Breganze's Best Rally in B.C.

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

If Ducati is the Ferrari of motorcycles, then Laverda must be the Lamborghini.

Produced in small numbers, and always sport oriented, Laverda's big twins and triples defied the established paradigm that Italian motorcycles were small and light with suspect electrical systems. Massimo Laverda's designs were robust and hugely durable, with ancillaries chosen from the best available sources: Bosch, Nippon Denso, Brembo, Marzocchi, and Lafranconi. And when bought-in components weren't up to snuff, as happened with drum brakes and cast wheels, Laverda simply made their own.

The story

In 1948, Italy was reeling from the devastation of WWII, and much of the country's transportation infrastructure was in ruins. The people needed to get around inexpensively, spurring a demand for small, rugged motorcycles; and many companies, especially former defense contractors - Piaggio, Innocenti, Ducati and Agusta for example - moved into the bike-making business.

Seventy-five years before, Pietro Laverda had begun making farm machinery at a small factory in Breganze, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. The company thrived, but the post-war economic depression meant Laverda had production capacity to spare. So Pietro's grandson Francesco designed a 75cc, four-stroke OHV motorcycle with a three-speed transmission, and acceding to the enthusiastic demands of his neighbors, he decided to go into production. The first batch of 500 Laverda motorcycles was built in 1951.

Now committed to motorcycle manufacture, Laverda needed sales, and in order to sell motorcycles in Italy you have to go racing. Laverda entered a 75 in the 1951 Milano-Taranto race, and although carburetion problems forced retirement, the bike proved competitive. Two years later, in the same race, Laverdas filled the first 14 places in their class! Success followed in the 100cc class until 1956, after which OHC Ceccatos and Ducati Mariannas (both designed by Fabio Taglioni) dominated the class.

By the late fifties, Italians, now more affluent, were trading in their motorcycles and scooters for small cars, especially the Fiat 500cc cinquecento. Francesco's elder son Massimo realized that their motorcycle business needed to change. He correctly predicted a shift to larger capacity machines as motorcycles moved from basic transportation to recreation. And he realized Laverda needed to be in the U.S. market.

The Laverda 750 twin of 1968 used a 360-degree crankshaft like a British twin, but it also featured an overhead camshaft, five-speed transmission and electric start like the latest Japanese bikes. In 1972 came the sportier 750S, followed up by the introduction of Laverda's own drum front brake in the 750SF (Super Freno). The SF2 with Brembo disc brakes arrived in 1973, and then the final version, with Laverda's own cast wheels, became the SF3. The most coveted of them all is the highly collectible 750SFC (Super Freni Competizione) race-replica model.

Even more ambitious was Laverda's next project, a three-cylinder, 1000cc, overhead cam bike unveiled at the 1969 Milan show. Though Laverda had earned a reputation for bulletproof motors, the triple was even stronger, with a five main bearing crankshaft using ball bearings, and a needle roller outrigger for the primary. A unique feature of the engine was its 180-degree crankshaft layout with the two outer pistons moving up and down together, alternating with the center piston and creating the triple's signature 1-2-3-miss sound. It took Laverda another three years to get the triple, the 3C, into production, and a further two years to iron out ignition and mechanical problems. For 1976, the upgraded 3CL came with triple Brembo discs and Laverda's own cast wheels.

Following up on their success in production racing, UK importer Slater Brothers persuaded the factory to build a street bike using their racing modifications. This became the Jota, Laverda's best known and most successful model. At the time, the Jota was the fastest production motorcycle around, with a top speed of over 140mph. Less successful, a "1200" (actually1116cc) version never fully realized its potential.

In 1983, a conventional 120-degree crank was adopted and vibration quelled with rubber engine mounts. The new bikes became the Jota 120, RGA, RGS (with touring bodywork), Executive (hard luggage) and the SFC1000. The final batch of around 250 SFC1000s was produced in 1988: over 20 years, fewer than 20,000 twins and triples had been produced.

Italian motorcycle conglomerate Piaggio now owns the dormant Laverda brand, although Piero (Massimo's younger brother) and his son Giovanni still keep the flame alive through Laverda Corse, a demonstration fleet of restored factory racers used to entertain Italian race fans (www.laverdacorse.it).

The Pacific Northwest Laverda Rally

The backwoods of British Columbia are not where you'd expect to find the continent's principal supplier of Laverda parts; but in the lake-spa resort town of Nakusp, Wolfgang Haerter operates his business and hosts each July's Pacific Northwest Laverda Rally. Though all Italian makes are welcome, the focus is on the bikes from Breganze. Two dozen or so enthusiasts parked on Wolfgang's back forty this year for an informal weekend of comparing notes and sharing passions, which also provides them with a chance to fettle their bikes under Wolfgang's all-knowing supervision. Wolfgang (along with his comprehensive inventory of Laverda parts and considerable experience) is the glue that holds the Northwest's Breganze bike community together, allowing owners of these two-wheeled Lamborghinis to keep the spirit alive.

And given their reputation for longevity and reliability, it's not surprising that many Laverdas arrived under their own steam - mine included. I covered more than 1,000 miles in four days on my 1982 1200 Mirage "TS" sport tourer traveling to, around, and back from the Nakusp area.

My Mirage is like no other motorcycle I've ridden. It's tall, heavy, and requires some muscling around at low speeds. In the curves, its mass takes a little effort to turn in, but once set up, it holds its line nicely. The soft-tuned TS motor produces lots of grunt but doesn't like to rev too high, a result of its "EPA" restrictive mufflers. Wolfgang tells me there are plenty more potential ponies "under the hood" that a set of Jota cams and a new exhaust system would release, and I plan to open those stable doors sometime…

Two of the nicest bikes at Wolfgang's gathering came courtesy of Calgary's Paul LeClair. Paul has been steadily improving and garnishing his 1978 1200 with tasteful aftermarket accessories and performance goodies, all incorporated with care and skill. The result is a glorious-sounding ground-pounder built to concours finish with modern sport-bike capabilities. For example, Paul has tamed the 1200's notoriously heavy clutch, turning it into a single-finger operation.

Paul's other entry in the field (since sold) was one of the rarest and most desirable of all Laverdas (save for the experimental V-6 racer), a 1974 750 Super Freni Competizione Eletronica, a production racer and the first Laverda with electronic ignition. If you had to ask the price…

Yet, although exclusive, Laverda ownership is still attainable. I paid just $ 5,000 for my TS Mirage, and the 750 twins sell for even less. Collectors ought to get one while they can.

Avanti!

Contact: laverda@lightspeed.ca, or phone 250-265-4502. www.angelfire.com/biz/laverda