Mike ‘The Bike’ Hailwood, one of the greatest riders in the history of GP racing. After an 11-year break in motorcycle racing he returned in the 1978 Isle of Man TT and took a shocking victory on a Ducati 900SS.
Imagine the greatest motorcycle racer in the world wearing leathers in worse condition than yours.
Imagine the greatest motorcycle racer in the world enjoying corporate hospitality – sitting on a five gallon fuel can, eating his sandwich next to a factory Honda.
Imagine the greatest motorcycle racer in the world riding uncompetitive bikes for free – just to help out struggling manufacturers.
You have just met Mike Hailwood – the people’s champion.
It’s Oulton Park and a densely packed crowd is gathered around a slim, brown-haired young man who is looking distinctly embarrassed as he signs autographs. I am at waist height amongst the adults and see Hailwood only through the cracks between oily jeans and greasy jackets. How can anyone that famous look so ordinary?
Now I have persuaded my Mum that I am old enough to go to Europe on my own. I set off for Holland on my Velocette Venom, with the clutch slipping and a bad oil leak from the rocker box. I navigate using only the page of Western Europe torn from an Atlas which I stole from school.
I am going to Assen for the Dutch TT. Hailwood, on the wailing, howling, soul-stirring Honda 6, rides around the outside of his good friend Derek Woodman, who is campaigning the factory MZ, and then sticks out his tongue. It’s one of the most important GPs of the season, yet Hailwood is still at play. Hailwood – the poor person’s champion.
1978. Now I have a real job. And a suit. And a briefcase. And a warning from my boss that my career prospects will be in terminal decline if I go to this year’s TT. But, after an absence of 11 years Hailwood is back on the “Island”. Hailwood – the supreme master of the 37 and 3/4 miles of lethal public roads which are the TT course – is making a comeback: it is a seminal moment in motorcycling history.
Hailwood is entered in the Formula One TT and I am going to die of grief if I can’t see him ride. Hailwood, who has been the icon of my motorcycling life. Hailwood, the touchstone of everything which is good about bikes.
The F1 race is on the Saturday of TT week and, because I theoretically don’t work on weekends, there is just the merest flicker of hope that I can be with Mike on the Island. I persuade an ex-RAF fighter pilot, who has a relaxed attitude to air safety combined with a love of motorcycle racing, to borrow a light aircraft and fly us to the Isle of Man. We leave as the first pink fingers of dawn caress the grey of the morning sky. The overloaded plane struggles to break free of the grass airstrip and hedgerows which, only a few feet below, look disconcertingly close.
The little Cessna bumps and slides and snakes across the Irish Sea while our pilot tells us stories of strafing Yemeni rebels from 200 feet while SAS Troopers waved encouragement from the desert below. Normally I would be fascinated, but my mind is fixed on Hailwood. Hailwood back racing. Hailwood at the Island.
Now the three of us sit on the steep grass banking of Glen Helen. There is a good entry with factory machines from Honda and Ducati, but there is only interest in Hailwood. The red and green Ducati booms into view and “Mike the Bike” is line perfect through the steep, climbing left-hand bend. There is a tiny puff of glass fiber as the Ducati’s fairing touches down on the bump which marks the apex of the bend – and then Hailwood is gone.
After six laps Hailwood has won. A fairytale return for the people’s champion. Hailwood, riding a deeply unfashionable bike from a small, quirky Italian factory, has beaten the best in the world. English tuner Steve Wynne’s home spun skill and fanatical attention to detail, combined with Hailwood’s majestic riding ability have made fairytales come true.
We head back to England with the tiny Cessna singing old “Slade” songs and retelling Hailwood’s success.
This brings us to the legendary Mike Hailwood Replica Ducati and the need to put the bike in historical context. In 1978, Ducati was not the hugely successful international company it is today. On the contrary, it was staggering along after having received generous government subsidies since 1970.
The 850GT was, to put things at their kindest, not a commercial success and the Singles, which had been the mainstay of Ducati for many years, were very dated.
Much of Hailwood’s success was due in large part to mechanic Steve Wynne who, with limited resources, ceated a machine capable of winning against more powerful bikes.
Ducati race success was a million miles away from the current situation where whatever the factory enters there stands a reasonable chance of success.
For a start, there wasn’t truly a factory Ducati race effort. NCR did what they could with an extremely limited budget – and a lot of unofficial goodwill from factory personnel. Being almost next door to Ducati in Borgo Panigale certainly helped – but it didn’t lead to major bucks in a MotoGP effort.
In 1978 NCR’s main interest was not in the TT but Endurance racing, so Hailwood’s bike was not a priority when it was shipped to England in October of the preceding year.
The machine was intended to meet the Isle of Man Formula One specification – a category created especially for the TT by the FIM when GP racing was banned on road circuits. The nearest modern equivalent is World Superbike – tuned road machines which had been built to meet the same target.
There erupted arguments over the eligibility of the Ducati. But the truth is that Hailwood’s bike was based closely on the 864cc Ducati 900 SS. It most certainly wasn’t a standard machine.
Converting the race-prepared NCR machine into a TT winner fell into the talented hands of Steve Wynne who, as well as being one of Europe’s biggest Ducati dealers at the time, was a fine, thoughtful and patient motorcycle tuner.
The replicas were made hastily and look rather drab, but the engine itself is truly a thing of beauty.
The Sports Motorcycles Ducati made around 85 hp, but with a weight of only 365 lbs. it was good for around 175 mph on the long, ultra-fast TT course.
The tractable power and long wheelbase suited the TT course well, and the final element of the magic mix was a smooth rider who wouldn’t over-rev the Ducati engine. What Wynne and Ducati needed was Hailwood, and what they got was a TT win.
In order to be legal, Ducati theoretically built 200 F1 bikes. These had dry clutches, special cylinder heads, pistons, seat, fuel tank and a race exhaust system. However, few – if any – of these bikes actually made it into the hands of road riders.
This didn’t stop the demand from riders who wanted a Hailwood replica – so Ducati happily complied with a cosmetic tribute to the Hailwood’s infamous winning machine.
To make matters worse, the cosmetic replicas themselves were cloned to an appalling degree. Got a rather drab 900SS and want to make a quick buck? Convert it to a Hailwood 900.
So on to our test bike. First off, our test bike is a genuine, 100% authentic Hailwood replica, and best of all it’s a completely un-restored one. The lack of restoration is important.
At this point my brain splits into three parts. The Ducati DOES look like something Hailwood rode. For sure, it is big enough – stretching out in every direction with enough room to house a couple of modern Superbikes inside the vast fairing.
Then my eyes fall to the appalling paint work, the welds which look as if they’d been done by someone on their third bottle of bad Chianti, and ancillary equipment which redefines mediocrity. Surely, such an iconic motorcycle can’t be that bad?
But then there is the engine. Ing. Taglioni’s magnificent bevel drive Desmo sits imperiously like an aristocrat in a tenement block. The alloy gleans softly; the cylinder heads curve sensuously; the exhausts flow anthropomorphically like rock pythons at rest. Is this the most beautiful engine ever to grace a production motorcycle?
Dave Brown, the MH900’s owner, cracks up the big Desmo Twin and you have to forget the paintwork and battery held in place with a rubber strap. The 864cc Twin sounds like a pair of Manx Nortons and produces pure overhead camshaft racing music – clanking valve gear accompanied by a powerful boom from the twin Conti silencers.
Not standard, but possibly the best aftermarket product ever made, are the transparent Perspex covers at the cylinder head end of the bevel drive. A product of “Doctor Desmo,” these allow the rider to observe the valve gear in all its mechanical glory while suppressing any thoughts of the cost if a tooth came off one of the bevel drive gears.
Changing gears on the 900 required a bit of muscle, but the mechanics were smooth and the bike was incredibly steady.
One does not so much ride on the MH Ducati but rather in it. Compared with even a classic GP race bike, like a Matchless G.50, the MH’s cockpit is huge. Against its contemporary race bred rivals, such as a Rob North Triumph/BSA Triple, it’s even bigger. However, standing alongside the monsters of the late 1970s produced by the Japanese, the Hailwood bike really starts to seem quite svelte.
Gear selection requires a firm action, but the pinions engage without problem and then we’re off. The sun is beating down on the Anglesey race circuit – which is only 60 miles across the Irish Sea from the Isle of Man – and it is difficult not to feel the spirit of Hailwood riding with me as the big Desmo gobbles up the sweeping curves and descent of one of Europe’s best race circuits.
Intellectually, I know that Dave’s Hailwood replica is just that: a 900SS with a paint job. But the booming Twin pounding away beneath, the vibration running through my hands and the ultra-steady handling brought about by the 59-inch wheelbase make it easy to suspend reality for half an hour.
Hailwood revved the Sports Motorcycles bike to 8,500 rpm at peak – although this was getting towards the fragile end of reliability for the Desmo engine. The rev limit for a standard
road bike is 7,000 rpm, but I change at 6,500 rpm for fear of missing a gear and something horrendously expensive happening. With all un-restored bikes one has to be conscious of the fact that all those bits whirling around are not as young as they once were – and they need to be treated with respect.
My self-imposed rev limit is not a problem because, despite breathing through a pair of huge 40mm Dell’Orto carbs, the Desmo is perfectly civilized and has none of the coughing or hesitation of a Manx or G.50 before the motor comes on the cam. If you wanted a perfect motor for the TT – this would be it.
The handling too would have been TT perfect. The space inside the cockpit makes for a Rolls Royce ride and the 4.76-gallon tank is wonderfully supportive. Get your head down behind the fairing and this bike will really romp along.
No doubt, the Marzocchi suspension would get frazzled when pushed hard – as it did originally – but I am riding this very valuable motorcycle with a lot of circumspection.
Of course, there is a problem on the tight sections of the track. This is a motorcycle which really demands physical input for quick changes of direction. That wonderful stability which makes the Ducati such a dream on fast curves becomes a nuisance when the bike has to be pushed into tight corners.
Tucking down over the 4.76-gallon tank on a long straight it’s easy to see how Hailwood accomplished such impressive speeds in the TT.
It’s not so much that the bike won’t stop or turn – the twin 280mm Brembo discs are surprisingly effective – but rather that it would prefer not to be pushed around and makes its feelings known.
But then we’re back on to the long, curving right-hand straight at Anglesey and the speed just builds up relentlessly. The road bike gives 70 hp while Hailwood’s machine had another 17 hp on top of that, and he was much lighter. Suddenly, the 175 mph which Mike’s bike managed in the TT seems highly credible.
As I pull the Ducati onto its center-stand I have answered my own questions. Is the riding experience worth the dreadful paint, dangling electric cables and crude finish?
Without a doubt.
The original plan was to build 200 MH replicas and these were put together as a side-line in the factory. There wasn’t much work to do because, with a few extra brackets to locate, a one-piece fairing and a quick paint job, the bikes were ready to go.
The MH900 has never been a low-cost bike, and it is likely that its price will continue to increase in the coming years.
These first bikes flew out of the factory doors much to the delight of Ducati.
There was even more pleasure coming to Bologna. The Hailwood replicas just wouldn’t stop selling and, although the final figure is unclear, something in the region of 7,000 official MH replicas left Ducati. In fact, they transformed the poor selling 900SS into a financial success and played a significant role in keeping the factory alive.
From the beginning, these bikes have never been a low cost way into exotic motorcycling – and are becoming increasingly less affordable as each year goes by. Expect to pay around $35,000 for a bike as honest and original as the one featured in this article – and, absolutely for sure, even more next year!
Our thanks to arch Ducati enthusiast Dave Brown for the loan of his MH900