Memorable Motorcycle: Ducati 900SS

November 10, 2014
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

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.

Winston Churchill’s famous quote of: “History is written by the victors…” was never more applicable than with the Ducati 900SS. At the time of its launch in 1974, Ducati was staggering on the point of extinction with most of the Borgo Panigale factory being used mainly to make diesel engines for Alfa Romeo. Almost as an afterthought, Ducatis trickled out in fits and starts – and with a truly, breathtakingly poor quality.

At the time, no one with a grain of brain would go near a 900SS. Ducatisiti, please don’t issue a fatwa on me but the truth is that the best Superbike of the day was the Kawasaki Z1, which not only out-accelerated the 900SS but had a higher top speed, a beautiful finish and maintenance which was confined to regular oil changes and washing the bike once a week. None of these traits applied to the SS.

If you didn’t fancy a Z1, and everyone with a decent dose of testosterone in their veins did, then Suzuki offered you the fast, stone axe-reliable and sweet-handling GS 750.

In fact, the situation was quite dire in terms of what the SS did offer the rider. There were two problems. The first was the rather quirky nature of the bike itself. There is no doubt that certain parts of the SS are genius and this is why I am risking death by criticizing the bike. Ing. Fabio Taglioni’s V-Twin engine is a thing of mechanical beauty and, even in the depths of Ducati’s worst moments, the engines were fairly well made. Much of this quality is down to Taglioni’s hand being heavily on what bits of the production process he could control. The problem was that much of the bike was out of his hands and the results were appalling.

So let’s go back to the very roots of the SS because it’s an interesting story – and the US Army Airforce has an important part to play in it.

Before the Second World War, Ducati was a radio company – and an extremely successful one. Motorcycles were not on the agenda in any shape, way or form.

The Ducati brothers, Bruno and Cavalieri, were world leaders in the production of short wave radios and, since 1924, had been 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 more than 7000 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.

The bad news was that the Ducati factory became a “Must Bomb” attraction for Allied air forces during the Italian campaign. The American Fifteenth 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 production facility used to be was not immediately helpful to Ducati.

But the good news was quick to follow. Because of Ducati’s high-tech reputation pre-war, the Italian government re-equipped and modernized the factory with, this time, state-of-the-art 1950s machine tools. 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. This was the single most important factor in the evolution of the bevel drive, overhead cam Desmo engines which Fabio Taglioni was able to design when he arrived at Ducati from Mondial.

His little, single-cylinder Desmos saved the factory from extinction but, by 1970, the market no longer wanted high-performance Singles. The big profit margins were in supersports bikes so after just six months from his first sketches in March 1970, Taglioni saw the iconic “L” configuration V-Twin in metal. This remarkable engine took much of the well-proven technology from the Singles and combined it in a light, slim and powerful 750cc engine.

Justification for Taglioni’s concept came at the Imola 200 race when Paul Smart beat the best Superbikes of the day to give Ducati a famous victory. How much this success was against the run of play can be judged by the fact that no one else except Smart, who needed to put food on the family table, would take the ride.

Sadly, Ducati lacked the resources to exploit the publicity bonanza which followed and the normal pattern of staggering along the edge of financial crisis continued unabated.

Taglioni continued to make the best of his scant resources and in 1974 the 750 was stretched to 864cc and now there was a claimed 70 horsepower available – but only for the lucky owner who got a good engine.

Ducatisti will tell you that the very best of all the 900s is the 1975 model, which had the right-hand gear change for which the motor was designed, and was unconstrained by noise or emission controls.

So what did you get in 1975? First, there was Taglioni’s unique, and crack cocaine-addictive, 90-degree V-Twin with desmodromic valve gear.

No matter what anyone thinks about any other part of the 900SS there are few more beautiful engines in the world than these early Ducati air-cooled Twins – and even fewer which are more anthropomorphic. Kick the motor into life (electric starters were only for limp-wristed girlie boys) and you will be greeted with a magnificent cacophony of clanks and whirrs from the engine and the booming braaahhhh, braaahhhh, braaahhhh from the barely silenced Contis. You could easily overdose on mechanical ecstasy!

The engine works okay too. It’s not Z1 quick but it is deceptively brisk and lopes along like a wolf on the scent. The clutch, if well maintained, is fine and the gearbox, although requiring a firm foot, works too.

The cockpit is immense. For some reason, Taglioni insisted on having a mammoth 59-inch wheelbase. This means that the 900SS has more space for the pilot than a tricked out Winnebago. The result is ultra-stable handling, particularly on fast bends, but also a bike which needs muscling about. This is not a motorcycle which you are going to flick through tight corners.

The Marzocchi front forks are fine for the period and the twin Brembo discs are excellent – better than the Japanese offerings of the day.

All this was the good news. The bad news filled every other space. First, the build quality was appalling. A good SS fairing looks as if it was done during breaks between screwing diesel engines together – and a bad one is really dreadful. The frames are all over the place, ranging in quality from good to awful, while the electrics are consistently bad. Compared with the Japanese opposition, only the truly dedicated, hardcore sportbike fan loved the SS.

For all these reasons, the SS sold like Ebola virus samples and finding a retail customer in America was the nearest thing to impossible that the motorcycling world could offer.

What Ducati needed was a huge publicity coup which would give world-wide press coverage, but one which cost nothing because the factory was quite literally penniless. Was the impossible actually going to morph into the achievable?

Let’s re-cap. The 900SS had less power than the Japanese, a wheelbase which was unsuitable for most race tracks and no racing support to offer teams. How could this mélange of unsuitability be turned into a success story?

The answer was two-fold. By a complete quirk of fate, the 900SS was perfect for the Isle of Man TT and its 37 ¾ miles of high-speed public roads. What better place could you put an ultra-stable, torquey race bike?

The problem was the TT was nearly in as bad a way as Ducati. It was no longer a GP race and factory support was long past the golden days of screaming Hondas and wailing MVs.

Then the planets moved into alignment and the sun appeared from behind the clouds. Out of retirement came a bald, 38-year-old, slightly inarticulate, PR averse and achingly modest motorcycling God. It was Mike Hailwood – still the greatest motorcycle racer ever in many observers’ eyes.

Hailwood did not ride for the Ducati factory but for a British Ducati dealer – albeit one of the best tuners in the world – and was paid $1500 for his comeback ride in the TT. That’s less than Rossi currently sells a used helmet for!

It was the stuff of legends and, like the very best Hollywood blockbusters, the heroes triumphed as Hailwood won and on a Ducati 900SS. You can read the full story here.

Following the win the world, and not just the bike press, went into Hailwood mania and so Ducati decided to off-load a few of their stockpile of unsold V-Twins by giving them a quick, and it really was quick, paint job replicating Hailwood’s race winning 900SS and a road-legal, steel gas tank.

The first, and in Ducati’s eyes the only, production run was to be of just 200 bikes. I was once told by a Ducati insider that the view at the time was since the British importer was jumping up and down demanding a Hailwood replica they might as well invest a few dollars in a cheap paint job and have the bikes sat unsold in Britain – rather than have them collect cobwebs in a corner of a diesel engine factory.

It was one of the great marketing mistakes of all time – but one which Ducati soon corrected!

The first 200 Hailwood replicas were sold before the paint was dry and now Ducati swung into full action converting the 900s into Hailwood replicas. Eventually, Ducati made something in the region of 7000 Hailwood replicas and probably the same number of 900s have been converted privately. In our area of England, I know of one motorcycling paintshop which almost had a full time production line transforming standard 900s into Hailwood replicas – things became that frenetic.

This explains why there are so few non-Hailwood replica 900s available today. By a quirk of fate Hailwood, the least commercially minded racer in the world, simultaneously rescued the 900SS and Ducati!

So now to the present – and, again, the story again becomes interesting. Let’s start with the rarest of all things, a completely original 900SS. To be blunt, I can see no reason whatsoever for paying a premium – and a steep one too – to own an untouched 900SS unless, of course, you are starting a museum and want an example of all that was wrong with the Italian motorcycle industry in the 1970s.

Naturally, because I worship at the shrine of the Holy Mike of Hailwood I would make an exception for an original Hailwood replica – but one which still had the electrics subtly sorted.

Fortunately, most of the 900s currently on the market have had a really good seeing to. They will have superb paint, all the necessary engine modifications carried out and electrics which work. In this form, especially with electronic ignition which will enable a normal classic bike fan to start the 900, you will have a truly delightful motorcycle and one alongside which you will stand with pride wherever you go.

Regarding prices, you will really need to tread very carefully indeed. There are two problems. First, a good number of people have been carried along on the Ducati wave of nostalgia, heritage, Hailwood et al. As a consequence they have spent a lot of money on having their beloved 900SS restored – and $10,000 can go in the blink of an eye at a specialist Ducati company.

This is not to criticize these skilled Ducati experts because getting a 900SS perfect is neither a simple nor a cheap job. So, the $12,000 Ducati SS which goes in through the restorer’s door can comfortably come out the other side with $30,000 or $40,000 work done on it. Now we have the situation of the owner trying to recoup his costs on a $50,000 bike.

The other problem is simply greed. For the purposes of this article, I did some research on these iconic machines being offered for sale and found 900s at obscenely expensive prices with a good sprinkling of unrestored 900s at $50,000.

By comparison, a stunning Z1 will cost $15,000 and a mint Suzuki GS750 probably $5000. Now I know that neither of these bikes are a 900 but you do have to ask yourself is the Suz, which is a better motorcycle in every way than the SS, only 10% as good?

If your heart beats to the thump of the Bologna drum you will need no help with the answer. However, if all that you want is a super sports bike from the 1970s, rather than a two-wheeled legend, I would take Suzuki’s sublime 750 every time – and enjoy the fun which the surplus $45,000 would bring.