Italian 500s are delectable, exciting and pricey. Laverda's Alpino S is no
exception. Test Graham Sanderson. Photography Duncan Cubitt.
IF YOU'VE succumbed to the conditioning by which you accept Japan's
motorcycling values of comparatively high performance for a reasonably low price
then you'll have difficulty in accepting a machine like the Laverda Alpino. It's
unimpressive capacity of 500cc and unexciting performance (on paper) coupled
with a price of £1675 ensures that the Alpino will come in for intense scrutiny
from disbelieving bikers just off to buy their similarly performing CB400 Honda
twins for little over half the Laverda's price. Or rather it won't because
anyone who wants one of the counter-balanced three-valves per cylinder Japanese
twins isn't likely to consider a Laverda at all.
In fact, the almost inevitable comparisons which are bound to be made between
the Laverda and other 500s such as Honda's £1207 CX500 vee-twin, Yamaha's £1050
eight-valve XS500 are not only confusing but almost irrelevant. So, too, is
viewing the market in search of other machines you could buy with the Laverda's
£1675. Yamaha's 750cc shaft-driven triple is cheaper; highly desirable ironware
such as the Kawasaki Z1000 and Suzuki CS1000 are only slightly more expensive
than the little Alpino. But you have to realise that any biker in the market for
the distinctive brand of motorcycling offered by the Laverda isn't likely to
endure sleepless nights working out the price versus performance versus capacity
equation. The Laverda is a single minded machine for similarly minded bikers
whose choice of the Alpino won't be side tracked by anything other than similar
high priced Italian 500s available in Britain such as the Ducati 500 Desmo
(Bike, April '78) and the Morini 500 vee-twin (Bike, June '78).
But you don't have to read the Financial Times every day to realise why
Italian machines are more expensive than their Oriental counterparts. The
Japanese are geared to produce millions of bikes which keeps down the price of
each individual machine; the Italian figure is in the thousands so production
costs are inevitably higher and this is reflected in their showroom prices. But
the artistic Latin temperament has always produced real motorcycles. With
faults, yes, but they've generally provided our most memorable biking thrills
unlike the often faceless units of production churned out by the Japanese. Folks
who stare disbelievingly at the Laverda, shaking their heads in shocked
disapproval at its price, will never know what a superb little motorcycle the
Alpino really is.
Partly it's because the Italians offer such a welcome alternative to the
all-conquering Japanese approach to building motorcycles and partly it's because
Italian motorcycles of all capacities have a touch of built-in exclu-siveness.
The Alpino is no exception and what it lacks in the sheer brute power of the
1000cc Jota is compensated for by its charm. I mean, the girls with the biggest
knockers aren't always more fun to know than I'il chicks.
What the Alpino offers more than many other 500s is a tremendous sense of
pride in ownership. Far from giving the rider an inferiority complex because of
its medium capacity, the Laverda gives you the feeling that it will run with
bigger, faster machinery. It may not be up to 100mph motorway cruising but in
the twists and curves of real biking country where a biker's senses get attuned
to the demanding roads he's navigating that's what the Alpino loves.
You'll soon forget that it's a fairly conventional parallel twin and begin to
enjoy motorcycling in its most pure, exciting and individual sense.
Laverda have avoided the trap which the mass-production exponents have fallen
into. The Alpino feels as if it's been designed as a single entity and not like
a concoction of ill-matched committee-designed proprietary parts. The package is
so convincing at the outset that a ride to prove this initial impression is
It's one of those rare machines which feels correct the first time you sit on
its slim, thin but surprisingly comfortable seat. The handlebars have a slight
rise but are flat enough to ensure that the rider leans slightly forward into
wind therefore minimising the energy draining effects caused by higher, wider
bars. Footrests, too, are ideally placed so I could sit naturally with boot
heels pushed against the rubbers. It's such a coordinated riding position that
no single part of the rider's anatomy, the arms, shoulders, neck or legs, takes
a physical hammering. Only your backside takes the strain and then only after a
With a machine that felt so right initially it didn't take long to get into
the positive and exciting brand of motorcycling it offered. With legs wrapped
close in to the tank, shaped with a touch of the macabre like the lid off a rich
man's coffin, you begin to ride the Alpino like you've owned nothing else all
your life. This impression must go down to its weight or rather lack of it. The
Italians have never gone on obese motorcycles, the 750cc Benelli six apart, and
the Laverda weighs no more than a 500 should at 4151b on the road. The
suspension is on the firm side of superb and provided by Marzocchi front and
rear. It gives you a fairly lively time over the poorly metalled surfaces you're
likely to encounter while country lane scratching but nothing ever gets out of
. It'll occasionally shudder momentarily, and small sharp bumps arrive and
depart too quick for the suspension, especially at the rear, to react, but then
it'll settle down onto your intended line without the need for any Charles Atlas
heroics with the bars. Elsewhere it ignores the attempts of more pronounced
bumps to knock it around. You have to be prepared to use your own body to absorb
the shock but unlike the soggy, more forgiving but over-compromised suspension
of many a Japanese bike you won't have to contend with strange wobbles.
Other aspects of the Alpino also demonstrate Laverda's realistic approach to
building motorcycles. The Italians have always built some of the most attractive
and best handling machines but they have often displayed a shocking inability to
produce decent chrome, electrics, instruments and switchgear. Laverda realised
this several years ago, swallowed their pride and went shopping in those
countries where such vital ingredients are given proper attention. As a result
the superb H4 halogen headlamp is just one of the good points of the Alpino's
electrical system provided by the German Bosch concern; the instruments and
switchgear are Nippon Oenso more usually found on Suzukis.
The Italians have solved the chroming problem themselves since our Alpino
showed a dramatic improvement in this previously shoddy area of workmanship. The
Lanfran-coni silencers have thankfully attained a deep, lustrous coating of
chrome mimicking the high standards often seen on concours d'elegance jobs. It's
outrageously good by previous Italian standards. Even the actual exhaust pipes,
although lacking the deep lustre of the silencers, cleaned up easily to a bright
pock-free finish. Their only weak point was where the balance pipe, mounted a
la CB500T Honda, couples the system. The clamps did show signs that
it would be a breeding ground for rust.
Several changes have been made over last year's Alpino hence the addition of
the 'S' for the 1978 machine.
A rotating counterweight has been added at the left side of the crank to
smooth out the inevitable vibration of a twin and higher compression pistons
have been added in an almost obsessive search for more speed. The headlamp is
now rubber mounted and the almost obligatory annual colour change has taken
place, in this case from blue, to striking Lotus-style black with gold stripes.
With previous machines producing a claimed 44bhp at 9,500rpm, it's not
surprising that the Laverda 500 forms the basis of the competitive and
successful Formula 500 class in which several up-coming Italian Grand Prix
contenders experienced their first races. Therefore, you'd quite naturally
assume that the six-speed gearbox and double overhead cams operating four valves
per cylinder would help make the Alpino one of the hottest 500s around. Well, it
doesn't exactly climb every performance mountain although it's no sluggard and
we weren't disappointed at all. But that gorgeously sculpted motor holds several
surprises. Maximum power may be thrown out high up the rev scale but maximum
torque is delivered much lower down. Roger Slater, the British Laverda importer
wouldn't quote figures but last year's bike thumped out 33 ft/lb at 5,200rpm and
since our Alpino felt much nicer in the low and mid rev ranges than it did when
searching for the last ounce of performance, we suspect a similar output for
this year's Alpino.
Despite its bobweight being geardriven, the Alpino rattled like class three
playing marbles and at various intervals the petrol tank and mirror launched
into vibratory conversation. The all alloy engine would have accentuated the
engine noise but much of this problem must have been down to a fault discovered
by a disappointed Roger Slater who stripped the motor after we reported our
100.67mph top speed from the machine. Apparently the machine had been over-rewed,
and all eight valves had touched the pistons, distorting the heads of six.
After the 109.9mph obtained from last year's model, a higher top speed was
expected from our bike considering' the improvements. But even if the 'S' wasn't
the fireball the importers expected the bike still has so much in its favour.
Eight valves really improve breathing and acceleration is rapid, smooth, and
constant which makes the Alpino easy to ride. Eighty to 90mph is no problem for
the Laverda but more important than actual top speed is the way the bike feels.
Some machines are so downright smooth and efficient that they're almost like
automatons. The Alpino sends its rumbles throughout the bike giving the rider
that tiger-in-the-tank feeling.
With such a slim, light motorcycle as the Alpino, Laverda needed to use a
simple single top tube frame with a downtube which branches into two to cradle
the engine. It works well, so well in fact that Laverda have chamfered the base
of the crankcase alternator cover to prevent grounding. This could be a little
self-gratification on Laverda's part but at no time did I ground anything. When
you're stuffing the Laverda into corners, particularly S-bends, you realise just
how well it handles. It can be hauled up from one extreme and dumped into
another so easily. And if you do cock-up the line you can either lean it more or
rely on the superb Brembo cast iron discs which actually work in the wet, too.
They'll stop you only fractionally less efficiently than shoving your leg in the
front wheel, but a damned sight more safely.
Look at the bike closely and you'll see details which may go some way to
appeasing the blokes who question the Alpino's price. The five-spoke high
pressure die-cast wheels are made in Laverda's own foundry; foot rests are
chrome-plated; frame welds — which are largely concealed — are smooth and free
from the blotchy taint of mass production; engine side casings and rocker box
covers are beautifully finished; silencers are rubber mounted and a magnificent
14-piece toolkit even includes a small oil bottle.
Mainly because of its largely prohibitive price, only converted Laverda
freaks are likely to give the Alpino a second glance which means that,
tragically, you're not going to see many around over here. And until bikers stop
equating high price with large capacity instead of motorcycling quality then
Roger Slater isn't going to get rich on Alpino sales.