Ducati Italy 1946 -

Ducati, one of the most evocative names in motorcycling, whose fast, exotic, temperamental V-twins respond to lavish care and attention. At least that is most riders conception of the bikes from Bologna. But until recently the name was hardly known outside two wheel circles. Success in World Superbike competition has brought this the Ferrari of motorcycles to mainstream attention. In the early 1990's when it had gained seven WSB Championships this decade and for the first time for years a firm fanancial footing. Ducati seems more secure than ever before. But far from being well established Ducati was a relative latecomer  particularly to the performance bikes with which everyone now associates the name.

The first engine was unveiled in 1946 but Ducati's first V-twin wasn't announced until 1970. It has been a rapid and chequered rise to the top. Ducati's history and much of its early success were dominated by one man and one of his best ideas. Engineer Fabio Taglioni joined the company in 1955 and designed a whole string of sporting singles and V-twins through the fifties, sixties and seventies. Their magic ingredient was desmodromic valve gear, a positive means of valve closure which allows higher revs and consequently more power. This solution wasn't restricted to Taglioni, Mercedes had already used it in its racing cars, but it seems that in practice his version was the most successful and long lived.

However we are a little ahead of ourselves. Adriano Ducati was a physics student, but his real interest lay in the expanding world of radio. With his two brothers Bruno and Marcello he had set up Societa Scientifica Radio Brevetti Ducati in 1926, which rapidly expanded into optics and mechanics as well as electronics. All went well until late in the war when Germany commandeered the factory and promptly shipped most of the machinery back to Germany. Then what was left was virtually destroyed by Allied bombing. It wasn't to be allowed to die however, an unlikely liaison between the Italian government and the Vatican provided the finance to bring Ducati back to life in 1948, which enabled it to buy a ready made prototype from the Siata company the Cucciolo.

The Low Powered Start 

Post war Italy like most of the rest of Europe and Japan for that matter was in a desperate need of cheap motorised transport and the simplest route was via tiny clip on engines that could be bolted onto any bicycle. The Cucciolo 'Puppy' was a relatively sophisticated example of the breed being a 48cc four stroke with a built in two speed gearbox. The Cucciolo produced about one horsepower, but Ducati's ambitions were clear, it broke the 12 hour 50cc speed record in 1951 at 41.73 mph. Although the Cucciolo began life as a clip on engine, by the time it was dropped in 1956 it had been transformed into a true moped.

Well before then however Ducati was producing motorcycles proper. First was the 60 Sport a 65cc four stroke designed by Giovanni Fiorio, which was launched in 1950. Like the Cucciolo the 60 was in a low state of tune but it formed the basis of a long line of pushrod singles. It soon grew into the higher compression 98 which in turn led to the 98 Sport of 1953. This could top 56 mph and underline a trend that was to take Ducati Meccanica far from its roots, it was not content to go on building cyclemotors.

This was where Fabio Taglioni entered the picture and assumed his pivotal role in Ducati's history. A graduate of Bologna University he had gained valuable experience with the FB Mondial racing team Mondial had won three world championships in succession and Ducati's director, Giuseppe Montano poached him in 1955. Montano's role was also crucial. He had decided that Ducati needed a new bike to win the prestigious Giro d'Italia race, took on Taglioni and set him to work. It was really these two men Montano and Taglioni who changed Ducati's direction in the way it was to develop for the next 30 years, from a maker of utility bikes to a manufacturer of racers and sporting roadsters.

Taglioni's first contribution was the 98cc Gran Sport and Mariana an all new design with bevel drive overhead camshafts which was to form the basis of Ducati's famous ohc singles. Hollywood scriptwriters couldn't have crafted a more dramatic debut for the Gran Sport, it was tested in February 1955 unveiled in March and a few weeks later easily won the Giro d'Italia 100cc class. The Gran Sports engine was indeed advanced for its time the bevel gear was expensive to make but was the best engineering solution to reliable running at high engine speeds. The four speed gearbox was in unit with the engine and the whole bike weighed only 80kg which helped it exceed 80mph from just 9bhp.



But it was always envisaged that the Gran Sport would form the basis of future road and race bikes, and a 125cc version appeared in 1956 which duly won the  Giro d'Italia outright. A 175cc came the year after and in the last Giro d'Italia 1957 Gran Sport Ducati's filled the first 12 places. It was the end of an era for these dangerous public road races, but in three short years Ducati had make its mark. It made sense to capitalise on this success by producing a detuned Gran Sport for the road, so that's what Taglioni did. Enclosed valve springs, lower compression and that was about the extent of the changes to the 175 Tour and 175 Sport the latter could still break the 80mph barrier. Both 100 and 125cc versions were added in 1957, while the 175 soon grew into a 200, then a 250.

Exports began with the perhaps inevitable Americano complete with high rise bars. These were road bikes of course but 1958 saw the introduction of the F3 an over the counter racer in the way the Gran Sport had been. Although it came to the same 125/175/250 sizes as the road machines and looked superficially similar, the F3 was really completely different with virtually no parts interchangeable. Notable was the 250 F3, which produced 32 bhp at 9,000 rpm and scored several successes in U.S racing.

On the road, high points were the 250 Monza ( touring ) and Diana ( Sporting ) which owed much to the F3 and mustered 24bhp in Diana form, though by the middle of 1963 it had developed into the Mark 3 Super Sport which with 30bhp and a 10:1 compression was a real racer for the road. It was this bike that led to the almost legendary Mach 1, the first production 250 to claim a top speed of over 100 mph though reality didn't always match that claim. The Mach 1 was raced of course and did well but its real distinction lay in forming the basis of yet another capacity increase for this truly remarkable engine, the 250 Mach 1 1/S was the biggest Ducati yet, and with a twin plug head almost scraped 40bhp.

While all this was going on, Ducati was almost making a whole raft of less sporting bikes, notably 250 GT and 350 Sebring ohc models, pushrod 125s and in an attempt to get to its utility roots a range of two stroke mopeds, scooters and 100/125cc bikes, the latter lasting right through the sixties. At the other end of the scale Ducati's U.S. importer inspired the production of an extraordinary 1257cc V4, the Apollo. It was designed as a police bike though both touring and sports versions were envisaged. Today a 1200 V4 is nothing special but in 1963 it was something else again. Unfortunately the V4's period tyres couldn't keep up with its power and the idea was shelved. A similar fate met two other 1960's ideas, parallel twins of 500 and 700cc.

Desmo & Glory                    

All this tinkering with alternative bikes the V4 and vertical twins was no more than an aberration for Ducati, for the engineering principle that was to underpin its success for four decades had already been well and truly established. Here was Ducati's true core product and it lay in desmodromics. The principal is simple, in a conventional engine the valves are opened positively but closed by a spring, a perfectly acceptable set up for most road vehicles. However at high revs the spring may not be able to close the valve quickly enough we are talking many times per second and valve bounce sets in, which limits engine speed and thus power. Fabio Taglioni's answer was to positively close the valve by means of a rocker, which in theory meant that the valve would close as reliably at 10,000rpm as it would at a 1,000.

Ducati had decided to try Grand Prix racing, and had come up with a dohc 125cc single which was powerful but not quite up to the standard set by MV, Mondial and Gilera. In a few short months Taglioni had designed built and tested a desmodromic system for the Bialbero, at its debut in the Swedish GP in July 1956 it swept the board lapping every other bike in the race. The new engine produced more power than the old one, and could rev to an unknown maximum of 14,000rpm plus. Taglioni's eight years of work had been vindicated.

But the real glory years for Ducati desmos were to come. Taglioni dreamt of designing a desmo for the road and in 1968 his dream came true with the wide case 250 and 350 singles. They were raced for two years before the road bikes were unveiled, and revealed their potential with 45bhp from the 350. Both were followed in 1969 by a new larger 450, the largest capacity that could be accommodated within the single's crankcase. The 250 could top 93mph a match for the Japanese 250 two strokes and the 350 over 100mph.

A New Era         
 

Fortunately for Ducati it had already found a replacement the V-twin. In the late sixties, the even larger superbike was becoming a reality. The Kawasaki two strokes, BSA/Triumph triples, Honda CB750's every year someone came out with something bigger and supposedly better than anything which had preceeded it. In face when Fabio Taglioni made his first sketches for a big Ducati in March 1970 many of these were already on sale. In June 1971 the first production 750GT's complete with period metalflake paintwork in orange, green or blue were unveiled but without immediate success as one commentator has pointed out the cylinder head design owed much to the Gran Sport.



It took Ducati two years to come up with a road going replica of the Imola winner, but when it did it was a very close replica indeed. Many manufacturers would have been content with some mild tuning and a race style fairing, but the new Ducati 750 Super Sport had desmodromic valvegear just like the racer  and even had conrods carved from solid billets, also like the racer. Once again production economics were not uppermost, the first 200 were really homologation specials built to satisfy production racing requirements, but they weighed only 180kg and could manage 135mph. All in all a very different motorcycle to the 750GT and the archetypal racer with lights. It soon grew to 864cc as the 900SS though a sleeved down 750 was still available a move originally inspired by the need to undertake Endurance racing since two strokes were rapidly taking over the shorter races. Gradually the SS gained some fripperies such as indicators, but at heart remained a raw sportster right up until it was dropped in 1981.

Cagiva & Paso    

The year 1985 was something of a turning point for Ducati. The Italian government appeared to have no great interest in motorcycle production but that year sold out to Cagiva which was already buying Ducati engines to power its own big bikes and the Paso was the result. A complete departure for Ducati it was more of a sports tourer than a genuine sportsbike with full bodywork that for the first time ever on a Ducati hid the engine. The thinking was different the new frame allowed easy access to the rear cylinder head to service the desmodromic valve gear, there was the latest sophisticated suspension, radial tyres, an hydraulic clutch and a large dual seat.

As for the V-twin it was air cooled but the rear cylinder head was reversed to allow for the fitting of a single twin choke Weber carburettor to serve both cylinders. The last change was a mistake and gave endless fuelling problems that were never really rectified until fuel injection took over a few years later. Sadly customers failed to be impressed by the new found sophistication of the Paso which was heavier and slower than the F1.



It was replaced by the 906 in 1989 which used various elements of the new four valve 851 notably water cooled cylinders with traditional two valve desmodromic heads. This too was not a great success though the 907IE which replaced it in 1991 was a great improvement, the Weber carburettor was replaced with electronic fuel injection and a 17 inch wheel improved the handling. Power was up to a claimed 90bhp at 8,500rpm, it could easily exceed 130mph and was actually a little lighter than the 906 into the bargain. Once again sales failed to materialise and the 907 was dropped after just two years. 

Otto Valvole

Ducati's modern era and the basis for its tremendous World Superbike success in the 1990's was established in 1987 with the 851. It was still a V-twin but with the four valve cylinder heads still desmodromic of course, water cooling, fuel injection and a six speed gearbox. Early races confirmed that here at last was a Ducati that could match the speed of the four cylinder Japanese bikes, and in its racing debut it won the first round of the new World Superbike Chamionship in April 1988.

Ducati had learnt its lessons by now and road replicas of the successful race bikes were quick to arrive in the form of the 851 Strada and Superbike. Ironically these first four valve road bikes failed to live up to their promise though better was to come. The four valve road bikes were building a very close association with the racers. The racing Ducati's were becoming increasingly dominant in WSB helped by a lower minimum weight limit than for the four cylinder bikes and as they were developed year by year so were the road machines. The name 916 has become in a few short years as evocative as Mach1 and SS ever were. It was really a continued development of the 888, with a capacity increased to 916cc. In SP form it had twin injectors per cylinder, titanium con rods and claimed 131bhp at 10,500rpm at the crankshaft. But for the road the 916 Strada for 1994 was possibly more significant.  



However there was no danger of Ducati becoming too race focused, unhappy experiences with the Indiana and Paso had not diverted the company from new markets, and the Monster of 1993 was certainly that. It really was a new idea owing something to the streetfighter style, something else to the Ducati ideal of a light compact V-twin. However there weren't many new parts on it and it combined the 88 frame with the 900SS engine. And to underline the basic image there was no rev counter, such a success was the Monster that 600cc and 750cc versions soon joined the 900. But in 1996 it looked as if all this success might be thrown away. Cagiva which had built itself into the largest Italian motorcycle manufacturer now had financial problems of its own.



Even suppliers were not being paid and Ducati production fell while waiting lists rose. The answer came with yet another buyout of Ducati, this time by a group of American investors, the Texas Pacific Group ( TPG ). TPG had money, Ducati needed it and a plan ensured to increase production substantially. Ducati built 12,500 bikes in 1996, but TPG was planning for 40,000 within 4 years. To accomplish this it was necessary to widen Ducati's market though the basis for this had already been laid with the new sports touring ST2 intended for launch in 1996. The ST2 owed much to the 907 with the same two valve water cooled engine, though bored out to 944cc.

The year 1998 also saw the debut of the new Super Sport, styled by Pierre Terblanche  it was more of a development of the old SS than an all new machine, though the venerable oil/air cooled twin had aquired fuel injection to produce 80bhp at 7,500rpm. With full order books and money in the bank the company went public in March 1999, Ducati looked set for a new period of stability which recent years have proved as Ducati have gone from strength to strength.