The Classic Experience
Motorcycle Classics editor-in-chief Richard Backus' 1983 Laverda RGS 1000.
1982-1985 Laverda RGS 1000
Total production: 2,500 (est.)
Engine: 981cc DOHC air-cooled inline triple
Top speed: 130mph (period test)
Transmission: 5-speed, chain final drive
Weight (wet): 556lb (253kg)
Miles ridden: 15,000
Oil consumption: None
Price then/now: $5,650 (1983)/$5,500-$8,500
We tend to avoid covering our own motorcycles. Yet a steady string of requests to feature my daily rider 1983 Laverda RGS 1000 convinced us it’s a perfect candidate for The Classic Experience, where we look at the reality — warts and all — of living with a classic motorcycle.
When I saw my first Laverda RGS some 25 years ago, I thought it was one of the most exotic motorcycles I’d ever laid eyes on. Its arrest-me-red paint screamed “Look at me!” and its unique bodywork fit like a fine Italian suit. From its solo saddle with removable tail cowling to its shaped front fairing (and its super-cool automotive-style fuel filler) that seemed an organic extension of the bike, it looked like nothing else on the road. And then there was the sound of its 3-cylinder engine, like a Lamborghini V12; throaty, muscular — simply spine tingling. It was a visual and auditory delight, and I swore that some day I’d own one.
Those kinds of self-made promises are, as most of us know, more often forgotten than fulfilled. Time, money and a never-ending parade of newly-discovered two-wheeled delights tend to distract our attention, and we move on.
Five years ago, however, I got a call from Scott Potter, a skilled mechanic with a love for all things Italian, both two-wheeled and four, and for Laverdas in particular (check out his Laverda restoration services at www.motolaverda.us). I casually mentioned my unrequited love for an RGS, and some weeks later Scott called again; a fellow Laverdisti was selling his pristine but high-mileage 1983 RGS. “I think I’ve found your RGS,” Scott said. “That’s nice,” said I, “but I don’t have any money.” “You don’t understand,” he continued, “I think I’ve found your RGS.”
Tenderly kept but enthusiastically ridden, it had some 45,000 miles on it yet looked almost perfect. The owner wasn’t interested in selling his RGS to just any squid on eBay. He didn’t want to see it flipped or go to someone who’d simply let it sit or, worse yet, abuse it. He wanted it to go to the “right” person, someone who would ride it and appreciate it, as he had for some 10 years.
Emotion usually beats logic in my world, and this was a bargain I knew I’d never repeat. Next thing I knew, I was meeting Scott in Tulsa, halfway between my Kansas home and his Texas digs, and picking up my “new” Laverda RGS 1000. The dream was real.
The Laverda RGS was among the last all-new designs produced by Moto Laverda in Breganze, Italy. Francesco Laverda built his first motorcycle in 1947-1948, and began serial production of a 75cc single, the Turismo, in 1950. By the mid-1960s he’d been joined by son Massimo, who pushed for a large-capacity twin to augment the company’s small singles and 200cc twin.
A 654cc twin went into production in 1968, and was almost immediately enlarged to 743cc. Using brought-in Bosch electrical components and the best of available parts, it was a well designed, reliable, solidly crafted machine that found an immediate market and pushed Laverda forward.
No sooner had the twin been introduced then Massimo and head engineer Luciano Zen began work on a liter-sized three-cylinder engine. A prototype was shown in 1969, and series production began in 1972. Powered by a 981cc DOHC triple, the Laverda 1000 was successful in European endurance racing and spawned a number of high-performance iterations, including the now legendary Jota, which in 1976 was the first production bike to be timed at over 140mph.
Only a few years later, however, Laverda was in trouble. Its big triples were quickly being eclipsed by faster, flashier, and cheaper multis from Japan. As a small company with limited resources, Laverda could never be competitive with the pounding market might of the Japanese. But it could still design and build high-quality motorcycles for riders who wanted something more than the standard UJM, something with lasting value and quality.
It was in that philosophy that Laverda introduced the RGS for the 1982 year. Featuring a new frame draped with flowing, almost seamless red clothing, it was a visual sensation. Power came from the same inline triple as before, but for the RGS, and all Laverda triples from 1982 on, the crank’s three throws were now phased at 120 degrees instead of the previous 180 degrees.
The primary reason for this change (still a huge point of division amongst Laverda collectors, many of whom divide themselves between 120 and 180 camps) was a desire to civilize the triple. While the 180 crank was loved for the meaty beat it created, it was also rough. A 120 crank has perfect primary balance, so that’s the direction Laverda went. There was, however, one problem, and that was the issue of a “rocking coupling” from the new arrangement. The rocking coupling force is akin to a woodsman rolling a log, but running back and forth across the log, from one end to the other, while rotating it. This produces vibrations and other secondary imbalances, so Laverda used large rubber mounts to isolate the engine from the frame.
Although praised as the beautiful exotic it was, the RGS failed to find a particularly active market. Testers loved it, but many Laverda faithful shunned it, considering it too civilized to be a real Laverda. And it was expensive. At a time when you could get a Kawasaki GPz 1100 for $4,499 or a Suzuki GS1100ES for $4,350, an RGS carried a list price of $5,950. And it was a full 1.5 seconds slower than those other two through the 1/4 mile. Laverda built about 2,500 RGSs, and only sold some 250 here in the U.S.
Variants of the RGS included the handsome Executive, fully equipped with integrated bags and “bat wings” to keep your hands dry, and the sinister-in-black, 95hp hot-rodded RGS Corsa.
The RGS was phased out in 1985 and replaced by the SFC 1000. Considered by some to be the ne plus ultra of Laverdas, the SFC had the high-performance Corsa engine, revised RGS-like bodywork, and upgraded brakes, suspension and new instruments. Technically, it was probably the best Laverda ever. Unfortunately, it was an expensive, almost 15-year-old design. The market had moved on, and Laverdas were something of an anachronism. The last Breganze-built Laverda rolled out of the factory in 1988.
Although I’m completely comfortable on my Laverda RGS, not everyone finds it an inviting proposition. First off, at a shade over 550lb wet, it’s heavy, and at low speeds it feels like it carries that weight high.
The reach to the bars is long, while your legs have a somewhat disproportionately short reach to the foot pegs. Fortunately, the foot pegs are adjustable, thanks to a trick mounting plate that can be rotated 360 degrees for varying combinations of vertical and horizontal placement. I’ve got mine at 6 o’clock, and it’s perfect for my 6ft frame.
Properly tuned, an RGS is an easy starting, easy running machine. Turn on the ignition, open the petcock, pull the handlebar-mounted choke, thumb the starter button and it starts instantly, its 32mm Dell’Ortos eagerly delivering a nice charge of fuel and air.
The choke rarely needs to stay on for more than a few moments before the engine clears its throat, signaling it’s ready to move. It takes a little throttle management to keep it from stalling, as it won’t idle until fully warm, but the engine pulls cleanly and powerfully with only the shortest warm up.
The shift into first is solid if a bit clunky, and moving away from rest you immediately feel the bike’s bulk. Yet like many machines of its ilk, the RGS lightens up quickly as speed rises. Truck-like handling at 10mph gives way to a balanced feeling at 40mph, and it gets better from there. Roll through the gears and get the RGS up to 80mph, and it’s a different machine: alert, powerful and utterly stable.
Max power comes on at 8,000rpm, and the triple loves playing in the upper atmosphere of its rev range. Although mine is perfectly tractable from 1,000rpm on up (even with high-performance 4C cams), it absolutely sings as the revs climb, its exhaust note morphing from a slightly off-kilter braap to a raucous mechanical howl; drop the throttle, and the sound on the over-run is nothing short of magical.
Gear shifts are smoother the faster you spin the engine, but even then they’re not what you’d call buttery smooth, and you have to shift with conviction. At slow engine speeds the transmission is downright noisy, yet it does shift precisely, missed shifts being the exception.
Where the Laverda RGS really shines is on the open road. It’s a grand touring machine in the best Italian tradition, long-legged and rock solid. It’s a definite workout when you try and hustle the RGS through really tight bends, but with a 60in wheelbase that’s hardly surprising; a Yamaha R6 it ain’t.
But give it a twisty two-lane blacktop and it’ll run for hours, happily devouring the miles. A factory oil cooler keeps the engine running comfortably cool, and you’ll be surprisingly comfortable, too, as the seemingly long stretch to the bars really isn’t as extreme as it seems on first blush. The riding position encourages a comfortable crouch, and the fairing comes just short of my visor, giving clear visibility if maybe a bit of wind noise as the air comes up over the visor and hits my helmet. When it’s really windy or rainy, I can duck down behind the fairing if I want, although that’s not a particularly comfortable proposition for more than a few miles.
I find I ride mostly with the seat configured for solo riding, as I like having something to push my butt against. Plus, the rear seat cowling also makes for a handy glove box. It’s large enough to hold my lunch and the occasional magazine, or my wallet and an extra pair of gloves. And when it’s time for two-up riding, it’s a simple matter of removing the seat, slipping off the rear cowling and bingo, it’s a saddle for two. Very handy and very nicely done, it’s surprising more manufacturers didn’t pick up on the idea.
Deceleration is ably assisted by triple Brembo disc brakes, a pair up front and one in the back. Yet while the front brakes are impressively strong and responsive, the rear is wooden. I blame the old rear brake hose — most likely it’s swelling and absorbing pressure that should otherwise be operating the brakes — but it’s a condition other Laverda owners mention regularly.
So far, I’ve put around 15,000 miles on the RGS, mostly in my 60-mile round-trip commute and short rides like our local 300-mile Sunday breakfast run to the Flint Hills, and a 1,500-mile round-trip ride to Wisconsin for the inaugural Road America Motorcycle Classic last June. That ride included some five hours in pouring rain, and the RGS never missed a beat and never put a foot wrong.
Fuel economy is surprising, with the RGS routinely returning figures in the upper 40s, and that’s at sustained speeds of 80mph-90mph. A steady 70mph returns around 50mpg. My urban riding is so infrequent it doesn’t really have much influence.
But maybe the greatest thing about owning a Laverda is getting plugged into the Laverda community, about as active and interesting a group of owner-riders as you’re likely to meet. Since buying my RGS I’ve become good friends not only with previous owner Perry, but also the bike’s original owner, John, who picked it up brand new in 1983, the very first RGS sold on the West Coast. He’s even given me his original bill of sale!
Well built, fast, comfortable, exclusive and, to my eyes at least, arrestingly beautiful, it’s a surprisingly useable proposition, a machine to be ridden regularly, not hidden in the garage for fear of mussing its hair. MC
Although I swear by my Laverda, they’re not for the faint of heart. Why? In a word, maintenance. Although well made, these triples require an engaged owner willing to give them constant and routine attention. Valves need to be checked every 3,000 miles, which requires removing the fairing and tank to remove the cam cover. And if any valves need adjusting, you have to split the cam chain and then remove the camshafts to replace any adjusting shims.
Cam chains are best replaced about every 15,000 miles, ditto for the primary chain and the clutch flex cushions. There is no oil filter, per say, just a screen, and removing the oil screen requires dropping the exhaust system (and replacing the exhaust crush seals). As a result, most Laverda triple owners change their oil every 1,000-1,500 miles, dropping the exhaust every third change or so to clean out the oil screen. I’ve never found any contaminants in mine, but I’ll keep with the program anyway — it’s cheap insurance.
Countershaft splines wear if the final drive sprocket gets too loose, but press-fit “oversize” sprockets are available.
The electric Veglia tachometer is notoriously unreliable, especially with the aftermarket Witt DMC ignition (mandatory if you want your triple to run right). A resistance filter improves the reading, but not always.
Likewise the fuel gauge in the cool automotive-style instrument cluster rarely works accurately, even, in my case, after replacing the sending unit. Electrical components are otherwise top-shelf, mostly Bosch or Nippon-Denso, and reliability is excellent.
Laverdas were essentially hand built, and to a very high standard, leading some owners to call them the Italian BMW. Bikes with 75,000-plus miles on their original engines are common. They love to be ridden hard, but demand to be properly massaged when the ride’s over.
Parts are readily available and suprisingly cheap, and an active owners community will help you keep yours running. Assuming, of course, you don’t mind a little garage time. — Richard Backus
Oil change: Every 1,500 miles/clean oil screen every third oil change
Air filter: Replace every 4,800 miles
Valve adjustment: Check every 3,000 miles
Spark plugs: Replace every 4,800 miles
Ignition timing: Check every 4,800 miles
Cam chain tension: Check every 3,000 miles, replace every 15,000 miles
Muffler: $720 original stock/$560 U.S. Jota-style stainless w/special mounting bracket
Starter: $320 exchange/$450 new
Air filter: $39
Front brake pads: $29 pair
Valve cover gasket: $24
Cam chain: $39 (w/clip link included)
Muffler: $956 (pair, stainless)
Air filter: $68
Front brake pads: $38 pair
Valve cover gasket: $36
Cam chain: $34