The Last Ducati 900SS Was the Best
By Robert Smith
Claimed power: 60hp @ 6,500rpm (rear wheel w/40mm carbs)
Top speed: 125mph (period test)
Engine: 864cc air-cooled OHC 90-degree desmodromic L-twin, 86mm x 74.4mm
Weight (wet): 477lb (217kg)
MPG: 4.7gal (17.8ltr)/35-50mpg
Price then/now: $6,000 (est.)/$10,000-$20,000
Of all the Ducati “SS” variants, the last-of-the-line 1982 900SS has historically been the least desirable. Second only to the first-year 900SS in rarity (335 made versus 246 in 1975), its beauty and cachet as a “true” Ducati Super Sport is finally being appreciated.
It’s doubtful any other motorcycle manufacturer can point to a single date when its fortunes changed as dramatically as Ducati’s did on April 23, 1972.
In 1970, Ducati management, under Arnaldo Milvio and Fredmano Spairani, decreed the factory would go racing again after an 11-year hiatus. With every Grand Prix class up to 350cc dominated by Japanese two-strokes, the larger capacities beckoned. For Ducati’s re-entry into racing, chief designer Fabio Taglioni developed a 500cc GP L-twin with two-valve desmo heads, but it was no match for Agostini on the MV. Ducati was also developing a 750, and the announcement of Formula 750 for production-based bikes and the inaugural 200-mile race at Imola on April 23, 1972 — billed as the “Daytona of Europe” — was Ducati’s great opportunity.
After assessing the potential competition at Daytona in March 1972, Taglioni had just a month to come up with a race bike. Though based on the just-introduced 1971 spring-valve 750GT, the Imola Ducati used desmo valve gear, which with special cams, twin spark plugs and 40mm Dell’Orto carbs allowed the engine to rev to 9,200rpm and develop 84 rear-wheel horsepower at 8,800rpm. Billet connecting rods ran on a 750GT crank driving straight-cut primary gears to a stock GT transmission. Marzocchi forks and triple-disc brakes completed the specification, and with unnecessary ancillaries removed the Imola 750 weighed in at 392 pounds — light for a street bike, but not for a racer.
Ducati approached a number of top riders including Jarno Saarinen and Renzo Pasolini to ride the 750, but all declined; the new bike was considered unproven — which, of course, it was. Evergreen Ducati team member Bruno Spaggiari, then 39, would start, but the team needed a high-profile rider. The story goes that a phone call to rising GP star Paul Smart’s home in Kent, England, was answered by his wife, Maggie (sister of the famous Barry Sheene), who “promised” that the reluctant Smart would ride the Ducati in the Imola race.
Smart admits to being underwhelmed by his first sight of the Ducati. It was clearly a street bike — even the centerstand lugs were still in place. Though sleep deprived and jet lagged, Smart took the Ducati out on the Modena test track on Dunlop TT100 street tires, and became a bit less apprehensive. “The handling was very slow. It took an age to turn, and ground clearance was limited, but it was very stable at speed. I liked it a lot,” Smart later wrote. He must have. On his final test lap — still on street tires — Smart gave notice of the Ducati’s potential. “I brought the bike back to the pits and all the Ducati mechanics were jumping up and down. I had just broken Ago’s outright lap record.”
On race day, pole sitter Agostini led the Imola 200 for the first four laps before Smart took the lead. From then on, the race was a Ducati benefit, with Spaggiari and Smart swapping the lead until the penultimate lap, when Spaggiari’s bike started to run out of fuel: Smart crossed the line first.
Ducati’s one-two win firmly established the brand’s racing credibility, and set the company on course for its impressive record of competition wins in World Superbike and Moto GP.
Racers on the road
Responding to demand, Ducati promised to build replicas of the Imola winning 750s, but it took until 1974 for the 750SS to appear in a limited run of 200 FIM homologation machines (each with the “instant fuel gauge” clear vertical strip in the fiberglass gas tank). Along with the Laverda 750SFC and Norton’s “Yellow Peril” production racer, the 750SS pioneered the “street racer” concept, the bikes being not much more than racers with lights — although the Laverda did have electric start.
But on the track, F750 was becoming dominated by Japanese factories. Canny as ever, Taglioni proposed a new capacity of 860cc to provide a competitive machine for endurance racing, which better suited the Ducati’s long-legged style.
The 860GT of 1974 introduced new “square” engine cases and bodywork by Giorgetto Giugiari, and while Italian is usually synonymous with style, it’s generally reckoned Giugiaro’s work on the 860 was a solution looking for a problem. Regardless, the square-case engine reappeared in 1975 in what were essentially 750SS cycle parts as the 900SS — and created a classic.
Of all the 900s, the 1975 900SS is considered the closest in essence to the Imola racer. It retained the 750SS’s fiberglass tank (without the “fuel gauge”), 40mm Dell’Orto carbs, Conti exhausts and center-axle Marzocchi forks. Brakes were upgraded from Scarab to Brembo, with the discs drilled. A shorter connecting rod (as used on the 860GT) together with the increased reciprocating mass of bigger pistons added extra load to an already stressed 750 crankpin, leading to short big-end bearing life. Together with the somewhat crude Ducati Elettrotecnica electronic ignition, the early 900SS earned a reputation for poor reliability.
The 1976-1977 model was the first true “production” 900SS. Fitted with left-side shifter and turn signals, it was now legal in all markets. The gas tank became steel (fiberglass had been banned in the U.S.), and to meet noise and emission requirements carburetors were reduced from 40mm to 32mm and wore air cleaners. Lafranconi mufflers replaced the Contis, and the engine was vented into a catch tank under the seat. These changes dropped rear wheel horsepower from a claimed 70 to just 57.
A number of reliability issues were rectified on the 1978-1979 models. The crankpin diameter was increased to 38mm, effectively ending big-end issues, and the Ducati ignition was replaced by a new Bosch system. The gearshift was improved by taking the crossover through the engine cases, and alloy Speedline wheels replaced the Borrani rims and spokes. A dual seat was optional.
The final 1981-1982 900SS (the 750SS continued in parallel only until 1979) wore a dual seat as standard and rolled on FPS alloy wheels replacing the crack-prone Speedline items. Mufflers were now Silentium. And while the last 900SS was a more polished version of the 1975 rough diamond, it was essentially the same bike, and could still (in some markets, like Australia and South Africa) be ordered with 40mm Dell’Ortos and Conti pipes, releasing all the stifled power of the original 1975 machine.
The California Hot Rod, NCR and MHR
One 1974 750SS found its way to Cycle magazine in the U.S., where editors Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling decided to take it back to the track, campaigning it with some success. For 1976 and 1977, they entered the Ducati, now known as the “California Hot Rod,” in the new AMA Superbike class, which allowed them to punch the engine to 883cc. Neilson and Schilling extensively modified the engine and cycle parts, using Venolia pistons, Harley-Davidson XR intake valves, a magnesium Fontana rear brake caliper and magnesium Morris wheels. Front discs were plasma-coated aluminum. Even with the stock frame, weight was kept below 400 pounds. Neilson entered the Daytona 200 mile race in 1976, finishing third, but with the fastest trap speed at more than 145mph — then won the event outright in 1977.
Ducati ownership passed from one government-controlled body to another, and new proprietors VM Group had little interest in motorcycles. Economics ruled, and racing was considered an expensive eccentricity. But that’s not the Italian way, so race boss Franco Farné teamed up with ex-factory race mechanics Giorgio Nepoti and Rino Caracchi of Scuderia NCR to create what was effectively a works race shop outside the factory. The NCR bikes used little from the production 900SS, and were based on the earlier round-case 750SS engine. In NCR trim, weight was shaved down to around 325 pounds, and the engines made between 90-105 horsepower depending on capacity and specification.
It was an NCR Ducati entered by Steve Wynne of Sports Motorcycles that Roger Nicholls and Steve Tonkin rode in the 1977 Isle of Man production TT — Nicholls almost won but for the race being shortened.
For 1978, Wynne acquired two more NCR bikes and prepared them for the new Formula 1 class for four-stroke production-based bikes up to 1,000cc. Wynne incorporated ideas from the California Hot Rod, which, together with a specially made lightweight chrome-moly frame, pared weight down to 360 pounds. Wynne’s secret weapon, though, was his “new” rider: the 10-years-retired, 38-year-old Mike “The Bike” Hailwood. Hailwood won at an average speed of more than 108mph, beating the existing lap record by 9mph! Within a year, the Mike Hailwood Replica, a 900SS dressed in a full race fairing, was on sale.
1982 Ducati 900 Super Sport
Among most Ducatisti, the last year 900SS is considered the least desirable. The dual seat, steel gas tank, smaller carbs, intake filters, turn signals and restrictive Silentium mufflers all point to emasculation of the 1975 race replica. But beneath a refined exterior, the beast still lurks. The engine is essentially identical, save for the 1975’s billet machined con rods, polished rockers and smaller crankpin. The 1978-on engines are stronger and more durable, and benefit from improved electronic ignition. The engine also gained a proper cartridge oil filter to replace the gauze sump screen and crankshaft sludge traps. With retrofitted Dell’Orto PHF40 pumpers and Conti pipes, they produce just as much power as the first-year bikes.
Although the bike featured here isn’t mine, I am the owner of a 1982 900SS, which I found under a wind-blown tarp in a condo parking lot. A South African market bike, it’s the full meal deal, with PHF40s and Contis. The engine had been recently rebuilt with a new crank from Australian specialists Vee-Two, and I’ve since treated it to a cosmetic overhaul.
As an enthusiastic owner, I’m more than a little pre-disposed toward pointing out the bike’s good points, and they are many. Riding the SS is a unique experience. Kickstart only, it’s surprisingly easy to spin the big engine, which always fires on the second kick, but never the first. At idle, the syncopated sounds are a delight — the chuffing hiss of the big Dell’Ortos, a loping b-blatt b-blatt from the Contis, and the ticking and rustling of the valve gear. Crack the throttle and a cacophonous bellow erupts from the pipes, gusts of exhaust assailing onlookers’ faces.
Shifting is light and quick, the wet clutch engages smoothly, and with a whiff of throttle the Ducati lunges eagerly forward. You struggle to bend your knees enough to get your feet on the rearset footpegs while craning your neck to see ahead. Riding in traffic can become painful quite quickly, but at speed the wind helps balance your upper body weight, and the load on your wrists diminishes. Fast, sweeping bends are the Duc’s specialty. Some counter-steering muscle is needed to push it into a turn, but once heeled over, it runs on virtual rails. Its stability is truly remarkable, as it shrugs off surface imperfections and braking inputs.
But best of all is that wonderful engine: Carburetion is perfect, with smooth throttle transitions; the powerband is broad and linear, and the faster the engine spins, the smoother it seems to get. The harsh buzzing of a four or the jackhammer vibration of a parallel twin is completely absent. At speed, a symphony of muted fury follows you around like the soundtrack of Armageddon. Then you close the throttle: All is still except for the wind, and you’d swear the engine had been switched off. Taglioni’s genius is right there, in the perfect primary balance of the big L-twin. Riding a Ducati bevel twin is a remarkable experience — just as racers have been discovering for 40 years.
And if you’ve seen the movie Tron: Legacy, you’ll have noticed a bevel SS lurking at the back of the Man Cave. It has a dual seat, but wears spoked wheels — which confuses many Ducatisti. The wheels, from California specialists Bevel Heaven, were fitted at the request of the producers. How do I know? The bike in the film is my 1982 900SS. MC
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