The first road bike to exceed 140mph through the speed trap at the famous MIRA test track was not one of the Japanese superbikes but a product of Italy, with a little bit of UK influence; the Laverda Jota. In the mid-70s when even Kawasaki’s mighty Z1 ran out of steam at much above 130mph, the Jota reigned supreme.
Unlike typical Italian bikes of the time which relied on light weight and precise handling for high average speeds point-to-point, the Jota was a bruiser. With 90bhp on tap and weighing 500lbs dry, it took a committed rider to wring the best from it. Even the clutch effort was mighty, requiring a super powerful left hand.
The Jota’s origins were in Laverda’s 3C model, itself no slouch with a claimed 85bhp and a top speed around 130mph. The engine was a 981cc triple with a unique layout; instead of spacing the crank throws 120 degrees apart to give even firing, Laverda used a 180 degree interval meaning the two outer pistons went up as the middle one went down. This gave the triples a distinctive sound but more vibration than the conventional arrangement.
In the UK, Slater Brothers, the Laverda importers, set to work tuning the 3C and through changes such as higher compression pistons, more aggressive camshafts and less restrictive silencers, created the 3CE model (E for England). The factory subsequently built machines to this specification and sold them as the Jota.
With bright orange paintwork almost as loud as the thundering exhaust, luxury items like adjustable handlebars and footrests, and that magnificent engine, the Jota soon became a legend, its price tag putting it out of reach for most enthusiasts. It was rumoured that the tyre technology of the day couldn’t really handle the weight and power but that didn’t stop the Jota racking up win after win on the track, dominating production class racing in the UK from 1976 to 1980.
The high speed handling also put the Jota in a different class to its Japanese competitors. While they wobbled around with more power than their frames could handle, the Laverda remained true to its line through a corner. The challenge for the rider was not so much maintaining control but the physical effort of manhandling such a heavy machine with a long wheelbase through a series of direction changes.
Living with a prestige high performance machine in the 1970s was much more demanding than it is with today’s superbikes which are docile and civilised even in stop-start traffic. The Jota, with its racing cams, was decidedly sulky at low speeds, being unable to run below 10mph even in bottom gear without slipping the clutch. In top gear, full throttle produced little response from the engine at speeds below 70mph, according to period road tests. From 90mph upwards it was a different story, with a twist of throttle sending the bike hurtling towards the horizon.
It is these characteristics that make the Jota such a classic today; riding one is more like taming a raging beast than just travelling somewhere on a machine. They genuinely don’t make them like this anymore.
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