Always a complex and sometimes controversial subject, this writer finds himself wading through the deep end of Ducati history once again. Preparing a feature that will appear in RealClassic magazine, the Ducati of interest this time is a 1983 Mike Hailwood Replica, MHR 900 for short. Based on the square-case 860cc Super Sport Desmo, the MHR was hatched after Mike Hailwood's stunningly successful comeback season of 1978 which included a victory at the IOM. Following holomagation rules that require a minimum of 200 production machines, the SS 900R surprised everyone (including Ducati) by becoming the firm's best seller. Revised no less than four times, the MHR lasted until 1985 when new owners Cagiva phased out the bevel twins in favor of the Pantah-style belt drive engine.
I recall well my first interaction with Ducati...way back in 1981. In those days I split my saddle time between a older, more mature group called The Retreads and friends closer to my own age. I used a rebuilt (by me) Guzzi V7 when traveling with these more experienced riders, generally keeping my mouth shut and learning much about what makes a motorcycle tick. In the company of my peers, I acted my age on a black and orange Honda DOHC-F. It was a happy time for me, full of wonder.
Randy was one of those friends. He lived in a fancy Tempe neighborhood and rode a new GpZ11. Two houses down on the same side was a fellow with a black Ducati with gold trim, cast wheels and a matching half-fairing. For six-months or more, watching him kick that stubborn Italian into a froth became a Saturday morning tradition. When the leg didn't work, he'd gather what was left of his energy for an extended bump-starting session that resulted in the Duck firing off twice. Maybe. What I didn't know is the bike was a late 70s 900 SS Desmo (below) but I did know the Ducati had not made much of an impression on my friends. Despite that, I found the Desmo's mechanical pretense irresistible...which might explain why I was the only one that offered to help. Questioning my mentors about the Ducati their response wasn't kind. “You have to be a machinist to own one.” Funny thing. I was a machinist.
Much has been written about Ducati's inauspicious beginnings, but the appointment of Ing. Fabio Taglioni remains a high mark in company history. Not the first to introduce positive-actuation 'Desmodronics' to four stroke engines, Dr. T's work made reliability and high-revving power co-exist. Some ten-years in, his air-cooled V-four Apollo (sometimes called the 'Berliner Apollo') didn't win the lucrative government contract it was designed for, but everyone -especially Taglioni- knew he'd uncovered a remarkable design. The rest reads like fable; Smart's 1972 win at Imola was pivotal for marketing, and that pattern would repeat itself many times. Any 'Ducatisti' worth their salt has the early progression (GT750, 750SS Imola Replica, 750 Sport, 860cc GTS, 900 SS, Darmah, etc) memorized.
Fast forward twenty-five years to find this writer atop a lovingly prepared 1978 Super Sport 900, on extended test during my time at Moto-Euro magazine. Owned by a generous supporter of our work, bending the booming silver/blue Desmo through the rocks at Devil's Canyon opened my eyes to the truth behind the claims. Long and narrow the SS uses plenty of rake too, and the combination of the Ducati's smooth, willing engine makes a motorcycle that's engineered to effortlessly sail around curves. Nothing -I repeat, nothing I've ridden from the 1970s was its equal for handling and feel, even of the cost of said performance makes one take very seriously the schedule of events required to maintain it. The bevel Ducati does not have the Moto Guzzi's set-it-forget-it tractor appeal, nor does it hit with the suddenness of the 180 Jota. Instead, the Ducati drew (and continues to draw) on two critical elements of motorcycle ownership; it's unflappable grace at speed, and a measure of curb appeal few other motorcycle can equal. For those who need daily transport this is of little value, but for the rest of us...
Knowing that is the key when researching Ducati, and especially the 70/80s bevels. Often lost in the maze of period specifications was Ducati's desire to simply build a better motorcycle. It's a fine line between exotic and mundane, meaning one can only ignore issues like ease of starting and accessibility for so long. Being smaller, Ducati could make production changes on the fly and they did. Often. Take for example, the production atmosphere surrounding my 1983 feature bike. Not only was the MHR morphing from one design (it has an electric start button, but no electric starter) to another the machine was caught in a production maelstrom that included various belt drive Pantahs (350,500 and 600cc SL/TL, the racing TT2/TT1 and the 650SL later) and that's just a start. The good selling bevels were still around... the generally unloved 900 S2, the MHR (many reported made S2-spec electric start) and one year later, the 1000cc MHR Mille and 1000S2. Got that? It's okay...I'm not sure I do either.
Like Smart's victory at Imola, Hailwood's heroic 1978 comeback season couldn't of happened at a better time for the boys in Bologna. I can tell you for certain now that no amount of positive journalistic spin directed at the Italian twin could sway the masses away from the Japanese makes. For dealers it was an easy sell; simply compare list price, ¼-mile performance and mechanical complexity, and the new Asian four was soon rolling out the door. But like life, motorcycling isn't always about logic. Sometimes, we need some magic and nothing delivered magic like Hailwood in 1978. Witnessed by thousands of UK enthusiasts and press, the Ducati showed in harsh reality that it wasn't just faster, but easier to ride fast. One needs some miles under them to understand the difference. Given that, it's only fitting that alongside that cherished Ducati and Desmo script is the name of the man who proved it. Nolan Woodbury