The Ducati Pantah was available in both 500 and 600cc forms. It was a technical stepping-stone for the Bologna marque. The 500 was launched in ’79. The 600 appeared in ’81. They would be an important blueprint for future development. As such, they ushered in more prosperous times for Ducati. When they were released, the firm was a little down at heel, financially.
Not that you had have known it by looking at the bikes. Fabio Taglioni made certain of that. One of the most esteemed engineers in motorcycle history, he had worked on the Ducati 500 V-twin GP bike. That was at the start of the Seventies. The machine’s claim to fame was its toothed overhead cam belts. Taglioni now re-visited them – inserting appropriately detuned versions into the cylinder heads of the new Pantahs. They were smooth, reliable – and easy on the ear. Rightly, they allowed the V-twin exhaust set-up to assume aural centre stage. The rubber belts were cheap to manufacture, too. That was a boon to Ducati – who were keen to keep the price of the new bikes as competitive as possible.
Taglioni’s delicate touch reached other areas, too. The Pantah’s tubular steel trellis frame – and sensitive suspension – synced up to deliver steady as a rock handling. Its brakes came out of the top drawer, too. Brembo and Marzocchi had been sourced for the second to none cycle parts. Power output was impressive – without being awe-inspiring. The 600 made 58bhp – up from the 500’s 52. However, those modest stats were aided by light weight. 415lb was all the 600 was shifting. As a result, 120mph was only just out of reach. And the shortfall was more than made up by the way it got to that speed. Surging acceleration had long been a Ducati hallmark. When the engineering excellence was aligned with typically Italianate styling, the Pantahs were on a sure road to success. A curvaceous half-fairing – and racy removable seat – lent poise and purpose to both front and rear ends. Ducati’s dynamic duo had done their work well. In the wake of the Pantahs – both 500 and 600 – the firm was set fair to weather future economic squalls.
Harley-Davidson can lay claim to manufacturing the world’s best-known motorcycles. Well, American ones, at any rate. But, Harley has always had a rival. The mere mention of ‘Indians’ has long instilled panic in the suited and booted, in Harley’s Milwaukee marketing department!
In the ’20s, Indian’s Springfield factory was high up the motorcycle heap. The Chief was its biggest asset. The 1200cc engine, in the 1947 model, was good for 85mph. Tuning took it to the ‘ton’. An Indian, though, was not about death-defying numbers. Rather, it evoked the spirit of adventure. A bit like that firm from Milwaukee, in fact!
Indian motorcycles were extravagantly styled. Nowhere more so than the finely-fettled fenders. Their trademark curvature was unmistakable. Harley front mudguards are sometimes skimpy affairs. Those which adorn an Indian are heraldic. Almost as if the front wheel were wearing a headdress! Indian, then, was a company which liked to cut a dash. Sadly, the ‘Roaring Twenties’ glory days faded for Indian – while Harley went on to world domination! But, as in the childhood game … while most kids grow up wanting to be a cowboy – there is always that one who would really far rather be an Indian!
When it came to his best-known motorcycle, George Brough did not beat about the bush. ‘Superior’ said it all! To be fair, it was. Saying that, Brough – and his small team of Nottingham-based engineers – were responsible only for the frame. The engine and cycle parts were outsourced. Initially, JAP – and later Matchless – provided the power. All the parts, though, still had to be coaxed to work as one. Brough and the boys clearly made a good job of it – since the SS100 was widely considered to be the best bike in the world at the time. The Superior range as a whole was produced from 1919 to 1940.
George Brough was among a group of riders, who, time and again, proved the Superior’s worth. Both at circuits – and in land speed record attempts – the bike was a regular sight, in the ’20s and ’30s. As usual, racing ‘improved the breed’. In time, track-side tweaks trickled down into mainstream SS100 production.
TE Lawrence – better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – was in love with Brough Superiors. He owned a succession of them … all topped off with his trademark stainless steel tank. Sadly, he was to be fatally injured, whilst riding one of them. Of course, his best-known mode of transport was the cantankerous camel. But, for many, no ‘ship of the desert’ could ever match a Brough Superior SS100 steaming along at full chat!
When you bought a Laverda Montjuïc Mk2, you got what it said on the tin. Well, on the side-panel, at any rate. Montjuïc Park was a mountain-based motor racing circuit in Barcelona, Spain. A street circuit, that is. Which told you most of what you needed to know about the machine you had just acquired. Conceptually, it modelled the Formula bikes Laverda built for their single-make race series.
Unfortunately, the racing concept was not entirely realised in the roadster. Laverda had enjoyed substantial success at Montjuïc – not least because of the sure-footed handling of their bikes. And – in terms of agility – the Mk2 came close to emulating the track tool’s prowess. That was mainly due to its light weight, tubular-steel frame and Marzocchi suspension. Likewise, Brembo disc brakes helped replicate the racer’s stop-on-a-sixpence precision. Even the high-speed weave – which had plagued the Montjuïc Mk1 – had been seen off by the Mk2’s frame-mounted fairing.
What took the edge off the new Montjuïc was its speed – or lack thereof. As mentioned, the Mk2’s manoeuvrability was razor-sharp. Straight-line speed – not so much. Throttle to the stop, the needle hovered around the 110mph mark. Whilst that was adequate, it hardly set the world alight. Though an ear-splitting exhaust note did what it could to redress the balance. To be fair, the Mk2 was powered by a 497cc parallel twin motor. Hardly cutting edge. Indeed, it ran without air-filtering – which may, in fact, have sped things up a bit! For all that, its racer’s crouch riding position signalled the Mk2’s intent. And the Montjuïc’s high price tag seemed to promise lots of whizz for your lire. Anyway, its relative lack of power was offset by other virtues. It looked Laverda lovely, standing still. And the lines it carved through corners would have made Michelangelo weep. Just that pesky top speed stat let the side down a tad. Other than that, the Montjuïc Mk2 made hay in the Spanish sunshine. Before flying back to Breganze, Italy … at 110mph!
The Ducati Dharma SD 900 was a fine – if flawed – motorcycle. Certainly, there was plenty in its plus column. Performance, handling and styling all passed muster – and more. In the excitement stakes, the SD scored heavily. Only in practicality terms did it fall short. And yes, superbike fans, it does matter!
Looks-wise, the Sport Desmo was on solid ground. That was thanks to the revered visual skills of Italjet. The agency was run by Leo Tartarini. In the past, he had been a Ducati race rider. Tartarini now brought his innate Italian design skills to the table. For the Dharma, he drafted a sweeping swathe of tank, seat and tail. The 864cc V-twin engine looked good from any angle. Smart Conti pipes – and neatly-forged wheels – set off the SD’s sartorial swagger.
Technically, too, the Dharma delivered. Admittedly, it was not the pokiest bike on the block. Still, its 60bhp output turned in a top whack of 115mph. Mere mortals were happy with that! The Ducati’s bevel-driven valvetrain kept it all taut. Real-world speeds were a doddle for the Dharma. Ducatis had long been renowned for their handling. The SD’s firm, but flexible frame, sweetly-tuned suspension and responsive brakes were stability to a tee. Long but lively journeys, then, should have been a gimme. Too often, though, gremlins grabbed the reins. To put it bluntly, Ducati build quality was not the best. Electrics could be especially trying – given wet enough weather. No matter how beautiful a bike, standing looking at it in a downpour does not show it in its best light! And peeling paint and chrome – while less of a pressing issue – in time likewise tested owners’ patience. In so many ways, the Ducati Dharma SD 900 was a two-wheeled delight. Good to have a garage/lock-up at your disposal, though. Annoying little problems always need sorting in the end!
The Bimota DB1 was a double dose of Italiana. It was the first Bimota to feature a Ducati engine. So, the DB1 combined a deliciously torquey powerplant with the kind of looks that could only have been modelled in Italy. Bimota was based in Rimini. Unsurprisingly, then, the DB1 sold well. It came at a critical juncture for the stylish Italian specials builder. Design-driven to its core, business was never Bimota’s strong suit. Indeed – prior to the DB1’s ’86 release – the firm was in financial decline. Thanks to the new bike, though, Bimota’s downward spiral was stemmed – and even reversed. Crucially – along with its long list of virtues – the DB1 was reasonably priced.
The Ducati factor in the DB1 was its desmo-valved engine. A sohc 90° V-twin, the 750cc motor made 76bhp. Built more for mid-range grunt than throttle-to-the-stop velocity, top speed for the DB1 was 130mph. In superbike terms, that stat was not too much to write home about. The way it was reached, however, most certainly was. Suffice to say, acceleration was fierce. As well as its long-stroke motor, the rest of the DB1’s tech-spec further fueled its free-revving fire. For a start, it weighed a skeletal 354lb. Plus, Federico Martini – Bimota’s lead engineer – blended the fairing, tank and seat into a single, streamlined shape.
Acrobatic handling was only icing on the DB1 cake. Suspension was by Marzocchi. Brakes by Brembo. Pirelli brought low-profile tyres to the DB1’s bend-swinging party. They were fitted to nimble 16″ wheels. The whole bike was comfortabe and compact. It is true that at peak revs, the new Bimota was not the most blistering bike on the block. But, for its overall strengths – and the Italianate cut of its jib – the DB1 takes its place at the Superbikes top table!
Over the years, many a motorcyclist has had a special place in their heart for a Kawasaki ‘Z’. None more so than the Z1100R! No flimflam or finery – just straightforward, sit up and beg-style solidity. Highish handlebars, stepped-down seat and anatomically-correct footrests. In other words – a normal riding position. ‘The way bikes used to be’, you might hear it said. And – after a hundred plus miles in the saddle – who could argue?
Not that that should suggest any kind of staidness! There was little sober or solemn about the 1100R. It was, after all, inspired by a US Superbike racer. The one on which Eddie Lawson won consecutive titles in the early Eighties. Hopefully – from a Kawasaki marketing viewpoint – some of the spirit of the race bike rubbed off on the roadster. Certainly, it was far from unknown for an 1100R rider to feel like Eddie Lawson! And – to be fair – the Z’s 140mph top whack was more than enough for most mere mortals. Especially when the high-speed wobble kicked in – on account of the bike’s bikini-type fairing. The R’s 1,089cc engine made 114bhp. Thankfully – with all that power to play with – the bike was blessed with good roadholding. Squat dimensions helped – as did Kayaba remote-reservoir rear shocks.
Albeit in a no-frills way, the Z1100R was still a stylish motorcycle. Few paintjobs are as emotive as those of Kawasaki’s ‘green meanies’. Of course, green bikes are considered unlucky by some. That said, owners of spanking-new 1100Rs were obviously prepared to take a chance. For the superstitious, though, other colours were also available. Launched in ’84, the Z might be said to have straddled classic and race-rep. To wit, comfortable ergonomics – plus searing speed and cute handling. Fans would argue, then, that with a lime-green Kawasaki Z1100R, you got the lot. Now, that can hardly be considered unlucky!
In standard trim, the MV Agusta 850 was a class act. Add to that the Magni factor – and quality increased exponentially. Arturo Magni had managed MV’s racing department. MV took 17 consecutive 500cc World Championships. That told you all you needed to know about what Arturo Magni brought to a two-wheeled party!
In time, Magni turned his attention to roadsters. To that end, he set up his own engineering facility – in Gallarate, Italy. Soon, a steady stream of MV 850s started rolling into his workshop. They did not have far to come. Magni duly introduced them to his own take on engine components and chassis modifications. The Magni effect was marked. A top speed of 140mph was now available. The 850 was weighed down by a bulky shaft final drive. When Magni’s chain-drive conversion kit had been fitted, handling, too, improved. Also key to stability was Magni’s custom-built frame. The single spine original had been replaced by one with two top tubes. Magni’s motor-related mods included uprated cams, high-compression pistons and a four-piece exhaust system. Suffice to say, you could hear it coming a mile away!
The 850 Magni was visibly race-bred. A full fairing – complete with rider number – said it all. The Magni’s stats justified its looks. High-grade parts – from Marzocchi, Koni and Brembo – added further fuel to the performance fire. Arturo Magni – following on from his high-calibre racing exploits – had slipped seamlessly into the world of road-oriented specials. High price tags came with the territory. But – for those with the disposable – MV Agusta’s 850 Magni was the pinnacle of hand-built pedigree!
The Ducati 851 was a slow burner. It took a refit for it to really kick into gear. Not that the first model did not have anything going for it. The 851cc engine was sound. Styling was suitably dynamic. Especially the three-tone paint job – in Italian red, white and green. The issue with the first version was its handling. Due to a supply-chain glitch, the bike had been released with 16″ wheels – smaller than planned. The problem was that they were too good! The handling was more nimble, but there was less room for error. When it came to quick cornering – without a high degree of accuracy – the small wheels were liable to ‘tuck under’. A flexible ladder frame did what it could to keep the rubber side down – but there was a limit!
So, Ducati 851 – take 2! This time, a set of 17″ wheels were in situ. Things were looking up already … literally for some owners! The most obvious mod was the paintwork. Gone were the tricolore hues of the original. The new bike’s livery was still Italianate – but now it was fire-engine red. While there had been cosmetic and cycle part changes, the motor was untouched. Indeed, it had been universally praised. It took Ducati a year to complete the makeover.
The 851 was the start of a new superbike era for Ducati. Its V-twin engine was now liquid-cooled – and came with 4 valves per cylinder. Desmodromic valves, in Ducati’s case. Its unique set-up saw valves opened and closed by cams alone – as opposed to the standard cams and springs system. Springs are all well and good – but are prone to bounce and go out of adjustment. Its ‘desmo’ valve-train had long been a feather in Ducati’s cap, powerplant-wise. Plus, Massimo Bordi – Ducati’s lead engineer – added Weber-Marelli fuel injection to the mix. As a result, torque was significantly increased. At the top-end of the rev-range, 104bhp was now on tap. That meant the 851 maxed out at 145mph. Souped-up Marzocchi shocks sorted the suspension. With the road bike seen to, it was time to call the race department. Three WSB titles on the trot for Ducati duly followed – courtesy of riders Raymond Roche and Doug Polen. Truly, Ducati’s 851 roadster – and its race-going counterpart – were on top of the superbike world!
The HB2 was the second offering from Bimota – the radical Italian bike builder. The HB1 had set the template. Massimo Tamburini – Bimota’s chief designer – totalled a Honda CB750, at Misano racetrack. Tamburini managed to salvage its four-cylinder engine from the wreckage. He then wrapped it in Bimota bodywork. The resulting HB1 – Honda/Bimota – hybrid became the first of the firm’s stylish, trend-setting roadsters.
The HB2 upped the ante, power-wise, from the HB1. The new bike sourced its motor from Honda’s CB900F. 95bhp was duly available. And the Bimota was lighter than the big Honda CB. It weighed just 441lb. State of the art suspension was then fitted. At the front, Ceriani teles were synced with a progressive-rate monoshock at the back. A tubular steel/aluminium plate frame added still more stability to the mix. With a 138mph top speed – and high-class handling – the HB2 etched a technical benchmark. Bimota had taken the superbike fight to its Oriental rivals. Pretty impressive from a small-scale manufacturer – certainly as compared with the Japanese ‘big four’.
Not that the Bimota challenge came as a surprise to Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha. In no particular order, by the way! After all, Bimota had been around the GP scene a while by then. In the showrooms, their unique selling-point was super-cool Italian looks – plus a Japanese engine! Sadly – even for a bespoke builder like Bimota – less than 200 HB2s were sold. The HB3 came to the rescue – to some extent, at least. It sealed the deal on the Honda/Bimota alliance. Like the HB2, the HB3 upgraded the package. This time, the Honda CB1100R engine was used. By that point, the Japanese marques were leading the pack again, in terms of overall performance. Notwithstanding – with their HB2 – Bimota had blazed a trail for beautiful, brain-bending motorbikes!