The Ducati 888SSS was the factory’s ’racer for the road,’ before the stunning 916SPS appeared.
Developed in the late 80s from the 851 production racer model, the ’triple eight’ was immediately hailed by the press as a classic Duke in the making.
A mouth watering spec sheet, utilising some of the finest components available at the start of the 1990s, made the 888SPS worth every penny of its £16,000 asking price to the few UK enthusiasts who could drum up the cash. The rest of us, simply dreamed.
Riding away from Sports Motorcycles on a big red Ducati is a rich experience for anyone who recalls the late-Seventies Isle of Man heroics of a certain Mike Hailwood. The atmosphere builds outside the shop as you fire-up the V-twin, snap shut your visor and receive a nod of good luck from the familiar face of Steve Wynne.
Then you tread into gear and head off to explore the Duke’s limits on surrounding Cheshire passes that are eerily reminiscent of the Mountain miles on which a legend was launched with that famous F1 TT victory back in ’78. Two-wheeled nostalgia doesn’t come much more vivid than when riding those roads on a Ducati built by the man who masterminded Hailwood’s comeback triumph.
Wynne’s latest creation is a far cry from Hailwood’s thundering bevel-drive racebike, as a glance down at its shiny frame tubes confirms. This is the 888SSS – short for Sports Spondon Special. It’s a combination of eight-valve V-twin engine in an alloy chassis, complete with single-sided swing-arm, and was designed and built by Sports Motorcycles in collaboration with Spondon Engineering.
Given Ducati’s booming sales and domination of the World Superbike championship, it’s hard to argue with the factory’s decision to stick with traditional, light and cheap-to-produce steel ladder frames. But there are disadvantages to pivoting the swing-arm in the crankcase in Bolognese fashion. The short, narrow pivot-bolt is not particularly rigid, and the forces fed into the cases don’t help engine longevity.
Sports’ boss Steve Wynne, who has been a Ducati dealer for 20 years and preparing racebikes for even longer, first commissioned Spondon to build an alloy frame for the V-twins in 1987. The resultant bike has sold steadily since, almost exclusively in Japan, and mainly using 600 and 750cc engines. The stronger, more sophisticated and slightly bigger new SSS is intended for the bulkier water-cooled 851 and 888 motors, although any belt-drive twin will fit.
Wynne’s idea was to keep costs down by retaining much of the standard Ducati. Not only the engine and ancillaries are used, but also the fairing, seat, clocks and some cycle parts. The SSS therefore retains much of the look of the stock model, although for riders who want something more distinctive Wynne is planning an alternative version with different bodywork.
Whatever the similarities, there’s no mistaking the decidedly un-Ducati like twin alloy spars peeking out of the top of the fairing, or the hefty “Solobrace” swing-arm that curves out on the left side. Ducati may have stomped Honda on the racetrack in recent years but the SSS owes much to the RC30, whose rear hub it uses.
Despite lightweight alloy construction, the immaculately-welded twin frame beams and Schwarzenegger-like curved arm are inevitably slightly heavier than Ducati’s minimalist steel parts. The SSS’s single-sider also results in a slight increase in length, which is nullified by reduced dimensions at the front. Wheelbase remains 1430mm and the centre of gravity is moved forward, “which helps because standard Ducatis are very rear-heavy, which means they tend to push the front wheel,” Wynne says.
The SSS frame holds the engine an inch higher than stock, giving extra cornering clearance (useful if you’re Raymond Roche), while also providing a considerably lower seat (ditto, or if you’re Japanese). Neither Wynne nor Spondon claims the single-sider works better than a conventional arm, though it’s far wider and stronger than the standard design. The rear end also features an Ohlins shock and a rod to allow fine-tuning of the ride height.
Showa’s 41mm upside-down forks are retained, as are the 320mm floating Brembo discs and four-pot Gold Line calipers tucked beneath the carbon-fibre front mudguard. Wheels are 17-inch Dymags, this bike’s rear matching its stock front Michelin Hi-Sport with a fat, 180-section Dunlop intermediate racing tyre (both would normally be Hi-Sports).
The demo bike’s motor was a new and internally standard 851, although Steve expects most customers to use 888cc lumps. Its Weber-Marelli fuel-injection system gulped in through big cylindrical filters sitting in the crook of the Vee, under the rather strangely shaped 17-litre tank (which is likely to be restyled in the near future).
Main mod to the power train was the Sports two-into-one exhaust system, which Wynne is also marketing for standard Ducatis. “It’s big advantage is that the 851 and 888 system has a curve that means two-thirds of the gas comes out of the right silencer,” he says. “The right side gets hot and the left stays cold, so riders are always saying its running weak on one side.
“I reckoned that if we made the silencer a third bigger on the right we’d have the same capacity, and in fact it’s turned out better and no noisier than the standard 851 system. We tested it on the dyno against Ducati’s race exhaust, and our system produced slightly more power and ran-on slightly better at the top end. It’s also lighter, simpler and costs much less than the race system.” (£582 including VAT, plus £50 for an injection chip whose specification depends on engine type.)
The SSS pipe indeed chuffed away much like a standard 851’s as I nosed out to dodge the sheep and the showers on the windy roads around Sports’ base at Bollington, near Macclesfield. Loudest sound was induction roar from the slot in the front of the tank. Sounded good to me, although Steve says the slot isn’t necessary and that sealing it to form a still-air chamber is equally effective.
Riding position, too, felt pretty standard, but the lower seat means you sit slightly more in rather than on the bike. Ahead are familiar clocks and clip-ons, plus the less-familiar sight of Spondon’s alloy yokes, with their spacers for adjusting fork offset and thus trail.
This bike had been set-up to give a more modern feel than either the standard Ducati or Sports’ previous alloy-framed special. Steve was unsure of the precise steering geometry, but this Special’s combination of offset and ride-height had reduced rake and trail considerably from the standard 24.5 degrees and 94mm.
Coupled with a near-standard dry weight of just under 200kg, the SSS’s lighter pipe and wheels more than regaining any ounces added by the frame and swing-arm, this gave distinctly lighter steering than the Ducati norm. The Sports bike could be flicked effortlessly through sets of sweeping curves, in contrast to the 851 and 888, which need to be cornered forcefully for best results.
Stability was flawless, despite the racier geometry. The Special was in its element when the sun came out, the pace hotted up, and keeping eyes peeled for unmarked police K100s, I practised my Carl Fogarty impersonations on the notoriously fast, well-surfaced road that carves up past the Cat and Fiddle pub and back down towards Macclesfield.
Approaching the tighter bends you could shed speed quickly with the powerful Brembos, tip the SSS into a bend and power through with the excellent suspension soaking up bumps and the bike remaining perfectly poised. Both partners in the unholy alliance of tyres gripped tight even on the odd damp patch, and it’s hard to think of a bike that would have been better balanced or easier to ride.
My only cornering hassle came when enthusiastic hanging-off put too much weight on the footrests, bending the left alloy mounting bracket enough to make gear changing difficult. (Wynne had already encountered the problem, and production bikes will be fitted with stronger brackets.)
Gear changing obviously wasn’t the Sports bike’s strong point, because the six-speed box had already shown a typically Ducati-like notchiness, plus a reluctance to find neutral that made the warning-light’s traditional dimness almost irrelevant. Other engine characteristics, too, were typical of an 851, and a very new 851, too, as I was limited to 7000rpm on a motor that felt nicely loose despite not yet being run-in.
The combination of new pipe and rechipped injection gave a delightfully crisp response, with no sign of the flat-spots of many a modified system. A twist of the throttle sent the SSS catapulting forward with a slurping from below the tank and a juicy rumble from the big carbon-fibre silencer.
Wynne estimates his breathing mods add a couple of horsepower to the standard 851’s claimed output of 95bhp at 9000rpm. At seven grand in top the SSS was just getting into its stride at around 120mph, with a good 30mph to come given more miles on its bores. With an 888 mill you’d be looking at 115bhp rear-wheel horses and a top speed of over 160mph.
What spec the SSS comes in, of course, is completely down to the owner; or more precisely the width of the owner’s wallet. If you already own a Ducati and don’t mind using its bits and building the bike yourself, an SSS chassis kit – including tank, seat, frame, and single-sided arm with hub, spindle and brake disc; but no fairing or wheels, costs £4348 including VAT. Opting for a conventional swing-arm brings that down to £3466. (New Dymags cost about £700 per pair, but there are plenty of secondhand wheels available from former RC30 racers.)Alternatively you can join the queue for the one bike that Steve will be building each month. Price for the 851-engined SSS tested here would be £16,444 including VAT, slightly undercutting Ducati’s top-of-the-range 888SPS, with the full-monty 888cc Special going for £17,620.
Expensive, undoubtedly. But bear in mind that the Sports Spondon Special is hand-built by the man who has prepared rapid Ducatis not only for Hailwood, but also the likes of Fogarty and Rymer too. And that the 888SSS is quite possibly the trickiest, best-handling roadgoing V-twin of all.
Get Ducati motorcycle insurance for the Ducati 888sss.
Engine Water-cooled DOHC eight-valve 90-degree Ducati V-twin
Claimed power (bhp) 115bhp
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Transmission 6 speed
Frame Spondon alloy twin-beam
Forks 41mm inverted Showa telescopic adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping; 120mm travel
Rear suspension Ohlins monoshock, adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping; 110mm wheel travel
Brakes front 2 x 320mm Brembo discs with 4-piston Gold Line calipers
rear 245mm disc
Tyres front 120/70 x 17 Michelin Hi-Sport radial rear 180/55 x 17 Dunlop KR364
Wheelbase 56.3in (1430mm)
Weight 199kg (438lb) dry
Fuel capacity 17 litres
Current price £16,444