Mirages, Montjuic and Magic at inaugural Laverda Owners' Club rally in Ojai, Calif.
My wife has a jaundiced view of old bike rallies. She says they're just a bunch of guys standing around saying "nice bike" to each other. And I guess much of the time she’s right.
But the inaugural North American Laverda Owners' Club meet in April at Ojai, Calif., was different. Sure, there was the "nice bike" stuff, but the four-day 2005 Laverda Rally encompassed visits to four world-class motorcycle collections, two days at Willow Springs Raceway (including participatory "parade laps") and attendance by leading luminaries from the Laverda story — such as Dr. Ing. Piero Antonio Laverda, great-grandson of the company's founder, Pietro Laverda.
Pietro Laverda founded the Breganze, Italy, company in 1873 to manufacture farm machinery. But it was his grandson Francesco who built a 75cc four-stroke motorcycle for his own use in 1948. Devastated by war but fired with renewed vitality, Italy was undergoing its recostruzione, and demanded cheap, economical transportation. Soon, Francesco's neighbors wanted one of his sturdy little bikes. Including motorcycles into the company's output wasn't a great stretch, and an initial batch of 500 bikes was produced in 1951.
With a commitment to motorcycles Laverda needed sales, and selling motorcycles in Italy means going racing. So Laverda entered a 75 in the 1951 Milano-Taranto race, and although carburetion problems forced early retirement, the bike proved competitive. In the same race in 1953, Laverdas filled the first 14 places in their class! Success followed in the 100cc class until 1956, from which time OHC Ceccatos and Ducati Mariannas (both designed by Fabio Taglioni) dominated the class.
Thanks to its farm machinery business, Laverda survived the motorcycle industry's 1960s slump, as Italians traded bikes for Fiat Cinquecentos. After spending time in the United States, Francesco's elder son, Massimo, correctly anticipated the motorcycle market's shift to larger-capacity bikes. The Laverda 650, first shown in 1966, borrowed engine dimensions of 75 x 74mm from the same-size BSA twin, but its 180-degree crank and SOHC configuration came from Honda’s 305cc CB77. By the time the bike came to market in 1968, bore had been increased to 80mm to give 750cc, and crank spacing was 360 degrees, like a British twin. A massively heavy frame suspended the engine and helped damp vibration.
Further tuning produced the 750S of 1972, while introduction of Laverda's own drum front brake, disc brakes, cast wheels (also of Laverda manufacture) yielded 750SF (Super Freni), SF2 and SF3 variants through the Seventies.
Once again, Laverda went racing, and with similar success. The 750 won every endurance race the factory entered in 1970, leading to production of the highly collectable 750SFC (Super Freni Competizione) race-replica street model.
Meanwhile, Massimo and Ing. Luciano Zen were working on a more ambitious project: a triple using the 650's engine dimensions (75 x 74mm) to give 981cc. Though Laverda already had a reputation for bulletproof engines, the triple trumped previous standards with a five-main-bearing crankshaft rolling on ball bearings, and a needle roller outrigger for the primary. Experiments led to a chain-driven, shim-and-bucket DOHC arrangement, but also showed that a conventional 120-degree crankshaft created unacceptable levels of vibration. This led Zen to the unique 180-degree layout, where the two outer pistons move up and down together, alternating with the center piston, creating the triple's signature 1-2-3-miss sound.
The first 3C Laverdas proved fast but were also heavy. For 1976, the upgraded 3CL came with triple Brembo discs and Laverda's own cast wheels. The story might have ended there but for the enterprising Slater Brothers in England. Recognizing the overbuilt bike's potential, they tuned one for racing, which was campaigned most successfully by Peter Davies. The Slaters persuaded the factory to incorporate their modifications into a street version. The Jota, Laverda's best known and most successful model, was born.
At the time, the Jota was just about the fastest production motorcycle on the market, with a top speed of over 140mph. Though not as successful, Laverda built a 1200 using the cylinder dimensions of the 750 for 1116cc, but its potential was never fully realized. Fierce vibration limited practical compression ratio to 8:1, and most 1200s (marketed as the Mirage in the United States) were sold in soft tune as sport tourers.
By 1983, the Jota's weight, 180-degree crank and associated buzzing felt pretty dated. A 120-degree crank became standard, the 1200 was dropped and the new engine was rubber mounted to absorb the out-of-phase vibes. The new bikes became Jota 120, RGA, RGS (with touring bodywork), Executive (hard luggage) and the final version, the SFC1000. The engine had essentially reached its development limit at more than 90hp. The final batch of around 250 SFC1000s was produced about 1988.
Rally organizers Bob Andren and Alan Chalk laid on a four-day biking bacchanalia. Congregating first at Andren's eyrie in the hills above Santa Barbara, Calif., we toured both his and Chalk's Laverda collections, then made a run to Brian Dietz's private race bike museum in Santa Monica. Afternoon found us at Otis Chandler's museum in Oxnard, then rounding off the day with Mike Taggert's collection back in Ojai. The next day's agenda included a visit to the Solvang motorcycle collection and a special opening of Guy Webster's unique collection of Italian motorcycles, again in Ojai. So many beautiful bikes in one small area!
On the third day the rally moved to Willow Springs Raceway, "America's Fastest Road," in the California desert. It was a day of parade laps, Corsa MotoClassica vintage racing, and a chance to shoot the breeze with Laverdisti.
Of course, that's what we were there for. Just about the only type of Laverda not represented was the V6: Three were built, only two ran, and all are in Italy. The biggest representation was of Jotas from the late Seventies, but there were a few standout examples of other types. Many of us wanted to take home Bob Andren's cute 60cc scooter and his '55 100cc Tipo Sport; Chris Brown's beautifully restored silver 1974 3C was the earliest triple on display; Brian Larrabure's '74 represented the 549 SFCs ever built (fewer than 270 remain); and the "ultimate" Laverda, Ed Lutz's Lance Weill-built, 1200 special. This spectacular machine (in orange, naturally) mates an English Spondon twin-beam alloy frame with a 120-degree, 1200cc engine tuned for racing. So many Laverdas, so much orange paint!
Three days, 1,200 miles, three Laverdas: Steve Gurry, Dan Watt and I rode to the rally from Vancouver, British Columbia, arriving late on Wednesday evening. We'd been slowed by road closures, the result of an uncharacteristically rainy California winter. What's it like riding 2,400 miles on a notoriously uncompromising 23-year-old bike? Surprisingly comfortable — after I'd got the adjustable handlebars to my liking. (Why don't all bikes have adjustable bars?) With the engine spinning only 4000rpm at 75mph, vibration was quite acceptable, and as we were mostly on Interstate, the heavy clutch was no problem. My only real beef: the wussy mirrors, which resisted all attempts to keep them in place.
We gladly accepted the offer of a car ride to the bike collections, courtesy of Ohio visitors Bob Vail and Ray Shaw's rental car. As a newish Laverda owner, I got the chance to build my knowledge base on the bikes, make contacts and learn the who's who of Laverdisti.
The bike collections (especially Guy Webster's comprehensive compilation of Italian racebikes), left me so overwhelmed that each deserves its own story — and may well appear in future issues of Motorcycle Classics. We rounded off our two days of overindulgence with an open house at Bob Andren's mansion hovering over the Ojai valley.
Transferring to Willow was to have included a ride on famed Highway 33; sadly, it was washed out, so we followed a more mundane and urban route. The American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association’s Corsa MotoClassica vintage race weekend was under way as we rumbled in. Willow might have been Valhalla: two heavenly days of classic race machines (including Gary Nixon riding his Triumph Trident), mellow ambience and good conversation – and a few turns on the track ourselves.
Steering a 550lb road bike around a racetrack is hard work. Although Willow has a long, fast main straight, the back side features a tight "S" and a fast downhill left turn. The Mirage needed serious muscling to get it switched from one side to the other in the "S" and was a real handful under braking, locking the rear easily with its considerable engine braking and causing a few sphincter-tightening moments as the tire hopped across the track.
Even though the track seems as wide as the Los Angeles freeway, it's still disturbingly easy to run out of room, and it took a few panic pulls on the lever before I got comfortable.
Saturday night's banquet at the Desert Inn in Lancaster offered the chance to hear Piero's fascinating insights about Laverda. Take scale, for example: Over some 20 years, total production of Laverda's under-100cc bikes was less than 50,000. Of the "successful" 750 series, fewer than 19,000 were built. Triples were commonly built in batches of 100 bikes, when Honda's break-even for their 750-four was 100,000 units!
First, the name: In Italy it's pronounced LAV-erda, the emphasis on the first syllable, like lavender without the "n." And as Jota is Spanish, it's "Hotta" with a guttural "H."
Crankshafts: All 750 twins have a 360-degree crankshaft, with the pistons rising and falling together like a British twin. The heavy frame dampens the vibes to acceptable levels. Triples used a 180-degree crank until 1982, when they switched to 120-degree. All 1200s use the 180 crank. The reason? The 120 crank's "rocking couple" (the two outer pistons rotating out of phase) created unacceptable vibration at low revs. The 180-degree crank, while introducing high-rev buzzing, was smoother in the mid range.
Another successful Laverda design, the 8-valve 500cc DOHC twin, which started life as the Alpino, and later became the Montjuic, is reckoned by many to be the sweetest of the Breganze bikes, with around 50bhp and far less weight than the bigger machines. That this was also a tough engine is evidenced by its development into the Zane-built liquid-cooled 650 Sport and 750 Formula after the Laverda family had sold its motorcycle business. And the fabled V6; a longitudinal, shaft-driven, 90-degree, liquid-cooled, DOHC 4-valve engine of 1000cc, the development of which contributed significantly to Laverda's financial woes in the 1980s. But in spite of arguably bankrupting the company, the V-6 was never fully developed.
And Laverda now? Former brand owner Aprilia threatened to launch an all-new SFC1000 using its Mille engine in 2002. Under new owners Piaggio, this project has been iced — for now. Piero and his son Giovanni keep the flame alive through Laverda Corse, a demonstration fleet of restored factory racers used to entertain Italian race fans (www.laverdacorse.it).
Laverda twins and triples are generally good buys: The engines are overbuilt and — properly maintained — bulletproof. Laverda typically selected the best of available components: Bosch electrics; Nippon Denso instruments and switchgear; Brembo brakes; Ceriani or Marzocchi suspensions; Lafranconi exhausts. They made most of their own castings, including crankcases, wheels and brake drums, and there are very few unresolved mechanical or electrical issues. But ride one first: They're tall, top-heavy and (the triples especially) brutish machines. MC
1873 — Pietro Laverda founds a farm machinery manufacturing company in Breganze, Italy.
1947 — Moto Laverda is founded by Laverda’s grandson, Francesco.
1950 — The company’s first model, the single-cylinder Laverda 75, is officially presented.
1969 — A three-cylinder prototype is unveiled. The bike will evolve into the 3C and later the Jota.
1970 — Laverda introduces its 750 SF series of twins.
Mid ‘80s to early ‘90s — Production falls off amid a series of financial crises.
1993 — Francesco Tognon takes over and relaunches the name, but pulls out in 1998.
2000 — Laverda becomes part of the Aprilia Group, which also includes Moto Guzzi.
2005 — Laverda now is part of the Piaggio Group, which acquired the Aprilia Group in late 2004.
1974 Laverda 3C
Owner: Chris Brown
Hometown: Albuquerque, N.M.
Occupation: Network operations
Etc.: Bought a brand-spanking new 3C in 1974. Traded it for a Ducati 900SS in 1977. "I've regretted selling that 3C ever since." His current 3C won the People's Choice award at the inaugural Laverda rally.
Chris Brown loves motorcycles, especially Laverda's triples. "I love the look of the engine, it's so massive looking, like the engine was constructed out of cinder blocks. And the way the three pipes come together underneath, that was one of the first things I noticed in 1974."
Brown's first Laverda was the first 3C sold in Albuquerque. "It was love at first sight. I saw it, and I just had to have it. It was on the floor for about a month and a half, and I'd look at it three or four times a week. I'd go at night and look at it through the window."
Coincidentally, Brown's current 3C originally belonged to Joe Turney, whose Albuquerque motorcycle dealership sold Brown his first Laverda. When Turney retired to Texas the 3C followed, and when he died his brother hauled it back to Albuquerque.
A friend bought the bike and started restoration: Four years later Brown convinced him to sell it. "I told him I knew the bike, that I was there in 1974 when the bike was delivered to Turney. It was a chance thing, I just happened to be hanging around the shop."
Will Brown get another? "Probably not," he says. "What I've got is exactly what I want, and it's enough for me. It's perfect and correct, which is why Piero (Laverda) picked it as his favorite at the meet."
International Laverda Owners Club:
North American Laverda Owners Club: