Custom Ducati 900 GTS

It’s a Ducati 900 GTS all right; just not one the factory ever made.

ducati 900gts 1

Rene Waters' custom Ducati 900GTS.

Photo by Elise Waters

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Although he’s lived the greater part of his life in the U.S. and Canada, Rene Waters’ early years growing up in England left an indelible mark on him. He still has a strong British accent, and he is impeccably polite, but the real mark life in England left on Rene is his continuing love of café racer bikes, a love that produced the custom Ducati 900 GTS you see here.

“I grew up in England in the Seventies,” Rene says, “and one of my early bikes was a Honda 400 Four with a Rickman fairing; the café style has always been in my mind.” In the 1980s Rene moved to Chicago, where he found little to remind him of his motorcycling days in England. “There was little in North America that was the sort of bike I was used to, they were all cruiser-style bikes,” he recalls. “So I ended up customizing whatever bikes I owned, trying to make them into bikes that I recognized as being café racers.”

A fascination with Ducati motorcycles came about the same time as Rene’s move to the U.S., following a visit to a Chicago Italian sports car shop. “They had two 900SS Ducatis sitting there, a silver one and a black one, and I was just so captivated,” Rene says. “I don’t remember what cars were in there, I just remember the two bikes.”

Some years later, now married and living in Canada, Rene was putting the café racer touch to a Honda CB750 when his wife, Sue, asked him why he was always messing with his bikes. “I showed her a picture of a vintage Ducati motorcycle and she said, ‘Oh, that explains it; everything you’re making is like that.’” With Rene’s 40th birthday looming on the horizon, Sue suggested it was time he got a vintage Ducati, so Rene started looking in earnest. Calgary was never exactly Ducati central, but a few weeks later a friend directed Rene to an auto trader ad that said simply, “Ducati for sale.” Rene called, and all the seller could tell him was that it was a red Ducati.

What Rene found languishing in the back of liquor store in Calgary was a very unloved and oddly modified 1978 Ducati 900GTS. “It had an Egli front end, with mud flaps from a Dodge truck zip-tied on,” Rene recalls. “It was in terrible shape.”

Rene bought it anyhow, and launched into a comprehensive rebuild. He traded the Egli front end for a complete front end off a Ducati 851 and a set of 16-inch wheels off a Ducati Paso. An earlier 750GT gas tank replaced the 900GTS unit, replica 900SS side covers replaced the stock units, and he fitted up a fairing sourced from Phil Hitchcock at Road & Race Ducati in Australia.

Second coming

Rene rode the bike like that for the next seven years, including a trip to Las Vegas for the 2001 Ducati Revs America World Ducati Weekend. There, it caught the attention of Pierre Terblanche, then Ducati’s chief designer and responsible for some of Ducati’s most controversial bikes including the MH900e, a retro-styled racer that drew its styling cues from the Ducati racers of the late 1970s. Upon seeing Rene’s bike, Terblanche said, “You know, the only difference between the MH900e and yours is you built the bike you wanted in your garage with whatever tools you had, and I built mine in a factory with $6 million of somebody else’s money.”

Then two years ago Rene received a call from the owner of a 2006 Ducati Paul Smart Replica. The owner had blown up the engine, and wondered if Rene was interested in buying the bike. Appreciating the opportunity to latch on to some modern Ducati hardware, Rene bit. “I’d been wanting to get rid of the 16-inch wheels, but the bike handled so well I’d been reluctant to,” Rene says. “But with the opportunity to put the Paul Smart wheels on my bike I jumped at the offer.” 

Unfortunately, he hadn’t really thought it out, discovering later the new 17-inch wheels (which turned out to be chrome wheels for a 1000 Sport Classic) used 180 series tires, wider than the 160 series on the Paso wheels and far wider than the original 110 series tires. A great deal of machining, measuring, cutting and welding solved that problem, as Rene extensively modified the swingarm and the rear wheel sprocket carrier so the sprockets would line up and the tire would clear the swingarm.

However, the new wheel meant the rear fender no longer fit, so he replaced it with a modern GT1000 fender. But that didn’t fit the frame, so he cut and modified the rear frame loop so the fender would sit properly. That meant the seat he had no longer worked, so he fit a replica 900SS unit. Talk about your domino effect.

In the end, he had a completely transformed machine, with new electrics and gauges from an S4 Monster, upside-down Showa adjustable forks from an ST4, rear shocks from a SportClassic, and the 17-inch wheels. “The itch I was trying to satisfy was to get more original looking wheels. I’ve done that and 10 times more because the ‘might as wells’ took over,” Rene says, adding, “I have a modern bike but it has all the looks of a classic Seventies café racer. It’s genuinely Ducati, just not one the factory ever made. It’s my take on what the SportClassic could have been.” MC