Motorcycle Classics

Jota’s Bigger Brother: 1978-82 Laverda 1200 Jota America/Mirage

Comparing the Laverda 1200 to the 4-cylinder alternatives in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Yamaha XS Eleven and Suzuki GS1100E.

Laverda 1200

Years produced:1978-1982
Power: 73hp @ 7,500rpm
Top speed: 133mph (period test)
Engine: 1,116cc (80mm x 74mm) air-cooled, DOHC inline triple
Transmission: Triplex chain primary, 5-speed, chain final drive
Weight (wet)/MPG: 545lb (248kg)/38mpg (avg.)
Price then/now: $1,995 (1977)/$3,000-$8,000

Many bike makers produced standout models that became synonymous with the brand. BSA had the Gold Star; Triumph, the Bonneville; Moto Guzzi, the Le Mans. For Italian builder Laverda it was a 1,000cc DOHC triple that, at its launch in 1976, was the fastest production motorcycle then available and became a legend in its own time: the Jota.

Through the 1970s, increasingly stringent noise and pollution regulations (especially in the U.S.) meant Laverda’s raucous 1,000cc triple required more restrictive intake and exhaust as well as softer cams and lower compression. Laverda’s challenge was to maintain its performance edge — which it did in the time-honored fashion of increasing engine size. So the Laverda 1200 of 1978 was a made-in-Italy solution to a made-in-America problem. All Laverda triples up to 1982 used a built-up crankshaft running on four roller main bearings (ball bearings were tried but abandoned), with chain drive to two overhead camshafts operating six valves by shim-under-bucket followers. Three Dell’Orto PHB pumper carburetors fed fuel, while a triplex chain drove the 5-speed transmission. The dual cradle frame ran, at first, on wire-spoked alloy wheels with Laverda drum brakes, but these soon gave way to FLAM alloy wheels and triple Brembo discs. Suspension was by Ceriani and Corte e Cosso, or (later) Marzocchi. To sidestep concerns about Italian motorcycle electrics, Laverda chose components from Bosch and Nippon Denso.

For the 1200, bore was increased from 75mm to 80mm giving a swept volume of 1,116cc. It retained the Jota’s 180-degree crankshaft, meaning the two outer pistons rose together, while the center piston fell, and vice versa. So the 1200 had the same characteristic 1-2-3-miss exhaust beat. And though the 1,000cc engine was later produced with a 120-degree crankshaft, all Laverda 1200s used the 180-degree crank, meaning they echo the Jota’s “hammering, fast-paced booming exhaust racket,” Cycle Guide said.

The first 1200s were sold in the U.S. as the Jota America. The gas tank acquired a “coffin” shape; the patented adjustable handlebars were swapped out for conventional bars; and the final drive chain was beefed up to a 630 O-ring type. A modified frame changed the rear shock angle and relaxed the steering geometry. For 1980, the 1200TS and 1200TS Mirage featured a large handlebar fairing, fiberglass “lowers,” and a new tail section with a grab rail, making its sport-touring intent clear. While the Mirage was supposed to offer more performance than the stock TS, the differences in the engine were minor. U.S.-spec models used touring A12 cams and quieter, more restrictive mufflers. The final version of the 1200TS Mirage for 1981 included an uprated Nippon Denso alternator with ignition pickups moved to the primary case.

Originally a manufacturer of agricultural equipment, Laverda’s heritage shows through in the 1200s. They’re tall, brutish machines with heavy controls; but also durable, reliable and strong. With firm suspension, a forward riding position, and buzzing vibration, city riding can be a chore. They require some muscling through tight curves — but once leaned over they’re remarkably steady and unfazed by braking inputs or pavement changes. With the soft U.S.-spec cams, performance is mellow but perfectly adequate, and the under-stressed engine’s generous torque makes for relaxed touring, All of this speaks to Laverda’s outstanding record in endurance racing, where lasting the course is more important than outright speed. As Laverda Twin and Triple Repair and Tune-up Guide author Tim Parker notes, Laverdas are “built to stay built.” Parts are also available from Columbia Car & Cycle in Nakusp, British Columbia (

Cycle Guide summed up the 1978 Jota America: “It’s an exciting, highly emotional motorcycle that is thrilling to ride, fun to corner and stimulating just to be near, even though making it work is a high effort proposition. On a Jota, you are a 100-percent participant, not a lifeless body along for the ride.” MC


1978-1981 Yamaha XS Eleven

Years Produced: 1978-1981
Power: 95hp @ 8,000rpm
Top Speed: 136mph (period test)
Engine: 1,101cc air-cooled, DOHC inline four
Transmission: 5-speed, shaft final drive
Weight (wet)/MPG: 602lb (274kg) wet 40mpg (avg.)
Price then/now: $2,989 (1978)/$2,500-$6,500

In our time of incremental enhancements and “bold new graphics,” it’s difficult now to appreciate the rate of technical innovation in the 1970s with each manufacturer trying to leapfrog the competition. But while Honda and Suzuki had 4-valve heads by the end of the decade, Yamaha stuck with two until the FJ1100 of 1984.

Instead, the tuning-fork guys used Yamaha’s Induction Control System (YICS) featuring “polyspheric” combustion chambers. The XS Eleven was for a while the fastest, most powerful, largest displacement DOHC four on the market. It was also king of the quarter-mile in 1978, when Cycle World recorded under 11.8 seconds. It was in the twisties that the wheels — almost literally — came off. Wrote Cycle magazine, “We could turn it. … We could stop it. But we couldn’t simultaneously turn it and slow it down.”

But on the highway, the XS Eleven’s rubber-mounted engine, shaft drive, and “comfortable, day long ride posture” made it a superb touring bike. Wrote Cycle in 1978, the XS Eleven is: “The most appealing, enjoyable street motorcycle we’ve ridden in quite a while. It is so civilized, so loaded with nice touches, so smooth and so contemptuously, casually powerful.”

1980-1983 Suzuki GS1100E

Years Produced: 1980-1983
Power: 108hp @ 8,500rpm (1983)
Top Speed: 140mph (period test)
Engine: 1,074cc air-cooled DOHC 16-valve inline four
Transmission: 5-speed, chain final drive
Weight (wet)/MPG: 552lb (w/half-tank fuel) 38mpg (avg.)
Price then/now: $4,350 (1983)/$2,000-$6,000

While the Laverda is the contrarian’s choice in this class, the Suzuki is the no-brainer. Though they were late into 4-stroke fours (the GS750 of 1977), Suzuki was first of the over-1,000cc fours with 16 valves. Said Cycle magazine in 1982, “the GS1100 is the standard yardstick in Superbikes.”

Above the TSCC (Twin Swirl Combustion Chamber) cylinder head were two overhead camshafts operating the 16 valves by locknut-adjustable rockers. Below was a built-up crankshaft and roller bearing bottom end developed from the GS850/1000. Four 34mm CV Mikunis fed fuel, which was lit by transistorized ignition. But it was probably the better balance between sheer power and competent handling that gave the Suzuki its competitive edge.

In spite of showing lower horsepower than its other Japanese competitors, the GS1100 won most drag strip shootouts because it was easy to launch and “doesn’t overpower its chassis,” Cycle World said. The revised 1983 GS1100ES version with narrower valve angles was the first production motorcycle tested by that magazine to run a standing quarter in the tens. And it was voted fifth “most significant motorcycle” from the previous 35 years by Rider magazine.

  • Published on Nov 12, 2019
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