Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith
"Any color as long as it's black." Not surprisingly, it was in the psychedelic seventies when motorcycle manufacturers first broke with the tradition of black-painted frames. First came BSA's "dove grey," intended, it's said, to reprise the company's titanium-tubed, motocross bike frames. Then came Ducati's teal-framed silver 750SS. But perhaps the most successful color combo was Laverda's pairing of the company's racing orange with the sleek silver tubes of its mighty muscle bike, the Jota.
The Bikes from Breganze
Pietro Laverda founded the eponymous Breganze, Italy company in 1873 to manufacture farm machinery. In 1948 his grandson Francesco built the first Laverda motorcycle, a 75cc four-stroke intended for his own use. Devastated by war but fired with renewed vitality, Italy was undergoing its reconstruzione, and demanded cheap, economical transportation. Soon, Francesco's neighbors wanted his sturdy little bikes. Incorporating motorcycles in the company's output was not a great stretch, and an initial batch of 500 bikes was produced in 1951.
Now committed to motorcycle production, Laverda needed sales, and selling motorcycles in Italy means going racing; so Laverda entered a 75cc machine in the 1951 Milano-Taranto race, and though carburetion problems forced its retirement, the bike proved competitive. In the same race two years later, Laverdas filled the first 14 places in their class! More success followed for Laverda in the 100cc class until 1956, when overhead camshaft Ceccatos and Ducati Mariannas (both Fabio Taglioni designs) began to dominate the class.
With its farm machinery business, Laverda was able to survive the Italian motorcycle industry's 1960's slump, as many Italians traded their bikes for a Fiat Cinquecento. After spending time in the U.S., 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 took its 180-degree crankshaft and single overhead camshaft from Honda's 305cc CB77. When the bike came to market in 1968, the bore had become 80mm for 750cc, and the crank spacing 360-degrees, like a British twin. A heavy dual backbone frame suspended the engine and helped damp vibration. Further tuning produced the 750S of 1972, and with the introduction of Laverda's own drum front brake came the 750SF, then the SF2 (with disc brakes), and finally cast wheels (also of Laverda manufacture) yielded the SF3.
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 collectible 750SFC (Super Freni Competizione) race-replica bike.
Meanwhile, Massimo and designer/engineer Luciano Zen were working on a more ambitious project: a triple using the 650's engine dimensions (75 x 74mm) to give them 981cc. Though Laverda already had a reputation for bulletproof motors, the triple trumped previous standards with a five main bearing crankshaft using ball bearings, and a needle roller outrigger for the primary.
Experiments that led to a chain-driven, shim-and-bucket DOHC valve arrangement, also showed that a conventional 120-degree crankshaft, like the Triumph Trident and BSA Rocket 3, 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. This arrangement eliminated the "rocking couple" vibration caused by the 120-degree engine's pistons rising and falling out of phase, but resulted in a "buzz" similar to that produced by a four-cylinder engine at high revs.
Jota and Hotter
The first 3C Laverdas proved fast but they 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. Recognizing the overbuilt engine's power potential, they tuned one for endurance racing and persuaded the factory to incorporate their modifications into a street version. The Jota, Laverda's best known and most successful model, was born. An immediate success, it was the fastest production machine available at the time, and for three years in the mid-seventies, with Peter "PK" Davies in the seat, it dominated Britain's Avon production racing series.
A girly bike it wasn't. If the Honda 750-Four of 1969 was the first superbike, then the term "musclebike" belongs to the big bruiser from Breganze. With a seat height of almost 32 inches, curb weight of 530lbs, heavy steering, and though tippy at slow speeds, it would rip with the best on the open road. Handling was excellent if slow by modern standards. Brembo brakes and Marzocchi suspension ensured good road holding and stopping.
Ultimately, the Jota's wild side was its undoing. The 32mm Dell'Orto "pumper" carbs wouldn't meet increasingly tight EPA requirements, while induction roar and the unrestricted exhaust fell afoul of noise regulations. By 1983, the Jota's buzzy engine also felt pretty dated. A 120-degree crank became standard and the new engine was rubber-mounted to absorb the out-of-phase vibes. The new bikes were the 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 90-plus bhp. The final batch of around 250 SFC1000s was produced in 1988. Laverda's motorcycle business was sold to Aprilia in 1993.
Since then, a small number of 668cc and 750cc twins based on a Luciano Zen-designed 500cc 8-valve engine have been built, and Aprilia also seemed poised to launch an all-new SFC1000 using its Mille V-twin engine in 2002. Under new owners Piaggio, this project has been iced - for now. Massimo Laverda's brother 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.
Steve Gurry's Laverda Jota
Steve Gurry's Jota dates from 1981, the last full production year for the 180-degree Jota engine. By this time the factory had improved the electrics with a new Nippon Denso alternator to go with the Bosch ignition and lighting. However, EPA noise and pollution regulations meant the engine was de-tuned with lower compression, softer cams and a restrictive exhaust. Steve has replaced the cams and fitted reproduction early-Jota mufflers to help breathing. Essentially unrestored but always being improved, Steve's bike has never been apart below the cylinder head in 50,000 plus miles, although he has removed the engine to repaint the frame.
The potential longevity of a Laverda engine is evidenced by the massive engine castings and features like an all roller bearing crankshaft, wrist pins that run in steel bushes, and so on. In spite of its high performance, given careful maintenance (frequent oil changes are a must), a Jota engine will top 100,000 miles before a major rebuild.
Laverda typically selected the best of available components: Bosch electrics, Nippon-Denso instruments and switchgear, Brembo brakes, Ceriani or Marzocchi suspensions, and 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 require firm handling.
Laverdas are reputed to be uncomfortable for long-distance riding, with a long reach to the adjustable handlebars, and a firm seat, but Gurry disagrees. "I've spent a lot of time getting the handlebars just right for me," he says.
But what about vibration from the notoriously buzzy 180-degree triple?
"These engines have a sweet spot at around 4,000 rpm, so I keep my speed close to that on the freeway, around 70 miles per hour."
The overall verdict?
"These are tough old girls," says Gurry. "The engines are quite stout and virtually unbreakable - as long as you change the oil regularly."
Jota, a dance from the Spanish province of Aragon, is set in three-four time, Roger Slater's sly reference to the beast's uneven beat. You're close enough if you pronounce it "hotter." Another bilingual pun, perhaps? Oh, and Laverda should be pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, like Canada.
1981 Laverda 1000 Jota
Owner Steve Gurry, Surrey, British Columbia
Engine 981cc overhead camshaft four-stroke triple, 180-degree crank
Bore x Stroke 75mm x 74mm
Output Approximately 80hp
Lubrication Wet sump, gear pump
Carburetors Dell'Orto PHF32 with accelerator pump (3) Ignition Electronic
Transmission Triplex hain primary, wet multiplate clutch with Laverda 5-speed gearbox
Final drive Chain
Front Suspension Marzocchi 38mm
Rear Suspension Pivoted fork with Marzocchi suspension units
Lighting Alternator, 12 volt
Frame Steel tube
Wheels Laverda cast alloy, 2.5in x 18in rear, 2.15in x 18in front
Tires Rear 4.24/85 x 18, front 4.10 x 18
Front brake Brembo 280mm cast iron fixed discs (2)
Rear brake Brembo 280mm cast iron fixed disc