Ducati: Traditional Excellence

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“The Japanese motorcycle companies want to make an easy car,” he said. “I want to make a difficult bicycle.” —Fabio Taglioni

Ducati started off making comically small, bolt-on bicycle engines in 1947, but it wasn’t until 1954, when it hired a brilliant young engineer named Fabio Taglioni, that all hell broke loose. Taglioni was intent on getting as much power out of small displacement engines as possible and pursued creative engineering solutions that others didn’t see.

Dr. T began experimenting in the 50’s with desmodromics as a way to overcome the “valve float” that was bedeviling high-revving racers. Especially with older valve-spring technology, there would become a point when an engine’s rev range would hit a frequency that would create a harmonic imbalance, seizing valve operation and, in turn, detonating the motor like a grenade. By using a complex and precisely engineered rocker system to operate the valves, the traditional valve spring was taken out of the equation. For a spell in the late 50s, Ducati’s 100cc Desmo-equipped race bikes were lapping the field at local races thanks to its super-wide power band and ability to sustain high revs.

Mercedes pioneered Desmodromics in the teens, but Taglioni refined the mechanism and proved its application to motorcycles—even if he’d have to wait a decade to use it in a production bike.

Not all of Taglioni’s gambits immediately paid out. Vying for a contract to build a big police motorcycle, to challenge Harley-Davidson’s monopoly on the big police-bike market, he developed the Apollo V4: a 4-cyclinder 1260cc beast that never made it past the prototype stage, in part because it exceeded the motorcycle tire technology available at the time.

The project was shelved, but the experience proved invaluable when motorcycles began doubling in displacement in the run-up to the 1970s. Taglioni built a 90-degree “L twin” by slapping a horizontal cylinder onto the front of the basic Ducati single. The resulting engine went into production in 1970 and was immortalized in motorcycle lore when the Ducati 750SS took 1st and 2nd place at the Imola 200.

Ducati 350 Mark 3 D11.-Ducati-350-Mark-3-D-1971

After a decade of working for Ducati, patiently waiting, Taglioni was finally able to put his beloved Desmodromic system into a production bike with this: the 350 Mark 3 Desmo. The bike first debuted in 1968 and would see the company into the 70’s, where in 1972 a variation of this basic engine design would win famously at Imola under Paul Smart.

Ducati 350 Desmo
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This “silver shogun” 350 Desmo production model produced just 27hp, but the megaphone exhaust was a popular upgrade to gain a few extra ponies. For the discerning Italian motorcycle enthusiast looking to zip smartly along country roads with full use of this plucky 350’s extra-wide power band, the Desmo 350 was just right. That it had the same silver-flake finish as the Imola-winning 750SS made it all the sweeter.

1972 Ducati 750S13-Ducati-750S-Z-stripe-197x
The 750S was the second big twin Ducati put out after introducing the platform in 1970 with the 750GT. That first “Gran Turismo” model was more restrained in its styling, available in either solid red or black, came with upright bars for a comfortable riding position, and a decently sized pillion seat. The 750S got none of that nonsense—bright yellow paint, a humped solo seat and low clip-on handlebars. And in some rare cases, sort fairing and a Z-stripe paint job.

1974 Ducati 750SS13-Ducati-750SS-1974
Based on Paul Smart’s Imola-winning bike of 1972 (and Bruno Spaggiari’s identical second-place bike), only 401 of these street-legal “Green Frame” unicorns were ever produced. In its day this bike was a revelation—sporting Desmodromic valves, an incredibly stiff chassis that used the engine as a stressed member, dual 18-inch wheels, and triple disc brakes. And of course, the famous green frame scheme.

1975 Ducati 900SS14-Ducati-900SS-1978
The 900SS Desmo was a direct response to the latest crop of superbikes from Suzuki, Honda and Kawasaki that were sweeping podiums by the mid 70’s. Seeking to juice the lineup after its disappointing 860GT, Ducati equipped this big 900SS with a sexy, swept-back fairing, sporty solo seat and Desmo heads.

1977 Ducati Darmah SD15-Ducati-Darmah-SD-1978
By the mid- to late-70’s a decisive trend was driving motorcycle styling towards more angular fairings and bodywork. In this way, the Darmah was a
big departure for Ducati, and it was well received when it was introduced in 1977. That it had a tiger painted on the side cover didn’t hurt.

1979 Ducati Mike Hailwood Replica16-Ducati-900SS-Desmo-MHR-1979
When Mike Hailwood signed up to ride a specially prepared Ducati 900SS Desmo at the 1978 Isle of Man TT, nobody gave him much of a chance. Although highly decorated from a successful racing career that he’d started as a young child, Hailwood had burned out a decade earlier, and hadn’t been on a bike since.

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Start Here: Intro 70s Italian Superbikes

The Ducati Story
Ducati 350 Mark 3-D (1968-1972)
Ducati 350 Desmo (1971-1972)
Ducati 750S (1972-1974)
Ducati 750SS (1973-1974)
Ducati 900SS (1975-1982)
Ducati Darmah (1977-1982)
Ducati MHR (1979-1984) 

The Laverda Story
Laverda 750S (1969-1970)
Laverda SF (1970-1976)
Laverda SFC (1971-1976)
Laverda Jota (1976-1983)
Laverda Montjuic (1979-1981)

The Moto Guzzi Story
Moto Guzzi V7 Telaio Rosso (1971)
Moto Guzzi V7 Sport (1971-1974)
Moto Guzzi 750S (1974-1975)
Moto Guzzi Lemans 850 (1976-1978)

The MV Agusta Story
MV Agusta 750S (1971-1974)
MV Agusta 750 America (1975-1977)
MV Agusta Magni 861

BonusThe Benelli 750 Sei
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Illustrations: Martin Squires
Studio photography: David Genat