They might have only been manufacturing motorcycles after the Second World War, but that hasn’t stopped Ducati from producing some of the most iconic sports motorcycles ever to take to the roads. From the early days of bolt-on engines to today’s V-4-engined rocket-ships, the history of Ducati is long and illustrious.
After the second world war left the factory in ruins, the management turned to manufacturing a small-displacement engine designed to be bolted onto a bicycle, driving the front wheel in order to keep the staff employed. From there, Ducati started producing its own motorcycle using the engine, a 50cc single cylinder. The resulting bike was called the Cucciolo, Italian for ‘Puppy’, and saved the company.
In the modern era where Ducati is defined by the 90° V-twin, it’s easy to forget that the origins of the company are in a small moped designed to get a war-ravaged country back on its feet. Or should that be wheels?
The original Scrambler came in three engine sizes – 250cc, 350cc, and 450cc. They were especially popular in the U.S. where they were called the Jupiter and went head-to-head with the likes of the Honda CL350 and similar models from Triumph, BSA, and Norton.
Then, as now, the Ducati was an exotic choice against those more run-of-the-mill models but the bevel-drive engine was powerful and reliable. Contrary to popular belief, the valve actuation wasn’t desmodromic: rather, hairspring valve springs were used to close the valves, keeping cost and complexity to a minimum.
An important bike as the engine was not only the largest displacement the company had released to the public but it also formed the basis for the v-twin that would appear and define Ducatis from the early 1970s through to today.
The birth of modern Ducati. Engineer Fabio Taglioni grafted a second cylinder onto the crankcases of the 450cc single as used in the Scrambler (see above) to make a V-twin, often referred to as an L-twin thanks to its 90° spacing of the cylinders.
Bevel drive was still utilized but not desmodromic valve actuation – yet! The resulting motorcycle was very attractive and the looks were matched by the ‘go’. The engine produced 60bhp and powered the 410-pound machine to a top speed of 125mph, with lovely road manners: the relatively long wheelbase made it supremely stable and it was a fine handling bike.
Built-in response to the new breed of large-displacement bikes coming from Japan, such as the Honda CB750 and Suzuki GT750, it retained an air of Italian sophistication and style that was hard to beat.
From this point on, Ducati would reside firmly in the sporting motorcycle category and would disdain to bother with smaller displacement models. Thus, the Italian manufacturer would forge a reputation not dissimilar to its Italian four-wheeled counterparts, Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini: fast, exclusive, and exotic.
Oh, the beauty! Pure Italian style and performance, possibly never bettered! The 750GT had been modified with a desmodromic cylinder head, where the valves are both opened and closed mechanically, rather than relying on a spring to do the closing. Such a mechanism allows for a higher rev limit and virtually removes the possibility of over-revving and forcing piston and valve to form a close bond! Metallurgy was still not the science it is today, and valve springs often failed at high revs. For a racing machine, this wasn’t acceptable.
In 1972, Paul Smart and Bruno Spaggiari finished 1-2 at the Imola 200-mile race on their race 750cc models and Ducati was quick to capitalize on the success, releasing a road-going version of the race bike, complete with quarter fairing, fuel tank with translucent level stripe and engine used as a stressed member of the chassis. Only 401were built, making the 750SS ‘Round Case’ (referring to the rounded crankcase covers) one of the most valuable and sought-after Ducatis today. A legendary bike whichever way you look at it.
Development of the Ducati Desmo V-twin engine stagnated a little in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Cylinder heads remained two-valve, at a time when every other manufacturer had moved to four-valve heads.
The new engine was based on the Pantah, belt-driven camshaft V-twin engine. The Desmo four-valve heads were driven by belts from the crankshaft and featured Liqui-cooling for the first time, as well as fuel injection.
Designed by Massimo Tamburini, it was achingly beautiful and stunningly fast and agile. The cherry on the top was that it also reigned supreme in World Superbike racing during its golden era of the 1990s, with the likes of Carl Fogarty and Troy Corser.
The 916 set new standards of performance handling, braking, style, and character and it would be fair to say it changed the face of sports motorcycles. Around the same time, Honda revealed the CBR900RR Fireblade which had a similar impact on sports motorcycles but it is the 916 that remains the poster every hot-blooded kid wants on their wall.
Fast, red, Italian, and very sexy: what more could you ever want?
Ducati really set the cat among the pigeons when it announced it was entering Grand Prix racing in 2003, prompted by the change of the rules that permitted four-stroke engines of up to 1000cc which would eventually replace the 500cc two-strokes entirely.
The resulting GP03 hit the tracks and immediately promised much that would later be delivered. The real coup for Ducati, however, was the announcement of a limited edition race replica, called the Desmosedici RR (Race replica). The name Desmosedici refers to the valve actuation (Desmo) and Sedici (Italian for ‘sixteen’) from the fact that there are 16 valves – four for each cylinder of the V4 engine. Power output was frankly astonishing (at the time) 197 horsepower.
The RR was a thinly disguised MotoGP bike, an almost unheard-of indulgence for a small manufacturer. It retailed at $72,000 and the price included a racing kit comprising a full race exhaust system and a race ECU. It also came with a full sticker kit of the race team’s sponsors and forged magnesium wheels, the first production Ducati to be so fitted.
What it was, more than anything, was simply utterly gorgeous and is still a reminder of how pure the design of MotoGP bikes was in the early years of the new formula, before they became ever uglier with the discovery of the importance of aerodynamics.
Enter the Monster 900. Created using parts from other models – the engine from the 900 Supersport, the trellis frame from the 851 superbike, and forks from the 750 Supersport – the idea was to keep costs low and to make a bike that was easy to ride and practical, unlike the full-on sports bikes the company had been producing up to that point.
The Monster, so called because Ducati management thought it looked monstrous next to its sleek, fully-faired bikes, was an immediate success and eventually accounted for two-thirds of Ducati’s output. It was, in the words of more than one Ducati historian, the bike that saved Ducati due to its cheap development costs that were quickly recovered due to its popularity and which would give Ducati the money to develop more new models.
This craze also made popular the tall stance and upright riding position which translated well into models that had no off-road pretensions but which were lighter and more agile than full-on touring bikes.
The first Ducati Multistrada, introduced in 2003, wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty but it performed brilliantly, thanks to the 992cc Desmo engine and Showa suspension, single-sided swing arm, and Brembo brakes. They were also criticized for the lack of comfort and pathetic range due to the small tank. but, as a ground-breaking new model, it was a huge success and further encouraged the company to explore other new avenues.
Ducati claimed no off-road prowess for the bike but later versions would address this omission, along with the looks and practicality and ever-larger engines, right up to the V4 Multistrada launched in 2021.
After the 916, it took Ducati many years to replace it with an equally defining model but, finally, the Panigale 1199 appeared in 2011. Just like the 916, the Panigale re-defined what a sports bike should – and could – be.
The 1198cc Superquadro V-twin was a stressed member of the chassis, helping to keep weight down. Its 172 horses made it the most powerful bike in its class and Ducati added electronically-adjustable suspension to the mix, along with a whole suite of electronic rider aids.
Superbike performance doesn’t stand still and, by 2015, the 1199 Panigale was losing out to rivals in the class, so Ducati announced the 1299 Panigale, with 205 horsepower and an even sharper chassis and more sophisticated electronics.
At the time, Ducati said that the engine could not be enlarged anymore without significant re-engineering, leading some commentators to surmise that the end was in sight for the iconic Ducati V-twin. In a way, they were right as the next Ducati superbike would be the V4-engined Panigale.