Think Italian of a motorcycle manufacturer and the chances are that the name Ducati will spring to mind. Formed in 1926 as a manufacturer of radio components, the company switched to motorcycle manufacture in 1946, just after the end of World War 2.
These days the company is part of the giant Volkswagen Group and sells more than 55,000 bikes worldwide. To find out more about this iconic brand and the bikes that have made it, we headed to Ducati’s famous museum in Borgo Panigale, on the outskirts of Bologna. Here are some of our highlights:
It may not be the best or the most glamourous Ducati, but this is the Genesis. Without the Cucciolo (translated as ‘little puppy’) there would be no Scrambler or Superleggera, so in terms of importance, this is the bike that started it all.
Or rather, this is the engine that started it all. When the Cucciolo was conceived in 1944, the war had just ended and times were austere. The Cucciolo was actually a 48cc four-stroke motor that retrospectively clipped onto bicycle frames, turning a pushbike into a motorbike.
Ducati, a successful electronics manufacturer, built the engines under licence from small Turin company Siata, who didn’t have suitable facilities to put the unit into production. Over 200,000 of the little puppies were sold and, by 1952, Ducati was putting complete motorcycles into production.
1955 Gran Sport ‘Marianna’
The 1950s saw Ducati establish itself not only as a serious maker of motorcycles, but also one with a more sporting nature.
Although powered by small capacity engines, the Bologna bikes were light in weight and packed with cutting edge technology. Unveiled in early 1955, the Gran Sport was a race bike for the road. Nicknamed the Marianna, as 1955 was the Catholic church’s ‘Holy Year of Mary’ the Gran Sport set the blueprint for the Ducati we know today.
Coming in 100 and 125cc versions, the Gran Sport was the first Ducati from legendary engineer Fabio Taglioni and proved to be dominant in Italian production racing. Early bikes had a single overhead camshaft design, still relatively novel in 1955, but by 1957 the Gran Sport had formed the basis of a 125cc Grand Prix bike, which featured three overhead camshafts and debuted the desmodromic valve actuation technology that remains a Ducati signature 60 years on.
1970 Ducati Scrambler
While Ducati enjoyed massive success domestically with its range of small singles, the company craved success in the lucrative American market.
In 1959, US distributor Berliner had asked Ducati to build a range of bikes to meet the US market’s tastes. One model, a V4 named Apollo, was designed to take on Harley-Davidson but a disaster and never even made it to production. However the other model was this, the Scrambler. A lightweight 250cc single off-roader, it was a huge success and spawned 350 and 450cc versions in its 14-year-long production run.
The Scrambler was discontinued in 1976 but revived in 2015 with the hugely successful new V-Twin version.
Paul Smart’s 1972 750SS
If the Ducati name was synonymous with singles in the sixties, the 1970s saw the arrival of the engine layout with which it remains most famously associated today – the 90-degree ‘L-twin’.
This bike is the prototype racer, which famously won the prestigious Imola 200 on its debut in April 1972. Ducati’s first ‘big’ bike, the Taglioni designed motor again featured desmodromic valve gear and produced almost 75bhp. British rider Paul Smart won the race, with Italian Bruno Spaggiari taking second.
The 750SS remains one of, if not the most, iconic Ducatis of all time. A production 750SS arrived in 1974 and turned around the struggling company’s fortunes. It marked the Italian brand’s arrival as a serious player in the newly developing superbike sector, while setting the blueprint for every Ducati that has ever followed.
Mike Hailwood’s 1978 900SS
If Smart’s Imola success marked a great comeback for Ducati, Mike Hailwood’s win at the 1978 Formula One TT marked the most famous personal comebacks from one of the greatest racers of all time.
Having pursued a career in car racing, Hailwood had been retired from bike racing for seven years when he announced his decision to race at the 1978 Isle of Man TT. Few gave the 38-year-old, who hadn’t ridden the daunting TT course for 11 years, much of a hope but they were wrong.
Riding a 900SS prepared by Manchester company Sports Motorcycles, Hailwood beat the works Hondas to deliver one of the most talked about TTs of all time. The bike too became the stuff of legend, with the Ducati factory producing a road going replica the following year, which helped to keep the company solvent in the early 1980s. Genuine examples of these replicas are hugely collectable, while a run of 2000 Hailwood-inspired MH900e were produced in 2000 and 2001 and remain equally desirable.
1988 Ducati 851
The 1980s were not kind to Ducati. The ageing aircooled SS designs were increasingly uncompetitive against the Japanese competition and the company lurched from crisis to crisis.
In 1985, the company was bought by Cagiva, whose owners, the Castiglione family, invested in a range of new models. The futuristic Paso, with its fully enclosed bodywork, came out in 1986 and although it was not particularly well received it marked the start of a revival for the brand.
However, 1988 saw the start of a new racing series and one with which Ducati would become synonymous. The Superbike World Championship debuted at Donington Park on April 3 1988 and that very first round was won by 1981 500cc world champion Marco Lucchinelli. That bike featured a new water-cooled eight-valve engine, known as the Desmoquattro, and went on to form the nucleus of the most successful bikes in world superbike history. Frenchman Raymond Roche won the 1990 title on an 851, while the model evolved into the larger 888, on which Doug Polen won the 1991 and 1992 championships.
1993 Ducati Monster 900
Possibly the most important Ducati in modern times, il Monstro took Ducati from an exclusive sportsbike brand to a mainstream manufacturer, albeit with a premium touch.
The Monster was, and is, as simple as can be. The first models featured the air-cooled two-valve motor from the 900SS, in the classic trellis frame. There’s no fairing and the aggressive styling stood out in an era where naked bikes were generally bland.
The range was soon expanded to include 600 and 750cc versions, while later models added the Desmoquattro engine, giving more power (and weight). The Monster brought Ducati to the masses and gave the company a commercially successful product upon which to grow the brand.
Still an important product line, the Monster has gone back to its roots with a new air-cooled 797 for 2017.
1994 Ducati 916
If the 851/888 series showed that Ducati could build high performance motorcycles, the 916 proved that they could make them truly beautiful too.
The Massimo Tamburini penned 916 was the poster boy of 1990s superbikes and remains one of the most successful race bikes of all time. The street bike got increasingly bigger, becoming the 955, 996 and finally the 998, but the looks remained timeless. On track, Carl Fogarty won all four of his world superbike titles on 916 variants, with Australians Troy Bayliss and Troy Corser taking a win apiece.
2007 Desmosedici RR
By the mid-2000s Ducati was considered the brand for premium sportsbikes. The company was making inroads on the MotoGP circuits and, as if to cement its place as ‘the two-wheeled Ferrari’, in 2004 it announced that a road going, limited edition, MotoGP replica would be made available for sale.
The world’s very first true MotoGP replica, the £40,000 Desmosedici RR made some concessions to the requirements to be homologated for road use, but remained a 200bhp 990cc V4 that weighed 171kg.
Just 1500 were made and snapped up immediately. A decade on and the Desmosedici RR remains one of the most desirable bikes on the road, while Ducati continues the theme of building super exclusive hyper bikes with the launch of this year’s £72,000 1299 Superleggera.
2015 Multistrada 1200
While few will consider the Multistrada (translated as Many Roads) as one of the glamour models of the Ducati range, it’s probably the one model in the current range that best shows the company’s present standing in the world of motorcycling.
The Multistrada was not well received when it was launched in 2003, as much for its unconventional looks as much as anything else, but it’s a model that has evolved with the company and can today hold its head high as one of the best adventure tourers on the market.
Under the ownership of Audi, Ducati has broadened its range while remaining true to its core values. That means that the Multistrada 1200 has the latest generation L-twin motor, plenty of power and cutting edge electronics to give a great ride, but wrapped up in super stylish and uber practical package. Bikes like the 1299 Panigale may be the ones that grab the headlines, but it’s models like the Monster and Multistrada that make Ducati one of the biggest success stories of the last decade.
The Ducati Museum is open six days a week during the summer months and costs €15 per person. If you’re planning on making the trip, it’s well worth checking out the website beforehand check the opening times: http://www.ducati.com/ducati_museum/the_museum.do
Photos courtesy of Ducati archive