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Classic Scrap, Class of 1981 - Laverda Jota v Honda CB1100

In one of the most fascinating periods in the modern superbike era, two exclusive and exotic race-bred motorcycles pass fleetingly on the showroom floor before going their separate ways.

Click to read: Laverda Jota owners reviews

Click to read: Honda CB1100 owners reviews

Ever since a British Laverda importer had unwittingly created ‘the beast of Breganze’ by building a UK only limited edition ‘R’ version of the already much-loved 3C, the motorcycling world had come to hold the brand in such high esteem that it seemed impossible during the mid to late ‘70s that even the hard working, technology obsessed japanese could muster anything to threaten the ‘Fastest Bike in the World’.

Depending on your viewpoint, the Jota (named after a Spanish folk dance) was a toned down version of the 3C endurance racer or a tuned version of the 3C road bike. Either way, the modifications – including hot cams and high-compression pistons as used in the race bike – created the monster that was speed tested at 140mph, and subsequently, one of the most iconic legends in the history of Italian classics.

Laverda enjoyed success and adulation in equal measures but were guilty of resting on their laurels while Honda were developing new machinery at a feverish pace. Their obsession with success in racing led to the need for a high-spec homologation special in order to compete in the street-legal endurance race series that were springing up at the time.

Although there were events in the UK and South africa, the boys at Honda deemed the prestigious Australian Castrol Six Hour important enough, or a good enough excuse, to develop a no-nonsense, no expense spared limited edition jaw-dropper. Not unlike Roger Slater and his 3C Jota experiment, Honda went into production with a heavily modified CB900F to create a machine that stopped the world in its tracks. Of the three versions that were made, this semi-faired 1981 RB was the first followed by the fully faired red/white/black RC in 1982 and the final Red/White/Blue RC in 1983. Production was strictly limited to a total of 1050, 1500 and 1500 respectively for all markets.

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As far as makeovers go, this was pretty damn serious. Boring out the old 901cc lump to a massive 1062cc was just for starters. Strengthened conrods, hotter cams, forged pistons, lightweight crankcases and modified gearbox for the internals. a lightweight aluminium fuel tank and discs complemented the aerodynamic CBX style fairing and race styled bodywork to give a very sleek and purposeful appearance, although despite its efforts, the 1100 turned out to be a few kilo’s heavier than its little brother and twice the cost at an eye-watering £4,000.

Just look at these bikes. It’s almost impossible to find any two performance motorcycles from the very same year that could be any further apart. They have so much in common yet are from entirely different chapters in the book of significant sport bikes. The noble and devilishly handsome Italian thoroughbred whose simple parents earned a crust from making combine harvesters meets the garish and futuristic battleship from outer space. The Jota, having already feasted at the table of the greats, had to budge up to make room for the incredibly flash Japanese pretender, and it didn’t look as though the Honda was taking any prisoners.

It’s easy to get lost in waffle when considering the magnitude of this meeting, but look at where the two companies are now if the significance is lost on you.

This is the very point at which, despite going on to develop larger and more luxurious versions of their triple, Laverda were at their peak of performance and popularity - the same 1,000cc motor having been in production for almost ten years by 1981. Honda were well on their way to world domination and the launch of their very first ‘r’ model gave them the predictable racing success that they craved, and the platform to justify development of more high performance models.

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The Laverda is the very finest visual example of Italian sportsbikes of the time. It is beautifully engineered and well finished with some very nice touches finished off with its simple yet stunning orange paintwork and black pin striping. The fully adjustable clip-ons are stylish and practical. The huge triple cast-iron Brembos, adjustable non-folding rearsets with right-hand gear shift (the US market had a left hand shift), sculptured tank with quick-release, non-locking fuel cap hint of a life more suited to the racetrack. It is free of visual clutter and has a very clean profile.

It stands confidently tall, lean, mean and very handsome indeed, if not a tad intimidating thanks to its unbreakable, hard-man image. Laverda had a well-earned reputation for building solid, fast and reliable 650 and 750 twins which continued with the triples although the downside was cost of ownership - this was an expensive and luxurious statement for the flush and sporty connoisseur who wasn’t restricted to thumbing the sales brochures from the far east.

At four grand a pop for the Honda, there would be no punters queueing around the block on a Saturday morning either. The stunning 1100R was a thing of fantasy. Not only was it twice the price of the now bland looking 900, but the chances of actually seeing one on the public highway weren’t that great either. I remember the very moment that I first saw one. It passed me in the opposite direction with a rich and very smug 17 year-old wanker on board - what a complete waste of machinery. I’ll never forget the blast of air that hit me and nearly had my FS1E and 16 year-old pilot in the ditch. Spoilt bastard.

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The Honda is still pretty if you remove the Jota from your field of vision. It was a class act with its fancy seat unit and gold touches, yet as was often the case with earlier Japanese Superbikes, the pinnacle of performance engineering was also as practical, comfortable and easy to ride as a 2008 Honda CB1000F.

Where to start? If I ride the Honda first the Laverda will feel like a ditch pump and the other way round will make the Honda seem lifeless and dull. I’ve never even sat on either but it’s the hopelessly attractive Jota that intrigues me the most. The reputation of being a mans bike with its heavy clutch and right-hand gear change is too much to resist. It appears muscular yet nimble but that image disappears as you manhandle the thing from its centre stand (the side stand is classic Italian as has the bike leaning at 45 degrees).

How can something so slim and racey looking feel so top heavy and cumbersome? I know they were built to last but this is a naked race-inspired sports bike that is carrying nearly 70 kilos more than its modern equivalent. Crikey. It does sound very distinctive though. The famous 180-degree crankshaft configuration has the outer two pistons at the top of their stroke and the middle piston at the bottom which creates a sound very different from the familiar Triumph of today. It’s pleasing on the ear but more like an unhealthy four cylinder with a knackered spark plug than the melodious growl that I was expecting.

The clutch is lighter than expected too, not the cramp-inducing brute from tales of lore. The long, tall, heavy feel is still present at low speeds but begins to fade from about 30mph. This is clearly no town bike and with the owner’s advice still fresh in my ears (“don’t fuck about, ride it properly”) I begin to pick up the pace. The Jota was prone to fouling its plugs with too much idling and town work and was much happier being ridden in anger. With a good stretch of empty a-road ahead and a fantastic bark from the rear eclipsing the engine noise, it was all beginning to make sense.

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You have to take this bike by the scruff of the neck and let it know who’s in charge. It’s very firmly sprung and is suited only to smooth and fast stretches where its slow steering but very solid and stable handling pays dividends. The gear change is slightly stiff and slow but accurate enough and the front lever needs an almighty squeeze before it will consider doing anything to help but once used to these minor foibles it becomes easy to see what the fuss was all about. The Jota holds a near perfect line through high-speed corners but has to be muscled into all turns if the pace gets too hot. It needs concentration and confidence to ride this bike fast

The combination of firm ride, vibration and noise, ponderous steering, all or nothing brakes and right-foot change can easily lead to an off-road experience through the slightest momentary lapse in concentration. This is no chore however, it is one of the most emotive and memorable rides imaginable. The sensation and reward when you get the hang of it is through the roof and that is thanks in part to the engine. unexpectedly, though perfectly usable and relatively strong, the motor doesn’t deliver the low or mid-range torque that you might expect from a triple. In fact, it has a very distinct power band that starts at 5,000 rpm and begins to drop off at the 6,500rpm redline. not only does it need to be revved, it seems happiest above 5,000rpm.

The whole bike comes good when ridden hard as it delivers strong smooth power to a chassis that copes easily but that’s the reality of hustling a 320kg (fully fuelled with rider) monster with around 75bhp at the rear wheel. It makes you wonder quite how these bikes went as fast as they did but I’d suggest the ultra-narrow frontage, low handlebars and a degree of over- revving had a lot to do with it as it would take around 7,500rpm to reach 130mph in 5th gear.

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As expected, the Honda felt like a space shuttle in comparison. just admiring the view from the seat was interesting as it looks as modern as the Jota looks dated. The handlebar mounted choke (unlike the Jota’s – hilariously hidden under the front of the fuel tank and flush with the frame), the air-assisted front forks and the ultra modern instrument panel leave you in no doubt that this was the very latest development in japanese technology and the dawn of a new era. If the Jota is the iconic hairy-chested representation of the 70s, then so is the CB1100r of the loud and brash 80s. Even by japanese standards, the Honda’s engine was never one of the quietest and this one is true to form but virtually silent compared to the Laverda.

The Honda is no featherweight either, matching the Laverda’s 235kg dry weight until you squeeze 26litres of fuel into that huge endurance spec tank. True to Honda form, the CB is quite effortless to ride and not in the least bit intimidating. It will bimble happily through city traffic or tour through Europe for weeks on end without a hint of an oily spark plug, but we’re out to ride fast today.

These plus points in the 1100r are also the negatives because if you require character and a degree of physical input from your riding experience, or if you have just hopped off a Jota, then the Honda seems extremely dull and lifeless. It has no bad habits and feels completely neutral at low and high speeds, falling into corners with only the merest degree of effort. That’s not a criticism of this bike but an example of the gaping chasm between the fundamental characteristics of Italian and japanese exotica.

The undeniable truth is that the Honda not only does absolutely everything better than the Laverda, it absolutely murders it in every performance department. acceleration from rest, roll-on tests in any gear at any revs, handling, braking, comfort, practicality, etc etc. This is not so much a Classic Scrap as a serious one-sided kicking.

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The Honda delivers excellent flexibility from its motor and despite the torque figures being compatible, it seems to waft effortlessly away from the jota at every opportunity. The CB seems to make more noise from the engine than the exhaust but delivers a good spread of power that gains in strength as the revs ride to the 9,500rpm redline. Where the over-sprung jota gets upset on bumpy surfaces, the Honda glides. The jota always requires four good fingers on the front brake lever but the Honda never more than two. anything less than 100% effort and concentration on the big Lav will have you upside down in a ditch yet the Honda will take you home on autopilot. The Honda is as sophisticated and high-tech as the Laverda is agricultural and old school.

So it’s a one-sided contest in which there is no doubt who comes out on top. Or is it? Well, perhaps the outcome is not so clear-cut. For a start, only one of these bikes feels like a homologation racer and it’s certainly not the Honda. Only one of these bikes will get your adrenalin pumping and put a smile on your face, or make you scream in terror, and that’s not the Honda either. The 1100r may look special but it certainly doesn’t feel it. Spend an hour on the Jota and you’ll feel very much alive. If you survive.

The owners

CB1100R - Trevor Hughes, 43

I have one of each CB1100 model, although the fully faired RC and RD models are restoration projects in the garage. I crashed the RD in 1986 and bought the RC for parts. The half faired RB has been mine since 2004 and I acquired it for £3,500. I take it for long runs with other club members - we went to Spa this year - but I average 3,500 miles every year. The clutch is noisy, they all tend to rattle. The motor is noisy too, but it feels quite smooth. All in all they’re a good, reliable bike and you can still buy a nice one for less than they were new at around £3 - £4k. You can pay £6k for an exceptional example but they are hard to find.

Jota - Jamie Rule, 47

I was always going to end up with one of these and this one’s a bit special. One day when I was a kid hanging around the local bus stop with my mates on our mopeds, something happened that set me off on a bit of a mission. A pair of Jota’s came thundering through the village and it sounded incredible - you could hear them coming from a way off and they gave it a bit of welly as they rode past us. This one had a ground up restoration before I bought it around nine years ago, and there are £9K of bills for parts alone. I paid £7k for it. I give it a run every now and then, probably only a couple of hundred miles a year.

Specifications

Honda CB1100R

Price now: £3,000 - £6,000
Engine: 1062cc air-cooled, 16-valve in-line DOHC 4
Power: 115bhp @ 9,000rpm (claimed)
Torque: 71 lb-ft @ 7,500rpm
Front suspension: Adjustable telescopic air- assisted fork
Rear suspension: Twin shocks, compression and rebound adjustable
Front brake: Twin 296mm discs, 2-piston calipers
Rear brake: Single 296mm disc, 2-piston caliper
Dry weight: 235kg
Fuel capacity: 26 litres
Top speed: 142mph
Colours: Red/White
Web: www.cb1100r.com

Laverda Jota

Price now: £3,000 - £10,000
Engine: 980cc air- cooled, 6-valve in-line DOHC triple
Power: 95bhp @ 7,800rpm (claimed)
Torque: 66 lb-ft @ 7,000rpm
Front suspension: 37mm telescopic fork, non- adjustable
Rear suspension: Twin shocks,5way preload adjustable
Front brake: Twin 320mm discs, 4-piston calipers
Rear brake: Single 267mm disc, 2-piston caliper
Dry weight: 238kg
Fuel capacity: 20.5 litres
Top speed: 130 mph
Colours: Orange
Web: www.iloc.co.uk