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Iconic: Ducati 916 turns 30 in 2024


Unveiled at the Milan Motorcycle Show in November 1993, as a 1994 model, Ducati’s 916 looks as fresh today as it ever did. Slender, lean and featuring thoroughly modern design elements like the single sided swingarm, twin projector headlights and under seat exhaust, this Massimo Tamburini penned masterpiece created the blueprint for a generation of sportsbikes. On looks alone, the 916 would be a timeless classic. That it would also become one of the most successful race bikes of all time made it a two-wheeled icon.

Thirty years ago Ducati was a company flirting with bankruptcy. Despite some fantastic successes on the racetrack, including winning the new Superbike World Championship three times in a row between 1990 and 1992 with the 851/888 series of bikes, the company was very much a niche manufacturer. The Monster M900, which arrived in 1993, had opened up the brand to a more mainstream audience, but the 916 and its offspring would be the model which would create a level of desirability with which the brand continues to be associated with today.





It was love at first sight. The styling was jaw dropping. Sure there are elements of Honda’s uber-exotic, oval pistoned NR750 in the design (such as the exhaust, swingarm and headlights) but at a time when sportsbikes were still quite dumpy and slabby in their designs, the 916 was a sleek and sexy Italian sportscar in a world of muscular brutes.

 Developed by chief engineer Massimo Bordi, the 916cc motor was an evolution of the one found in the 888. Classic Ducati, it was a 90-degree L-twin with desmodromic valve actuation. The deep bass rumble, allied to that of the jangly dry clutch, meant the soundtrack was as distinctive as the look, even if it wasn’t the greatest road bike in the world. The racy ergonomics didn’t lend themselves to anything approaching comfort, while the limited steering lock made it difficult to ride in traffic. The standard model made a claimed 114bhp, a little down on contemporary rivals like the original Honda CBR900RR FireBlade and Yamaha’s 20-valve YZF750R. The Japanese bikes were faster, cheaper and easier to ride on the road, but the bright red Ducati was the poster bike of the generation. And rightly so. 




Carl Fogarty won the 1994 world superbike title on his 916, a feat he repeated the following year. Racing would ensure a constant stream of updates to the 916 series, as well as expensive limited run SP (Sports Production) models. These were built in the minimum required quantities to homologate race oriented modifications, and keep the 916 ahead of the competition on track. Off-track, the company got new owners with the US-based Texas-Pacific Group buying out the Castiglione brothers and giving the company more financial stability.

Under the new owners, the 916 platform continued to be developed. Over the years the engine would be bored out to 955cc and then 996cc, the name evolving accordingly, while the final iteration – 2002’s 998 – featured a significantly revised motor with a shorter stroke and the Testastretta, or narrow head, design. Between 1994 and 2002, the 916 and its evolutions powered Ducati to all but one world superbike manufacturer’s title (which Honda captured in 1997) while three riders (Fogarty, Troy Corser and Troy Bayliss) won six riders titles between them. With a host of national superbike titles to its name as well, the Ducati 916 series is among the most successful racing motorcycles of all time.




Although the 916 family quickly expanded to include a 748cc ‘supersport’ version, and eventually evolved into the 998, the numbers nine-one-six were to motorcyclists as the number nine-eleven was to car drivers. Its replacement, the 999, was launched in 2003, and was arguably a better bike dynamically. Fair play to Ducati for trying something different but, such was the affection for the 916 series, any replacement was going to struggle to step out of its predecessor’s shadows. The 999 continued to win races in its three-year production run, but the styling was widely criticised and sales disappointing – proving if nothing else the important role looks play in the success of a motorcycle.



The 916 series’ enduring appeal remains today as many of those who lusted after the Ducati as youths finally realise their ambitions to own an icon. Second hand prices remain strong and while the higher specification SP models (which were fitted with a host of trick parts to make the bikes more competitive on the race tracks) command a large premium, a decent example of one of the base models can be had for less than £10,000.

Compared to a more modern motorcycle, 1990s Ducatis can be expensive to run with their short service intervals and a need to change cambelts every two years. That doesn’t put off potential buyers though, with 916s increasingly being tucked away as part of classic motorcycle collections, or being bought by enthusiasts as investments.

And although the Ducati 916 was rarer than contemporaries like the Honda FireBlade or Suzuki GSX-R750 when new, they do tend to be cherished and more cared for than more mainstream machines. That means there are still quite a few out there and they remain a relatively common sight a bike meets, where they are still almost certain to draw a crowd.




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