In 1977 Laverda debuted the 500cc Zeta, or the Alpino as it was known in the UK (after originally being dubbed the “Alpina”, BMW supposedly took issue with the moniker hence it was changed to “Alpino”). The half-liter two-wheeler was powered by an air-cooled, 497cc, DOHC, four-stroke, 180-degree parallel-twin married to a wet clutch and six-speed transmission. The Zeta’s mill generated 44 horses, and afforded the bike a standing quarter-mile-time of just 14 seconds — during which time the Zeta was capable of reaching over 90mph. The half-liter Laverda’s speed and acceleration was helped along by the bike’s 415lbs wet weight (374lbs dry). As a point of reference, Yamaha’s XS500 and Honda’s CX500 both weighed in at well over 450lbs wet.
Housing the Zeta’s engine was a single downtube cradle chassis paired with top-shelf Marzocchi suspension. The trick Italian suspenders were far from the only top-shelf components on the Zeta, with Brembo supplying the model’s trio of discs and calipers, Denso making its instrumentation and switchgear, Bosch proving the electronic ignitions, and Laverda producing its own high-end cast wheels. Though these parts helped to separate the Laverda from the competition, they were expensive, and that cost was ultimately passed on to the buyer.
So despite a generally warm reception from motorcycle publications, the Zeta was a major commercial flop, largely due to its steep MSRP, albeit its low-speed performance wasn’t doing it any favors either. While the aforementioned CX and XS500 retailed in ‘77 for around $1,550 (roughly $6,700 in 2018 dollars), Laverda’s new 500 supposedly sold for nearly double that at $2,995 (which translates to just shy of $13K with inflation, though one source says its actual price was $2,150, or $8,675 in 2018). Though the Zeta did offer a myriad of high-performance components that (most of) the competition lacked, its price was still too high to persuade riders to add a Zeta to their respective stables.
Somehow, even at that exorbitant price point, the company was reportedly losing money on every unit it produced — a fact supposedly voiced by Massimo Laverda himself. The Zeta’s lackluster sales were exacerbated by the Italian government hiking up sales tax on bikes exceeding 350cc’s in displacement from 18%, up to a whopping 35%. In response Laverda introduced a 350cc variant, but it wasn’t enough to proverbially right the ship.
In something of a last ditch effort to bolster sales, in 1978 the Breganze-based outfit launched the “Coppa Laverda” (Italian for “Laverda Cup”). The competition was comprised of a single-model series (every competitor campaigns the same model, a la BMW’s Boxer Cup), created to promote a new variant of the 500, known as the “Formula 500”. The series was made up of six events and ran for four-years from ’78 through ’81. And despite only fielding up-and-coming (lower-tier) riders, the Laverda Coppa was a success, expanding outside of Italy into other parts of Europe after the first year.
Produced exclusively for the Cup, the Formula 500 first debuted in the Spring of that same year, with the first production run limited to just 75 units. Though it was still wrapped in what was essentially the stock Zeta frame, the Formula 500’s engine got S1 high-performance race cams, 10.5-to-1 forged pistons, a close-ratio gearbox, a bigger oil-pump, and a race-spec exhaust. The changes to the engine resulted in an additional eight horsepower — allowing for a supposed top-speed of 125mph.
The Formula 500 was also adorned in full race bodywork, which on the initial 75 units included a mono-unit tank/tail-section. Despite the addition of full race bodywork, the Formula 500 weighed in at 35lbs less than the aright svelte stock Zeta, tipping the scales at less than 340lbs dry. The race-spec 500 also got Menani clip-ons, and sandcast rear-sets that were mounted in what looks like an uncomfortably high position.
In ’79 Laverda churned out another small batch of 75 Formula 500s, this time replacing the single-piece tank/tail with two separate units, as the one-piece unit reportedly impeded access to the power plant. The Series 2 500’s were also given different (cross-over) exhaust. Another 60 units were produced sometime over the next year, bringing the supposed total production number up to 210. Though the Formula 500 was a track-only model right out of the box, the bike was sold with the paperwork and necessary parts (plates, lighting, speedo, etc) to transform it into a street-legal road-goer. Like the Zeta, the Formula 500 strangely came with a keyed-ignition, further bolstering its streetability potential.
In addition to being raced in the Laverda Cup, a handful of Formula 500s were campaigned in ’78 and ’79 at Barcelona’s Montjuic Park 24-Hour where the Zeta-based racers claimed the top step of the podium both years. The following year, the Slater Brothers — who in 1970 became the UK importers for Laverda —brought half-a-dozen Formula 500 examples to the legendary Isle of Man where the orange racers secured the team prize in the Formula 2 class.
With at most only a couple hundred specimens having been produced, Formula 500 examples are exceedingly rare — even more so in the US where the model was never made available as it was built exclusively for a European-only race series. The Slater Bros did import a decent number of Formula 500s into the UK, but only six of them were campaigned at the 1980 TT. This example is reportedly one of those six, and the sale includes what the seller calls “extensive documented history all verified by Slaters and it’s also road-registered with Richard Slater’s name down in the V5”.
Unfortunately this bike doesn’t appear to be a Series 1 example from the initial 75-unit run, as it clearly isn’t wearing a one-piece tank/tail-section. Based on that alone I assume this is a 1979 example, but the ad doesn’t specify beyond saying it is “Believed to be one of the six Formula 500’s entered into the TT in 1980”. Either way, these are really rare bikes, and this one is in fantastic condition. And considering the outfit selling the bike regularly restores full-on MotoGP bikes, I’m confident this Laverda is mechanically sound.
You can find this ex-1980 Isle of Man TT Laverda Formula 500 for sale here at Made In Italy Motorcycles in Suffolk, England with a price of $25,600 (or £19,950).