As a young pre-adolescent in merry old England, our Memorable Motorcycles correspondent was beginning to discover new intense emotional and physical attractions… to the Ducati Silverstone Super!
Today, I would, without doubt, be declared a “damaged child”. No doubt my parents would be banged up in the slammer and I would be receiving sympathetic psychiatric care from a gently smiling lady, who would have her hair tied hair back and speak very softly and kindly to me – whilst I explained that my nine-year-old brain was having sexual fantasies of the most intense and erotic nature. I was in love with a Ducati Silverstone Super.
Forget being a cowboy out on the range, or a Spitfire pilot battling the Nazi hoards over the English Channel. I went to bed every night dreaming of riding a Ducati in the TT and receiving a kiss in the winner’s circle, left cheek only because I was really a very nice little boy, from a lady in a flower-patterned frock who was wearing a wide-brimmed hat. I was a very confused nine-year-old.
The reason was simple: Pre-Japanese, lightweight motorcycles were dull, dull, dull. Little bikes were for beginning riders, or the poor, or stupid, or those with no taste. Real men rode BSA Gold Stars and Velocette Venoms and Triumph T110s. Bikes which went grrrr and bared their teeth if you looked at them the wrong way or knocked their oil cans over at the bar.
But as always, history is not straightforward. In Italy, lightweights were anything but boring or mundane – purely and simply because of the Italians’ love of racing – and a very interesting slice of post WWII history.
First, let’s look at Ducati immediately before the Second World War. At this time, Ducati was a radio company – and an extremely successful one. The Ducati brothers, Bruno and Cavalieri, were world leaders in the production of short wave radios and, since 1924, were the key supplier to the Italian Navy. This was a good thing in that it made the Ducati brothers a lot of money and, in 1935, they were able to open a state of the art factory at Borgo Panigale, in Bologna, employing over 7,000 staff. The factory was air conditioned and used the very latest, and the very best, machine tools available in the world to manufacture precision components. That was the good news.
Ducati was an unlikely motorcycle firm, switching over from its radio beginnings after Allied bombers transformed its factory into rubble during WWII.
The bad news was the Ducati factory became a “Must Bomb” attraction for Allied air forces during the Italian campaign. The American 15th Air Force was particularly determined to take out Ducati and achieved its aim with great success, totally razing the factory to the ground. Having a large, smoking hole where your factory used to be was not immediately helpful to Ducati.
But good news was to follow. Because of Ducati’s high-tech reputation pre-war, the Italian government re-equipped the factory with the very best machine tools available in the 1950s. This actually put Ducati in a stronger position than other Italian factories in the north of the country which weren’t bombed. Thus, a fortunate turn of fate provided Ducati with an ace card to play. Uniquely amongst all the European manufacturers, the Bologna factory was capable of mass producing a complex engine.
Ducati was about to be given another ace card. In 1954, Ducati staggered on the very edge of bankruptcy. In fact, even paying the few workers employed making motorcycles was proving very difficult. Ducati’s rival, Mondial, had just won the prestigious Moto Giro d’Italia – but the young designer who played such a large part in the success was not invited to the post-race party. The designer was Fabio Taglioni and this is how he remembers the incident.
“I arrived at the racing department of Mondial, owned by the Boselli brothers, and was hired immediately.
“That year the federation came up with the Tour of Italy. We were inexperienced. In fact, though we won each leg, we lost the Tour. In the second year we won. But I was not invited to the victory celebration dinner.
“The following day, I left without giving an explanation.
“It was then that I received a proposal that was destined to change my life forever. I was called in by the general manager of Ducati Meccanica, who at the time was Mr. Montano, a man of sterling character, a great company manager, who said, and I quote: ‘I know your talent and I need you. If you build 100 motorcycles to win the Tour of Italy, Ducati will stay open, because I only have one month’s salary for my workers. If not, we shut down and everyone goes home’.”
At the time, the Milano Taranto and Moto Giro D’Italia were more important to motorcycle sales in Italy than Grand Prix racing or even winning the Isle of Man TT. The Italian races were long-distance trials of speed and endurance and success meant instant sales.
Taglioni designed a bevel drive, SOHC engine which appeared simultaneously in 100cc and 125cc forms to give Ducati two chances in the multi-class Moto Giro. The bike bore many of Taglioni’s trademark design traits. In reality, it was a very conservative concept that broke no new ground.
Norton in particular had been racing bevel drive engines since the 1920s with incredible success. Unit construction engines, where the engine and gearbox are one item, had also been in production since before the First World War. What Taglioni did was to put all the best of known engineering practice into one, unified, package. The result was a neat, reliable and very beautiful, motorcycle.
Working off his previous designs for Ducati, Fabio Taglioni designed an oversquare high-revving Single for the Ducati 175 Sport.
Almost simultaneously, there was a series of disasters in road events throughout Europe. In 1955, 82 spectators were killed in a single accident when a Mercedes car somersaulted over the pit wall at Le Mans, and the accidents were piling up in the Moto Giro and Milano Taranto too. 1957 saw the end of the original Moto Giro.
Despite the death of the Moto Giro, Ducati was still left with an extremely marketable race-inspired road bike – the truly magnificent 175 Sport. The Sport, launched at the Milan Show in November 1956, incorporated all the lessons and characteristics of the race bikes in a hot road-bike package.
The engine was a typical Taglioni design. The heart of the Sport was an oversquare (62 x 57.8mm) high-revving, SOHC motor. As with all Taglioni’s motors, the cam was driven by a shaft and the wet sump kept the oil low in the chassis and the engine simple. In standard trim, power was a class-leading 14 hp at an astonishing 8,000 rpm. This gave an 85mph-plus performance – comparable with many 500s of its day.
The race bike carried the exotic name “Silverstone Super”. Ducati provided a hotter cam, bigger carburetor, race exhaust and rev counter. A small pilot, glued to the fuel tank and with his knees tucked in, could expect to see a genuine 95mph, which was Grand Prix performance.
At the time, the Ducati Silverstone Super’s 95 mph top speed was remarkable, as was the cam box ready to accomodate a rev counter.
The chassis was just as good. Taglioni understood all about mass centralization, which seems to be the latest vogue amongst current designers. The Sport is wafer thin with its mass located low in the frame. The result is outstanding handling.
The bike also had excellent brakes right out of the box with a full width, seven-inch unit on the front, complete with air scoop, and a six and quarter incher on the back.
Then there was the detailing. The razor thin saddle was designed for the rider to stretch right back, tucked into a racing crouch on the track – and looking cool on the road. The gas tank came complete with clips ready to a chin pad and a cam box ready for a rev counter. Fifty years ago, these were the equivalent of the current Desmosedici RR.
And lest young riders smile patronizingly at the Taglioni’s efforts, let’s just pause a moment. Taglioni understood mass centralization both as an engineer and because of his intuitive feel of what made a motorcycle function at it the optimum. His designs were done not with the assistance of a bank of computers and a vast team of assistants but merely with a pencil, drafting board, a sheet of paper and a gifted brain. That is the enormity of his achievements.
So, clearly, the Sport is a bike every enthusiast would want to ride every day? Well, no. The rock hard suspension, narrow seat and low bars make for a very committed riding experience. The motor vibrates and the left-hand side kick start, mounted high on the engine case, is very much an acquired taste. In short, this is not a bike for the long relaxing mountain ride.
With designs like the Hypermotard and Ducati 1098 causing quite the stir at their Milan Bike Show introductions, it is interesting to note that Ducati used the show to unveil its Sport 175 over 50 years ago.
It is, however, a bike that would grace any garage and thereby rests the final conundrum in this fascinating story. As a regular classic motorcycle, the little Ducatis do not make good money at all. A clean, un-restored example can be bought for anything in the $5,000 – $6,000 price range. However, get a truly superb example, such as the one in our photo library, AND find the right Ducati enthusiast and the sky is the limit. Like everything from the Bologna factory, quality is everything.
For more information on where to buy a Ducati Sport contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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