Never a volume producer, Laverda survived by being able to command a premium price for street versions of its highly competitive endurance racers.
1986/1988 Laverda SFC1000
Claimed power: 95hp @ 8,000rpm (approx.)
Top speed: 140mph (est.)
Engine: 981cc air-cooled DOHC triple, 75mm x 74mm bore and stroke, 10.5:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 528lb (239.5kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 5.8gal (22ltr)/35-50mpg
Price then/now: $6,000-plus/$12,000-$16,000
Blessed with relative prosperity in recent years, the Italian motorcycle industry has taken its place among the world’s biggest and best. Small boutique builders soldier on, but Italian motorcycle production is today chiefly the province of two giants: Audi-backed Ducati and the sprawling Piaggio empire of Aprilia, Vespa, Moto Guzzi and the rest. It wasn’t always this way.
Back in the 1970s, the manufacturers that had survived the introduction of Fiat’s small and affordable car, the 500 (or Cinquecento) and the tsunami of Japanese imports were few — and forever financially strapped. Yet they persevered in a single-minded pursuit of style and performance above all else.
“To the outside world,” wrote Gary Johnstone in his 1994 book Classic Motorcycles, “the Italians have an approach to motorcycle design that defies comprehension … a flawed brilliance, the capacity to make a near-perfect motorcycle and turn it into a commercial disaster … They go for glory and court chaos fearlessly.”
So it was with family-owned Laverda, based in Breganze in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Never a volume producer, Laverda survived by being able to command a premium price for street versions of its highly competitive endurance racers. Through the 1970s, Laverda’s 750SFC twin and 1000 Jota triple were the weapons of choice in 24-hour racing in Europe. The company intended its new-for-1977 mid-size 500cc, double overhead camshaft, 6-speed Alpino (Zeta in the U.S.) to support the same business model of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” It even had its own race series, the Coppa Laverda.
But a perfect storm of factors — a slump in the European motorcycle market, crippling sales taxes at home, and a price premium over its competition of as much as 100 percent — conspired to stall sales of the innovative twin. It’s reported that Laverda lost money on every one it built, probably because they couldn’t achieve volume production.
So Laverda moved into the 1980s in serious financial trouble. The agricultural side of the family business was now part of Fiat, meaning any financial support from that arm was gone. The Laverda 500 was a flop, sales of the 1,000cc triples were slipping, and their design was looking dated. With no money to develop a new range of motorcycles, Laverda looked to update the triple range, adapting and restyling the aging 6-valve, double overhead cam air-cooled 3-cylinder engine to a new role as a sport-touring motorcycle. The result was the stylish and innovative RGS1000, which made its debut at the Milan show in November of 1981.
The RGS was a real change from the earlier triples. Gone was the raw-edged muscle bike demeanor of the Jota: A 120-degree crank replaced the previous 180 for smoother power delivery and a more harmonious exhaust note, and the engine was rubber mounted in a new, lower frame to dampen out vibration. The RGS wore a sleek “tear drop” fairing with an automobile-style fuel filler cap built in, and there were luxury features like fully-adjustable footpegs and an automobile-style dashboard with full instrumentation. A revised transmission replaced the clunky crossover shift linkage previously used, and the hydraulic clutch was improved; Laverdas had been notorious for a heavy clutch pull. Needle roller bearings were used throughout the transmission, dual simplex chains in the primary replaced a single triplex chain, and there were revisions to the ignition and the cylinder head. Laverda’s own FLAM cast aluminum wheels were also replaced with similar items from FPS.
Though the RGS was a competent performer and considerably more user-friendly than the earlier 180-degree triples, it never really caught on. The bodywork, though aerodynamically efficient, was perhaps over-styled and partially obscured what had always been the big triple’s best feature — the engine. Perhaps recognizing this, Laverda produced a less expensive version, the RGA, with more abbreviated bodywork, and also a sporty version of this model, the RGA Jota. The RGS was also available with matching fitted luggage and hand protectors as the RGS Executive.
Looking for more oomph, British importer Keith Davies of Three Cross Motorcycles persuaded the factory to produce a performance version, the RGS Corsa. While the factory quoted around 83 horsepower for the RGS, the hand-built Corsa was rated at 95 horsepower, mostly from revisions to the cylinder head, including larger intake and smaller exhaust valves and ports, and the use of 10.5:1 pistons. Fewer than 200 RGS Corsas are thought to have been built, and none of the RGS/RGA range produced the volume sales figures Laverda needed to survive.
True to type, Laverda decided to go out with a bang instead of a whimper, making one last attempt at a breakthrough model, shamelessly recalling the famous SFC designation and producing perhaps their best bike ever.
The basis for the SFC1000 was the RGS Corsa engine and frame, still with the swooping bodywork, but with detail changes that transformed its appearance. The frame was painted gold and got a new Verlicchi-made box-section aluminum swingarm and remote-reservoir Marzocchi shocks with adjustable damping. Air-assist Marzocchi M1-R forks with adjustable damping — also finished in gold — were up front, and gold-finished three-spoke Oscam cast alloy wheels were fitted front and rear. A trio of Brembo Gold Line two-pot calipers took care of braking. The 3-into-1-into-2 exhaust system was finished in black, with a 3-into-1 system an option. The new steel gas tank featured two filler caps and an electric petcock, while the rider/passenger footpegs were mounted on a new milled aluminum plate finished in gold with an embossed SFC logo.
The car-style instrument panel was replaced with a brushed aluminum plate housing black-faced (later white) Smiths or Veglia speedometer and tachometer, together with an oil temperature gauge and an array of warning lights. The bodywork was now made in fiberglass (replacing the Bayflex elastomer used on the RGS) and finished in red. What Laverda managed to reveal in the SFC1000 was its true heritage, producing a sophisticated, high-quality sport-touring motorcycle that looked like a race bike: it is now a sought-after model, and perhaps the best all-around motorcycle from Breganze.
There remained one further twist in the SFC’s brief story. Uve Witt of German importers Moto Witt (who also designed and still makes an upgraded ignition system for Laverdas) requested a further batch to a slightly different specification. The Oscam wheels were replaced with laced-up wheels using Moto Witt’s own hubs and Spanish Akront rims. These bikes were finished in black with white decals and used white-faced Veglia instruments. Some SFC1000s were also delivered with Laverda’s RGC race kit, which included P1 racing cams, 36mm Dell’Ortos (32mm was standard) and a close-ratio transmission.
It’s difficult to be precise about how many SFC1000s were made. Engine numbers run from 2800 to 3450, but SFCs were built concurrently with other 120-degree triples in the factory. At least 200, but probably fewer than 300 were likely built between 1985 and 1989. By this time the company was under “administration,” with production transferred to a new facility in Zane, seven miles from the old factory in Breganze.
Kansas farmer and bike collector Dale Keesecker owns two Laverda SFC1000s, a red 1986 model and one of the rare, black, spoke-wheeled German-market bikes from 1988. “I think back in their day they were the most beautiful motorcycle there was,” Dale says. “I always wanted one, but they always kept eluding me. I’d find one and it had a lot of miles on it. Some had been restored, but they weren’t quite correct, and you didn’t know what was inside of them.”
Dale acquired the black bike first. “Twelve or 14 years ago, I was reading in one of the British magazines that Slater Brothers in England had this one advertised on consignment. I called him [Richard Slater] up and talked to him for a while. He says, ‘well, you found what you’ve been looking for.’ I think when I got it, it had around 2,000 kilometers on it. Slater had sold it new to a fellow in England and whatever his profession or job was took him out of the country, so he wanted Slater to sell it.”
When the bike arrived in Kansas all the bodywork was taken off, but all it really needed was finishing to Dale’s exacting standards. “We did a very extensive detailing, because it was so near perfect,” he says. “We put new tires on it. We got a new stainless steel exhaust system and put that on it, and that’s really all we did to it, along with changing all the fluids and servicing it.”
“I got it about three years ago,” Dale says. The red 1986 came from Canada, and was sourced by Canadian Laverda parts guru Wolfgang Haerter of Columbia Car & Cycle. Wolfgang reminded Dale he had sent him a picture of a red SFC1000 some time back. “It was maybe 100 or 200 miles from his place,” Dale says. Wolfgang knew the bike and also knew that it had been well cared for. Wolfgang contacted the owner and negotiations ensued. “Long story short, I ended up with it.”
The red bike then got the full treatment. “Mechanically it was excellent,” Dale says, “but some things had been changed on it. So from the frame up we did a total cosmetic restoration. Wolfgang gave me the paint code. We put a stainless steel exhaust system on it and the correct rear shocks. Luckily, everything it needed, Wolfgang had. Every single nut, bolt, washer — if it was zinc plated or cadmium plated or chrome plated, that’s how it went back.”
The SFCs are not Dale’s only Laverdas. “I’ve got a 750SFC that we restored, I have two Jotas, and I have two SF750s, one drum brake, one disc.” Why Laverdas? “Because of their rarity,” he says. “The first time I read in one of the motorcycle magazines about the Jota and how fast it was, and being a 3-cylinder with 180-degree firing order, it just fascinated me. And where Laverda had been in the implement business and I’m involved in agriculture.”
Keesecker tells the story of having seen a Laverda combine being transported past his farm on a semi. “I could see it said ‘Laverda.’ I’d never seen a Laverda combine in our part of the country. It was kind of ironical. I’ve got these Laverda motorcycles and there’s a Laverda combine going down the road.”
What are the SFCs like to ride? “They’re like most Laverdas. They have a high center of gravity, but they are fun. The engine is quite robust and you know you’ve got a lot of power there. They’re fun to listen to,” Dale says, but he’s quick to add that “the 180 has the best sound. When you get them ramped up they’re awesome. And I was a little bit surprised. I had read and I had always been told the 120s were quite a bit smoother than the 180s. I haven’t found that to be. Yes, they’re somewhat smoother, but not that much. The 180s — at least mine — don’t buzz your hands like some of the Triumph triples. There’s some vibration there, but at least for me, it doesn’t put your hands to sleep or become really annoying.
“I like them both,” Dale says of his SFC1000s, “they both have their character. Every time I walk by one, I have to stop and look at it.” So is the SFC1000 the most beautiful motorcycle ever built? You be the judge! MC