In 1977, Cycle magazine editors Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling took a Ducati 750 SS to first place at the Daytona in the second-ever season of AMA Superbike racing. Neilson retired from racing at the end of the year, but the bike he and Schilling built — nicknamed Old Blue for its blue livery — became a legend.
How big a legend? Big enough for Ducati to team with Italian specialty builder NCR to craft a limited-edition update, New Blue, based on the 2007 Sport 1000S, and big enough to inspire the crew at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, arguably one of the most important motorcycle museums in the world, to commission Ducati specialist Rich Lambrechts to craft a bolt-by-bolt replica for its collection. The finished bike’s name? Deja Blue.
The California Hot Rod
Deja Blue’s inspiration goes back to the mid-1970s, when Cycle editors Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling were campaigning a Ducati 750 SS in West Coast racing. The California Hot Rod, as Cook called their Ducati, was one of only a handful of the race-bred Ducati 750 SS models in the U.S. (their bike was one of three pre-homologation specials shipped over in 1973), and with Cook riding and Phil developing the bike, they raced it with great success in the 1974-1975 seasons.
When the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) announced its new Superbike Series for 1976, Cook and Phil turned their attention to preparing their bike for the series, with a win at Daytona their ultimate goal. Coming in third in the inaugural Superbike race at Daytona in 1976, they were off to a good start, and they continued to race in the series throughout the year.
To get the California Hot Rod into contention for the 1977 season, the pair modified their Ducati 700 SS with, among other things, a set of 87mm Venolia pistons (pushing capacity up to 883cc), 44mm Harley-Davidson intake valves, a 5-speed Marvin Webster gearbox and Morris magnesium wheels. At the same time, Phil designed a new and very blue paint scheme, and the bike became Old Blue. “It was blue,” Cook says. “And God knows it was old — the cylinder heads dated back to 1974, although other parts were steadily and religiously refreshed.”
By the time Daytona rolled around in March of 1977, the pair was ready. The 1976 season had proved their faith in the Ducati 700 SS, and they knew that under favorable conditions a win at Daytona could be theirs. In the days leading up to the race, everything went like clockwork, Cook and the Ducati consistently ticking off lap times that were two seconds ahead of the rest of the field.
The big day came on March 11, and as Cook made his way around Daytona, a track he’d raced only four times before, he built a lead that never faltered. When the race was over, Cook had come in first, 28 seconds ahead of David Emde and with an even longer lead over young gun Wes Cooley. Cook and Phil had realized their dream, and they had given Ducati its first major North American win. Their place in history was sealed.
Cook and Phil continued to race for the rest of the season, but for Cook it was time to call it quits. As far as he was concerned, he’d achieved his goal, and now it was time to move on to other things. In 1979 he shocked the motorcycling community when he resigned from Cycle, handed over the reigns to Phil and moved to Vermont, shifting gears to a successful career in commercial photography.
Fast forward 29 years to Daytona Bike Week 2008. Barber Vintage Museum parts manager, restorer and all around classic motorcycle expert Brian Slark, museum executive director Jeff Ray, and Rich Lambrechts are sitting around talking shop. “It just sort of materialized,” Slark recalls. “Jeff and Rich and I were talking, and one of us said ‘what if?’”
The “what if” was, what if they built a replica of Old Blue, now in a private collection somewhere in New Jersey and out of the public eye since 2005? Slark and Ray thought Old Blue would make a perfect addition to the museum, and since they couldn’t buy the real thing, why not have Lambrechts build a replica?
Better yet, it turned out Lambrechts had a thing for Old Blue and had been pondering such a build for some time. “I’d obtained a few parts and realized I had the bones to make the bike,” Lambrechts says. “They said they’d be interested, and it took me all of two minutes to think about it.”
Cook had already been invited to speak as Guest of Honor at the 2008 Barber Vintage Festival, and with Lambrechts on board a plan was hatched to surprise Cook with the replica during a museum fundraiser at the mid-October festival. That gave Lambrechts about seven months for the build, but, as he explains, “with the schedule we keep, it meant I had 35 days available to work on the bike.”
And he needed every one of those 35 days. Endowed with an almost fanatical obsession with originality, Lambrechts was determined to make this bike more than just a replica, if such a thing is possible. “In my heart, I wanted it to be exact and pay tribute to those guys,” he says. “I felt the bike had to be as good or better than the original, or it wasn’t worth doing at all.”
Exact it is. From the correct Venolia pistons to the Morris wheels, to the St. Christopher’s medal on the fairing and the fairing decals themselves, the bike is perfect. “The Castrol [decal] is one that even Castrol hasn’t reproduced, it’s just not available,” Lambrechts says. He made his own.
According to Christian Clarke, who helped Lambrechts during the build’s final days, the number of NOS (new-old-stock) parts in the machine is amazing. “He had an NOS fender with original paint that he stripped, an NOS Conti muffler that he rattle-canned black — just like they did originally,” Clarke says.
On the appointed day, Lambrechts and Clarke were still struggling to finish the bike. “Rich was up three days straight ’til it was loaded up,” Clarke says. Alabama bound from Lambrechts’ shop in Florida, Lambrechts finished painting the muffler in the van.
At the museum fundraiser that night, as Cook was regaling a crowd with tales of Old Blue, they rolled the bike out and the room went silent. Cook lifted his hands to his face, and looking at the bike in absolute astonishment, was at a loss for words. “As soon as I saw it, I knew who had built it,” Cook says, explaining he knew from the start it wasn’t the original Old Blue.
After Lambrechts sorted out some clutch issues the next day, Cook took the bike out for four laps of the Barber track. “It’s a magnificent bike,” Cook says, “only I think it’s got more compression. But it sounded the same and it felt the same, it’s absolutely amazing.”
Deja Blue is now on permanent display at Barber, and Cook’s been given lifelong access to it. “I talked to Mr. Barber, and he said, ‘Here’s the deal; you now not only have your own bike, but you have your own racetrack,’” Cook says. “You can bet I’ll get down there.”
And the name? Lambrechts explains: “I was standing at the lathe, and that’s when the name popped into my head. I was making a part for the engine, lightening it and trimming it down, and I had to stop and ask, is this necessary? And I said yes, for these guys, it is.”
Old Blue and Ducati
When Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling penned their “Racer Road” series in Cycle magazine, detailing their quest for a win in the new AMA Superbike class, they couldn’t have dreamed their Ducati 750 SS would become one of the most iconic Ducatis ever in North America. Although Ducati was well-known by the motorcycling cognoscenti, the Italian brand was still struggling to get broad notice on these shores.
Cook was an unabashed fan of Ducati, writing in the January 1976 issue of Cycle, “The Super Sport is the most functionally superior motorcycle that has ever been produced for public consumption.” That made Cook and Phil’s win all the more important for Ducati, because in addition to the publicity Ducati had received from the Racer Road series, they benefitted even more when Cook and Phil brought home their Daytona trophy.
Suddenly, Ducati was on the map, and all because of a pair of struggling privateers. MC
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