A SPORTING CHANCE

By Stuart Grant

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Going into the 1970s, the relatively young Japanese motorcycle manufacturers blew the scene wide open with well-priced, quality offerings and motorsport domination. However, their on-track approach focused heavily on the smaller-capacity two-strokes machines and left the door open for the more traditional Europeans to play competitively in the big-bore action. In 1972, the iconic Italian maker Ducati took this gap, ending a 13-year racing break and winning off the bat. We chart how the firm converted this success into perhaps the ultimate café racer, steered itself out of financial difficulties and created the mould for so many of the legendary Ducatis that have followed.   

Ducati’s history is a long one, but this story kicks off in 1970 when the decision makers, under Arnaldo Milvio and Fredmano Spairani, decided 500cc Grand Prix racing was a good place to develop Ducati’s first twin engine. All did not go well though, with the engine proving seriously underpowered and outclassed by the likes of MV Agusta. A 750cc twin engine was also being looked into at the time and it was as if the racing gods were watching as the rule makers announced a new 750cc production bike class, set to kick off with a 200-mile race at Imola in April ’72.

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Technical man Fabio Taglioni got stuck in and within a month finished the 750cc power unit. This L-twin cylinder, which featured Ducati’s desmodromic valve system, special camshafts and Dell’Orto carbs was good for 94 horses and red-lined at the 9200rpm mark. It was slotted into a road frame and Brit GP ace Paul Smart broke the Modena record in testing on road tyres. Even better, Smart then scooped the 200-mile race honours at Imola and teammate Bruno Spaggiari finished second. In the space of one race weekend, Ducati moved to the sharp end of the superbike market.   

The world wanted these machines but had to hang out until 1974, when mass production began in earnest. When it did arrive, just 401 units of the 750 SuperSport were made, and although it immediately set new standards for production motorcycles, it was still essentially a pure production racer with the bare minimum done to make it street legal. Like so many halo machines, it was uneconomical to produce (the complicated bevel gear-driven camshaft was to blame) but did wonders for the brand and is still considered by many as the most significant production bike in Ducati history.

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By 1975, the Japanese had caught up with the Ducati’s performance and handling prowess, so Taglioni rebutted with the most logical move… upping the power. For competition/homologation purposes a reworked 750cc road bike was offered in small numbers, but the trump card for road users was the increase in capacity to 864cc. The number was rounded up and the name 900 SuperSport was chosen. Despite retaining a right-hand-side gearshift (flying in the face of legislation brought out by the Americans in ’74), the 900 proved an instant hit with road users. Early-bird buyers got the worm, with the race carbs and exhaust still a feature – these were soon toned down to comply with new global legislation, and for the same reason the gear and rear brake levers were swapped over and new foot pegs added. The kick starter was also reworked – early versions occasionally saw the lever rotating around when kicked, knocking the bike into first gear… if the bike wasn’t on the centre-stand, our Ducati ace could be left a bit embarrassed outside the café.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Ducati fan, but they do come with an unreliability stigma and just as the 750 and 900 SuperSport set the standard for all Ducatis to follow in performance, it also did so in the reliability department. It’s bound to happen when you basically take a highly-strung race engine and fit it to a road bike, I suppose, by why it didn’t get the electrical bits correct is anyone’s guess. Ducati did eventually remedy the electronic gremlins in 1978 versions, though. It also improved engine breathing to stop cranks breaking and fiddled the timing for more efficient running and consumption. A dual seat and lockable toolbox became standard (although a single was still an option) and it was the final year to show-off Borrani wire wheels for the SuperSport. It is for these reasons – and the fact that Mike Hailwood (on his renowned comeback ride) won the Isle of Mann TT Formula 1 race aboard a 900 SuperSport – that the ’78 versions are highly regarded.   

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Riding on Hailwood’s success, Ducati aimed squarely at the British market in ’79 and painted the SuperSports black with gold accents (very Velocette). Cast Campagnolo wheels replaced the wires and a limited number of Mike Hailwood Replica versions were painted in a red/green scheme.

Changes were minimal in 1980, but thereafter the SuperSport aesthetic morphed into a more contemporary one: the tank became more rounded, the tail section had integrated side covers as well as a duck-tail sweep, and flowing paint stripes ran throughout to pull the design together visually. This mutton-dressed-as-lamb approach didn’t go down all that well, with shoppers left uninspired by the outdated machine (compared to the new big Japanese bikes), and sales figures and the Ducati bank balance reflected this.

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With creditors chasing their money, the Ducati outfit didn’t have much in the way of R&D cash left lying around but had to do something. So, in 1982 it launched the SuperSport replacement, the Ducati S2. It shared its frame with the Mike Hailwood Replica, so handled like a dream, and the gearbox smoothness was significantly improved on, but new legislation saw the 900 engine and carbs strangled even more to meet these requirements. Just 1 236 units had been built by 1985 when Ducati and all its holdings were sold off to Cagiva. Cagiva relauched the SuperSport (or SS) badge in 1988 and has since applied it to 90° V-twins of 350, 400, 600, 800 and 900 capacities.

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Before we wrap up the SuperSport story, there’s one last issue that needs to be addressed. Desmo. It’s a word bandied about by all of us armchair World Superbike Championship racers. Most of us actually have no idea what it means and think it is exclusive to Ducati. Shock and horror… it is not.

Mention of desmodromic valves (desmo) first seems to appear in 1896 within several patents lodged by one Gustav Mees. But commercial usage dates from around 1910, when it was used in marine applications. By the 1950s, Mercedes-Benz was all over the technology, utilising desmo in its straight-8 cylinder racing engines, most notably used in the 300SLR racing cars. Desmodromic valve actuation was popular as it stopped valve springs snapping or floating at high rpm. Desmo gets around these problems by using a second set of rocker arms and cam lobes to shut the valves directly. This means that regardless of engine revs, the opportunity for valve float is eliminated. So where’s the downside? Once again there’s a problem in the cost department. When compared to traditional valve operation set-ups, the additional machining and parts required make it a pricey affair. Add to this that the valve adjustment process is twice as complicated as a regular engine and we realise why, for the most part, the engineering world (other than Ducati) has moved away from it.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? From a technical viewpoint I have no idea, but I can tell you that it makes me want a Ducati – and more specifically, a 900 SuperSport on a set of Borranis…

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* Thanks to www.sportsandgtclassics.com for supplying the pictured motorcycle.

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