Memorable Motorcycle: Ducati 450 Scrambler

April 16, 2012
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Scrambler 450
This month our man Melling reflects on the Ducati 450 Scrambler, a vehicle which the Italian marque hoped to tap a then booming motocross market.

If ever a bike needed to be put into context it is the Ducati 450 scrambler – and the key to understanding this rather lovely motorcycle is to appreciate just how big motocross was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, if you ask a MotoGP fan who the current World Motocross Champion is, you would be lucky to get any answer – let alone an accurate one.

Not so 40 years ago. Road riders and circuit racing fans were heavily involved in the motocross scene and knew the factories and bikes as well as they could recite the exploits of legendary road racers like Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini.

A further factor was that motorcyclists had vastly more sporting interest and knowledge than the current, very fragmented market. Everyone knew the sporting legends in each of the many motorcycling disciplines. We were just as keen, within my group of friends, on GP motocross as we were on road racing.

The enthusiasm from the rock ‘n’ roll generation was reflected in the huge audiences which top line motocross attracted. 25,000 spectators at a GP was quite common in Western Europe and the old Eastern Bloc countries. The battles between BSA riding John Banks, Suzuki star Roger de Coster and CZ’s Paul Friedrichs would see a quarter of a million ardent fans.

Ducati 450 decompresser lever
Dr. Fablio Taglioni’s desmodromic Single was a thing of beauty and pure auditory bliss. Provided riders could successfully muster the courage, skill and luck to start the fickle Italian – a technical feat only marginally short of launching the space shuttle into geostationary orbit.

The final part of the story is that, at this time, the dirt bike market in America quite simply exploded. From being a real minority sport, with a few thousand participants concentrated mainly on the West Coast, everyone from Florida to Washington wanted a dirt bike. “On Any Sunday” truly told the tale to perfection.

Dirt bikes were cool. Dirt bikes were fun. Dirt bikes were cheeky and laughed at authority. Dirt bikes got you pretty girls, and, yes, they did it all for me, and then some – as a number of very angry fathers would testify!

At the time, Ducati was in one of their traditional, perilous states of near bankruptcy – almost the standard Borgo Panigale mantra until very recently – and so looked to the burgeoning scrambler market in Europe and America as a real life saver.

In truth, they had a very credible offering; not so much for serious competition but rather the pretend racing which involved the odd foray along a fire road – and a lot of posing outside the burger vendor.

Ducati offered three versions of the scrambler, all of which were extremely similar – except for the capacity of their engines. The 450 was the best of all three sizes and produced a reasonable 28 horespower. Even today, this is ample power for sporting riding and, with a bit of forethought, even the occasional girl impressing wheelie.

The heart of all the Ducati engines was Dr. Fablio Taglioni’s iconic, not to say very effective, desmodromic valve opening system – a variation of which is still found on Ducati engines even today. At a time when European motorcycle engines were notoriously fragile, the 450 Ducatis would run up to 7,000 rpm without any problem. Their five-speed gearboxes also marked them out as state of the art.

And using the word “art” is always appropriate for a Taglioni engine. The heavily finned 450 was one of the most beautiful motors of its generation and is still a thing of sublime beauty today.
Dr. Taglioni was a fine engineer but not overly bothered with trivia such as mere mortals starting one of his engines. The kick start – Taglioni never got round to fitting an electric starter to the Singles – is mounted high on the left-hand side of the engine and this location is just about as bad as it gets.

Like all sporting singles, the 450 kicks back like an angry mule if the rider gets the starting procedure wrong, so real thought is required to get the fires lit in the beautiful, all alloy motor.
Here is all that is required to persuade a 450 into life. First, manually flood the Dell ‘Orto carburetor – but not a fraction too much fuel or the engine won’t start at all and you will have to change the spark plug. Clearly, like all riders of the time you will have a plug spanner and a couple of spare plugs immediately to hand.

450 headlamp guard
Headlamp guard for the Ducati 450 Scrambler, for, you know, racing around on the Motocross track…

With the mixture enriched to perfection – if you’re very lucky or extremely skilled – the piston needs to be brought to top dead center on the ignition stroke. Again, being brought up on Singles you will know precisely where to find this sweet spot as well as you can recite “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Then pull in the decompressor lever which means that the piston can be just gently teased over top dead center of its stroke. Next, allow the kick-starter to return so that its full arc is available.

Now, all that you need is total confidence in your carburetor enrichment and piston position – and then follow that with a long, determined swing.

As the engine spins over TDC and the piston comes up to ignition, open the throttle the width of a gnat’s eyelash and the engine will fire and you will beam with smug satisfaction.

Get any element of the exercise wrong and the 450 will either kick back and try to break your leg, or worse, the engine will flood and refuse to fire.

When this happens, your pony-tailed date, looking so cute in her tight, fluorescent, lemon colored jeans, will get increasingly irritated – and start looking thoughtfully at the lad with the nice looking MG sports car.

And to think, we actually sneered when the Japanese put electric starters on bikes…

450 instruments
View of the Ducati 450 Scrambler instrumentation. The Duc had a hodgepodge of suppliers that delivered varying levels of quality control and an uneven fit and finish.

Prospective purchasers of a 450 today should be re-assured that retro-fitted electronic ignition has made life much easier – not to mention safer.

Once the 450 is stirred into life, the sound is evocative of all that is good about Singles. The rasp and boom of the 436cc motor would wake a sporting rider from the dead and the Silentium silencer makes only a nominal bid towards reducing the noise level. Not quite a Manx Norton, or a G.50, but still a thing of utter aural wonder.

The 450’s chassis is also very good. Ducati might have been a financial car wreck, staggering from one crisis to another, but Ducati’s development rider, mechanic and racer, Franco Farne spent a lot of time in the mountains of Marche honing the handling of the Ducati Singles.

Ironically, despite its off-road styling, the Scrambler has a frame with the race modifications derived from Bruno Spaggiari’s factory race bikes, and so is a seriously good piece of kit.
The rest of the cycle parts are largely derived from standard Italian proprietary suppliers. This is good news and bad news. Some elements of the bike are actually excellent. The Grimeca drum brakes work very well, for their period, and are elegant too. The Marzocchi forks are also fine.

Where things truly fall off the edge of a quality control cliff is the standard Ducati paintwork and the ancillary fittings. To describe Ducati welding, brackets and paintwork as dire is to misrepresent all three elements. They are truly dreadful.
Ironically, the rare, chromed tank bike we had on this Canadian test shows that someone in Bologna could do decent quality cosmetic work.

450 Scrambler

On the road, the 450 really is a thing of delight. The motor is willing and has ample power for sporting riding and also for safety in modern traffic and, with the addition of current tires, the handling is exemplary. It is everything that a classic should be in terms of power, handling and looks.
The gearbox is sweet and the clutch positive and reliable. In fact, one would think that the bike is from a much later period than it actually is. With good looks and a pleasing performance this 450 is worthy of consideration by anyone wanting a classic bike with strong hints of a modern machine feel.

Now for the bad news. Five years ago, these Singles were real bargain basement prices but now prices have stiffened tremendously. Expect to pay $5000 for an unrestored bike and anything up to double that for a really nice example. Even so, this compares with $20,000 for a BSA Goldstar or Velocette Thruxton, so the Ducati is still at the sensible end of the market.