Improving on Excellence: Cameron Jones’ 1980 Ducati 900SS

A restoration elevates this 1980 Ducati 900SS from a flawed masterpiece to something approaching perfection.

1980 Ducati 900SS

1980 Ducati 900SS

Photo by Robert Smith

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1980 Ducati 900SS
Claimed power: 56.3hp @ 7,000rpm (period test)
Top speed: 125mph (period test)
Engine: 864cc air-cooled OHC desmodromic 90-degree V-twin, 86mm x 74.4mm bore and stroke, 9.5:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 414lb (188kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.7gal (18ltr)/40mpg (avg.)
Price then/now: $3,600 (1979)/$21,000-$25,000

Cameron Jones would not be the first Ducati 900SS owner to acknowledge both the timeless beauty of the bevel-drive desmo bike and the cosmetic detail shortcomings that mar its splendor. Think Scarlett Johansson with acne …

Nor would Jones, of Langley, British Columbia, Canada, be the first owner to bring the feted Bologna bike up to scratch — something the manufacturer would have done, no doubt, but for the indifference of its then bureaucratic government owners and the budget constraints they imposed.

Jones imposed no such constraints, and what he has achieved elevates his classic 900SS from a flawed masterpiece to something approaching perfection. The process took more than five years and what seemed like every waking minute outside Jones’ day job, supervising the installation of hydro-electric generation sets: Jones estimates that cleaning and re-painting the FPS wheels alone took 100 hours, and the Brembo brake discs and calipers a further 200 hours!

The starting point

The starting point for Jones’ amazing transformation was a somewhat sad and neglected 1980 Ducati 900SS. Originally gloss black with gold decals and wheels, when Jones bought it the Duc had covered 40,000 hard miles and had been sitting in an underground parking lot for nine years — though the owner had been thoughtful enough to lube the engine and turn it over every so often. Cosmetically, though, it was hurting.

The Brembo discs “looked like an old frying pan,” Jones says, noting that the shocks and forks were blown and leaking, the tires were rock hard, the alloy wheels were oxidized, the carbs were a mess and the electrical system was “ready for a meltdown.” The swingarm had “about 3mm of side-to-side slop,” Jones says, and the Conti mufflers’ mounting brackets had been welded back on a couple of times. The bodywork had been painted flat black, with incorrect white decals applied. “But it was all there,” he emphasizes.

Jones stripped the bike down to its frame and began the long task of collecting new parts and refurbishing those that could be restored. Along the way he sold the unsalvageable bits online. “I was honest in my descriptions,” he says, “but it’s really quite amazing what people will buy on eBay.”

Jones hand-sanded the frame and removed any weld spatter, then primed and finished the frame in gloss black using spray cans of Duracoat truck paint, leaving it to cure for two months. “I made a makeshift spray booth out of poly [polythene sheet] and hung the frame from the ceiling, applying about five coats,” he says. Next came the wheels and brakes: “I had to cut the tires to pieces to get them off the rims,” he says, adding, “The inside of the rims was in a horrible condition.”

Jones used an abrasive flap wheel to get the worst of the corrosion off the wheels, then hand-sanded the casting flash from between the spokes, finishing off with fine emery paper. He repeated the sanding process with the cast iron brake discs, and had to re-drill the vent holes to remove 40,000 miles of brake pad material. The Brembo calipers and master cylinders were dismantled, cleaned and rebuilt with new seals and dust caps, and given titanium bleed nipples. The master cylinders got billet aluminum caps and new stainless bracketry. The brake lines are made of braided Teflon.

The rims and brake discs were masked off and, together with the calipers, sprayed with Duracoat engine enamel and oven cured at 200 F. Then the wheels were reassembled with new cadmium-plated fasteners and a new rear sprocket. The cush drive hub got new rubbers and was reassembled with grade 8 cap screws, using Loctite to hold them in place, as the stock screws were prone to loosening. The finishing touch was a new set of Pirelli Phantom/Sport Demon tires from Kenny Dreer in Portland, Oregon.

Steering

Next, Jones tackled the steering and suspension. The Marzocchi forks got a full overhaul with new Works Performance springs, and the triple clamps were refinished. New steering head bearings were also fitted. At the rear, the swingarm pivot shaft had worn badly through lack of lubrication, so Jones had it hard chrome plated and ground back to stock specifications. New bushings went in the swingarm, along with the addition of a grease nipple for easier maintenance. Jones installed Works Performance billet gas shocks with progressive springs in place of the worn out Marzocchi units. He also fitted a magnesium brake caliper carrier, billet swingarm chain tension adjuster clamps (the stock parts are known to break) from German Ducati specialists Kämna, and a “case saver” chain roller from Bevel Heaven.

For the rest of the non-engine parts, Jones plated, polished or replaced the OEM components, while adding detail touches like chrome-moly clip-ons, a Vox-Bell chrome horn and a Tommaselli quarter-turn throttle. Next, he focused on the electrics, deciding that the original harness could use some tidying.

“The original Ducati fuse block was a disaster and needed to be replaced,” Jones says. A chance find revealed that Porsche used a similar Bosch item on the oddball 914, but with provision for eight fuses instead of the Ducati’s four. Now Jones can carry four spare fuses! “It [the fuse block] also has a lovely knurled screw-knob-attached black Bakelite cover.”

The electrical makeover was completed with a new voltage regulator/rectifier, and a Ballistic lithium-ion battery — saving eight pounds in weight. The rear turn signals just needed polishing, but the front items were missing. Jones found new-old-stock Italian CEV units in — of all places — Japan. The original black molded dashboard was in bad shape (and pretty poor quality, anyway) but with OEM items heading toward four figures Jones turned to Bevel Heaven for a repro dash for a quarter of that. “Hell, it’s a piece of plastic!” he says. Into the dash went a stock-type Veglia speedometer and white-faced Veglia tach, and Jones also added two smaller gauges to monitor oil temperature and battery charging.

The heart and soul

Engine work came next. Fortunately, Jones knew some of his 900SS’s history. He was aware the bottom end had been rebuilt, and a quick check showed no signs of wear. He also knew that the previous owner had dealt with a persistent exhaust oil smoke issue by fitting new stock-size liners and Borgo pistons in place of oversize Wiseco high compression pistons. The bores showed no wear, so Jones merely had them honed and fitted the pistons with new rings.

The cylinder heads were fully refurbished by Hayward Performance in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. The stock Ducati valve collets were poorly designed and actually cause valves to go out of adjustment, so Hayward installed replacement valve collets from Martin Brickwood Performance. They also treated the heads to some mild porting, plus they revised the jetting for the 40mm Dell’Ortos. A set of Barnett Kevlar clutch plates concluded the engine work.

Except for the outside, that is. The cases were cleaned, polished and treated to some bling in the form of stainless bevel shaft tubes, a billet filter cover, a breather cap and oil filler cap, and a “gear gazer” glass cam box cover for the rear cylinder. A new-old-stock kickstart lever from the later 900S2 replaced the broken (and repaired) original — but at a cost of $640! Spun aluminum velocity stacks dressed up the Dell’Ortos, new petcocks went into the tank, and the fuel lines were replaced with period “green” clear vinyl with quick-disconnects for easy gas tank removal.

Jones also used the left-side header pipe from the later 900S2 because it tucks in tighter to the frame, increasing ground clearance, but he balked at shelling out more than $2,000 for a set of new Conti mufflers: “Absolutely ridiculous, especially considering that they rust out and the spot-welded mounting brackets are known to fail in short order,” he says.

Instead, Jones settled for a set of look-alike Conti-style pipes from U.K. supplier Classic Bike Shops — for $300 instead of $2,000. “One of the nicest set of pipes I’ve seen on a motorcycle,” he says, adding, “And the mounting brackets are TIG welded to the pipes, no spot welding.”

Although Jones painted many of the bodywork parts — like the fender and side covers — himself, he decided on professional paint for the gas tank, seat and fairing, with instructions that the paintwork should be “… good, but not too good, in trying to keep with the originality of the bikes delivered from Bologna.” With new tank decals from Cut-Graphics, Jones entrusted the paint to Azzkikr Customs in Langley. Twenty hours of filling, hand sanding, painting and clear coating later and Jones has “one of the straightest tanks ever to grace a 900SS,” he says. Titanium fasteners attach the gas tank, side panels and fairing.

On the road

So now the 900SS was back together and ready to ride, except that when Jones kickstarted the engine, it ran on the rear cylinder only. A thorough check of the fuel and ignition systems showed everything was OK there, so the problem had to be the timing of the front cylinder. Off came the front cylinder head to reset the timing, but the end result was the same, just one cylinder working. After more research revealed the correct timing procedure, the big twin was finally running on both cylinders — but not before the head was off twice more!

Yet even with both cylinders working, the engine still wasn’t running right. Jones made a call to Ducati tuning guru Guy Martin in Pointe Claire, Quebec, who recommended jetting changes and suggested replacing the old Bosch coils with new Dynatek units. It was a good call. “With these changes, the old Ducati is alive again,” Jones says.

After our photo shoot, I follow Jones through the back streets near his home. The Ducati’s gold paint positively glows in the morning sun, and the bark from the new pipes is authoritative and loud, with a distinct crackle added to the faux-Conti boom.

This is not a motorcycle that will please Ducati bevel head purists. Items like the stock piggy-back Marzocchi gas shocks, for example, have been sacrificed for better-performing modern components and Jones’ creation glitters with stainless, titanium and billet aluminum parts. No 900SS ever left Bologna looking as shiny as this!

Yet the 1979-1980 edition of the Super Sport was perhaps the most glamorous of the SS variants anyway. The gold Speedline (later FPS) wheels never looked quite right against the blue and silver paint of the 1981-1982 version, yet they perfectly complement the black and gold finish of Jones’ bike. And by 1979, most of the important upgrades to the SS — like Bosch ignition, a stronger bottom end and upgraded alternator — had all been incorporated.

Jones admits to a serious Ducati habit, perhaps inspired by the 1974 green frame 750SS that he passed on in Seattle back in 1982; it could have been his for $4,500. In his garage now is a 1999 748S that bristles with carbon fiber and titanium. “Don’t you hate it when you go to the local motorcycle shop for a can of chain lube and come back with another damn Ducati?” he says, only mildly joking. His current project is a “TT900” 600 TT2 replica using a belt-drive, two-valve Ducati 900SS EFI engine in a chrome-moly steel tube frame from U.K. Ducati specialists Two Wheel Classics. “It all started with a picture of a polished aluminum fuel tank for a TT replica on eBay, and the seed grew from there,” he says.

Ruminating on how he makes it all happen, Jones suggests that being single allows him the time and money he puts into his project bikes: “Instead of finding a new wife, I’m married to the three Ducatis sitting in my garage,” he says, adding, “Maybe a second wife would have been cheaper in the long run … too late now I guess!” MC

tonyc
2/5/2015 8:54:58 AM

Nice bike. I like the upgrades. Thanks for sharing it with us.