When we think of motorcycle inventors who built bikes that bore their names, the likes of John Britten and Erik Buell spring readily to mind. In postwar Italy, Francesco Laverda achieved a similar status in motorcycle development.
With the help of a friend and fellow worker, Francesco designed and built Laverda’s first motorcycle at home in his spare time. Then, like Britten and Buell, he used racing success to establish the legend of Laverda.
Francesco Laverda was no ordinary man. He graduated from the University of Padova in 1937 with a degree in pure physics. Soon he joined the agricultural tool company founded by his grandfather Pietro Laverda in 1873, but it quickly became obvious his mind was thinking way beyond plows and tillers.
Italy emerged from World War II as a fragile democracy bolstered by massive U.S. aid, as much as $1.5 billion from 1948 to 1952. What followed was an economic miracle. From a largely rural-based economy, Italy was transformed into a manufacturing and design powerhouse. By the late 1950s, industrial output was increasing at 10 percent a year with almost full employment.
Francesco Laverda rode this tidal wave of opportunity and he brought his physics background to bear on the clever design of the first Laverda motorcycle. Although it was planned as a low-cost commuter, Francesco ensured it would also be a contender in the developing road racing scene.
Long-distance events saw small-capacity racers locked in a battle that swept through villages and cities. Chief among these events was the Moto Giro d’Italia, which by 1954 had 50 different manufacturers entered and was running more than 2,000 miles over eight stages. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Beginnings of the Laverda single
In 1947, Francesco created his prototype by designing one of Italy’s first 4-stroke motorcycle engines. His university studies of thermodynamics were used to ensure that the 75cc pushrod, overhead valve, single-cylinder engine ran cooler than its marketplace rivals and outlasted its race track opponents. The unit-construction engine had a gear-driven primary, a multi-plate clutch in an oil bath and a 3-speed gearbox.
While the standard version of the engine produced a modest 3 horsepower at 5,200rpm, racing versions pumped out 8 horsepower and revved to around 12,000rpm. Scale these figures up and you’re looking at an astonishing 107 horsepower per liter. Francesco had turned pure physics into applied physics (pure physics studies the basics of energy and motion while applied physics uses these theories to solve technological problems). Francesco worked with fellow Laverda employee Luciano Zen on the prototype, and Luciano, despite lacking formal qualifications, eventually became Moto Laverda’s chief design engineer.
It took Francesco three years to get his Laverda from design through prototype, and finally into production in 1950. During this time, cost considerations meant it lost the large alloy casing that enclosed the final drive and gears. The original goal was to offer a low-maintenance solution to the conventional chain and sprockets, which tended to wear quickly from exposure to dirt as many roads in Italy were unpaved back then.
Girder-style forks were at the front, while the rear swingarm rode on a cantilever spring attached to the engine. Rugged reliability was the hallmark of the production Laverda, and fuel economy its crowning glory. In the right circumstances it would sip fuel at a miserly rate of 200 miles to the gallon (1.17 liters per 100km). Weighing just 143 pounds and with a top speed of about 45mph, the Tourismo 75 was an instant hit. Within five years Moto Laverda was a household name in Italy.
Moto Laverda would produce nearly 40,000 small-capacity motorcycles over the next decade. Its sales slogan was L’utilitaria che vince le corse!, which translates as “the commuter which wins races!”
Racing was key to sales publicity and Laverda soon produced a Sport model for road racing and a Regolarita (literally, “regularity”) version for clubman’s reliability trials. In the 1952 Milano-Taranto race, which ran the length of Italy non-stop, Sport 75s filled the first five places in their class, with 16 Laverda 75s in the top 20. The next year they filled the top 14 places, with class winner Guido Mariani averaging 50.5mph over 1,895 miles.
The 75 was taken out to 100cc in 1954 and the wins continued. Laverda released the 4-stroke 49cc Laverdino moped in 1958 and a mini-scooter in 1960. For 1961, Laverda brought out its first parallel twin, the 200cc Twin, which weighed 264 pounds and had a top speed of almost 70mph.
It’s not often an original prototype survives, so take a close look at this one while reminding yourself that some of the parts (including the piston) were actually cast in the family kitchen. It’s obvious that some fittings, such as the oil tank, carrier and pressed-steel frame, owe much to the agricultural industry, but the little engine is a beauty, with deep finning and an elegant simplicity that is timeless.
Giant Killer: Laverda 75 Sport
Based on Laverda’s standard 75 Tourismo that went into production in 1950, the 75 Sport was essentially a production racer intended for the increasingly popular road races then run across Italy. Introduced in 1952, it proved very successful, consistently winning the 75cc category, including taking the top 14 positions in the 1953 Milano-Taranto race. Early bikes used a pressed-steel frame, while later machines had a dual downtube loop frame. The bike shown here was ridden by factory rider Genunzio Silvagni to win the 75cc class in both the 1956 and 1957 Motogiro d’Italia races. The bike was also used for short circuit racing, with the lights and number plate removed. In this configuration power was upped to 12 horsepower compared to 9 horsepower at 10,500rpm in long distance trim. Weighing only 143 pounds, it had a top speed just shy of 75mph. MC