Part 30 Ducati Motorcycles
By David Cavaliere
After I wrote an article about the 70th anniversary of Vespa, I received numerous requests to include articles featuring Italian motorcycles. Here goes – this week, I’ll step away from the history of the Italian automobile and instead cover Ducati, one of the most innovative manufacturers in the industry. Fabio Taglioni was always an avant-garde engineer. After three years in development, in 1958 he introduced a desmodromic valve system for a Ducati motorcycle engine. This design provides a unique solution to one of the limiting factors and weakest areas of a high revving four-cycle engine – the valve train. Instead of using springs to close the valves, a desmodromic system uses the camshaft, though a system of rockers, to positively close the valves. Admittedly, it is a noisier system than one that uses springs, but it is music to my ears. A single cylinder desmo engine sounds like two young lovers arguing back and forth. The music rises to a crescendo, the gear changes, the pitch lowers and the musical argument begins again. In multi-cylinder engines, especially the “desmoquattro” (four-valves per cylinder), the music is an orchestra, although it admittedly may sound like an angry one! Since the mid-1950s, only a few other manufacturers have tried to make desmodromics work, Mercedes was successful, but gave it up in 1955. Since then others have tired, but none were successful. Ducati remains the undisputed king of the “desmo” engine.
In 1926 the Ducati family and other Bolognese investors founded the Società Radio Brevetti Ducati in Bologna. Their goal was to produce industrial components for the growing field of radio, based on Adriano Ducati’s patents. The company became extremely successful and in 1935, it began building an extremely modern complex in Borgo Panigale, intended to become the industrial and technological center of Bologna. During this time the Ducati industry further developed abroad, and opened branches and offices in London, Paris, New York, Sydney and Caracas.
The Second World War was extremely hard on Ducati. The Borgo Panigale factories were razed to the ground during allied bombing in 1944. Fortunately, the Ducati brothers spent the war studying and planning new products for the world’s markets, once the conflict ended. In 1946, the Cucciolo appeared. It was a small auxiliary motor for bicycles. In a short order, the Cucciolo became a real miniature motorcycle. This was Ducati’s start in the motorcycle field.
1952 saw the birth of the futuristic Cruiser 175 cc, featuring an electric starter and automatic transmission. 1954 saw the arrival of a man who was destined to become legendary within the motorcycle world – Fabio Taglioni. His designs were both innovative and non-conformist. His first designs for Ducati were raced almost as soon as they were built, participating in long-distance races such as the Milano-Taranto and Giro d’Italia. By the end of 1956, Ducati production included a four stroke Tourist 174 and Special and Sport models, capable of considerable performances. At the 1957 Milan Salon, the “America” model was introduced.
In 1960, English motorcycle racer Mike Hailwood requested a machine of superior performance from Ducati. The desmodromic project bore fruit in the motorcycle that they delivered to “Mike the Bike” – the famous twin-cylinder 250 cc.
1962 saw the launch of the Scrambler 250 to the US market, which was to become one of the iconic models of the decade. In 1964, a 250 cc model was added to the roster of commercial single cylinders, in the Diana, Monza, Aurea, and, later, GP types, capable of exceptional performance for the era.
In 1967 Ducati introduced the desmodromic system to a number of its street bike models, until then it had only been used on racing bikes. Two new engine displacements sizes, 350 and 450cc, were introduced and went on to be widely used also during the first half of the 1970s.
In 1969, due to the appearance of the first large displacement Japanese motorcycles, Ducati began an upgrade of its models and a reorganization of its factories. It expanded the factory plant in Borgo Panigale, creating new production areas and the first large twin-cylinder racing and road bikes were produced, the 500 GP and the 750 GT.
On April 23, 1972, Ducati returned to racing, participating in the Imola 200, with a new twin cylinder desmodromic 750. The two entries finished first and second. In 1978, Mike Hailwood, who had grown up with the Ducati single cylinders, got back on the bike for the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy and won. The bike was a Supersport increased to a capacity of 900 cc.
In 1983, Ducati was purchased by Claudio and Gianfranco Castiglioni and became part of the Cagiva Group. With this change of management the group was in the hands of two great motorcycle and racing fans, who brought Ducati to the triumphs of the Superbike era. Under the management of the Castiglioni brothers, Ducati expanded its share of the motorcycle market, introducing new models, increasing the supply of large displacement motorcycles, and intensifying the company’s commitment to racing.
Ducati’s commitment to the SBK Championship from 1990 allowed it to achieve its dream of winning its first title with the Ducati 851 just two years later, the first twin-cylinder fitted with a 4-valve Desmoquattro engine. This was just the start of an incredible run up the championship ladder for Ducati. During subsequent years, the company raced with its 851, 888, 916 and 996 bikes, totting up an amazing number of titles.
Based on the experience gained on the race track, the 851 and 888 became the first road Superbikes available to the general public. 1993 saw the launch of the Monster, a bike that is still Ducati’s biggest commercial success, followed in 1994 by the 916, still considered to be one of the most beautiful motorcycles ever built.
The Cagiva Group sold Ducati to the Texas Pacific Group in September 1996. The new management team made some extensive changes in its administration and marketing policies and developed Ducati into one of the strongest motorcycle brands on the market. Simultaneously, the launch of the ST family allowed Ducati to enter the Sport Touring segment of the market. The turnaround era culminated on March 24, 1999 with the listing of Ducati Motor Holding at the New York and Milan Stock Exchanges.
2000 was the year that the MH900e became the first motorcycle to be sold exclusively on the Internet. The racing season closed with the ninth Superbike Manufacturers’ Title.
In 2001, the company celebrated its 75th anniversary, but also marked the deaths of Bruno Cavalieri Ducati, the last of the three brothers who founded the company, and of Fabio “Dr. T” Taglioni, father of the 90° twin-cylinder engine, still the hallmark engine of Ducati motorcycles.
After three years of intense development efforts, in 2003 the Multistrada was introduced. In 2005, the controlling shareholders of Ducati changed from TPG to the Italian company Investindustrial.
In 2006, the Desmosedici RR was launched at the Italian MotoGP in Mugello. The Superbike 1098, the successor of the 999, was also announced and voted “Best Design.” 2007 will be forever remembered as the year that Ducati took its first MotoGP World Title – the first in 33 years for an Italian company – won by the Desmosedici GP07.
2010 saw the ownership of the company pass from Investindustrial to Audi, it is operated under the Lamborghini branch of the company. There is no end in sight for this legendary motorcycle manufacturer. It continues to make incredibly fast and beautiful motorcycles, coveted the world over. It remains the standard of superbike that every other motorcycle brand wishes it could produce.