Guest History – Zanè Laverda Twins – The Other, Other Italian Middleweight

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Jason Cormier has recently educated us on the Morbidelli V8 and the BFG / MBK 1300. Today’s history lesson is on the Zanè Laverdas, so get ready to learn!

Zanè Laverda 650/668/750 Twins – The Other, Other Italian Middleweight
Story by Jason Cormier

The vaunted Laverda marque needs little introduction. But I suppose we need to address why a whole series of production Laverdas would warrant an OddBike profile here on Bike-urious. Laverda has long been a fond topic of mine (see my exclusive V6 history on Silodrome) and the company has a long and proud history of producing fine Italian sporting machines, Odd or not.

There is, however, an entire generation of Laverdas that has been largely forgotten in recent decades: those produced at the Zanè factory through the 1990s. It is time to rectify that and introduce you to the last, and perhaps best, Laverdas that preceded the marque’s descent into irrelevance as a zombie brand punted into a dark corner of the Piaggio Group’s closet.

Incidentally, for some first-hand experience with building and racing Laverdas during their golden era of the 1970s, I highly recommend you watch my conversation with Kenny Austin on the OddBike YouTube channel. Kenny’s first Laverda was a 750 SFC, to give you an idea of his fascinating history:

To understand the Zanè era of Laverda we need to go back to the late 1970s, to the tail end of the Breganze factory’s heyday. Following the success of Laverda’s 650/750 parallel twins and 1000 triples, a new, modern, mid-displacement twin was developed to offer a lighter, more nimble machine in the lucrative middleweight category.

Traditional Laverda engineering up to that point had erred on the side of overbuilding the mechanical bits to the point of virtual indestructibility, even under harsh use; there was good reason why Laverdas were successful as endurance racers. Their big twins and triples were, as a result, heavy and sometimes a bit crude in their design. Agricultural was an appropriate epithet, given Laverda’s history as a manufacturer of farm implements since 1873.

Despite their reputation for performance, there was very little in a Laverda engine that was exotic. They had two valves per cylinder, big hemispherical combustion chambers, and domed pistons – these were hallmarks of performance in the 1950s, not the 1970s, and this technology was being rapidly superseded by the multi-cylinder four-strokes and high-spec two-strokes coming out of Japan.

Laverda addressed the threat head-on by introducing an all-new 72x61mm 497cc air-cooled parallel twin in 1977. First fitted to the Alpina (later Alpino) and Zeta 500, this engine was the most advanced twin you could buy at the end of the 1970s. Dual overhead cams operated four valves per cylinder in a modern pent-roof combustion chamber with central spark plug. A six-speed transmission was installed in unit, between horizontally split crankcases: this made the Laverda 500 the first DOHC, 8 valve twin with a six-speed on the market. Some trademark Laverda details were present like the starter motor mounted above the gearbox, a central cam chain between the cylinders, and a four roller-bearing crankshaft, but these were the only concessions to tradition. Even the firing order was changed; the 500 used a 180 degree crankshaft with the pistons rising and falling opposite each other, in contrast to the 360 degree crank used by the 650/750 with the pistons moving as a pair.

The Laverda Alpino

The first 500 produced 44 horsepower, in a package that was considerably smaller and lighter than the big-block Laverdas at less than 400 pounds dry. In 1978, a gear-driven counter balancer was added ahead of the crankshaft to quell the significant vibration inherent in a high-revving parallel twin. In fact, peak power was reached at 9500rpm and the Laverda loved to be kept on the boil, rewarding riders who stayed above the halfway point on the tach.

Good though they were, the Laverdas were still twice the price of comparable Japanese twins in most markets; this in spite of the fact that Massimo Laverda lamented he lost money on every 500 he built. Their impact was limited and did little to stem Laverda’s steady decline in the 1980s. After some hot but small-production specials like the Coppa Laverda spec-racing series of Formula 500 racers and the hot-rod Montjuic 500 produced by UK importer Roger Slater (of Jota 1000 fame), production ended in 1983.

For a time the small-block twin was put on ice, but it certainly wasn’t dead. Laverda, however, nearly was. The early 1980s were a troubled time for the company. They were building outdated, overpriced products that simply couldn’t compete with the now-dominant Japanese offerings, and there wasn’t any capacity for the development of something new to fight back. The lineup consisted of increasingly obsolete 1000/1200 triple rehashes and a series of Zundapp air-cooled two-stroke 125s, and sales were declining fast. The Laverda family, who had been at the helm since the motorcycle company’s foundation in 1949, began to leave: Massimo Laverda was gone in 1985, while his brother Piero followed in 1987.

To make a long and complicated story short and simple: Italian government intervention in 1987 resulted in a worker’s cooperative taking over and renaming the operation Nuova Moto Laverda in 1989.

Production of the small twins resumed in 1986 with the introduction of a 76x63mm, 572cc update with reinforced castings. This was installed into the OR 600 Atlas enduro and the oft-forgotten (but best not remembered) CR 600 cruiser, both produced in small numbers through to the end of the 1980s.

At the same time the 600 was introduced, a thorough re-engineering of the small-block twin was undertaken by Angelo Ferrari and Lino Borghesan. Air-cooling was supplemented by forced oil cooling to the cylinders and heads ala the Suzuki GSX-R 750/1100. The bore and stroke were punched out to 78.5x69mm, the maximum the cylinder castings would allow. The heads were fitted with 30.6mm intake and 27.4mm exhaust valves, at a relatively shallow 36 degree included angle. Finally, a state-of-the-art Weber-Marelli open-loop fuel injection system was fitted. Rated at 60 hp, this 668cc engine first appeared in the prototype CR 668 Cruiser in 1986. In 1989 it would be installed in the 700 El-Cid (enduro) and 700 Hidalgo (cruiser) prototypes.

None of these machines reached production, but the 668 engine would be repurposed for a new role.

An engine was supplied to noted Dutch frame designer Nico Bakker in 1990 to create a new prototype sport bike. He created a simple but effective aluminum twin-spar design with a conservative 26 degree steering head angle, 4 inches of trail, and a tidy 54.1 inch wheelbase. Two extruded hollow aluminum beams were welded to a cast steering head, and cast side plates that supported the swingarm pivot and engine mounts. An alloy beam swingarm and bolt-on tubular steel subframe completed the chassis, which was clothed in a full fairing and christened the 650 Sport.

And then, just as they were about to introduce a revolutionary new machine, Nuova Moto Laverda failed. For those keeping score at home, that’s another square on Italian Motorcycle Company Apocalypse Bingo.

The Zanini Auto Grup took over in 1991 with investment from Japanese firm Shinken to attempt yet another revival of Laverda. The previous lineup was abandoned in favour of developing the new 650 series, which reached production for the 1992 model year.

The first 650s featured the Bakker chassis and an uprated version of the injected, oil-cooled 668 engine with 9.0:1 compression. Confusingly, all Laverdas from 1992-1996 would be called 650s despite all of them utilizing 668cc engines. Fitted with full fairings and handsome, if conservative, styling the 650 won over many reviewers despite some significant flaws.

Power for the 650 was quoted as 70hp at 8900 rpm and 45.6 lb-ft at 7000 rpm. Twin oil coolers were fitted and flanked the engine, fed air by channels in the sides of the fairings. Weight was somewhere between 400-425 pounds dry (depending on your source) or around 450 pounds wet. Equipment was what you’d expect for a 1990s Italian sport bike: 17-inch Marchesini cast alloy wheels and Brembo Goldline axial brake calipers – two piston rear, twin four pistons up front with 320mm discs. Suspension front and rear came courtesy of White Power (aka WP); 40mm upside down fully adjustable forks, and a fully adjustable rear shock with rising-rate linkage.

The Alpha-N Weber-Marelli fuel injection system was quite similar to what had been fitted to Ducati 851s since 1987. Laverda used a P8 ECU with replaceable EPROMs containing the fuel and ignition maps, and offered not-road-legal “Stage 2” EPROMs as an option. Induction was via two 40mm throttle bodies with one injector per cylinder. Fuel was carried in a 16 litre aluminum tank mounted below the seat, behind the engine, centralizing the mass and leaving room for a sizable intake beneath the dummy fuel tank. A quirk of Zanè Laverdas is the fuel filler location: the cap is hidden beneath the passenger seat, or a flap in the top of the solo tail on models without pillion accommodations.

Incidentally, again, if you happen to be a classic Italian motorcycle dork like myself I recommend you watch my how-to video on tuning Weber-Marelli Alpha-N fuel injection systems. And if you aren’t, rest assured the basic principles apply to any open-loop fuel injection system:

The number one attribute of the 650 was unanimous: the handling was universally praised, without reservation. The Bakker geometry was superb, the chassis stiff and communicative, and the 650 offered a perfect balance of stability and agility. Conservative steering geometry combined with a short wheelbase gave the best of both worlds, nimble response with unflappable stability in real-world testing.

Where reviews diverged was in opinions of the engine.

Some reviewers noted a strong top-end rush and above-average performance for a middleweight twin; there wasn’t much in terms of direct competition, certainly nothing that matched the 650 in terms of power, specifications, and chassis. The Ducati 750/900 SS looked positively ancient in comparison to the Laverda. The Ducati 748 was still several years away, and would end up being considerably more expensive than the Laverda as well as 30 pounds heavier. There really was nothing directly comparable to the Laverda 650, at least until the Suzuki SV650 came along and blew everything out of the water in 1999.

Some reviewers weren’t so impressed. They complained of a coarse, noisy engine that was barely rideable below 3,500 rpm and didn’t make usable power until it cleared 5,000, but not before crossing a significant dip in the midrange. Comparisons to a two-stroke were common. If you kept it on the boil and made use of the gearbox it rewarded with good performance, but everywhere else it struggled.

In the meantime Zanini rented out a portion of the Breganze factory to the Diesel Jeans Group, tipping their hand as to how little of the site they were actually using for production. In a bit of dramatic bravado they also announced a production version of the legendary 1000 V6, showing off a prototype in 1991 with a projected price tag of 60 million lire. That would have made it the most expensive production motorcycle to date. 25 were slated to be built, and 19 pre-orders were placed.

Then things started going downhill.

The V6 shown in 1991 had been a shell cobbled together from leftover spares found in the factory; the crankcases were empty and there was virtually no way a running example could be built. The already high price of the V6 was “adjusted” up to 85 million lire, equivalent to around 60,000 USD at the time. Pre-orders evaporated and the project was cancelled.

Meanwhile production of the 650 was miniscule. A mere 20 machines were built in 1992, barely more than a series of pre-production machines for testing and homologation. Another 70-80 followed in 1993.

Behind the scenes the company’s finances were in shambles and Zanini was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Italian government stepped in to mediate. By 1993 Zanini was out, with less than 100 650s produced. In October of that year a new group of investors took over; Paolo and Valentino Brazzale, Nadir and Roberto Spezzapria, and Francesco Tognon would be the latest saviours of the Laverda brand.

Tognon would become the figurehead of the new ownership; thus 1991-1993 would be remembered as the Zanini era, while 1994 onward became the Tognon era.

The new company would be called I.Mo.La. SpA (International Moto Laverda) and the first order of business was a move to a new, smaller factory that would be better suited to the leaner operations of Laverda of the 1990s. This facility was a 54,000 square foot building in Zanè, about 6 miles west of the Breganze works.

650 production continued into 1994 with some detail changes. A limited edition Kevlar Serie was released, featuring carbon fibre fairings and a numbered plaque but otherwise a standard 650; 100 were supposed to be built, but subsequent counts suggested more than that were made. Following the Kevlar, the 650 was renamed the 650 Iniezione Elettronica (I.E.) Sport in 1995.

New engine castings came into circulation from the new factory in 1994-1995; some sources note that these early “Tognon” engines had more quality issues than the earlier “Zanini” items, though none of these engines are renowned for their longevity. You can choose which set of problems you wish to deal with based on the generation, with some crossover between series as the factory used up existing parts stock.

Bigger changes came in 1995. For a ten percent premium, 650 Sport buyers could opt for the Formula, which came with hotter camshafts, carbon fibre LaFranconi or Termignoni exhausts, cast iron full-floating front brake discs, upgraded Brembo front master cylinder, carbon fibre front fender, and carbon fibre heel guards. Quoted power remained 70 hp despite the changes.

More notable was the introduction of a new model: the 650 Ghost. Aimed squarely at the Ducati Monster, the Ghost was a naked machine that used the same 668 engine and running gear as the Sport, but introduced a new steel trellis frame. Featuring geometry that was identical to the twin-spar chassis, offering a new frame design with the same specs was a curious choice that Laverda never fully explained beyond stating that some owners “preferred the steel frame” though a more likely explanation is that a steel tube chassis is cheaper to produce. A Ghost Legend was offered as a cosmetic package with carbon fibre accessories and an orange frame. Power for all Ghost models was quoted as 65 hp.

We’ve now established the basic parts bin from which Laverda would draw all subsequent designs from. You have the aluminum spar frame, and the steel trellis frame, and the same engine and running gear mixed and matched to create new models.

From here onward, things get messy. Case in point: released alongside the 650 Ghost was the 650 Ghost Strike. The Ghost Strike was a Ghost fitted with the aluminum spar frame and a bikini fairing.

Confused yet? Don’t worry, you will be soon enough.

Detail changes followed. Paoli suspension was adopted across the lineup with a 41mm USD fork and adjustable rear shock becoming the standard fitment for all subsequent models, but remaining WP parts were used into 1996. Laverda managed to carve out a small niche in the middle of the market: their pricing was slightly below Ducati and BMW, but above the Japanese options. Like Ducati they attracted sport-minded riders who wanted something raw, different, and quirky, and were willing to put up with the associated quality issues you’d expect from an underdog Italian brand.

1996 saw an update of the Sport into the 668 Sport; this would be a one-year refresh which was mostly cosmetic. The fairings were reshaped and a pair of round headlights replaced the single letterbox light of the 650 and two-tone paint schemes were offered. Under the skin the mechanical bits remained the same as the 650.

In 1997, the 668 Diamante was introduced, using the trellis frame from the Ghost and a half fairing that looked like a cut-down 668 Sport front end. Meanwhile the US market got a different 668 Diamante which used the spar frame. I warned you this was going to get confusing.

Giovanni Pietrobello redesigned the 668 engine for 1998 to address refinement, noise and reliability complaints. The core of the changes were items shared with the upcoming 750 update: new pistons and rings, modified cylinder heads with a narrower valve angle, modified crankcases, a new oil pump, and improved oil circulation through the cooling circuit. There was also a better exhaust system that eliminated the ugly bread box crossover, as well as reworked fuel and ignition mapping. The resulting engine was more tractable, smoother, quieter, and had less driveline lash. Peak power remained the same as before, but the delivery was far more linear.

The final 668 would be the 1998 Black Strike 668 Café Racer, a limited edition of 50 units. Aside from Pietrobello’s updates to the engine, the Black Strike was a spar frame Ghost Strike painted black, but not fitted with a bikini fairing; in Laverda logic this was what made it a “Café Racer” because café racers don’t use fairings, apparently.

The ultimate evolution of the Laverda twin would be the liquid-cooled update of the small-block architecture designed by Antonio Calgaro. This 750 twin was based heavily on the existing 668 but featured revisions to virtually all the components. The crankcases were new, and the transmission had modified ratios. Everything above the crankcase was new; aside from the obvious addition of liquid cooling, the heads had improved combustion chambers, and the cylinders were widened enough to allow an increase to an 83mm bore. Combined with the existing 69mm stroke this netted 747ccs. Compression was now 10.5:1. The whole engine weighed a remarkable 26 pounds less than the outgoing 668.

With 43mm throttle bodies and an updated Weber-Marelli 1.6M ECU, the first 750s put out 80-85 hp with marked improvements to the midrange and bottom end power. The resulting powerplant was linear in a way that the 668 could never hope to be, in addition to being smoother and quieter. But not smooth and quiet enough to match Asian rivals; it was still Italian and had the rough edges to show it.

The first 750 model released was the 1997 750S, which used the spar frame combined with the Diamante half fairing. The lineup was expanded in 1998 to include the 750 Diamante (trellis frame, half fairing) 750 Ghost Strike (spar frame, bikini fairing), 750S Caraneta (spar frame, full fairing) and the 750 Sport Formula (spar frame, full fairing, more power). All featured styling updates and some running changes like the fitment of a larger 19 litre fuel tank.

The 750 Formula picked up where the 650 Formula left off, offering a full-fairing 750 with spar frame fitted with a hot-rod engine producing 92 hp via 11.5:1 compression and hotter cams, along with a smattering of carbon fibre bits and cast iron floating brake rotors. In 1999 the Formula was given a mild update to become the Formula II, now putting out 95 hp and available in a sweet orange and blue paint scheme.

Despite these promising updates to the range, things were not going well on the business end. After canvassing for investors, Tognon would ultimately attract the Spezzapria family’s Forgital Group. Forgital would purchase a 90% stake on the company, leaving Tognon with the remaining 10%.

An attempt was made to expand the range in 1998 with the TTS800, a sport-enduro-touring sort of thing that had more than a passing resemblance to the Yamaha TDM. Using the trellis chassis fitted with a 790cc engine, the TTS was shown in Munich in 1998. Ultimately it would not reach production.

1998 would see the development of new series of 1000cc 12 valve triples. A mockup of the engine on a stand was exhibited at the 1999 Milan show, but this would prove to be a dead end that never came close to production due to a lack of capital.

An attempt to build a big-bore racer to compete in AMA Battle of the Twins supposedly resulted in two complete machines and approximately 20 engines. These engines were created by increasing the bore to 87mm for 820cc, with experimental engines punched out to 89mm/840ccs, but beyond that little is known about their specifications and they were never homologated.

In 1999 another prototype racer was built by stripping down a 750S (with the standard 85 hp engine) and calling it the PRC 750 Cup. This turn-key race machine, clearly aimed at a spec-racing series, was to be sold without street equipment and more slippery carbon fibre race bodywork (which had a striking resemblance to Yamaha YZF600 panels), along with upgraded Paoli suspension, some billet aluminum and titanium components, and a stacked Arrow 2 into 2 exhaust system. If you guessed the Cup would not reach production, get out your bingo card.

2000 would prove to be the final year of Zanè Laverda. The 750S became the 750 Super Sport, fitted with the 92 hp Formula engine and a new 2 into 1 exhaust. The 750 Black Strike used a similar parts-bin recipe to the 668 Black Strike by fitting the Formula engine and Super Sport 2 into 1 exhaust into a blacked-out Ghost Strike chassis, minus the bikini fairing because café racer.

By this point development had stagnated and sales were mediocre despite a marked increase in quality under Spezzapria control; the future was looking bleak for Laverda. Investment was sought from George Soros’ Quantum Group, but the deal was vetoed by Laverda’s creditors.

Things looked up for a period when Aprilia purchased Laverda from Forgital/Spezzapria in 2000, but this would prove to be the beginning of the end. Aprilia had a habit of purchasing then killing appealing sport machines that could conceivably compete with the prestige of their RSV and RS series (see also: Moto-Guzzi MGS-01) and Laverda was simply their latest victim. The 750 line was discontinued shortly after the takeover.

Two prototypes with outsourced engines were shown in subsequent years: the 2000 650 Lynx used a Suzuki SV650 V-twin, while the 2003-2004 1000 SFC, shown in semi-naked and fully-faired guises, used a 60-degree Rotax V-twin straight from the Aprilia RSV1000. Neither project led anywhere.

I don’t think I can summarize the underwhelming end of Laverda better than what is posted on their long-dormant company website (emphasis mine):

“In the year two thousand Laverda joined the Aprilia Group and, empowered by the eclecticism that had always marked its history, it returned to the market with a street legal scooter, the Phoenix, (and) a family of quads – a product designed for the then emerging market of lightweight four wheeled all terrain vehicles – and the SFC maximoto, an extremely popular one-off project.”

The Laverda Phoenix

The Laverda Quasar

That’s how you close a chapter of Italian motorcycling: descend into irrelevance and slap a storied name onto garbage like a generic scooter and a kiddie ATV. The final nail in the coffin was when Aprilia was acquired by the Piaggio Group in 2004; Laverda came in the package as little more than an addition to Piaggio’s keychain of dead Italian marques. They’ve since done absolutely nothing with the name beyond selling a few Laverda branded tchotchkes and offering some extremely limited spare parts support.

The legacy of the Zanè era of Laverda’s history would prove to be a mixed bag. The 650/668/750 twins were excellent examples of their breed: lively middleweight twins that offered loads of Italian character and fine performance for a reasonable price, given their specifications. Their rarity guarantees exclusivity; Ducatis and Moto-Guzzis are downright common in comparison to Zanè machines.

But don’t misplace your optimism: in the long term they’ve earned a reputation as fragile oddball machines that have had virtually no parts or service support for the last 20 years.

Quality and reliability problems proved endemic: everything from too much paint on the cylinders insulating the metal against cooling, to dumb design choices like a direct-wired starter circuit with no solenoid, to high oil consumption, to failing oil bypass valves, to valve seats falling out of the head, and excess clearance in main bearings that make just about any high mileage Zanè a grenade with a missing pin. If you are lucky, or you buy a fully sorted example, you might have years of trouble-free riding. If you aren’t, you’ll be treated to some serious mechanical carnage and the headaches of dealing with an uncommon, orphan motorcycle brand.

For a first-person perspective, check out Bike-urious reader David N’s experience after buying a Laverda 750S Carenata.

The lack of support and their reputation for expensive problems have made Zanè Laverdas a temptingly inexpensive entry point into Italian sport riding, if you can stomach the potential issues and rough edges. Market values are bargain-basement low for just about any Zanè machine. So if you have a hankering for a subtly brilliant but highly flawed Italian middleweight twin, and you are a sucker for punishment, a 1990s Laverda just might fit the bill for a modest initial investment. Just be warned that, just like inexpensive European luxury cars, in the long run there is no such thing as a cheap Italian sport bike.

Interesting Links

Laverda V6 history on Silodrome
Kenny Austin interview on OddBike YouTube
Tuning Weber-Marelli Fuel Injection
Moto-Guzzi MGS-01
Laverda 668 technical/service information
Bought on Bike-urious: Laverda 750S Caraneta Part I
Bought on Bike-urious: Laverda 750S Caraneta Part II
Sport Rider review of the 650 Ghost

Did you like this story? Check out Jason’s other work here on Bike-urious…
BFG / MBK 1300 – Boxeur Français
Morbidelli V8 – Eight Cylinder Exotica

…then check out his site, OddBike!