This month we’re looking at the bike that we consider to be probably the most beautiful machine in our little collection: the legendary Ducati 900SS.
When Paul Smart overtook Bruno Spaggiari on the last lap of the Imola 200, he not only put himself on the world stage, but charted Ducati on a course that the company is still following today. The 1972 Imola 200 was an important race that an almost bankrupt Ducati needed to win. When it did so, the company decided to exploit the victory by creating a replica for the public.
In 1974, Ducati produced just over 400 bikes. These bikes saved the company, but the round-case engine with its complex bezel gear-driven camshaft was uneconomic, and so Fabio Taglioni was tasked to develop a simpler more robust powerplant.
The result appeared in the 1975 750SS and 900SS bikes, of which 250 in each displacement were produced. The bike was a tour de force, but in creating it Ducati had ignored much of the worldwide legislation that had been introduced to make bikes saleable around the world.
And so, for 1976, Ducati moved the gear change to the left hand side. The Conti mufflers were changed over to quieter Lanfranconis, and the size of the Dell’Orto carbs was reduced from 40mm to 32mm.
Our bike is a 1976 machine, albeit with the original 40mm carbs and Conti pipes that were still available as options for those customers who valued performance and a fruity note above legal conformity.
We originally came across our bike at Motori di Marino in West Chiltington. An ex-race bike, it was in a somewhat sorry state, but nearly all the original parts were available with the bike, and so a deal was struck with head man Pietro.
He would restore the bike to its as new condition over the winter of 2007. I remember the day I picked up the bike the following spring, accompanied by a group of pals riding equally tempestuous and untrustworthy Italian classics. We made a loop round East and West Sussex, had lunch at Goodwood and then returned back to Guildford.
The bike was hellish! Running the engine in at around 2500rpm, the engine was ‘hunting’ quite wildly, and felt a little unrefined. But this is not an engine that was designed to potter around at those speeds although, even with the rpm restrictions, 70mph was easily achievable.
Worse, though, was the riding position. I’ve heard people complain about modern bikes that put a strain on the rider’s wrists, but clearly these guys haven’t ridden a seventies 900SS! The truth is that this bike is a barely disguised racer.
You almost lie on the tank. Wherever you ride, however you intend to ride, you feel as though you are in a race. You can almost hear Spaggiari lining up to pass you before the final dash down the straight to the finishing line.
The suspension does little to change perceptions. At the front I see telescopic forks. At the back are shiny black dampers. But, on the road, you wonder whether they’ve been put there just for show! I jest, of course, but these bikes were never about comfort. The ride is firm, and by firm I mean bloody rock hard. It feels like no other road bike I’ve ever ridden.
Through long, sweeping bends it feels incredibly sure-footed, tempting you to go faster and lean further. But the downside is that it picks up every undulation and every change of surface. Potholes travel up through your spine. And the seat doesn’t help. I reckon it’s padded with a piece of single-wall, corrugated cardboard that’s been cut out of a box that was once used to send out Ducati spare parts.
There’s no escaping the fact that this is a race bike. It’s not a road bike that’s been adorned with pretty parts to make it look like a race bike. It’s exactly the opposite. Well, except for the fact that Ducati didn’t try very hard to make it look or ride like a road bike!
Since, we’ve owned the SS, we’ve put some more miles on it, but it’s still not what you’d call fully run-in. My back can only cope with the Ducati in small doses. It’s one of those ironies, I suppose. Bikes like this are really only bought by old guys like me, and yet old guys like me can’t really live with them!
But the engine, as it has loosened up, has become very sweet. It revs freely right up through the range, and the bark through the Contis is simply fabulous. As I’ve matured (a little), I’ve come to scorn pipes that are overly noisy and unnecessarily aggressive but, whilst loud, the sound that the 900SS emits causes old boys to give you the thumbs up rather than to wave their copy of the Daily Telegraph at you in anger.
However, evocative as this machine is to ride, and it is, I cannot help but feel that this Ducati is a machine that is at its best when it is parked up and stood still. From every angle, it’s a beauty. An intoxicating blend of delicate lines and aggressive curves. Of all the bikes we own, this is the one that I sometimes go out into the warehouse late at night, just to look at.
If my apartment was large enough, I’d hang it on the wall. And if I didn’t need a sofa, I’d throw it out and put this bike in the living room instead, just so that I could sit on it now and again, lean over the tank, hold on to the bars and give the throttle a quick blip. Even then, though, I’m not sure it wouldn’t do my back in!