At home with Piero Laverda
If I were honest, I’ll admit that much of what I “know” about motorcycle history is second-hand information and book learning; and that’s simply because many of the “hands on” g
uys aren’t around anymore. So getting the inside story from the man who rolled up his sleeves every morning to run the family bike-making business in Breganze, Italy was a gold-plated honour.
In May 2005 I rode my 1982 1200 Mirage to Ojai, California for the inaugural North American Laverda Owners’ Rally. Among the many guests of honour (a unique assembly of contributors to the Laverda legend) were two very special Laverdasti: Piero Laverda and his son Giovanni. It was Piero’s father, Francesco Laverda who in 1947 turned his agricultural equipment company to building motorcycles, with considerable success. Francesco’s OHV 75 and 100cc bikes dominated their classes in the Giro d’Italia until the arrival of Taglioni’s OHC Ducati “Marianna” in 1955.
And it was Francesco’s elder son Massimo who changed the company’s direction. After spending time in the US, Massimo persuaded his father that bigger bikes were the future; and the Laverda 750 Twin was the result. The DOHC triples of the early 1970s then set technical and performance standards for a decade. Mercurial genius Massimo managed the company, while Piero, a mechanical engineering graduate, ran the factory. However, it was restricted access to the US market and increasing competition from bigger companies with deeper pockets that sank Laverda in the late 1980s. Massimo, in ill-health for some time, died in October 2005.
The Laverda name lives on in motorsport through Laverda Corse. Piero and Giovanni tour Europe with their demonstration team and a selection of their iconic bikes: 750SFC and 1000cc production racers, and, of course, the iconic V-6. I’ve kept in touch with Piero since the ’05 Rally, and in 2008 he was kind enough to invite me and my traveling companions to his home in Vicenza, in the hills outside Venice. I doubt you could find a more gracious host.
After a reviving glass of prosecco and a tour of the family farmhouse (read: stately and historic Italian mansion), Piero led us to what were once the stables, and are now his “Laverda Corse” workshop and repository of Laverda memorabilia: In the centre of the workshop: a ”new” SFC that Piero is building himself from parts. This is a motorcycle that will have a unique provenance for sure! Also stored here are unique motorcycles from Laverda’s heyday: the space-frame production racing triple that gained much success in 1975; a number of early singles; SFC production racers; and, the bike we’d really come to see, the 1000cc V-6 of 1977.
It was former Maserati technical director Giulio Alfieri who, together with Massimo and long-time Laverda engineer Luciano Zen created the V-6. Alfieri had overseen the Merak V-6 project at Maserati and brought his ideas to Laverda. The new engine was as revolutionary as the DOHC triple eight years before: a 90-degree liquid-cooled V-6 with 24 valves and six 32mm Dell’Orto carburetors. Though blisteringly fast in its first outing at the 1978 Bol d’Or 24-hour raceat over 175 mph on the straight, a driveshaft universal joint failure ended the challenge. With little money for an extended development program, the V-6 project was shelved. But, with the space-frame triple and SFC, now forms the Laverda Corse demonstration fleet.
PIERO PRIES OPEN THE ANCIENT stable door, moves a red SFC1000 out of the way, and walks the
bright orange monster out into the courtyard, settling it on a paddock stand. Noticeable features are the vast fuel tank, paired Marchall headlights and huge steel trellis swingarm, necessary to mitigate driveshaft jacking from the 140-hp engine. Piero points out that the engine has never needed servicing apart from oil changes, the valve covers still safety-wired shut from a previous Corse outing in Japan.
Fuel on, signaled by a whine from the pump; a check of the oil in the underseat tank; ignition on. Piero presses the starter and a raucous burble rents the air, followed by a series of rising, ripping growls as Piero flicks the twistgrip back and forth to warm the oil. The exhausts emptying through a pair of three-into-one open pipes make a unique sound: a snarling, metallic bark, a baritone version of the howl made by early Honda racing multis perhaps.
With the engine off, Piero unlatches the gas tank to display the engine, which is also pretty much the whole frame. The steering head connects to the cylinders by triangulated steel tubes, and the swingarm is mounted on the back of the transmission. Radiators sit on either side of the motor, which is topped by six huge velocitystacks. Power was not the issue with the Laverda 1000cc V-6: it had plenty, with more to come. But it also weighed more than 520 lbs. (235 kg), too much to make it competitive.
I speculate aloud whether anyone ever complains about the noise from Piero’s bikes. It seems not: Piero tells the story that once when he was loading the Laverda Corse bikes into a transport truck to ship them to Japan, a local deputation arrived, worried that he might be moving away. He also uses the winding hillside roads near his home for test riding, and tells of being pulled over by the polizia on one race bike excursion (absent of lights, licence or mufflers). Then the officer examined Piero’s driver’s licence and noticed the same name on the gas tank … No problemo!
It’s a rare privilege to connect with someone so intimately and comprehensively involved in creating some of the most exotic motorcycles of the late 20th century. That Piero Laverda was generous enough to give up a whole day to entertaining us (even if three of our party are Laverda owners) shows a graciousness that belongs to an earlier time: when passion, determination and talent were all you needed to make iconic, handcrafted sporting motorcycles, and building the best bike you could was more important than the bottom line. Those were the days.
– Robert Smith, Oct/Nov 2009 (issue# 256)