Laverda 3CL: Big Noise From Breganze

Restored three times, this 1977 Laverda 3CL is back on the road thanks to the work of Scott Potter.

Laverda 3CL

When James Ackelson brought his rusty 1976 Laverda 3CL to Texas Laverda guru Scott Potter, Potter only expected to restore it once; he ended up rebuilding the 1,000cc triple three times.

Photo By Corey Levenson

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1977 Laverda 1000 3CL
Claimed power:
80hp @ 7,250rpm
Top speed: 123mph (period test)
Engine: 981cc air-cooled DOHC inline triple, 75mm x 74mm bore and stroke, 9:1 compression ratio
Weight (wet): 543lb (246kg) 
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.1gal (15.5ltr)/35-40mpg
Price then/now: $3,900 (est.)/$3,000-$8,000

In 2008, the iconic 3-cylinder Italian was in an underground parking lot in Chicago when the Windy City experienced its worst rain in 137 years, and the bike was submerged up to the filler cap. The insurance company wanted to write it off, but Ackelson persuaded them it was worth more than the restoration would cost and shipped it off to Scott Potter for rehab.    

Potter went through the bike completely, right down to dismantling and pressing up the 3CL’s built-up crankshaft, replacing all of the roller main and big-end bearings. In the process the engine received Jota-spec pistons, a lightened clutch and Axtell camshafts. Other than that, the 3CL is more or less stock, although it does have improved charging and ignition systems by Australian Laverda expert Red Cawte. It also received a full bodywork makeover, involving a lot of painstaking detail work. “It cleaned up very nice,” Potter says matter of factly.

Nice enough to take first in class at the Harvest Classic European & Vintage Motorcycle Rally in Luckenbach, Texas, in 2009. But that was only the first rebuild. Riding the 3CL back to his Texas Hill Country shop at dark after the rally, Potter hit a deer at around 60mph. “It hit the front wheel,” Potter remembers. “The bike flipped over; I landed on my head and back, and slid along the tarmac for 100 yards or so.”

Potter broke his collarbone and tore a rotator cuff, but the 3CL looked relatively unscathed apart from some road rash, the instruments having been ground away sliding on the pavement, “so it was back to the shop for a cosmetic rebuild,” Potter says.

That was the second restoration, so to speak, but after he got the bike back together Potter noticed something wasn’t quite right. As it turned out, the frame was out of alignment from his collision with the deer. “The headstock was twisted,” Potter says, “so I sourced a new frame and put it back together — again.”

Laverda triples 

Ignoring very limited production machines like the Munch Mammoth, in 1969 the biggest import motorcycle you could buy was a 750. So when Massimo Laverda announced that his little company in Breganze, Italy, would show a 1,000cc triple at that year’s Milan motorcycle show, it caused a sensation.

The prototype shown at the 1969 show — essentially a single overhead cam Laverda 650cc twin with an extra cylinder grafted on — bore little resemblance to the production Laverda triple that finally followed it three years later in 1972. But Laverda had given notice it was going up against the big boys, and when the Laverda 1000 finally did go into production it was the only dual overhead cam machine in its class (until Kawasaki’s903cc Z1 came along in 1973) and the largest capacity standard motorcycle on the market until Honda introduced the GL1000 in 1974.

Unfortunately, Laverda lost its early lead in the big-bore category because of the time it took to get the triple into production. Though the first prototype was lighter and narrower than the CB750 Honda, it didn’t make sufficient power, so chief designer Luciano Zen produced a second design with twin overhead cams driven by belt. This version had plenty of power, but vibration from the 120-degree crankshaft engine caused frame breakages during testing. A second belt-drive prototype with 180-degree firing intervals came next and proved less destructive, but the belt-drive design was rejected because the belt drive housing on the right side of the engine spoiled the lines of the engine. This was Italy after all!

This led to the final prototype, which was shown at the 1971 Milan show. The new engine featured a single-row chain hidden between the second and third cylinders driving twin camshafts. Included valve angle was a relatively shallow 40 degrees, in keeping with modern thinking, with 38mm and 35mm intake and exhaust valves, respectively. An iron “skull” was cast into the aluminum cylinder head to form the combustion chambers, and the pistons ran in steel liners pressed into cast aluminum cylinder barrels.

Ignition was Bosch HKZ electronic, carried on the right side of the crank along with the alternator. The 5-speed transmission took its drive from the left side through a triplex chain and wet multi-plate clutch. A trio of 32mm Dell’Orto pumper carbs provided fuel, and the three exhaust headers flowed into a single, left-side muffler.

The production specification was now coming together, with the engine sitting in a new dual-downtube cradle frame with Ceriani forks, a Laverda twin-leading-shoe front brake and Borrani alloy rims shod with Dunlop 18-inch tires. Most of the electrics, including the starter, 100-watt alternator and 8-inch headlight came from Bosch. The instruments came from Nippon Denso and the switchgear from Lucas.

Market time 

It was with this specification that the first Laverda 1000 was launched in late 1972, with production getting up to speed around February 1973. Before long, the fiberglass gas tank first used was replaced with steel, the exhaust became 3-into-2 via a single collector box, and conventional handlebars were replaced by the trademark adjustable “Ace” bars.

Though only a few of the early bikes made it to the U.S., they caught the attention of the motoring press. Cycle magazine called Laverda’s new triple “brilliant,” praising especially its handling — “most of the others aren’t in the same league.” — and its engine — “producing thunderous horsepower over a broad range and without a trace of temperament.” The only problem was the price, which was estimated to be around $3,000. To put that in perspective, in 1973 the new and very sexy Kawasaki Z1 sold for $1,895.

For 1974, Laverda introduced the 3C model. This updated iteration had dual Brembo disc brakes instead of the previous Laverda twin-leading-shoe drum, though the spoked wheels with Borrani rims and rear drum brake were retained. Other improvements included 38mm Ceriani front forks and a 26-degree steering angle (down from 29 degrees) and a new throttle linkage using a single cable. An oil cooler was added, sitting below the lower triple tree, together with some minor internal engine changes.

Cycle magazine tested the 3C and liked the bike’s “very impressive muscle,” finding it to be “a better 90mph cruiser than anything this side of a Honda GL1000 or a BMW R90S.” On the downside, Cycle also noted the 3C’s handling was less stable than the first 1000, speculating this was down to the steering angle change. Again, though, the biggest concern was price; the 3C carried a suggested list of $3,900. U.S.-bound 3Cs got a left-side gear shifter to meet new U.S. regulations starting in 1975, and all 3Cs gained a more powerful 140-watt alternator and smaller 7-inch (down from 8-inch) headlight.

The 3CL 

The “L” designation came in 1976, when Laverda replaced the 3C’s spoked Borrani rims with FLAM cast alloy wheels produced in Laverda’s own aluminum foundry. The “L” stood for lega, alloy in Italian. At the same time, a 280mm Brembo rear disc brake replaced the drum. The 3CL became Laverda’s flagship model for the next three years, and in 1978 U.S.-destined 3CLs were renamed Jarama, for the racetrack outside Madrid.

Unfortunately, this was a problematic era for Laverda’s triple. The cast iron ”skull” combustion chamber insert in the cylinder head of the normally robust Laverda engine was deleted during 1976, but then cracks started appearing around the valve seats. The “skull” was re-introduced in 1978, but without hardened seat inserts. The result was valve seat erosion, requiring frequent valve adjustment. The situation wasn’t helped by the adjustment process, which requires camshaft removal. Additionally, re-fitting the cam bearing caps called for careful assembly, a process not always followed.

To make matters worse, in 1979 the factory switched from rollers to balls for the inner main crankshaft bearings. The intention was to reduce engine noise, but the result was a spate of bearing failures leading to massive warranty claims. The rollers were re-introduced by the end of 1979, but the episode was financially draining for the small Italian firm.

Most of these problems were overcome by 1980, and the 3CL specification included many of the other upgrades fitted to the high performance Jota, a model developed by U.K. importers the Slater Brothers and now part of Laverda’s regular product lineup. A new 210-watt Nippon Denso alternator was fitted, moving the ignition pickups to a new location inside the re-shaped left-side primary cover. The last Laverda 3CLs were produced in 1981.

By this time, the rough and raw “character” inherent in the 180-degree crankshaft format was feeling pretty agricultural compared with Japanese 4-cylinder bikes, and a new, more refined approach was needed. In 1982, Laverda announced a new range of 120-degree crankshaft bikes with rubber-mounted engines to absorb the inherent rocking-couple vibration.

Ackelson’s 3CL 

Why the 3CL? As it turns out, Ackelson once owned — or rather shared ownership of — a brand new Jota with a buddy, in 1977 during his university days in England. “We worked out that if we didn’t eat at all, we could just afford the payments,” he recalls. He used the Jota when he was a motorcycle courier in London and brought the Jota to the U.S. when he moved here in 1979, but finding premium fuel for the high-compression U.K.-spec engine was a problem. “I carried a bottle of octane enhancer with me everywhere I went,” Ackelson says. “It was a pain in the butt. So I got rid of it.”

Then came a “midlife crisis” in 2004. “I thought, ‘I want my Jota back,’” Ackelson says, adding, “but what a man’s bike the Jota is! I didn’t want to mess with that high compression again.” So he found a 3CL on eBay in Washington, D.C., and rode it home to Chicago.

Though the high-strung Jota has a reputation for breathing fire, the more mellow 3CL and 1200 triples are quite docile machines. Firing up the engine, the sound seems all wrong, like a cylinder is missing — which in some ways it is. And at idle, the whole bike throbs and trembles in anticipation. Laverdas are tall, heavy bikes with a high center of gravity, so care is needed moving them on and off the excellent centerstand. Laverda owners know to avoid using the notoriously fragile stock kickstand: Picking up a Laverda triple is not easy.

Unlike the Jota and the 1200 triples, the Laverda 3CL never got a hydraulic clutch, and the lever requires a manful pull. Finding first gear using the vague and sloppy U.S.-spec left-side shifter generates a healthy clunk. Changing gear requires persistence with the vague shifter, especially downshifting, and the Marzocchi suspension is, at best, adequate: choppy on rough surfaces and prone to bottoming out under braking.

Ackelson, however, focuses on the bike’s positive attributes. “I like how stable it is,” he says. “It’s a good, solid ride. It would take a rock to knock it off course. And you can’t beat the sound.” And although it’s a description that’s become something of a cliché, the Laverda’s mass really does seem to dissipate once rolling. The engine smooths out as the revs rise, and the steering feels much lighter.

On smooth roads and fast sweepers the 180 triples are majestic. Though needing effort to turn in, they hold their line solidly, resisting road ripples and braking inputs until told to straighten up again. The riding position can be made quite relaxed by adjusting the handlebars, and the gearing suits 70-80mph cruising — though not without some buzzing from the engine. Ackelson says he finds the riding position a little uncomfortable, noting that “the seat could do with more padding.”

Even so, he’s quite happy with his three-times restored triple, and plans to enjoy his Laverda 3CL for many years to come. MC 

Read more by Robert Smith covering the crankshaft options for the Laverda 3CL.