One of the classic machines of the 1970’s, the Ducati 900SS remains a stunning looker today, especially in the black and gold paint option.
Featuring the unique desmo valve action V-twin, originally designed by Fabio Taglioni as a 750cc Vee in the early 1970s, the 900SS went on to form the basis of the Mike Hailwood replica, following the great British rider´s TT comeback in 1978.
A long wheelbase bike, with a mere 70-ish bhp at its rear wheel, the Ducati 900SS´ 125mph performance wouldn´t seem too impressive now, but in its time, it was something very special. The ultimate Italian cafe racer.
Back in the Seventies someone invented the phrase Ducati Country for roads like this. (Okay, so it was probably Ducati’s advertising copywriter, but you knew what they meant.) On the ribbon of tarmac that winds up and down the cliff-face between the holiday towns of Positano and Amalfi in south-western Italy, what was needed from a bike was light weight, good handling and sharp brakes, plus a torquey motor that could fire you out of the bends from low revs.
Ducati’s revamped 900SS scored highly on all counts, even if the lack of more open roads, combined with some dodgy weather, meant that this latest Super Sport didn’t get much chance to stretch its legs on its world launch. With its new styling, fuel injected motor and updated chassis, the 900SS did enough to show that it’s going to be a great bike for riders who like their sports bikes simple and raw.
This bike is the third incarnation of the modern SS, whose name and character are inspired by the thundering mid-Seventies superbike of the same name. Following the air/oilcooled two-valve Super Sport’s return in 1989, with red and white bodywork, the SS was successfully revamped and restyled in 1991 since when its lack of change has seen it slip well down the superbike pecking order.
Now the base-model V-twin has been revitalised, most obviously with much sleeker new bodywork shaped by Ducati’s Design Director Pierre Terblanche. Beneath the fairing (the SS is initially available only with a full fairing, though a half-faired version will follow), the engine retains the trademark SS layout of 904cc, 90-degree air/oilcooled V-twin with belt drive to single overhead cams, and just two desmo-operated valves per cylinder. One function of the fairing is to duct air to the engine for better cooling, and there are also a handful of mechanical changes. Most importantly the old model’s Mikuni carbs are replaced by a Marelli fuel-injection system. This not only gives more precise metering but also allows shorter inlet tracts, which improve throttle response. A revised cam profile (with more duration on intake and exhaust) gives better breathing at high revs, so the power output doesn’t drop away after 7500rpm, where the official maximum of 80bhp is produced.
The 900’s traditional chassis layout of ladder frame and cantilever rear suspension set-up is also retained, but the new bike benefits from a sharpening that Ducati’s Testing and R&D Director Angelo Forni says has been made possible mainly by improved tyre technology. Rake is reduced from 25 to 24 degrees, trail comes down from 103 to 100mm, and the wheelbase is shortened by 15mm to 1395mm. One figure that hasn’t gone down is the weight, which is 2kg higher at 188kg even though it’s now dry weight, instead of kerb weight as before.
Suspension is still by Showa at both ends, but is significantly different. Up front the multi-adjustable forks are 43mm in diameter instead of 41mm. They have more rigidity and less stiction, plus more sophisticated internals designed to prevent bottoming under hard braking. The rear shock has a slightly longer travel, which comes into play not when it’s compressed by bumps but when it is fully extended by weight transfer under braking. This is intended to improve stability by keeping the rear wheel on the ground under hard use of the uprated front brake system, which combines more rigid 916-type Brembo four-pot calipers with a new master cylinder, plus 320mm floating discs as before. Other chassis changes include lighter 17-inch wheels made from a new aluminium alloy, and a bigger front wheel spindle for extra rigidity.
There’s a distinctly more aggressive look about the new Duke, especially the sharper nose with its new headlight, and the broad-topped fuel tank with its shades of Terblanche’s gorgeous Supermono. The tank incorporates a rubber pad at its rear, and stretches out wide in front of the pilot, while allowing even long legs to tuck away easily. But the look is forgotten the moment the two-valve lump comes to life with that raw, mechanical bellow that instantly cries Ducati and which seems reassuringly unspoiled by emissions legislation.
The SS sounds substantial on the move, too, and if anything the adoption of fuel-injection seems to have given the air/oilcooled lump a slightly harder intake noise under hard acceleration. It’s the motor’s midrange grunt that you’re most aware of though. From memory, the injected bike was a shade more responsive than its carburetted forebear, the already generous midrange now feeling stronger than ever.
Without riding the two bikes back-to-back it’s hard to be sure, but I’d guess that the injected bike’s low-rev response is a little smoother, too. The Ducati’s ECU engine management system takes into account factors including oil temperature and atmospheric pressure as well as revs, so should improve performance, reduce emissions and possibly even boost economy, which would be useful given that fuel capacity is reduced from 17.5 to 16 litres.
Ducati claims the new SS makes 5bhp more than the old model, although its official 80bhp peak figure is unchanged. That figure is mediocre by modern superbike standards, of course, but the Duke has enough top-end poke for a slightly improved top speed of around 140mph. The vibration that begins at about 7000rpm suggests that the two-valver is not best pleased at being asked to work so hard, but the good news is that in the real world you can lope along pretty smoothly at 85mph with less than six grand on the tacho. Not that I had much chance to do that in the vicinity of the launch base at Positano, where the twisty roads ensured that the top two of the revised six-speed gearbox’s ratios didn’t get much use. That limitation apart, I was hardly aware of the gearbox all day, which must say something for the improved shifting and neutral-finding ability provided by a new selector mechanism. Even the neutral light was truthful and easy to see. Terblanche says this bike is perhaps the best made Ducati ever, and on this evidence he’s right.
The SS is certainly the best-handling of the low-tech two-valves-per-cylinder series, even if it can’t quite match the more racy feel of the 916, let alone Yamaha’s R1. Through the often blind and sometimes wickedly tightening coast-road bends the 900SS generally felt light and flickable, responding effortlessly when asked to tighten its line to avoid a gravel patch or road-hogging tourist coach.
On a couple of occasions the bike seemed to flop into corners more easily than expected, which was perhaps due to the gusting wind although some time spent adjusting suspension would possibly have helped. But having spent half the day waiting for the rain to stop there was little time for fine-tuning once the roads dried. Suspension at both ends was fairly firm and well-damped, and on its standard settings the 900SS handled well enough to make it a lot of fun.
Whether this SS was more stable on the brakes was hard to say. But Brembo’s stoppers combined sharper bite with plenty of feel, and the Michelin Hi-Sports gripped as well as could be expected on the often slippery surface. The brakes didn’t fade even when the bike was repeatedly stood on its nose on the steep switchback road down to Positano, which must be about as tough as test as any.
I’d need a longer, faster ride to reach definite conclusions about the revamped Ducati’s high-speed ability, but first impressions are positive. The reshaped SS is quick, torquey, simple and, by sports bike standards at least, reasonably versatile. There are no luggage hooks or centre stand, and the sidestand is still simply spring-loaded. But the riding position is comfortable, the instruments, switches and mirrors are efficient, there’s a solid grab-rail and reasonable seat for the pillion, and the finish in yellow or red looks good too.
Equally importantly, at a time when Ducati’s traditional V-twin sports bike dominance is under attack from cheaper Japanese rivals such as Honda’s VTR and Suzuki’s pair of TL1000s, plus Aprilia’s RSV Mille, the new 900SS gives the Bologna firm a sportster that’s much more competitive on price. At £8000 (plus £350 otr) it’s not far off the Japanese twins, and barely more than two-thirds the price of a 916.
Even this 900SS can’t take on the more powerful opposition in a straight performance fight, and on a racetrack it might feel a bit slow and harsh. But the Ducati is fast enough to be a lot of fun, and many riders will argue that what the air/oilcooled V-twin gives away on speed it makes up for with sheer character. The update was overdue, but the wait was worthwhile. The 900SS is back in contention.
Get Ducati motorcycle insurance for the ducati 900ss.
Engine 90-degree V-twin
Claimed power (bhp) 80
Compression ratio 9.2:1
Front suspension 43mm inverted telescopic Showa, 120mm travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension One Showa damper, 136mm wheel travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake 2, four-piston Brembo calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake Double-action Brembo caliper, 245mm disc
Front wheel 3.50 x 17in; cast aluminium
Rear wheel 5.50 x 17in; cast aluminium
Front tyre 120/70 x 17in Michelin Hi-Sport radial Rear tyre 170/60 x 17in Michelin Hi-Sport radial Rake/trail 24 degrees/100mm Wheelbase 1395mm Seat height 820mm
Top speed 130mph approx
Fuel capacity 16 litres
Current price £8000