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Lovin' the Laverda
Lovin' the Laverda: Beauty Meets Brute Force in Breganze
Despite what some U.S. bike mags said back in the '70s about Laverdas being "finicky," they are actually tough as nails. This is no doubt due in part to their parent company's production of farm machinery. Even today, 30-year-old Laverdas are still being flogged as daily drivers in Europe. Sling a set of saddlebags over the back of a 750 twin or a 1000 triple and call it a commuter/touring bike. One can also say the Euro riders place a premium on speed as opposed to the American's emphasis on comfort. In other words, riding a Laverda takes a special person... a Laverda-isti.
Personally, I love the bikes. Maybe it's a musical thing. They make a sound somewhere between a Mona Lisa moan and a Harpy's howl. I know. I've listened to several of them up close and personal having owned both a 3C (1000 triple) and an SF1 (750 twin) and ridden behind a friend's SFC (the smell of castor bean oil in its wake). I miss that music; it literally throbbed through the marrow of one's bones and set the heart rate at "exhilarate."
They make a sound somewhere between a Mona Lisa moan and a Harpy's howl.
Recently, I came upon a treasure trove of the L bikes that set the old passions stirring again. Laverda longing, it's called. Once bitten, you'll always bleed for one. In this case, the bevy of beauties was nurtured into their present state of restored excellence by their owner/restorer Alan Chalk. An electrical engineer by profession, a major bike enthusiast by avocation, Alan's stable of 1970-80s Laverdas all seem to glow with the inner radiance that some call pedigree, others passion.
Alan's own bike roots reach back to his high school days in Bowie, Maryland (between D.C. and Baltimore) where he commuted back and forth to after school work on a mini-bike. His father was an aerospace engineer who worked at the renowned Goddard Space Center during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo years. He stepped up to a brand new Twinjet Yamaha, after the cops kept stopping him on his non-street legal minibike. Asked about his parents' reactions to his motorcycle mania, Alan says simply, "They didn't like it. But because it was my own money they couldn't complain, plus they figured it was better than having to buy me a car."
His focus on Italian motorcycle occurred after his move to California and a visit to the famous Rock Store motorcycle Mecca near Los Angeles. "By that time, I had restored a Norton Commando and a Bultaco TSS roadracer. "...it had a '57 frame and a '57 carburetor but that was about it. So I started searching for parts, and it ended up being a five-year process."The Bultaco went fairly easily, and the Commando taught me a lot. It had about three times as many parts as the Bultaco two-stroke and every part was special... so no wonder they went out of business. Then I spotted this Ducati 750GT at the Rock Store and was inspired to find and buy one for myself. I rode that bike a lot. One day I spotted an ad for a 1957 Ducati single. Well, it had a '57 frame and a '57 carburetor but that was about it. So I started searching for parts, and it ended up being a five-year process. I vowed I wouldn't put it together until I had collected everything that it needed. It turned out that what I collected was not correct for this 1957 175 Sport, since number one they didn't start bringing Ducatis into the U.S. until 1959 and the frame was peculiar only to the '57. As an almost "pre-production" bike, there were very few interchangeable components between a '57 and a '59. Those first bikes were used as roadracers and the first thing the owners tossed was the sheet metal. This is why it's virtually impossible to find the correct bodywork."
To resolve the problem Alan ended up buying a huge pile of bikes and parts including a dozen Ducati singles eventually gleaning all the pieces he needed. He also credits the "network" with making it all possible. "I had to make contact with so many people to find what was correct and who might have what part. People got behind the spirit of the thing because nobody I knew had ever seen a '57." The effort was rewarded with a number of Best of Shows, the '57 taking home a trophy every time it appears at an event. "It's nice to take out bikes like this, because people don't see them very often and it generates interests in vintage machines." The '57 now occupies a place of honor in Alan's living room.
The effort was rewarded with a number of Best of Shows, the '57 taking home a trophy every time it appears at an event.
Launching himself into Laverdas went in a form of reverse order of acquisition. His first Laverda was the newest of the lot, an '84 1000 RGS, which he bought new followed by the '81 1000 Jota, then the '74 750 SFC and most recently the '73 750 SF2. Most of his Laverda riding has been on the RGS, a machine equipped with detachable saddlebags and a degree of comfort the other bikes basically ignored. Perhaps the least comfortable yet most charismatic is the mesmerizing 1974 SFC.
It was another heap of bits and pieces that launched Alan into this restoration project. "A friend of mine told me about a pile of Laverdas that was for sale on the Italian Parts Exchange on the Internet. I called the people offering the stuff and it was a bunch of chopper dudes in the Bay, who didn't know what they had. I flew up there immediately, took one look, and was both excited and horrified. The SFC had been in a gasoline fire. The bike vibrated so much that the fiberglass tank ruptured and poured gas over the hot engine, a common enough fate for SFC's. It was just a mass of black and plastic, a melted crispy critter. However, it was an SFC, so it became my 50th birthday present to myself. However, I had to buy a half dozen more Laverdas in order to put it back together."
"It was just a mass of black and plastic, a melted crispy critter... I had to buy a half dozen more Laverdas in order to put it back together."
Alan also added a German electronic ignition to make the bike a bit more tractable. "Laverda went to Bosch electrics, as they were the best available in the early 1970s. In fact, the SFC has a starter and generator from a Volkswagen. They're huge. They left them on the street versions, because they were initially endurance racers and they needed the big batteries to power the lights for racing all night, plus the electric starting meant the little race guys wouldn't have to push them around. These Laverdas were built bulletproof. They're way more like a BMW than like a Ducati or MV. A clue is the look of the engine design, basically an enlarged version of the early Honda twin." As for getting parts and working on his Laverdas, Alan says, "Now, most Laverda people work on their own bikes. There are only a few places that work on these things in the U.S., for example; Steve Carroll at European Cycles in Orange Country, Trevor Dunn, Roger Slater, and Lance Weil, and a couple other guys on the East Coast. Almost everybody I know works on their own bikes. They're fairly straightforward to work on and you're not going to wear one out. Probably the worse thing that happens to them is that people abuse and don't take care of them. But if you do take care of them, there are guys with hundreds of thousands of miles on their bikes, both the 750 twins and the triples. Furthermore, there is a camaraderie among Laverda people. You can log on to the Internet and find all kinds of Laverda links, people are always helping each other with their bikes."
Asked how it was to ride the SFC, Alan sums it up in a word when he says, "Excruciating."Asked how it was to ride the SFC, Alan sums it up in a word when he says, "Excruciating. The riding position is very cramped. For someone my size it's almost impossible to fold my legs to get them up on the footpegs. Then, you're stretched way out over the tank and it vibrates like you wouldn't believe. It's hard to keep your eyes in focus. Likely as not, you're banging your chin on the tank, because these bikes were designed for little 130lb. Italian racer guys. They were endurance racers, designed to go 24 hours and those guys were tough as nails to do it. As far as releasing them to the public, Laverda was always looking for money, and I guess there was a market for it, primarily for privateers to go racing. In Europe, the two-into-one megaphone, clip-ons, and just a tach for instrumentation, was standard road equipment. There are still guys in Holland that will take an SFC with saddlebags and take off for Italy. They only made something like 456, in four different batches, the first with drum brakes. The third batch, known as the 17000 series, had disk brakes and came with mufflers and a dashboard for the U.S. That's the one they made the most of, including my bike. There's an SFC registry in Holland and SFCs are considered an icon on par with the Ducati 750 Super Sport." (The fourth SFC variation was called the "Electronica," a U.S. spec bike fitted with electronic ignition and an oil cooler.)
The bike is probably the most successful show bike of Alan's collection, taking a First Place at 2003 Del Mar Concourse d'Elegance and a Best in Show at the 2004 Concourse D'Italiano as well as numerous other awards. Asked if it was a keeper, Alan takes a deep breath and says, "As far as wanting any other particular bike, I'm almost at the point that I might even want less. My friend Roy Kidney was just on his way to the big swap meet in Italy, and asked me if I needed anything, and I told him no and it kind of felt good to say that." Alan adds that a couple people have been lusting seriously after the SFC and admits he's been toying with the idea of acquiring a Ferrari. "I look at all these bikes and go, jeez, I like all this stuff, and maybe I could be talked into an MV Agusta, but no longer feel that overwhelming need."
The bike is probably the most successful show bike of Alan's collection, taking a First Place at 2003 Del Mar Concourse d'Elegance and a Best in Show at the 2004 Concourse D'Italiano...
As for his Laverda "commuter," Alan points with pleasure at his 1984 RGS, easily the most comfortable among his collection, and a bike on which he has clocked over 11,000 miles. The RGS was first introduced at the 1981 Milan Motor Show. By the way, RGS stands for Real Gran Sport. There is an auto-like gas filler under a trap door in the forward fairing, removable saddlebags and a potent 1000cc triple to move it all along. Alan has added a set of hotter 4C cams to his RGS. There's a new voltage regulator as well, the only component he has had to replace in 20 years.
His '81 Jota, (A bike considered by many exotic bike aficionados as the ultimate blend of beauty and beast), has been suffering from a baffling malady. Perhaps someone out there in MOland can fathom the mystery. "After riding it, then switching if off after it's warmed up, it won't start. (try a richer pilot jets, if that doesn't work, go the other way. -Sean) I have to let it sit there for about 20 minutes before it will restart. I've been working on the problem for about three months and virtually replaced everything with the exception of the motorcycle. I don't give up and eventually will find it."
Asked if his neighbors complained about his banshee loud bikes, Alan laughs and says, "I try not to leave too early in the morning."
Rare Wine Indeed - The Breganze Twins
While people are familiar with Italian legends like Ducati, Moto Guzzi, MV Agusta and lately Aprilia, very few people recognize the name Laverda much less have seen one here in the U.S. "Even in Europe Laverdas are much more popular in Holland, Germany and England than in Italy. In fact you hardly see them at all in Italy," says Alan. "I don't know why. There's about a 1000 people in the Great Britain owner's club, but I don't think there even is a Laverda owners club in Italy, while the biggest Laverda museum is about to open in Amsterdam, where one guy owns over a 100 Laverdas." Moto Laverda first opened its doors in 1947-48-49, depending on your source. The official site http://www.laverda.com/ says 1947. In any case, they were nice doors. The founder, Francesco Laverda, was a guy with big lire who owned a well-established agricultural machinery company in Breganze, northern Italy.
Built to meet the need of cheap post WWII transportation, the first Laverda was a successful little 75cc get-around.
They had mountains next to the factory that served as the perfect test course for the bikes they built. In 1951, Laverda had an entry in the famous Milan-Taranto race, but was a DNF. However, it did well enough for Moto Laverda to moto ahead. In 1953, Laverda took the first 14 places in the event, in effect dominating the 75cc class. They bumped it up to 100cc in '54 and kept on winning. During the 1960s, spurred on by Francesca's son Massimo, the company came up with the new 650, then 749cc vertical twin, a chain-driven, ohc design (80mm bore x 74mm stroke) that made between 52-60 bhp in its various forms, while the first SFC factory roadracer produced 70 bhp and later 75 bhp @ 8,800 rpm. Records indicate that two shipments of 50 SFC's reached the USA in street form in 1974, probably the largest portion exported.
A distinctive feature was that SFC's either came with drum or disc brakes, never the two mixed as seen on other bikes. The SFCs came out of the box as factory racers and were a breed apart from the street 750s. However, like they say; victories on the track translate directly to victories in the salesroom, so Laverda began selling SFC "replicas" to the public from 1971-76. Eventually, many of the SFC's features would be found on later standard SFs, so everybody benefited.
The Dawn of the 1000 Triple
Inspired by the Honda CB750 Four's performance, in 1972 Laverda unleashed their first double ohc 1000 triples (980cc), the brutally chiseled engines producing 80 bhp @ 7,200 rpm. Talk about doubling your fun, now you could triple it at about 128mph. The 1976 Jota version had big valve heads, Marzocchi rear shocks, rearsets, Dunlop or Pirelli tires, lumpier cams and a performance exhaust. The Jota was considered the fastest production sports motorcycle of that year, and one was timed at 140.04 mph.. Alan Chalk bumped his Jota's compression ratio up to 10:1 (8:1 stock), and added low friction rings, Axtell cams and a larger collector.
The Jota was considered the fastest production sports motorcycle of that year, and one was timed at 140.04 mph.
The 1000 triples first appeared with drum brakes for the 1973 model year, but soon changed to a pair of discs. These bikes were and still are simply called the "1000", while the disc-braked and wire wheel versions were known as the "3C" and the next iteration the "3CL" came with triple discs and cast wheels. The Jota was a high performance version of the 3CL, and standard U.S. 3CLs were called the Jarama. The Jarama is sometimes confused with the Jota, due in part to the fact that a few Jaramas ended up in Britain, where they were modified into Jotas. It got even murkier when the 1,200cc triple appeared in 1978; while designed as a touring bike, they were labeled as the "Jota America." The real Jota won the UK production bike championship in 1976, 1978 and 1979, successfully representing Laverda (a small company with a limited racing budget), against the Japanese and British bikes.
Not Afraid to Mix It Up
While Italian in heart and soul, Laverda recognized that the handwriting on the garage wall was written in Japanese and German. Most significantly, they basically copied the jewel-liked Honda CB77 twin cylinder engine... look at the Laverda 750 and you'll see the direct DNA connection. They also knew Germans made electrics that could go the distance, so they went with Bosch electrics. While the Germans had not done much good for Italy during WWII, at least they could build one ubermensch of a starter and generator.
Laverda spared no expense to build their bikes in the German tradition of "robustness". In fact, they seemed to marry Italian style and passion with Teutonic solidity and dispassionate efficiency. At first, they used Grimeca drum brakes, and then designed their own beefy double drums effective in hauling down the bike's hefty weight. The original concept was a high performance twin tourer, but people began racing them in endurance events. The first twins were 650cc and only built in 1968, the displacement soon expanded to 750cc, pumping out 60 bhp and good for 119 mph.Some say they were the best of the Laverdas, and no doubt some of the best bikes to emanate from Italy. They are often referred to as the "Lamborghini of motorcycles." The 750GT appeared in early 1969, followed by the 750SF in various forms and the incredible 750SFC. There was a GTL 750 employed for a time by several police forces including the Italian polizia urbane. In the U.S., the 750s were imported by the McCormack International Corporation of California and rebadged as the "American Eagle", in an apparent an to give the Italian bikes a patriotic aura. The 750s would eventually go out of production in the late '70s after a ten-year run that produced about 19,000 of the twins. Some say they were the best of the Laverdas, and no doubt some of the best bikes to emanate from Italy. They are often referred to as the "Lamborghini of motorcycles." (No doubt a reference to their similar farm implement roots, than to Lamborghini's non-existent reputation for ahem! "Quality" -Sean)
Two times Triple is Six
During 1976-77 Laverda also experimented with a 1,000cc 90 degree V-6 with double ohc and water cooling, six downdraft carbs and a six-into-one exhaust. It was the group effort of Laverda's then chief designer Lucian Zen and legendary ex-Maserati engineer Giulio Alfieri. The V6 debuted at the 1977 Milan show. However, after some high hopes, it only raced once, breaking down at the French Bol d'Or in 1978, but not before being timed at 180 mph.