The Ducati 200SS

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All it takes is one look at the oddly-shaped tank on Alan Chalke’s spectacular Ducati 200SS to understand where the “Jelly Mold” moniker came from.
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Alan Chalke's Ducati 200SS.
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Alan Chalke's Ducati 200SS.
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Alan Chalke's Ducati 200SS.
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Alan Chalke's Ducati 200SS.

Ducati 200SS
Years produced:
Claimed power: 18hp @ 7,500rpm
Top speed: 87mph (est.)
Engine: 203.783cc OHC, air-cooled single
Weight (dry): 111kg (244.2lbs)
MPG: 55-75
Price then: N/A
Price now: $4,000 – $8,000

A life-long enthusiast, Alan Chalke built his own mini-bike when he was a kid — even getting pulled over by the police for riding it on the road. Years later and working in Southern California, he was hanging out at the Rock Store when he saw his first bevel-drive Ducati twin. “It was a 750 GT with round cases. I fell in love with it and went out and bought one,” Alan recalls.

That purchase sparked an interest in the marque, and Alan started collecting early Ducatis — which, as any Ducati fan will tell you, is not the easiest hobby to pursue. “The biggest drawback is the scarcity of parts, especially for vintage Ducatis,” Alan says. “There is a lack of people who know how to work on them, and parts are expensive when you can find them.” But early Ducatis weren’t always expensive. In fact, in their day, most small Ducatis were bought simply as transportation.

It’s important to appreciate that while today’s Ducati is renowned for producing championship-winning motorcycles with soul and power, there was a time when things didn’t look so promising for the Italian manufacturer. At the end of World War II, the Nazi retreat left Italy a mess. As Italians started putting their country back together, there was a pressing need for cheap transportation.

Many companies jumped into making small motorcycles, and Ducati was one of them. Located in Bologna, Ducati wasn’t originally a bike builder. The company started out in the 1920s making photographic and electrical equipment. During World War II, Ducati produced equipment for the war machine, and when the Allies invaded in 1944, the Ducati factory was destroyed.

Salvation came in 1946, when Ducati partnered with Italian company SIATA to build a small 48cc engine dubbed the Cucciolo (Little Pup). Designed to clip onto a standard bicycle, the engine was a hit with moto-hungry Italians, and by 1951 Ducati had bought out SIATA and was building complete motorcycles. In 1954 the company hired the legendary designer and engineer Fabio Taglioni with a plan to devise machines for the prestigious long distance races then held on Italian roads.

By 1955, Taglioni’s first offspring, the overhead-camshaft 98cc Gran Sport (later known as the Marianna), was embarrassing the competition. A 125cc racing single — the first Ducati with desmodromic valves, a technology that would become a signature of Ducati factory racers — came next. Ducati was on the move.

By the late 1950s, the Italian economy was on the upswing and Italians were ready for more than just transportation. To meet an increasing market for small sport bikes, Taglioni enlarged and detuned the non-Desmo Gran Sport engine for a range of sporty roadsters. The first of these, the 175 Sport, hit European showrooms in early 1957. It produced 14hp at 8,000rpm, could hit 85mph and yet was also capable of excellent gas mileage, an important ingredient in the European market.

Ducati was getting more attention, and in 1959, the Berliner Corp. in New Jersey started importing Ducatis. But Berliner knew that to be successful in the U.S. market Ducati needed to offer more displacement.

The birth of the Ducati 200

In response, Ducati bored out the 175cc roadster to 203.783cc. Like other descendants of the racing Gran Sport, the new engine had a single overhead camshaft driven by bevel gears, six-volt electrics and an aluminum head and barrel. The frame was a single downtube, stiff and light. To further spur interest, Ducati also offered an optional racing kit with a hotter cam and a megaphone exhaust. Ducati built the Ducati 200 from 1959 through 1965. After 1960, the engine was revised, becoming a smaller version of the 250cc single instead of a larger version of the earlier 175cc single. Ducati stamped these revised cylinder head castings “B” instead of the “A” of the prior version, and added a new cast iron clutch, a longer camshaft and a revised crankshaft. In the U.S., bikes with the “B” engine were styled differently and carried the model name “Elite.”

Ducati continued developing its singles during the 1960s, although the company was hampered by the loss of a large part of the Italian ride-to-work market; rising affluence meant that more Italians could afford a small car. And while trade restrictions gave some protection within Italy, in other markets Ducati faced competition from the burgeoning Japanese motorcycle industry. Ducati’s response was to develop the sport end of its business, and the road bikes finally got Desmo heads in 1968. After a management shakeup in 1970, Taglioni was authorized to go ahead with a 750cc V-twin, the company’s first big road bike, the descendents of which are still being made today.

The 1959 Ducati 200SS

Some years back while looking for an early single, an ad for a 175 in Cycle News caught Alan’s attention. “I was between projects,” he recalls, “but when I got the bike home, the only thing that was correct was the frame and carburetor.” Shortly afterwards, Alan learned of a large load of early Ducati parts — half a semitruck load — for sale. The load was a gold mine, and Alan assembled our feature bike from these parts. “I spent several years sorting through the pile and researching what went with what,” said Alan. “Once I figured it out, the 200 went together in two years, which for a Ducati single is a fast restoration.”

Alan and a friend put the engine together and sent it to Jack McCarthy, a well-known Ducati specialist, for blueprinting and tuning. Jack put in a new 4-speed transmission quadrant, and shimmed the crankshaft and bevel gears. “In order to set up a Ducati single you need time and a big handful of shims,” Jack explains.

“This engine was not too bad,” Jack continues. “I pulled the valve guides, made up or modified one of the valves and heli-coiled some valve cover holes. I used the Mark III rocker arms from a 250. They are lighter because they have no adjusters, and can rev higher. I also put in a Mark III cam. I had to modify the top end castings slightly to make it fit. It increases valve lift slightly.”

“The engine went together beautifully,” Alan says, and he’s pleased with his little Ducati. “The hard part was the tuning. SS Dell’Ortos aren’t so much carburetors as recalcitrant fuel injectors. There are no parts to be found, and the jets and needles are so simplistic they make Amals look like modern Mikunis.”

Jeff Giamarco did the paint, matching the colors from a new-old-stock toolbox Alan found in his semitruck load. “I found the tank in the load, as well. I really was lucky. I found the badges in the pile of parts,” Alan says. “I also found correct Borrani rims in the load. I’ve never seen another pair. Italian roads were bad after World War II, and most rims were made out of steel.”

On the road

Although stock compression ratio is a modest 7.8:1, Alan likes to run the little Ducati on a mixture of high octane with a lead replacement additive. Starting the bike is straightforward, requiring little more than “tickling” the carb (which floods the carb for a rich mixture) and then swinging the engine through with the kick starter, mounted on the left side. Once the Ducati has started, Alan gets out of town fast.

“When I go for a ride, I get it out around the lake and into the mountains quickly. The sheriff’s department doesn’t like megaphones, and this bike is loud. It sounds like a machine gun. The powerband is very narrow. You open the throttle and leave it open and hope you hit the right rpm. It’s like a switch — you either get one horsepower or 20 horsepower. It can get it up to maybe 90mph, and with an Italian jockey aboard, maybe 100 or so,” Alan says. “It won’t go up hills unless you are right in the powerband. However, it handles beautifully, and stops well, even with the single-leading-shoe front brake.”

He mostly takes the bike to shows and only rides it occasionally. Mostly, he simply enjoys having it around. “It’s fun to look at. If I was 25 years old and weighed 145 pounds and was on a country road, it would be great fun to ride.” Ah, how the times have changed, right Alan? MC

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