Small Package Big Punch: Laverda Formula 500

Laverda had lots of firsts, including the first double overhead cam 4-valve twin with a 6-speed. That engine spawned a high-performance production racer, the Laverda Formula 500.

| March/April 2014

1979 Laverda Formula 500
Claimed power: 52hp @ 9,500rpm
Top speed: 125mph
Engine: 497cc air-cooled DOHC 8-valve parallel twin, 72mm x 61mm bore and stroke, 10.5:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 337lb (153kg)

With our rose-tinted retro-spectacle view of times past, it’s often difficult to remember which motorcycle manufacturers were first to do what. But Laverda, the little company from Breganze in the foothills of the Italian Alps, had more firsts than most.

Laverda was first to introduce a 650cc (and 750cc) overhead camshaft parallel twin, in 1968, beating Yamaha’s 650 by two years. It was first to produce a liter-class double overhead cam multi-cylinder bike (the 3-cylinder 3C) just ahead of Kawasaki’s Z1 in 1972; and it launched the first double overhead cam 4-valve twin with a 6-speed transmission.

That motorcycle was the 1977 500cc Zeta (Alpina in the U.K.). Largely forgotten today, its lasting legacy lies in the factory high performance race special it spawned, the Laverda Formula 500.

Filling the gap

While we remember the big bikes of the Seventies best, the 500cc class was also important, especially in Europe where smaller bikes made more sense. In the U.S., Honda’s best-selling 350cc twins had shown that more cubes weren’t always necessary for lively performance. Yamaha swooped in with its perhaps overly complicated TX/XS500 8-valve twin cam twin, and Ducati spotted the gap and tried to fill it with their unfortunate 500 Desmo parallel twin.

It was with this in mind that Laverda created a high-tech half-liter bike with performance to match — and beat — some of the fastest big bikes around. Sold as the Zeta 500 in the U.S. and the Alpina in the U.K. (changed to Alpino after BMW claimed prior use of the Alpina name), the new Laverda 180-degree 4-stroke parallel twin used a built-up crankshaft incorporating ball and roller main bearings. Three main bearings supported the crank, and connecting rods with needle roller big ends controlled the 61mm stroke. Lined alloy cylinders of 72mm diameter were topped with a twin cam 8-valve cylinder head, with a chain from the center of the crank driving the camshafts.

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