Years produced: 1986-1987
Claimed power: 53hp (claimed), 43hp (period test)
Top speed: 121mph (period test)
Engine type: 649cc air-cooled SOHC 90-degree V-twin
Weight: 453lb (wet)
MPG: 40-45 (avg.)
Price then: $4,295
Price now: $1,000-$3,000
If Claudio Castiglioni had known what Erik Buell was up to in 1986 (and vice versa), the outcome of this story might have been quite different. While Buell was trying to build a sportbike around a cruiser engine, the Italian entrepreneur planned to break into the American market with a cruiser built around a sportbike engine. The latter experiment, though unsuccessful in the marketplace, produced a fascinating and well-executed motorcycle that could easily out-drag its competition while cutting a dash in the glamour stakes with its European flair.
In spite of the name on the gas tank, the Ducati Indiana was not, in fact, built by Ducati, but by Cagiva. Founded in Varese, Italy, in 1950 by Giovanni Castiglioni, the Cagiva (CAstiglioni-GIovanni-VArese) company made its money in electronics; but in 1978 and under the direction of Giovanni’s two sons, Claudio and Gianfranco, the company started producing motorcycles, buying the remains of the old Aermacchi factory from Harley-Davidson.
Why the Ducati engine? Most likely, because it was there. By 1982, Ducati’s then-government-backed owners had lost interest in building motorcycles. The company’s flagship models — the bevel-drive Ducati 900SS, Ducati Mike Hailwood Replica and Ducati Darmah — were unprofitable because the engines were expensive and time-consuming to build. It seems staggering in retrospect, but the company planned to pull the plug on Ducati motorcycle production completely. At the same time, though, Ducati did agree to supply belt-drive SOHC desmo Pantah engines to other bike makers, including Cagiva.
The Pantah engine owes its origins to two earlier racing engines: a 1970 Fabio Taglioni-designed (bevel-drive) SOHC 500cc GP race motor and a 4-valve (belt-drive) DOHC 500cc V-twin designed for Ducati by Renato Amaroli under Taglioni’s supervision. Taglioni then blended both engines into a proposal for a 500cc V-twin with belt-drive single overhead cams and desmo valve operation.
Ducati management had already decided to develop a 500cc parallel twin, but the development was not going well. The story goes that when the parallel twin was finally abandoned and management came to Taglioni for help, he simply smiled and produced the completed drawings for the Pantah engine from his desk drawer. As a result, Ducati produced 500, 600 and 650cc Pantahs in a range of specifications between 1979 and 1985.
Though their small capacity 2-stroke bikes enjoyed considerable sales success in Europe, the ambitious Castiglionis were looking to the huge U.S. market sales potential, and that meant bigger 4-stroke bikes with more cubes. A 1982 deal with then-Ducati owners VM Group supplied Cagiva with Ducati 650cc Pantah engines, which first went into the Cagiva Alazzurra (blue wing) street bike and Elefant dual-sport. This cozy arrangement became even cozier in 1985 when Cagiva acquired Ducati Meccanica from the Italian government. The Pantah engine was part of the package, and Cagiva planned to make good use of it.
To create the 650 Ducati Indiana for 1986, Cagiva paired a Pantah engine with a pressed-steel backbone frame with dual cradle loops made of square section tubing, the bottom right rail of which was removable for easier engine access. The engine was “re-tuned” for more mid-range torque — at the expense of all-out power — by fitting smaller valves and milder cams, and transmitted its power through a hydraulically-operated dry clutch and 5-speed wide-ratio gearbox. In the Indiana, the rear cylinder’s head was reversed so that the 36mm Bing CV carburetors were paired between the cylinders, and breathed through a paper filter fitted into the hollow frame backbone. In order to keep exhaust lengths reasonably similar, the rear cylinder’s header crossed over to the right, sweeping over the clutch cover.
At the front of the Indiana were 40mm Marzocchi forks with a laid-back 33-degree rake, while the rear hung on a pair of 5-way adjustable spring/shock units. Wheels (18-inch front and 15-inch rear) were black painted cast alloy with polished edge accents, and carried single front and rear discs, with a floating 4-piston Brembo caliper at the front and a 2-piston fixed caliper rear.
Styling of the Ducati Indiana reflected the emerging cruiser sensibilities of the day, and the look owed more to the spindly aesthetic of Easy Rider’s Captain America bike than to the bloated 1959 Cadillac look of modern chromo-cruisers. It’s what Teutel Sr. would call “old school.” Long fork, swept-back bars, stepped “king and queen” seat, sissy bar grab rail and short, rakish mufflers. The svelte lines of the Ducati Pantah engine and (by today’s standards) narrow tires complete the lithe look. Definitely more Last Days of Disco than Heavy Metal.
Period reports mentioned the Ducati Indiana's strange riding position. With a seat height of 31 inches and peg-seat-bar relationship that was neither full-on cruiser nor street-standard, testers concluded it was a compromise that didn’t really work. The 5-way adjustable rear shock proved impossible to reset, and the raked-out front end transmitted every road ripple to the rider’s hands. The long, 60-inch wheelbase meant the Indiana was reluctant to turn and the flexible fork made it unstable in the twisties, especially as the legs had a tendency to bind. Riding the Ducati Indiana proved to be both rewarding and exasperating, according to Cycle magazine: “The 650 is a surprising exercise, filled with newness and anachronism, irritation and delight bolted up side by side. Days aboard the Indiana are spent seesawing between exasperation with this motorcycle and real affection for it.”
Where the Ducati Indiana scored big was at the traffic light drag strip. It had just 43hp at the rear wheel, but weighed only 453 pounds. The Italian pretender would streak to a standing quarter in the low 13s, leaving its Japanese and American competition in the dust. Similarly, its sportbike brakes would slow it from 60mph in 123 feet.
So did a sportbike company succeed in making a cruiser? The Ducati Indiana seems no more outlandish than many other misfit “custom” bikes of the day, like the Yamaha Maxim and Honda Magna, and also carries the charisma of the Ducati name, while its rarity makes it a perfect Under the Radar bike. And who knows what might have transpired if Erik Buell had known Claudio Castiglioni in 1986: an American Ducati, perhaps?
1985-1987 Yamaha Virago XV700
• 56hp @ 7,000rpm; 104mph
• Air-cooled 699cc SOHC 72-degree V-twin
• Disc brake front/drum rear
• 496lb (dry)
Although introduced a year before the Shadow, the Yamaha Virago XV700 was, at least initially, much closer to a street standard and the engine rather more conventional. Using a new air-cooled, 72-degree V-twin with two valves per cylinder, a 5-speed transmission and shaft drive, the Yamaha Virago XV750 featured a monoshock rear end and less radical styling than the Shadow. It wasn’t long, though, before the Virago caught up, and by 1984 boasted a more aggressively stepped seat and had its mufflers stacked on one side.
Like Honda, Yamaha’s response to the 1984 import tariff was a capacity change from 750cc to 699cc, achieved by reducing the bore from 83mm to 80.2mm. Almost everything in the engine remained the same except a bump in compression from 8.7 to 9:1 and gear ratio changes for more relaxed cruising, resulting in a slight increase in horsepower and faster acceleration.
At the same time, Yamaha redesigned the Virago’s chassis to better suit its cruiser role. The monoshock was replaced with a pair of conventional coil spring and damper units, and wheels went from wire spoked to cast alloy while the rear wheel size went from 16 inches to 15 inches. A wider 19-inch front wheel was hung on 36mm fork tubes with the rake increased from 29.5 to 32 degrees. Brake components were different as well, the 750’s single disc replaced by dual discs while the single-leading-shoe rear drum grew by 20mm.
Just like the Honda Shadow, the import tariff inspired Yamaha to build a better Virago, and the mid-Eighties XV700 is definitely worth looking out for.
1984-1987 Honda Shadow VT700C
• 62hp @ 7,500rpm; 128mph
• Liquid-cooled 694cc SOHC 45-degree V-twin
• Disc brake front/drum rear
• 507lb (dry)
The prototypical Japanese V-twin cruiser, the Honda Shadow first appeared as the VT750 in 1982, and production continues to this day. Styling and ergonomics may have changed over the years, but the basic story remains the same: 3-valve, liquid-cooled narrow-angle V-twin with 6-speed transmission and shaft drive. The innovative engine also got twin spark plugs, electronic ignition, hydraulic lifters and a dual crankpin intended to defeat the typical narrow-angle V vibration. From 1983 to 1985, the transmission also featured a slipper clutch to mitigate over-zealous downshifting by pilots unused to riding big V-twins.
But what really set the Honda Shadow apart was its styling: an updated interpretation of the classic custom/chopper chic. If you remember that Harley-Davidson was only just emerging from the doldrums of its AMF years, it’s arguable as to who was setting the style trends at the time, though the Honda Shadow does echo some design cues from the 1980 FXB Sturgis. Honda’s contribution was to wrap that styling around a modern engine and chassis, setting a standard for the rest of the industry.
With the arrival of import tariffs on motorcycles over 700cc in 1984, the 749cc VT750C cruiser became the 694cc VT700C in the U.S. That didn’t change the basic plot, and the 1986-7 Shadow 700s have emerged as perhaps the best of the lot.
Stone-axe reliable and user-friendly with styling that hasn’t aged as bad as some, the Honda Shadow VT700C is a classic example of how to build a better bike, and a reminder that, ultimately, tariffs don’t work! MC
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