To the Victor Go the Spoils: The Ducati Imola 750

The Ducati Imola 750 and its victory at the 1972 Imola 200 paved the way for its company's success.

Ducati Imola 750

Ducati Imola 750

Photo by Kevin Wing

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1972 Ducati Imola
Top speed:
169mph (est.)
748cc air-cooled OHC desmodromic 90-degree V-twin, 80mm x 74.4mm bore and stroke, 10:1 compression ratio, 86hp @ 9,200rpm
Weight (dry):
388lb (176kg)
Fuel capacity:
6.3gal (24ltr)

In Ducati folklore, the 1972 Imola 200-mile race is a defining event. Before Imola, Ducati was a minor Italian motorcycle manufacturer of esoteric 4-stroke singles with strange valve gear, but after Imola they could take on the world’s best and comprehensively beat them. 

As Ducati’s great engineer Fabio Taglioni said in 1974, “When we won at Imola we won the market, too.” It was the Imola victory that ostensibly set the stage for Ducati’s subsequent success.

When the 750 was conceived, Taglioni was 49 years old. He was virtually unknown outside Italy, and Ducati was still a minor motorcycle manufacturer in world terms. Despite new management, economic viability was essential, and Taglioni was instructed to utilize as much carry-over technology from the existing range of singles as possible.

A V-twin made sense, as many features of the existing overhead camshaft singles could be incorporated, and Taglioni liked the idea of an engine that was little wider than a single. Taglioni chose a 90-degree V-twin layout, a carry-over from the V-four Apollo seven years earlier. “The 90-degree L-twin provided perfect primary balance,” Taglioni told me in an interview. “The engine can be very smooth, with only some high frequency secondary imbalance, and with a narrow crankshaft there is virtually no rocking couple. Also the twin can be narrow so the engine can be kept low in the frame while maintaining good ground clearance.”

Taglioni was also working on a 500cc Grand Prix twin. With a special frame by Colin Seeley, Bruno Spaggiari and later Phil Read campaigned this in mainly Italian events during 1970 and 1971. Although the twin struggled against the MV triples, much was learned that would help when it came to the preparation of the Imola machines in 1972.

With the announcement of the Imola 200 “Daytona of Europe” to be held on April 23, 1972, Taglioni was instructed to mount a full-scale attempt at winning the race. With record prize money, the Imola 200 was to be one of the biggest race meetings ever staged in Europe.

Beginnings of the 750

Taglioni reasoned he could build a machine particularly suited to the Imola circuit. He took 10 production 750 frames and began building a batch of Formula 750 racers. He originally intended to build 10 machines for six riders, but according to Taglioni in a 1995 interview only six were officially certified — with one spare — for four riders.

Right until the last minute there was uncertainty as to who would ride the works Ducatis. Ducati hadn’t mounted such a factory racing effort since 1958 and all the top riders were skeptical, none believing the Ducati twin would be competitive. Already signed were Bruno Spaggiari, Ermanno Giuliano, Alan Dunscombe and Gilberto Parlotti, although he didn’t race.

Needing another top rider, British distributor Vic Camp suggested Paul Smart, then racing a Kawasaki H2-R for Team Hansen in the U.S. Paul’s wife, Maggie, accepted the invitation in his absence. Smart initially wasn’t too impressed, but Ducati was paying good money and after a Triumph ride fell through Smart was soon in the program on Ducati No. 16.

The first Imola bike was tested by Spaggiari in Modena, Italy, on April 6, 1972, in preparation for the first official test session on April 19. Incredibly, this was only four days before the race and only five machines were available, with Smart, Dunscombe and Giuliano riding them for the first time.

Smart was initially unimpressed, saying, “It was so long it looked like it would never go around a corner, but after riding it I found it deceptively fast. Ducati had obviously put a lot of effort into it. It just felt slow revving, like it fired every lamp post.” All Smart found to criticize were the street Dunlop K81 TT100 tires and extremely high footpegs. After altering the footpegs Smart went out again, breaking Agostini’s lap record on street tires. Ducati was reluctant to change the tires, fearing racing tires wouldn’t last 200 miles, but Smart persuaded Taglioni to procure some Dunlop KR83 and KR84 racing tires.

Track versus road

Phil Schilling, then Cycle magazine’s managing editor, saw the bikes in the Ducati race shop a few days before Imola. “The first thing I saw, the thing that immediately dented my mind, was a centerstand,” he wrote. “These factory racers were all parked on centerstands, stock centerstands, which were connected to stock frames, which joined standard front forks and near-stock swingarms. And the production-line frames held embarrassingly standard-looking engines. Sure, there were special pieces: big Dell’Orto carburetors, high-rise/low-rise megaphones, dual discs in the front and single discs in the rear, oil coolers, hydraulic steering dampers and racing shocks. But where were all the really trick parts? There weren’t any.”

Schilling’s observations were as accurate as could be made at the time, but as with all factory racing Ducatis, there was more to the Imola racers than met the eye. The frames may have started as production Verlicchi items, but were considerably modified to accept the large fiberglass fuel tank and provide a suitable racing riding position. Many 750GT parts were modified and adapted for the racer, such as the front 278mm Lockheed discs and the machined production Marzocchi fork. Unique to the racer was a rear 230mm disc, and 18-inch WM3 Borrani wheels front and rear. As there were only left-side Lockheed calipers in stock for the 750GT, three left-side calipers were adapted for the racers. After the test at Modena a hydraulic steering damper was also installed, at least on Smart and Spaggiari’s machines.

The engines may have looked standard, but they were special. Taglioni used early production 750 sandcast engine cases rather than the later production type. These were heavier, but Taglioni considered them stronger. Inside were rerouted oil galleys, welded-up bosses for external oil cooler lines, and cooling fins shaved to allow the right-hand exhausts to fit more snugly. The pistons were a Mondial higher compression slipper-type and the crankshaft incorporated lighter solid billet connecting rods with strengthening ribs around both the little- and big-ends. They also had higher ratio straight-cut primary gears with a drilled clutch basket and a close-ratio 5-speed gearbox. To reduce rotating weight, the flywheel and alternator were removed.

Also setting the racer apart were desmodromic cylinder heads. With the desmodromic camshafts providing a claimed 13mm of inlet valve lift, the engine was safe to 9,200rpm. Taglioni was worried about heat build-up and installed an oil cooler in the front of the fairing. He also mounted the ignition condensers on one of the front frame downtubes, away from the heat of the engine. With a pair of the new-generation Dell’Orto PHM 40mm concentric carburetors without chokes, Taglioni claimed 86 horsepower at 9,200rpm, the broad spread providing 64 horsepower at only 6,000rpm.

In many respects the Imola machines were designed for one race only. At that time Imola was a very fast, old-style circuit around the hills at the back of the old township, primarily on closed-off public roads. As there was only one tight right-hand corner (the Aqua Minerale), the kickstart and kickstart shaft were removed and a close fitting exhaust pipe installed on the right. The left pipe was high-rise and as Imola was a high-speed circuit, the long, 60-inch wheelbase wasn’t considered detrimental. Dry weight was 388 pounds, and despite the rather nonaerodynamic fairing they were reputed to pull the tallest available gearing, achieving around 169mph.

Seven bikes were taken to Imola. Spaggiari set the fastest time in practice on Friday, and along with Smart was fastest again on Saturday. Ducati went into the race full of confidence. Before the race, coordinating director Fredmano Spairani told Smart and Spaggiari they were going to be first and second, and they were to share the prize money. They were not to dice for the lead until the final five laps, and if Smart won he would keep the bike.

Race day

On race day for the “200 Miglia Shell di Imola” at the 3.1-mile Autodromo “Dino Ferrari” Imola, 70,000 spectators crammed in to see who would win the total prize money of 35,000,000 lire (approximately $60,000 in 1972). The entry list comprised one of the most competitive fields ever in F750. MV Agusta provided machines for Giacomo Agostini and Alberto Pagani, and Moto Guzzi had official entries for Guido Mandracci and Jack Findlay. From England were the factory John Player Nortons of Phil Read, Peter Williams, and Tony Rutter, the BSA of John Cooper, and the Triumphs of Ray Pickrell and Tony Jeffries. Completing an impressive array of factory machinery were the 750 Hondas of Bill Smith, John Williams, Silvio Grassetti, and Luigi Anelli, and the BMWs of Helmut Dahne and Hans-Otto Butenuth. There were also strong contenders in Daytona-winner Don Emde, Walter Villa, Ron Grant and the Kawasakis of Cliff Carr and Dave Simmonds. In addition was an array of more than 70 journalists from around the world: The winner was going to be assured top publicity.

On race day, the two silver Ducatis followed Agostini for four laps before Smart took the lead. Although he lost first gear early in the race Smart comfortably held first for most of the race. Agostini retired on lap 41 and Spaggiari then overtook Smart on lap 56. The two Ducatis circulated together, even pitting for fuel simultaneously. Smart regained the lead two laps from the end after Spaggiari ran wide at the Aqua Minerale. Very low on fuel and misfiring, Smart crossed the line four seconds ahead of Spaggiari, who was only running on one cylinder. Smart’s race average was 97.8mph and he shared the fastest lap of 100.1mph with Spaggiari and Agostini. It was Smart’s 29th birthday and arguably the most significant victory in his career. It was certainly a pivotal victory in the history of Ducati: They had proven to the world their desmodromic 750 could take on all comers and win.


Amidst the postrace euphoria, Ducati Coordinating Director Fredmano Spairani was intent on maximizing publicity. Smart was presented with his race-winning machine. Ron Angel, the Victoria (Australia) distributor, negotiated the purchase of Spaggiari’s racer, and production desmo race replicas were promised. As part of the publicity, the Imola racers were also campaigned in selected events around the world.

At the end of 1972, the remaining Imola 750s were sent to various distributors to help promote sales. As they were preparing for the 1973 Imola race, Ducati no longer had any interest in them. Paul Smart kept his machine and the Spaggiari bike is now in Larry Auriana’s collection in New York. Others are accounted for in Germany, with possibly two in Canada.

And there is John L. Stein’s example featured here, shipped to South Africa in early 1973 for Errol James to ride in the international South African TT and a series of nationals.

In the TT, James led all comers, including the formidable Agostini, Cooper and Mick Grant, before dropping back with binding brakes to finish fifth. James went on win a couple of nationals and finished second in the 12-race South African F750 championship behind a works 500cc Suzuki. “That Ducati was a fast motorcycle,” he recalls. “It was faster than the MV in a straight line.” Fast or not, the Ducati was a long way from perfect. “We had a lot of mechanical trouble. The fork would patter into the corners and the valve gear also gave a lot of trouble. We used to rev it to 10,500rpm, but the redline was 9,200rpm. Parts were a problem because the factory was always on strike. At one stage they sent us used barrels and heads and pistons. The bike had two big blowups. First it broke a piston, and then it seized the crankshaft at a race in Angola. We gave it back to the importer, a co-op company supplying farm equipment, after that.”

All along, James raced with the confidence that this was Smart’s Imola-winning bike. At least, that’s what the factory had reported by Telex, although Smart confirms he took possession of his race winner soon after Imola. Carefully piecing together the history of the Imola bikes shows the factory might have been at least halfway truthful. Conversation about the bikes with Taglioni revealed that two machines were built with a second, lower, footpeg location to accommodate Smart, who was taller than Spaggiari. This motorcycle is probably Smart’s spare for Imola.

Following its crankshaft failure, the Imola racer sat in the importer’s lobby before being sold in 1977 to South African collector John D’Oliveira. D’Oliveira stored the Ducati for nearly a decade before rebuilding the engine from leftover factory spares including a fresh crankshaft and production crankcases. After D’Oliveira passed away, the Imola racer, minus its fairing, was sold in America in 1995. A bunch of factory spares were included with the bike, including the original sandcast crankcases. They were crated separately and shipped over, but were lost in a New York customs warehouse and came within hours of being destroyed before they were located.

What of the original fairing? In 1975, South African tuner Helmut Schaffner bought it from the importer to use on a new Ducati 900 Super Sport. He had the foresight to make a mold of the fairing and one copy in case they needed a spare. They would. Schaffner’s rider soon crashed the 900, breaking the original metal flake Imola fairing “into a million pieces.” After the conclusion of the 900 project, the duplicate Imola fairing hung in Schaffner’s garage for over two decades before joining the bike in the U.S., thanks to a traveling businessman who hand-carried it on a 747 from Johannesburg to Hong Kong to Los Angeles, placing it on the seat next to him.

Other than the necessary work on the fairing, the Ducati has not been restored in the traditional sense. The frame, long ago painted black, was resprayed in aquamarine lacquer and some 30 hours of rubbing lifted layers of incorrect silver paint off the tank, seat and fenders to reveal the original metal flake fiberglass gel coat. After eventually getting the bike together, Stein raced it eight times and participated at Pebble Beach, finally deciding it was not worth risking the original glass; there are no spares available.

And what’s it like to ride? “It’s incredibly smooth running, has megaphonitis until 6,000rpm, and then has a beautifully flat torque curve from there up. Because it’s so torquey it doesn’t need to be revved beyond 8,000rpm. It’s really hard to turn, but incredibly stable at speed. It drags the pipe on the right and the brake lever on the left,” Stein says, adding, “The brakes are wonderful and the sound with the open megas is rapturous.” Following a ride on Stein’s bike at Willow Springs back in 2007, Paul Smart concurs. “It’s incredibly torquey,” he begins. “It has big old carburetors and basic ignition, but the thing works so well. And considering the age of the thing, it does handle. Its geometry is all wrong with a long wheelbase and a fork angle of who knows what, but it behaves itself extremely well, doesn’t require a lot of rider input, and the brakes are faultless. The biggest Achilles heel is it’s so long that you have to crank it to get through tight corners. Also the riding position where you’re sitting well back and low with your knees under your chin feels strange. But those motorcycles were just right. They were easy on the rider and relaxing to ride. I honestly can’t fault it.”

More than 40 years on, the 1972 Imola racer can stake its claim as one of the most significant of all racing Ducatis. Not only the inspiration for the most coveted Ducati production bike, the 1974 750 Super Sport, the Imola’s success was the springboard for where Ducati is today. MC