Ghost in the Machine: The Ducati Utah Prototype

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Ducati Utah
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The Utah featured lightweight Campagnolo wheels with Brembo discs front and rear.
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Indian feathers in the tank decal were a nod to the Utah’s intended U.S. market.
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Ducati Utah
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Ducati Utah
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The Utah’s 346cc belt-drive desmodromic single was essentially half of a Pantah V-twin.
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Fabio Taglioni developed a 4-valve twin-cam 450cc single from an 860 V-twin.
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The Rollah prototype.
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Mototrans in Spain built perhaps 80 Yak 410s. Power came from a Ducati-esque desmo single.

Quick. Name a few rare Ducatis: The 1993 Supermono? OK, sure, many of us have heard of that one. The original 1973 Green Frame 750SS? Yeah, that one, too. OK, how about the Utah? Never heard of it? You’re not alone.

Somebody should script a movie about the labyrinthine politics of the Ducati factory in the 1970s, because it would be almost as riveting as the 1972 film The Godfather. The trouble is, like The Godfather, the plotline is so all-consuming you’d have to make it into a series.

One subplot to the amazing 1970s transformation of the Ducati factory is this soft off-roader. Dubbed the Utah, it was aimed squarely at the U.S. market, yet it was only ever shown in Europe, and then quietly tucked away into a corner of Ducati’s Bologna factory.

Now, nearly 40 years later, we persuaded the Ducati museum to pull it out of the storeroom, dust it down and allow it to be photographed. Amazed at our luck? Amazed that the factory would hold such an icon out of view? So are we. But to delve into the reality of all this we need to go back in time to the mid-1970s.

History lesson

In late 1974, some corporate bright spark decided Ducati should abandon all its established models and replace them with untested, clean-sheet designs that would cover all market segments.

Forget the steadily selling overhead-camshaft singles and V-twins aimed primarily at a niche of devoted road riders. Let’s build enduro 2-strokes, a futuristic-looking square-case V-twin grand tourer, and then some chain-driven, overhead cam parallel twins and singles. Yeah? Oh, yeah.

The result was a confusing period of declining sales and rickety motorcycle development that was only retrieved when the 860GT V-twin was redesigned into the Darmah and the belt-driven overhead cam Pantah series arrived in 1979. Meanwhile, the factory went through three managers in as many years.

The Utah was the love child of this crazy era, conceived by charismatic designer Fabio Taglioni and his small team of backroom boffins. Ignoring all the boardroom shenanigans going on above them, they quietly and efficiently worked away on prototypes. These would eventually produce the Pantah series, which is the basic architecture of all of Ducati’s present-day models, up until the Panigale.

Like many factory engineers before and since, Dr. T’s team played around with variations of their original ideas to see what would work and what wouldn’t. This even included supercharging a 350cc version of the Pantah L-twin. Perhaps the most radical was a design that predated the Ducati Supermono by two decades. They took one cylinder off the prototype Pantah engine to create a single. That eventually morphed into the street-scrambler Utah, which, if you look closely at the photos, has some styling hints of Ducati’s latest Scrambler model, especially the seat and rear fender treatment.


The surviving 1977 Utah prototype shown here could lay claim to being Ducati’s rarest model destined for production. Both the Utah and its street sibling, the Rollah, were displayed at trade expos and intended for full production, but never got past the running prototype stage. The Rollah has since disappeared, so we only have the Utah to examine.

Taglioni, and a few other like-minded visionaries, had definite views about the direction Ducati management was going, but it wasn’t until the dust had settled in the late 1980s that one of them spilled the beans. Massimo Bordi, who had started at Ducati in 1978 straight out of university, was now the factory’s technical director.

“There should have been a single-cylinder design for a new Scrambler,” Bordi told an Italian journalist. “It would have been perfectly in keeping with the history and needs of the range. No one had to stop production of the Scrambler in 1975,” he said. The Scrambler 450 was described by U.S. motorcycle magazine testers as “a pleasant mix between the European and American schools of motorcycling.”

“That single could have continued and it could have protected the company from the setbacks it has suffered. Instead we closed off the single-cylinder, made a terrible parallel twin, and then were left with the Pantah, before we finally stopped the bevel (in 1986). We created a little confusion,” he concluded.

Years later in another interview, Bordi would describe Ducati’s 1970s parallel twins as “delusional.” By this time he had developed 4-valve heads and liquid-cooling for the L-twins, and then the delectable Supermono of the early 1990s.

Man on a mission

In Taglioni’s view, a belt-driven, overhead-cam desmo design was the future for Ducati. Easier and cheaper to manufacture than the complicated existing bevel-drive V-twin, it also employed Dr. T’s latest ideas on performance efficiency. This technology could be applied to a range of engines in different sizes of twins and singles.

When the 500cc Pantah L-twin came out it blew existing conceptions of engine capacity versus performance out the window. The robust, high-revving little twin also blew motorcycles twice its physical size into the weeds.

The twin may have been the future, but it wasn’t a great leap of logic to plan a single-cylinder version. As far back as the early 1970s, Dr. T had experimented with a bevel-drive, 4-valve, single-cylinder overhead-cam version of the existing single. Later he built up another single-cylinder engine based on a bevel V-twin minus the front cylinder. It’s been claimed these experiments resulted in a near 50 horsepower 450cc engine that could have powered an Italian rival to Honda’s XL and Yamaha’s XT. That engine output equaled the production Pantah L-twin in 500cc form.

There was also another experiment using the old bevel single’s crankcases with a belt-driven overhead cam system (the belt system was on the left, the other side of the engine than the later production Pantah twin). That engine ended up in an entirely different motorcycle that we will talk about later.

Rollah on

Meanwhile, Ducati was gearing up to launch the pre-production version of its ground-breaking 500cc L-twin Pantah. That happened at the end of 1977 when the Pantah was displayed at the Milan show along with two smaller, single-cylinder versions. The road model was called the Rollah and the street-scrambler version the Utah.

Interestingly, the cam-belt-drive was now on the right side of the single-cylinder engine, just like the Pantah twin, rather than on the left as on the earlier experimental version. The crankcases also looked to be based on the Pantah’s. This was in line with Dr. T holding strong to his belief that a modular engine range would guarantee Ducati’s survival.

At the time, Ducati was part of the EFIM group, a government finance corporation that controlled a cross-section of Italian manufacturers and had no great love of motorcycles. Company officials had to tread warily regarding investment and marketing as there was every chance EFIM might shut up shop for them, whether it was a motorcycle, car, ship or tractor factory.

The unexpected success of the small Pantah against big-bore European and Japanese rivals saved Ducati, but the price paid was the stillbirth of the even smaller Utah and Rollah. The sad thing is that there wasn’t much wrong with the design of these baby singles.

An 83mm bore and 64mm stroke gave an engine capacity of 346cc. A 30mm Dell’Orto carburetor hinted at serious head flow and claimed output was 27 horsepower at 7,000rpm, with peak torque at 3,500rpm. By contrast, the 500cc Pantah twin (74mm bore and 58mm stroke), finally released in 1979, produced 45 horsepower at 9,000rpm using 36mm carbs.

The 1977 Pantah and Rollah prototypes both featured the styling of the existing 500 Sport parallel twin. But, in the case of the Pantah at least, this was a ruse to confuse journalists (and possibly its own financial masters) about how deeply committed Ducati’s management was to produce a dashing, risky, all-new model. The production Pantah arrived on the market in 1979 with entirely different bodywork.

The Rollah, painted blue, weighed 341 pounds (155 kilograms), and from a distance looked like a “mini-me” Darmah, perfect for its target market, the entry-level motorcyclist with a hankering for a big V-twin. The Utah was 22 pounds (10 kilograms) lighter and had styling all its own. This started with black and gold paintwork, and included an all-black engine. A voluminous mesh air cleaner took up a large area under the seat, along with the cantilever rear suspension that made the rear look as if it was floating.

The delicate Campagnolo alloy wheels were 21-inch front and 18-inch rear and shod with Pirelli trials-type tires. Fenders were heavy-duty plastic, high-mounted at the rear but low at the front. Like the Rollah, brakes were Brembo discs all round with twin front discs, unusual for an offroad motorcycle. Marzocchi suspension included a state-of-the-art pressurized rear-shock. It also had electric-starting (as did the Rollah) and reliable Japanese Nippon Denso electrics.

This machine didn’t follow the conventional look of, say, a contemporary Honda XL. In fact, it looked pretty soft by comparison, but who’s to say that it wouldn’t have provided another alternative to U.S. riders who wanted that “pleasant mix” of European and American motorcycle tastes described by testers of the original Ducati Scrambler.

Even the badging made an alternative statement Honda and Yamaha wouldn’t have thought of at the time. Two feathers stick cheekily out from behind the spaghetti western-style “Utah” lettering, a nod to American Western history. The Utah’s chief designer, Leopoldo Tartarini, also had his named inscribed on a lower part of the gas tank.

Who knows how many of these features, including the lightweight street wheels and triple discs, would have made it into production for a U.S.-focused model, but Ducati clearly had more faith in the Utah than the Rollah.

Death of an idea

The Rollah was never shown again, but the Utah was displayed on the Ducati stand at a major motor show in Paris in late 1978. Not long after, the announcement came that the two projects had been abandoned. Only the Utah prototype survives, held in Ducati’s museum.

However there is another chapter in this intriguing tale. Soon after the demise of the Utah, Mototrans, Ducati’s Spanish manufacturing partner, launched its first complete “in-house” design. Called the Yak 410, this scrambler’s engine bore a close resemblance to one of Ducati’s pre-Pantah prototypes. This had been loosely based on an early 1970s single, but with highly modified crankcases and a belt cam drive to a Pantah-like head (but on the other side of the engine than the later production Pantah twin).

Housed in what looked like a Mototrans Forza road frame, it was later revealed that this was in fact a Mototrans prototype that had predated the Yak 410. Interesting. The Yak’s 406cc single-cylinder engine (86mm bore and 70mm stroke) had desmo heads with belt-driven cams on the left side. It developed a claimed 38 horsepower at 8,000rpm. Only about 80 were manufactured in a two-year production run, and they had proper enduro styling. Not quite a Utah, perhaps the Yak 410 was the ghost of the original idea. MC

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