the magnificent sound of the 1975 Laverda 750 SFC
A total of 222 SFCs were built in 1974, with slightly less than half of them going to the U.S. To comply with federal regulations, U.S. models had turn signals, bigger taillights, side reflectors, adjustable handlebars and Nippon-Denso speedometers and tachometers. Even though the bike was being sold to privateers in 1974, factory-prepared racers were performing well in the national production class races.
The last version of the SFC was the 1975 Laverda SFC Elettronica, its name reflecting its Bosch electronic ignition. It had a new cylinder head, revised valve angles, re-shaped combustion chambers and a new, optional high-lift cam with 10.5:1 compression ratio. A contemporary magazine test produced a 12.5 second quarter mile at 180kph (top speed over 220kph). A final batch of 33 SFC Elettronicas featuring five-spoke cast-alloy wheels were built in 1976.
Laverda SFC Number 17160
The machine featured here (engine/frame no. 17160) was produced in May 1974 and was one of 100 motorcycles ordered by the U.S. importer Continental Motorcycles. It was delivered with Nippon-Denso gauges, front and rear turn signals, a Sebring mirror, and side reflectors. It also features the two-into-one exhaust system leading to a reverse-cone megaphone “muffler.” As with all 1974 750SFCs, it has a magnesium rear hub and gear selector cover.
It also has a couple of period modifications, including a longer clutch actuator arm for greater leverage and easier pull. The original fiberglass gas tank has been put aside for safekeeping and an alloy tank substituted. The original tank is not compatible with today’s ethanol-containing fuel.
The orange windscreen is also a period aftermarket item, and still sports a University of Baltimore student parking permit from 1977, a memento from the days when the first owner used to ride the bike to class. Before the bike came to Scott, it had spent 20 years in storage in the dry heat of Nevada.
The bike retains its original points ignition and, like other SFCs, the spark is timed at 40 degrees, fully advanced. The bike runs best on high-octane race fuel, but there are aftermarket electronic ignition systems available that will let it run on pump fuel. When we visited, Scott was putting the finishing touches on the SFC before sending it off to its new home in Southern California where, unlike most SFCs, this one will actually be ridden.
Living with a Laverda
Laverda parallel twins were over-engineered from the beginning. The priority was the production of a robust machine that would hold together, even when pushed to its limits. The Laverda 750 SFC takes that philosophy to a place that requires serious rider commitment. The suspension is stiff, the clutch lever firm, there is very little steering lock, and it’s a long reach to the handlebars across that long, large gas tank.
A lightened bottom end means the engine spins up rapidly and puts the power down effectively, but for Scott, who is six-foot-three with a 36-inch inseam, riding the SFC requires a bit of contortionism; the bike was apparently designed with long-armed, short-legged riders in mind. The machine weighs in the neighborhood of 420 pounds, half of which is accounted for by the engine. The weight sits high, but the bike handles nicely, nonetheless. Although happiest roaring down a long straightaway, Scott says it tips into turns well and holds a line nicely. To call it nimble, however, might be an exaggeration.
As for Laverda restorer Scott Potter, his love of things Italian can be traced to the years he spent as a high school student in Italy, where he developed a taste for good food, strong coffee, and machines designed and built by passionate people. Shortly after returning to the U.S. in 1975, Scott laid out $2,500 for his first Laverda, a second hand, dark blue 1974 750SF. That marked the beginning of a long association with the marque, and he hasn’t been Laverda-less since. In 2002, after years working as a master mechanic specializing in exotic cars, Scott retired to his rural Texas hilltop home and dedicated himself to bringing new life to old Laverdas.
Laverda produced approximately 19,000 parallel twins. Of those, only an estimated 549 were 750 SFC models. There is a registry for these rare machines (http://www.euronet.nl/~wschalk/) and roughly 446 of the original bikes have been accounted for.
Rarity tends to equal high price, and well-sorted SFCs are selling for $40,000 and up these days. Assuming you can find one. According to factory records, most of the machines whose whereabouts remain unknown were destined for the U.S. Scott has restored three SFCs over the years, including one of a pair previously unknown to the registry, which were found in a storage unit. Scott believes there are more 750 SFCs yet to be discovered in the U.S., so dig out your flashlights — there’s no better time to start looking in dark corners for bright orange machines.