Ducati built more than 7,000 MHRs, making it the most numerous of all the bevel-drive twin models.
In 1984, poor results in the all-important U.S. market and a general decline in motorcycle sales in Europe, together with the increasing impact of Japanese imports, meant Ducati was being squeezed on all sides.
1985 Ducati MHR Mille
Claimed power: 76hp @ 6,700rpm
Top speed: 138mph
Engine: 973cc air-cooled OHC 90-degree L-twin, 88mm x 80mm bore and stroke, 9.3:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 436lb (198kg)
Fuel Capactiy/MPG: 6.3gal (23.8ltr)/35-50mpg
In 1984, motorcycle production at Ducati was in steep decline. The bevel-drive 900SS and Darmah had ended production in 1982, the Pantah engine-based 500, 600 and 650SL street bikes had run their course, and the parallel twin 350cc and 500cc range had limped into oblivion. After producing almost 7,000 motorcycles in 1981, Ducati production in 1984 reached fewer than 2,000 bikes.
The causes were many. A state-supported company since 1975, Ducati’s nominal ownership had switched in 1978 from one government-controlled company — EFIM — to another, the VM Group, part of Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica and maker of, among other things, industrial diesel engines. Ducati’s Borgo Panigale factory seemed well suited to diesel manufacturing, and motorcycles became a secondary pursuit. Poor results in the all-important U.S. market and a general decline in motorcycle sales in Europe, together with the increasing impact of Japanese imports, meant Ducati was being squeezed on all sides.
VM had pretty much pulled the plug on Ducati’s racing efforts, too, though engineer Fabio Taglioni and his small team continued work on developing the potential of the Pantah engine. The iconic NCR bevel-drive racers were no longer allowed in the production-based Superbike class, and pretty much the only bevel Ducatis left on the track were privateer entries in European endurance racing and in the U.S. Battle of the Twins series. The result was that Ducati’s principal marketing tool — racing prowess — was seriously undermined.
Hovering in the wings were the Castiglioni brothers, Claudio and Gianfranco, with their startup motorcycle company, Cagiva. Ducati had begun supplying the Varese factory with engines in the early 1980s, allowing Cagiva entry into the big bike market. This relationship morphed into an agreement for Cagiva to take over Ducati from VM in 1985. Cagiva planned to move all motorcycle production to Varese by the end of 1984, using Ducati’s Borgo Panigale factory just to manufacture the belt-drive Pantah-based engines. Expensive and time-consuming to assemble, the bevel-drive motor would be axed.
But Cagiva underestimated the enduring legacy of Mike Hailwood’s remarkable comeback win in the 1978 Isle of Man Formula 1 TT. Of the 1,965 motorcycles that Ducati produced in 1984, 1,728 — 88 percent! — were bevel-drive Mike Hailwood Replicas. Between 1979 and 1986, more than 7,000 MHRs were built, making it the most numerous of all the bevel-drive twin models — including the 900SS, 750GT and Sport, the 860GT range and the Darmahs.
So unexpectedly successful was the MHR that Cagiva allowed motorcycle production to continue at Borgo Panigale into 1985-86, though only an additional 549 MHRs were produced. And by February 1985 Taglioni and his team were ready with a new street bike based on the belt-drive 750TT1 endurance racer. Recognizing its potential, Cagiva pushed it into production at Borgo Panigale alongside the Mike Hailwood Replica.
There seems little doubt that it was the aura created by the company’s racing successes, writ large in the MHR, that made Ducati such an attractive purchase for the Cagiva Group and helped persuade them to maintain motorcycle production in Borgo Panigale, Bologna. The Castiglionis fully intended to capitalize on Ducati’s racing heritage and did so, following the F1 with the 851, 888 — and the all-conquering 916.
Though passionate Ducatisti may demur, the MHR’s beauty really is just skin deep, as inside the all-enclosing bodywork resides what is for all intents and purposes a 900 Super Sport.
It was more than a year after Mike the Bike’s famous 1978 TT win (and at the end of his dismal 1979 season) that Ducati first showed its tribute bike at the London Motorcycle Show. Intended mainly for the U.K. market, the first year (1980 model year) MHR’s were fitted with a steel gas tank under a fiberglass cover with Ducati lettering made to look like the original endurance tank. (Fiberglass tanks had been banned in the U.K.)
Beneath the one-piece fairing was a 900SS frame (painted red) and engine. The engine was an 864cc air-cooled, 90-degree L-twin with bevel gear-driven single overhead camshafts operating two valves per cylinder via desmodromic followers.
Ignition was by Ducati Elettrotecnica. Helical primary gears drove through a wet multiplate clutch to a 5-speed transmission and chain final drive. The engine was kickstart only, and care was required when using the kickstart to avoid damaging the MHR’s fairing. Wheels were gold-painted FPS or Campagnolo alloy with triple Brembo Goldline disc brakes.
The MHR breathed through 40mm Dell’Orto PHM carburetors with open bellmouths and straight-through Conti mufflers. As most 900SSs were by 1980 wearing 32mm carbs and Silentium mufflers, the MHR restored much of the engine’s potential with a claimed 63 horsepower. The only other functional difference from the 900SS was a tighter run for the left exhaust header, which also meant it had to be removed — along with the one-piece fairing — to check the oil level!
The first MHR wore a monoposto bum-stop seat and no side panels, exposing the rear Dell’Orto and the battery. The fairing was finished in Hailwood’s red and green with a white stripe, but there was no Ducati logo. Each of the 200 machines in the first “limited” production run came with a certificate of authenticity.
During 1980, the fiberglass tank cover was ditched in favor of a new 6.35-gallon steel tank, and the fairing was now made in two pieces to facilitate maintenance. The seat became a two-seater biposto with a removable cowl. The 1981 model saw the introduction of side covers, which featured a “Mike Hailwood Replica” decal, and a Ducati logo on the fairing. The next major change arrived in late 1983 with the introduction of electric start. Rather than simply use the engine from the SD Darmah, Taglioni completely redesigned the engine cases to accommodate a Nippon Denso starter motor, a dry clutch, a revised Bosch electronic ignition, a spin-on oil filter and an oil level sight glass. Iron liners were ditched in favor of a Gilnisil coating, though the bore remained the same. The 40mm Dell’Ortos now wore air filters and were fed via vacuum-operated petcocks.
A new frame for the MHR came from the also new-for-1984 900S2, a revival of the 900SS but with the electric-start engine. The revised frame allowed for a narrower and taller fairing; Silentium mufflers came stock, with Contis as an option.
Other changes included air/oil-damped Marzocchi forks at the front with adjustable Marzocchi rear shocks and Oscam wheels with tubeless tires. Power was quoted at 72 horsepower. The kickstart MHR was also listed for 1984, presumably because the factory still had inventory of the older model.
But the MHR900ES was short-lived, replaced during the 1985 model year by the final iteration of Mike’s bike, the MHR Mille. The Mille featured a further redesign of the bevel engine, now with a plain bearing crankshaft replacing the pressed-up roller bearing item previously used, and a 2mm increase in bore to 88mm gave a displacement of 973cc. Valve diameters correspondingly increased by 2mm to 42mm intake and 38mm exhaust, though carburetors stayed at 40mm.
Output was now given as 76 horsepower with torque up 10 percent at 62lb-ft at 5,500rpm instead of 57lb-ft at 6,000. To accommodate this, the primary gear ratio was reduced, which, together with other gear ratio changes, gave a top speed of 138mph — the same as quoted for the 900. Production of the Mille ran into 1986 for a total of around 1,100 units.
But time had finally run out for the big bevel twins. Cagiva was now firmly in charge, and focused on a new range of Massimo Tamburini-designed sport, dual-sport, cruiser and sport-touring motorcycles using a Pantah-based 650/750cc Ducati engine. Contrary to Cagiva’s original plans, production of complete motorcycles continued at Borgo Panigale with Taglioni’s new TT1 racer-based 750 F1 Sport — and continues to this day.
Gary Henitz, a precision woodworker in Milwaukee, Wis., bought his Mike Hailwood Replica from a collector in Reno, Nev., complete with an interesting back story. “I found this guy, and he was willing to part with it. He had lived part of his life in Europe, from his college days onward,” Gary recalls. “He had bought a Hailwood over there, and that was the bike he rode.” But that wasn’t the bike Gary ended up owning.
“When it was time for him to come back to the U.S., he didn’t want to ship his bike back here because I’m assuming he had a lot of miles on it. Back in that day, Ducati was a little easier, you could just walk in and talk to people. He supposedly knew someone at the factory who allowed him to purchase a brand new Euro-spec model, this bike, and he had it shipped back to the United States,” Gary says.
“This would have been around 1986 or 1987. That was when they were starting to get on the ropes with money,” Gary says. “This was one of the last of the bevels that Ducati had, and he convinced them to sell it to him. He moved back home to Reno and I guess this bike was in his bedroom for quite a few years. It just sat there at the foot of his bed.”
The MHR turned out to be a Mille from the 1985 production run. It had never run. “I’ve always looked for as close to stock motorcycles as physically possible,” Gary says. “I didn’t have the Hailwood from new, but I didn’t want to buy a bike that someone had changed the exhaust out or made the bike different from what it was at the factory. It’s very tough to find.
“The Hailwood had zero miles when I bought it from him,” Gary continues, “and it still has zero miles. It’s 100 percent factory. Nothing was changed and nothing was modified. The only thing I did to the bike was detail work. It’s a time capsule. Somebody else will own it someday. Hopefully it’ll end up in a museum.”
Gary started collecting motorcycles in 1981, but like many of us, had to focus on family for a few years. “I got back into it again in the early 1990s. Then I realized how much stuff I had missed during my time out, so I started buying backwards after I’d bought all the latest, greatest Ducati stuff.”
For Gary, the greatest was a 916. He now owns three of them, including the pride of his collection, a rare SPS model.
“Being in the small Ducati world circle that it is, I would put feelers out all the time, and from time to time I would get feedback like ‘why don’t you call this guy up, he might know somebody,’ and he’d say ‘I don’t have one of those, but I know a guy who has three.’ That’s how it usually went,” Gary says. His collection kept growing until 2011, when he realized he’d accumulated 36 bikes! After selling some of his less-favorite machines, he now owns 31, the lion’s share of which are Ducatis.
So what is it about Ducatis? “It’s probably their racing heritage,” Gary says, explaining his passion for the brand. “I’ve been on their bandwagon a long time, and part of it was, like, the little guy who doesn’t give up. Plus it’s Italian, and I love everything Italian. It sort of goes together.” MC