Cape Town - Before dawn on the last Thursday of July 1997 I crashed my 1981 Laverda Jota in heavy rain on the way to work, totally destroying its clutch cover, timing cover, ignition pickups and clutch master cylinder, in addition to a lot of cosmetic damage.

I was all too aware that if I put in an insurance claim I would simply lose the bike and there was no way I could afford to repair it myself, so it stood for nine years under a blanket in my garage.

Finally, early in 2006 it went to Stretch Henrick at Eurobike, who agreed to work on it as and when funds allowed. We started by respraying the frame and took it from there, rebuilding the engine and replacing every nut, bolt and washer throughout the bike (as well as the front mudguard, tailpipes and rear-set linkages) with stainless steel.

Since I could not afford to pay Henrick to do the work, he agreed to supervise while I did it, so he and I have spent every Tuesday evening for the past few years in his back workshop, making stainless-steel parts on his battered old lathe, and fettling existing parts - including machining and polishing the head of every bolt and screw before assembly.

Eye-watering prices

I have discovered some amazingly helpful Laverda specialists, happy to supply (at eye-watering prices!) almost any Jota part, and once wound up carrying a clutch cover gasket in my hand halfway across the world from Le Mans to Cape Town because the padded envelope it came in was too big for my rucksack!

I’ve also found a whole world of engineering suppliers, each and every one of whom will deny having anything like the sample you are showing them, until you take them into their own stockroom and show them where it is - this happened not once but more than a dozen times.

But finally, 20 years almost to the day since the crash, we hooked up a remote fuel supply and a borrowed battery, and Henrick hit the button. To be honest, I was expecting popping, banging, heavy misfiring and clouds of smoke (and Henrick had a can of Quickstart ready to hand in case she wouldn’t fire up at all!) but the grand old lady started at the first touch of the button and ran quietly and sweetly on all three cylinders.

Now all that was needed was to tidy up the last of the wiring and re-fit the freshly sprayed original bodywork, shiny exhaust system, brand new screen and freshly recovered seat, all of which were ready and waiting, to be ready for the road. After all, it was already running, right?

When I mentioned this to the convenor of the Killarney Motor Show, he asked if I would commit to displaying it on 15 October, and I blithely agreed, saying 11 weeks was plenty of time for the final assembly.
 
Bad mistake - and one I will never make again. A project bike is ready when it’s ready, not on a predetermined date, no matter how much pressure you are under.
 
First we had to fit a scrap tank and seat, have Henrick run some test kilometres, drain the running-in oil and fill with the Good Stuff, re-torque the head and re-shim the tappet clearances. This was frustrated by fuel leaks - including two different leaks on the middle carburettor - and consistent bad weather, with rain every time Henrick could carve out enough time to get the bike on the road for a shakedown run.

Some shakedown!

Finally, on the last Sunday in September, he took it for a blast down a local freeway (he told me later that he briefly hit 180km/h – some shakedown!) and confirmed that everything was working properly.
 
By then, however, there simply wasn’t enough time to finish the bike for the show, so we short-circuited the process. I took a few days of leave from my day job to wash and polish the bare chassis and engine, and fit the body parts - only to discover that the original fairing no longer fitted the original bracket!

After major surgery with a die grinder and a rattle-can respray on the inside of the fairing, it went on, but it will never fit as well as it did before. It’s a real hassle to remove and refit, and the bike will probably wind up being re-finished as a naked.
 
Shortly before midnight, two days before the show, the bike was complete - that's when this picture was taken:

On the day, I rode it to the show in heavy rain - and had to clean and re-polish everything when I got there - but the bike got a lot of favourable comment. The weather had cleared by the time the show closed and I rode home in glorious sunshine, the bike responding perfectly and running way sweeter than I remembered from 20 years previously.

That one short ride of 26 kilometres instantly made 12 years of sweat and swearing worthwhile - which was just as well, because it was to be my last ride on the Jota for several months.

Disappointed!

A few days later I decided to ride it to a media briefing, where it would be seen by people who knew what it was – but there was no hydraulic fluid in the clutch mechanism. Considering I’d been hooning around on the bike only three days earlier, this was disconcerting to say the least. We tried refilling the system, but the fluid almost immediately began dripping into a tray placed under the sprocket cover for the purpose.

That meant dropping the exhaust system to drain the engine oil, dismantling the foot-pegs and foot levers, and taking off the sprocket cover to get at the slave cylinder. In order to avoid scratching anything I removed all the painted parts first and soon the bike was back to where it had been six months earlier.

I bought a couple of every size of EPDM O-ring available in Cape Town that was even close to the nominal 30mm and 31mm sizes offered by Laverda suppliers in the UK and Europe.

Then, one Tuesday evening, Henrick came down to my garage and together we pulled off the shift mechanism cover and the sprocket casing and, to our relief, discovered it was indeed the 36-year-old original O-ring that had failed - it had literally crumbled.

Five minutes of very careful measuring with a vernier calliper gave us a match for the O-ring. I can’t pretend to be surprised that it was a specialised non-metric size; my very knowledgeable O-ring supplier, Neville Miller of Seal Services, had predicted that - and he’s not even a biker!

The clutch was reassembled with the new O-ring, the sprocket cover and shift mechanism went back on, the system was refilled and bled, and has worked perfectly ever since.

One step forward, two steps back

Then we stopped, and waited for the neutral light switch to arrive from England. In all, it took two and a half days to travel 10 000km from the UK to Johannesburg and two and a half months to travel 1400km from Johannesburg to Cape Town!

I again took some leave from my day job so I could work in daylight and settled down to fit the switch, fill the sump with high-quality oil, and polish and refit the exhaust system, foot-pegs, linkages, levers, and scrap fuel tank, so I could test-ride the bike.

But before I got to the bottom of my driveway I knew the bike wouldn’t go into second gear from either first or neutral, even though we hadn’t adjusted the shift mechanism since the last time the bike was ridden. So, off came the exhaust system again, the oil was drained and the Ford Fiesta sump plug that had done ‘temporary’ duty while we were waiting for the switch to arrive was re-installed. Still no upshift.

'No more grovelling'

At that point there was no more that I could do, and Henrick was adamant that (a) he wasn’t going to grovel on the floor of my garage any more and (b) he also insisted on working in daylight, so he came and fetched the Laverda in his Eurobike van and, bright and early the next morning, we put the bike up on his work-stand and pulled off the shift mechanism cover.

It took Henrick the whole morning to confirm that, indeed, the shift mechanism had gone out of adjustment and to adjust it correctly – twice, because I got it out of line while reinstalling the cover, which meant he had to start all over again. To his eternal credit, his good nature never failed, and by lunchtime we had gears, top to bottom.

Then we spent a long, interesting afternoon checking and setting tappet clearances, cam-chain tension and re-torqueing the head, before I refitted the exhaust system for the sixth time (I reckon I could do it in my sleep by now!) and rode home. 

Polished to a glow 

Another two day’s work saw the painted parts back on; a short (32 kilometre) test ride confirmed that everything was working, and the bike was cleaned and polished to a glow.

 And finally, almost exactly 12 years after we began the rebuild, we took the Laverda to the car park at Rhodes Memorial before sunrise, to take the pictures you see here in the first light of dawn.

Riding home afterwards, I realised how privileged I am to be the custodian of this magnificent beast. Thanks to a superlative engine build by Henrick, it starts first touch on the button every time - hot or cold - idles reliably (which it didn’t do when it was new), runs more quietly than it did new, pulls like a steam locomotive from 2200rpm, and holds its line around corners like it’s on rails.

It is everything I remember from the days, two decades ago, when it was my only transport, and so much more.

The Jota isn’t finished; I doubt it ever will be. I have a long list of parts which will, in time, come off and be replaced with refurbished, better-than-new components - all of which can be done without taking the bike off the road, which is as it should be because, twenty years after the crash and twelve years after my wife’s ultimatum to “fix that great big lump of scrap or sell it!” I can go out to the garage and ride it, any time I want.

Thank you to Stretch and Jackie Henrick of Eurobike, and everybody who helped. You are too many to mention by name, but you know who you are, and you know that you are a part of this story.

FACTS: 1981 Laverda Jota Series II

Engine: 981cc air-cooled transverse triple
Bore and Stroke: 75 x 74mm
Compression Ratio: 10.0:1
Valvegear: DOHC with two valves per cylinder
Power: 70.7kW at 7800rpm
Torque: 90Nm at 7000rpm
Induction: 3 x 42mm Dell'Orto Carburettors
Starting: Electric
Clutch: Multiplate wet clutch, hydraulic
Transmission: Five-speed gearbox, chain
Front Suspension: 38mm Marzocchi Conventional Forks
Rear Suspension: Dual Marzocchi piggyback shocks
Front Brakes: 2 x 280mm, opposed 2-piston callipers
Rear Brake: 280mm, opposed 2-piston calliper
Front Tyre: 100/90 - 18
Rear Tyre: 120/90 - 19
Wheelbase: 1486mm
Seat Height: 830mm
Kerb Weight: 253 kilograms
Fuel Tank: 20.5 litres
Duration of Rebuild  6 January 2006 - 23 December 2017

IOL Motoring