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Icons & Innovations: Ducati: That '70s Show

Herb Harris

My relationship with Ducatis began in 1972, when the Austin, Texas, motorcycle dealership where I was a regular customer left me a cryptic message: “You had better get over here.” I arrived in time to see a member of the sales staff unload a Ducati V-twin in the parking lot. It wore ugly metal-flake salmon paint, but then the salesman fired up the thing. What a sound—like a Harley on steroids. The engine just kept revving and racing, and I knew immediately that this bike was special.

As with many other motorcycling enthusiasts, my awareness of Ducati had increased exponentially with the marque’s spectacular 1-2 win at Imola earlier that year. Bikes barely modified from Ducati’s basic road-going V-twins had conquered Europe’s greatest motorcycles and became instant legends in the process. We had heard about the racing victories, and suddenly here were the bikes at our local dealership. I put my name down for the second one the dealer would receive—and ended up waiting four months for it to arrive.

I would buy three Ducatis over the next several years. Even in Austin, one of the company’s top American markets, its bikes were incredibly exotic. Ducati was the only company to offer factory-made café racers in the early ’70s. Such a bike offered fashion on two wheels and performance that was as impressive as the bike’s appearance. For a hard-core sportbike rider, nothing could top a Ducati.

They were hard to ride, however, and difficult to start, and uncomfortable. And although the bikes were expensive compared to other European bikes—probably costing 50 percent more than a Norton—fit and finish were low priorities for the manufacturer. Ducatis came pre-rusted, and the decals fell off as soon as you washed the bikes. The company didn’t even publish parts books. If something broke, the dealer had to call the manufacturer and describe what was wrong. But none of this mattered, for Ducati spent its money where it counted: on the engine and the gearbox. As a racing machine, this was the real deal, and that’s what we wanted.

From a collector’s perspective, Ducati’s landmark bikes were the 750SS (Supersport) models of 1973 and 1974, crafted in the race shop under the supervision of chief engineer Dr. Fabio Taglioni and called Green Frames. Ducati built only three or so of these Imola replicas in 1973, and either 200 or 400 in ’74, depending on whose numbers you accept. In 1975, the race shop built 500 SS bikes—250 each of the 750 and the larger-displacement 900—which it shipped principally to Australia and Italy for competition.

Like the earlier ’73s and ’74s, the ’75s were built as racebikes for the street. Tape off the headlight and you have a racer. However, none of these bikes came to the United States, because Ducati did not even attempt to comply with new DOT requirements such as turn signals. Instead, the company conveyed the attitude that it was going to build what it liked, and if Americans couldn’t ride it, Ducati didn’t care. We therefore had no alternative but to hang onto our ’73s and ’74s and ride out this dry spell.

Despite their rarity, the ’75s are significantly undervalued, as collectors are only now starting to recognize their similarity to the ’74 Green Frames. The next year, 1976, Ducati introduced its production-model SS bike. This version lost its predecessors’ cool fiberglass fuel tank and made a few other concessions, but it retained the essence of what made the earlier bikes great. The factory built only 1,000 examples that first year, and all sold quickly.

During my law school years in the 1970s, I could afford to keep only one bike at a time, and I traded each bike in on the next; I sold the last to help start my practice at the end of the decade. Today I have three vintage SS Ducatis: a 1974 750SS Green Frame, a 1975 750SS, and a 1976 900SS. One of them—the ’76—is the same bike I bought new. It was offered to me by a motorcycle broker who knew its provenance. When I reclaimed my ’76, the steering lock key was missing, but I found it while rummaging through a drawer where I kept old keys.

I acquired my catalog-straight ’74 about two years ago. Its condition was as original as you could hope for. I worked with my mechanic on a recommissioning, the most tricky aspect of which involved repairing the bike’s Scarab front brakes, components so obsolete that no one even will talk to you about it. Scarabs were never up to Brembo standards—they leak almost immediately—and no replacements exist. Most people told me to save the old Scarab, store it in a box, replace it with a Brembo, and be happy. Lucky for me though, some Australians had made some parts that I was able to use.

At the rear of the bike, the original Lockheed was in even worse condition. But I heard that Jonathan White, who used to work for Berliner, Ducati’s U.S. distributor, and rode Supersports, could help. “Are you sure this is a real one?” he asked, inquiring about the bike’s authenticity, when I called and told him what I was looking for. “Are you sure?” he asked again. “It had better be a real one.” I insisted that it was, and he was kind enough to send me a rebuild kit for the disc brakes. Sure enough, the brakes now work: We have been able to keep everything original.

Midrange torque, not peak horsepower, is what counts with these bikes, and they can be ridden quickly. All compare favorably to modern Ducatis. I consider the ’74 the most impressive ride. My next favorite is the ’76, but that’s not to say the ’75 is a dud. The difference between the bikes is minimal; I would give each a rating of between 95 and 100. (However, I am surprised that the ’76, the first-year production bike, performs so well against its race-shop siblings.) If not for these three motorcycles, the Ducati company probably would not exist today. They gave the company enough inertia to survive the dark days of the late 1980s.

Much of what made the bikes so special was their use of desmodromic valve actuation. The technology perhaps still isn’t what it ought to be, but it’s a trademark: The Desmo is what Ducatis are all about. As with Hemi and Chrysler, people hear Desmo and think of Ducati. Although it is an abstract feature deep inside the engine—you can’t see it or smell it—you know it works. In the same way that any Ferrari without a V-12 is suspect, a true Ducati has to have the Desmo.

Ducati’s holy-grail models exist in numbers sufficient for a dedicated collector to find a good example, yet they are rare enough to cause a stir when one arrives at the bike shop on a Saturday morning. Most motorcyclists have never seen a genuine Green Frame, and if they have, it’s likely that they have never ridden one. Caveat emptor: Fakes are rampant. Most SS versions were raced, so a bike with new bodywork is most likely a racing bike that has been converted back to a street bike. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but an unmolested bike with original paint and low miles is the ideal.

The SS Ducatis can be ridden and enjoyed at high speeds, which only adds to their collectible value. Unlike many vintage bikes that can manage only 60 mph on the highway, which can get you rear-ended, an SS Ducati can run easily at 80 mph.

Because Italian record-keeping can be quixotic, collectors of rarer Ducatis should focus more on the human aspects of a bike’s provenance than on the official numbers. For instance, two bevel drives I bought new in the 1970s have serial numbers well outside of the numbers generally attributed to those models. Bikes that are original also might have specifications that are not authentic according to the experts. There was at first no proper U.S. version of the ’76 900SS, and so mine is a barely federalized European model. It has a speedometer noting kph and Euro-spec headlights and taillights, but it has DOT-regulation turn signals and side reflectors. Video that I took when the bike was new confirms that these mixed elements are original.

I had the rare luxury of experiencing Ducati history firsthand—a chapter that turned out to be important to motorcycling and to the company. Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize an event’s significance as it unfolds, but I was fortunate enough to know how special those first bikes were, and how important that era was for Ducati.

 

Herb Harris, a managing partner of his 20-lawyer law firm in Austin, Texas, has been a car and motorcycle enthusiast since childhood and has been collecting and restoring rare Vincent motorcycles for the past 20 years.

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