Monday, 2 April 2018

Laverda Jota


Ever since I read about the antics of various journalists aboard Laverda Jotas in the late seventies I have been consumed by the need to own one. Every inch of one bedroom wall is plastered with pictures of these fiery triple cylinder, 1000cc machines. I used to go to sleep with visions of roaring down the road on a bright orange example, chanting to myself - I will own a Laverda Jota - time and time again.

It took more years than I care to admit until I finally got my hands on one. It was a 1978 model, 33000 miles under its belt and a fistful of past owners. The first crack in the dream came when I tried to clamber on board. The seat is very high off the ground, I felt I should summon someone to give me a leg up as if I was mounting a horse. The owner looked on with a sickly smile as l precariously held the beast upright on tip-toes.

The starter rumbled and growled for about 30 seconds until it got the better of the three high compression pistons and six valves controlled by double overhead cams. The bike shuddered as the rev counter flipped up to 2500 revs and l hurriedly searched for the choke in vain.

Into first gear with an agricultural clunk only for the brutal take up of the clutch to make me stall it. By than I was perched on the one toe and the sharp lurch forward unbalanced me. I was only saved the embarrassment of splattering the Jota on the tarmac by the owner rushing forward to stop the machine in its descent.

l was given the choice of handing over £2500 or pissing off, there was no way he was going to let me have a test ride after that incident. Naturally, I handed over the money. My second attempt achieved forward motion and the thought that the journos never reported the vicious vibes at low revs. The Laverda just didn't want to run cleanly below 50mph in top gear, it was as if the machine was telling me to get a move on and stop fooling around.

The growl from the almost straight through, somewhat rusted exhaust system, reflected off the shop windows, turned the heads of startled pedestrians and caused one young kid to cover her ears with her hands shortly before bursting into tears. It seemed to run best at low speeds in second gear but stopping for a pedestrian crossing without engaging neutral revealed that the clutch dragged evilly.

The motor soon stalled, again causing me to lose my precarious balance and dump a boot on a conveniently placed car bumper. This did not amuse the driver of the Volvo 740 who shook his fist at me. He had the last laugh, though, because the motor refused to start again. I had to leap off, use all my muscle to stop it toppling over and then push near on 600lbs to the side of the road. I gave various car drivers the V sign when they started using their horns and nearly had a fight with an irate taxi driver. Having finally got the machine on the side stand l was able to collapse on a nearby bench. By the time I returned to the machine, it naturally fired up first touch of the button.

The blast down the A roads to my country mansion (sick joke) put me in a better mood. The power delivery of the Jota is something else and all that I ever dreamed it would be. The first time I opened the throttle in third gear I almost had a heart attack. By the time it reached the redline and I'd foolishly assumed there was nothing left, the bike suddenly picked up power again and blasted off down the road like a turbo charger had just kicked in or someone had opened up the nitrous bottle.

By the time I'd managed to stop the huge grin from splitting my head in half, I realised the beast was entering a corner 30mph faster than was physically possible. Ramming on the immensely powerful front discs and jumping on the right-hand ’brake’ pedal produced enough stopping power to catapult the unwary over the bars and a terrible noise from the gearbox... in my panic I had forgotten that the Wops used to put the brake and gear levers on the wrong side.

The Jota is long, top heavy and overweight, it will stick to a well set up line like glue, but if you enter a bend with all the suspension wound up from frantic braking it gets thrown about all over the tarmac. I have ridden many a big Jap multi that is much worse, but something like a new CBR600 kills the old Laverda in the bends... but then there would be something seriously wrong if the best of the modern bikes couldn't handle better than this quaint old Italian dinosaur.

Later, I was to find that maximum speed was an indicated 140mph, although the speedo needle would waver 20mph to each side at times, so the true top speed is anyone's guess. It's easily fast enough to lose you your licence. The engine feels best between 3500 and 6500 revs where vibes are not too noticeable. Between 6500 and 7500rpm the vibes are bone rattling but come eight grand the motor suddenly settles down and smooths out before going berserk again. Very weird indeed.

It will cruise all day at 90 to 100mph along motorways with the most delightful growl from the exhaust and tolerable levels of vibration - it needs this kind of speed to make some sense of the riding position, even with the adjustable bars in their least sporting position there's still a lot of weight on the wrists and all the controls are very heavy, making the bike quite tiring to ride long distances.

Stability is surprisingly good up to about 110mph, thereafter the back end waltzes about, as it does if you back off in fast sweepers. Its suspension, even now, is on the harsh side and this probably contributes to the occasional white knuckle speed wobble that happens if you hit a bump when accelerating past 120mph. I've found if you keep accelerating, by the time you're past 125mph it gradually dies out. The first time it happened I was petrified that when l slowed down it would come back and had a vision of myself spending the rest of the day careering along at 130mph until the fuel ran out. Fortunately, it doesn't speed wobble when you slow down from greater speeds.

Fuel consumption varies between 30 and 50mpg, usually somewhere around 40mpg. Oil consumption is heavy, a litre every 400 miles and the gearbox becomes very agricultural if you don't change the oil every 800 miles. Because the growl under heavy acceleration is so addictive, a decent chain only lasts 4000 miles and expensive rear tyres about 2500 miles. I prefer Pirellis myself as they seem safer in the wet, when it's extremely easy to lose the back and under the ferocious power delivery.

I'd got the mileage up to 46000 miles when on a particularly bright and sunny day, the kind of day when you just want to ride and ride, I suddenly realised that the bike was being followed by a cloud of white smoke that would have done a 30 year old Jawa proud. 50 miles later, by the time I reached my home, the engine was. coughing and spluttering like it was only running on two cylinders. Sure enough, when the local mechanic took the head off an exhaust valve had burnt out. Everything else appeared fine, so the cause is not known and I've done 15000 miles with no further engine problems.

It became a very reluctant starter, a problem eventually traced to the mess of wiring. I had to rewire the whole thing myself and took the opportunity to modify the battery compartment to take a small car battery. It now has a couple of hidden switches that stops anyone from riding off on it and, along with additional rubber mounting of the lights, has not had any more electrical problems. I think the system is basically sound, it just needs a bit of tender loving care to sort it out.

It's that kind of bike. When a bit of rust pokes through the tank or frame paint you think nothing about tearing off the bits and paying out for the best available job to be done. Rather than leave it out in the street, subject to the vagaries of the local louts or winter weather, you risk permanent back injury pushing it up into the hall. Rather than buy a machine with a sensible seat height you order a pair of boots with built up heels. Rather than become civilised and sensible by buying a Ford Onion you spend all your spare time and money on the Laverda. 

If Jota were Italian for fun I would not be surprised, because it’s the most awe inspiring and addictive bike I've ever come across, but certainly not the most practical.

Dick Watson

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