Riding The V6

Alan Cathcart was invited to ride the V6 in 1991, the resulting article on the bike was published in many magazines around the world, coming to my attention through Australian Motorcycle News as outlined in page 1.  The story is reproduced with permission, thanks Alan.

"The Stuff of Legends"

It was almost time for the big moment, the opportunity Iíd been waiting for almost a decade since my first visit to Breganze in the early 80ís: at last I was going to ride the V-six Laverda.

Okay, I admit Iíve had more than my fair share of thrills on two wheels, up to and including riding the six cylinder 250 Honda, but the "Sei in vu" was somehow different, a mystical mount whose fleeting appearance in action at the í78 Bol only added to itís allure.  Even the oval piston NR750 Honda has seen more mileage in public than the V-six, let alone in the hands of magazine journalists.

Nevertheless, here I was, about to sample a genuine motorcycling legend, having been asked to demonstrate it to the assembled company of Japanese journalists and local Italian bigwigs- not to mention Chinoi-san, boss of the Shinken Corporation whose faith and vision in Laverdaís potential has given the V-six itís long awaited new lease of life. Well- leastways I would if only someone would  persuade Massimo Laverda to stop riding it round the factory test track.

Well, eventually Massimo pulled in, beaming a ten foot smile that could practically be seen through my full face Arai, and handed bike and helmet over.  "Watch out for those tyres," he warned, "theyíre the same age as the bike and the rear slick is the one from the Bol díOr. Be careful- this is the only Ďsei cilindrií weíve got!"  Thanks, Massimo- just the sort of encouragement I needed. 

At least I knew the engine would be worry free: Alfieriís V-six engine is practically bullet-proof, a sophisticated, reliable, basically under-stressed power unit that if it were to have been unveiled last month instead of 15 years ago (now 20- SB) would still be hailed as a genuine advance in two wheeled technology: a decade and a half later, itís still just as avantgarde as it was then, especially with the addition of the fuel injection Laverda experimented with in 1977 and which is amazingly still not yet commonplace on performance motorcycles- leastways, those not made in Germany or Italy. 

Well, here it is: the big moment.  On to the wide, comfy seat and that familiar rangy but not overly stretched-out riding position that is pure Ď70ís Latin café racer.  Body inclined forward, Tommaselli clip-ons with their long, graceful, curving levers, the multi-purpose Marzocchi top yoke with the holes drilled for various handlebar locations, the white-faced Veglia rev counter fitted to a generation of Italian production racers but with the red line painted 2000rpm higher than any Ducati of that era ever had, and flanked by oil and water temp and oil pressure gauges in a makeshift dash.  But most Bolognese of all, the long curvaceous tank with the lengthways bulge at the bottom for you to rest your elbows on at speed when crouched under the wide, all enveloping screen.  The wheelbase of this Ďevoluzioneí twin-shock V-six with the repositioned swingarm pivot is even the same as a Ducati 750/900SS, at 1500mm.  By mid-70ís superbike standards, it all seems pretty normal. 

But flick the ignition switch to set the fuel pump tick-ticking and thumb the starter button, and get ready for a surprise: the V-six bursts into life instantly to the accompaniment of a glorious wall of sound from the lightly muffled six-into-two exhausts.  This is no Ď70ís desmo twin, but a motorcycle of the future with three times as many cylinders and six times as many valves, set lengthwise in the chassis yet amazingly enough- thereís no torque reaction!  Blipping the throttle at rest on a Guzzi or BMW with similar lengthways crank would have the bike trying to turn turtle between your legs, as the gyroscopic effect of the crank made itself felt.  But uncanny as it is, the Laverda does nothing of the kind, as you twist the wrist at rest, all that happens is that onlookers start grinning demonically, while partially covering their ears with their hands. 

The V-six stays still, poised, ready for a canter round the short factory test track it knows so well: the idea of counterbalancing the crank with the generator and ignition combining to produce the identical centrifugal weight but rotating in the opposite direction really works. 

Whatís more, it works out on the track, as well.  I wouldnít pretend that a dozen or more laps round the Laverda factory test track constitute a proper examination of the V-sixís potential, but itís certainly possible to form certain conclusions from riding it, however briefly.  The first is how little evidence there is from the bikes behavior that it has a shaft final drive, for long considered the ultimate no-no in terms of performance bike handling, as witness MVís vain attempt to make an F750 racer out of their in-line roadster four, and the popularity of Magni chain-drive conversions for same. 

More recently, Paralever rear ends on BMWís and Dr John inspired parallelogram rear ends on Guzzis have made these shafties handle reasonably well (though thereís still the problem of the extra unsprung weight of a hypoid final drive unit), but back in the Ď70ís Laverda had already found the answer in terms of locating the swingarm pivot at the centre of gravity- only then the company didnít have the technology to make it durable, or the time to make it pretty.  Both problems could be easily resolved today, making this avenue worth pursuing because it works. 

Iíve never ripped anything made of silk, so Iím not sure what it sounds like, but the Laverdaís unique exhaust note, deep at low revs then gradually becoming shriller as the engine speed mounts, certainly lives up to expectations as much when youíre on board it as standing by the trackside listening: guaranteed spine-shivering material.  Apart from that, thereís not a lot of noise for a mid-70ís racer, thanks presumably to the watercooling, though when you crack the throttle wide open, thereís a noticeable degree of induction roar from the stack of six DellíOrtos, even though their trumpets are hidden away under the fuel tank. 

Equally surprising is the power curve: to get almost 140ps at the rear wheel, or in Japanese terms around 160ps at the crank, from a one-litre four-stroke designed in 1976 is almost unbelievable.  Suzukiís TT-winning XR69, arguably the ultimate 1000cc four-stroke racer, Ďonlyí made 134ps at the crank in 1983, by way of comparison.  To achieve such an output figure, barely equaled a decade later by the oval-piston NR750 in endurance trim, youíd expect the Laverda would have to have very lumpy camshaft profiles leading to extreme valve timing and a narrow power band.  Not a bit of it- in fact, after riding the V-six, Iím not surprised to learn that itís done several hundred kilometres on the street as raced but with a Ďprovaí plate fitted. 

The engine is so tractable that you canít help but disbelieve Massimoís fervent assertion that it was never intended to make a road bike from it- because thatís already practically what it is!  The V-six pulls cleanly off the mark with only a little slip of the very light-action clutch, drives cleanly from as low as 2000rpm, hits a hiccup at 3500rpm thanks to the semi-megaphone exhausts with their reverse cones, then cleans out at 4000 revs and runs effortlessly up to the 10,500 redline.  However, considering that if you do that in bottom gear youíre already doing 110km/h, and that third gear out of the five is good for no less than 220km/h, then the unsuitability of what amounts to the Laverda car park as a venue in which to ride such a bike becomes apparent! 

However, there is one lovely, long sweeping right hander where you can wind the V-six up into third gear at about 8000 revs or ten and a bit in second, which provokes two reactions in the rider: one is frustration at not being able to give such a long legged bike, geared to deliver a top speed of 283kmh on the Mistrale straight at Ricard, itís head.  The other is a sense of deja vu as the essential under steering qualities of the long wheelbase chassis, which at 1500mm is exactly the same as the 750SS Ducati I flog round in classic races on, assert themselves.  Just like the old Duke, the Laverda is a bike you need to send a telegram to when you want it to change direction on fast sweepers, a trait not only from the long wheelbase,  but also from the wide 30 degree fork angle and undisclosed but substantial amount of trail- Iíd guess around 120mm.

This cocktail does make for a very stable ride- Signes, the fourth gear corner at the end of the Mistrale, must have been brilliant on the Laverda- at the expense of it being hard to change direction with the bike, which is also inevitably cumbersome in tight turns like the ones round the back of the factory on the test track: you need a lot of physical effort to lug it round such bends.

But riding a bike like the V-six Laverda round a car park is like taking a Lamborghini shopping: itís practically an insult.  Yet the engine is so smooth and forgiving, with such a wide power band and flat torque curve, that itíll put up with all of this.  Except for a notchy change between bottom and second which I put down to the typical problem of going through neutral on a shaft drive bike, the left foot gearchange, with itís evenly spaced ratios is precise and acceptably smooth, and thanks to the resolution of the torque reaction problem, thereís no pogoing up and down on the suspension when you change gear, nor does the gyroscopic effect of the crankshaft effect the steering, because itís been cancelled out.  You have to give the throttle a good blip changing down through the gears- well third down to bottom for the hairpin near the main gate, anyway!- but thatís no hardship with that glorious exhaust note!  However, the one thing I really hated on the bike was the period Italian rocker-pedal shifter, which is supposed to let you use your heel to change up with but only allowed my size nine boot to get wedged inside it, provoking a couple of false neutrals.  Under such circumstances, I was glad to be reassured later by Ing. Alfieri that his engine actually has a safe redline of 12,500rpm, rather than the 10,500 employed for the Bol. Phew!

All to soon it was time for the concert to end: as I cut the engine and coasted to a stop, the crowd of onlookers burst into applause, saluting the genius of Alfieri and Zen, and the enthusiasm of Massimo Laverda, in creating this two wheeled masterpiece, a milestone in motorcycle design.

- Alan Cathcart