Transformation: 1975 Ducati 860 GTE

Marty Dickerson has owned several Ducati 860s over the years; now his last one lives again.

1975 Ducati 860 GTE

1975 Ducati 860 GTE

Photo by Clement Salvadori

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1975 Ducati 860 GTE
Engine:
864cc air-cooled OHC 90-degree V-twin, 86mm x 74.4mm bore and stroke, 9:1 compression ratio, 60hp @ 6,900rpm (est.)
Top speed:
109mph (period test)
Carburetion:
Two 32mm Dell’Orto
Transmission:
5-speed, chain final drive
Electrics:
12v, electronic ignition
Frame/wheelbase:
Dual-downtube w/engine as stressed member/60.5in (1,537mm)
Suspension:
Ceriani telescopic forks w/Race Tech internals front, dual Race Tech shocks w/adjustable preload and damping rear (Marzocchi stock)
Brakes:
Dual 11in (280mm) discs front (single disc stock), 8in (203mm) drum rear
Tires:
100/90 x 18in front, 120/90 x 18in rear
Weight (wet):
504lb (229kg)
Seat height:
32.5in (825mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
4.5gal (17ltr)/35-45mpg
Price then/now:
$2,549/$2,000-$5,000

Forty-odd years ago, Ducati’s financial health was not all that good, so the Italian government, still suffering the aftermath of Benito Mussolini’s stato corporativo — or corporative state, in which the government oversaw all major businesses — sent in a fellow to fix the problem.

That was in 1972. Unfortunately the new general manager, Cristiano de Eccher, knew absolutely nothing about the motorcycle world, having no attachment to the sport, nor any sense of two-wheeled aesthetics. Rather simplistically, he immediately decided that the solutions were to cut costs and sell more motorcycles. So he curtailed the very popular racing program and planned to double production, building 15,000 machines, with half a dozen different models including an enlarged version of the popular 750 twin that should appeal to Americans.

In 1973 Marty Dickerson was getting his first ride on a Ducati twin. The Dickerson name is quite well known in motorcycle circles, especially by people who follow the goings-on at the Bonneville Salt Flats. In 1951, when he was a mere lad of 26, Marty set a record at Bonneville going 129mph-plus on a Vincent Series B Rapide, and he has been doing that on Vincents for years and years, his most recent being a 155mph-plus run in 2009. For those who are not quick at doing math, that means he was 83 years old at the time. So there is hope for all of us who still wish to make our marks on the salt.

Back in the day

Marty has had many occupations, including owning a motorcycle shop in the early 1950s where he sold Vincents, Indians and some minor marques like NSU and Francis-Barnett. Little-known feats are his racing, and winning, at the Catalina Island races riding off-beat machines like a CZ125 and Jawa 250 — which happened to be used bikes he had in his shop. On several occasions he worked in the aircraft industry, including a stint at Northrop Aircraft, where he worked on the Northrop B-35 Flying Wing. Then in the 1960s he found his calling, instructing eager young minds about the intricacies of any and all motorcycles, and he did that successfully at a vocational school for some 17 years.

While teaching, he remained very much in the general mix of motorcycling, often racing at Bonneville — he was good friends with Rollie Free of bathing-suit fame and the New Zealander Burt Munro. He also liked road racing, sometimes taking the checkered flag at well-known tracks like Willow Springs, Riverside and Las Vegas. A lot of laps were done on his Vincent Grey Flash 500, but he also had a race-prepped Triumph Bonneville.

Marty’s first Ducati

One sunny day in the early 1970s, Marty heard the pleasant sound of a Ducati 750 — a V-twin like the defunct Vincent marque. Being well connected, he called up Bob Blair, who represented the Ducati importer, Berliner Motor Corp., on the West Coast, and said he’d really like to borrow a twin and take it for a ride. Blair said he was just uncrating a 750GT to be used by several magazines, but as soon as the moto-mags were done, he’d be happy to loan it to Marty. And please take it for a long trip, and see if he couldn’t create some interest among dealers along the way.

With a girlfriend on the back he motored down to San Diego, than east to Yuma, up to Phoenix and Prescott, west to Kingman and home, 5,000 miles in all, with no complaints about comfort from rider or passenger. Marty was not happy with the range though, feeling he had to stop too often to fill the tank. He told Blair he wanted to buy one, and Blair said that a new model, with a bigger engine and a bigger gas tank, was on the horizon.

Back in Italy, de Eccher had hired automobile designer Giorgio Giugiaro to give a new look to the coming 860GT model. The designer decided that the bike would benefit from an angular “folded paper” look that was popular in the four-wheeled world. The smooth flowing lines of the 750 were replaced by a slab-sided gas tank and squared-off engine cases, as well as a cheeky kick-up at the end of the dual saddle. Marty rather liked the look, and as soon as 860s came to California he went over to Blair with a check for $2,500 and came home with the kickstart version. The electric-start model would not appear for a few months.

Marty liked the big, flat top of the 5-gallon gas tank, which made it easy to mount a tank bag. He also liked the 60 horsepower of the overhead cam, non-desmo engine, along with the relative ease of starting, although the right-side kickstarter was a bit awkward to use. Accelerator pumps in the two 32mm Dell’Orto carbs helped ensure good performance, along with a new pointless ignition using a flywheel magneto. Marty didn’t care for the cheap plastic piece between the speedometer and tachometer, which held the idiot lights, and when that began to disintegrate he made a proper metal one.

Marty often arranged Sunday rides with competent riders, and he liked to exchange bikes in order to promote the Ducati name. On one of his first rides with the new GT he swapped off with an engineer on a Honda 750. As the ride was coming to an end the engineer did not want to give up the 860, saying to Marty, “Follow me home.” Which Marty did, where the engineer ran into the house and came back with a check for $2,500, saying he’d pick up his Honda at Marty’s place.

Marty immediately got in touch with Blair to get a new GT, and two or three more were sold this way during Marty’s rides. The first GTE appeared in January of 1975, and Marty bought one. The electric starter was a bit weak, especially on a cold morning, but the kickstarter worked fine. One day Marty and his fiancee at the time (he’s had several wives, sequentially) got on the bike, rode from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and got married. It must have been comfortable!

Unfortunately for de Eccher, sales did not meet aspirations, and fewer than half of the 15,000 factory run were sold. The 860’s poor sales numbers were attributed to the odd styling. De Eccher was relieved of his job later in 1975, and unsold bikes had to be peddled as non-current units with a large reduction in price.

The new general manager, Franco Zauibouri, understood the motorcycle world and made major changes, including putting smooth curves into the 1976 860, calling it the GTS.

Marty’s GTE

Marty held onto his GTE for 40 years, until 2014, when he decided he’d never get around to restoring the bike and chose to sell it to longtime friend and co-conspirator John Laughney. The bike had close to 50,000 miles on the odometer, and it had not been run for some 20 years. Laughney, a philosopher by training and successful businessman by trade, finds it eases his mind to restore older motorcycles, taking his time and doing it properly. In his precise fashion he took the engine down to its last nut and bolt, and redid the chassis with a powder-coated frame and new Race Tech shocks, along with Race Tech internals for the Ceriani forks. To his surprise, the Dell’Ortos cleaned up good as new, but the ignition was just too old to be reliable. A German Sachse digital unit was installed and has worked very well.

John did not like the “folded paper” look, and he decided to improve the bike by using a curvier gas tank from the later GTS model and molding a cover for the back of the saddle, all accented by delightful blue paint. He did not put the electric-starter mechanics back in, preferring to stick with the tried and true kickstarter, though the electric starter housing can still be seen on the left side.

John’s enjoying his “new” Ducati, and don’t feel bad for Marty: He still has the Cagiva Alazzurra 650, a Ducati by any other name, that he rode that to Alaska in 1998. MC