But until an Italian spring day exactly 45 years ago, the Bologna factory then owned by the Italian government and best known for its small-capacity four-stroke singles, some with desmodromic valve gear, had zero big-bike credentials. But Paul Smart’s Imola 200 race victory on April 23, 1972, with teammate Bruno Spaggiari a close second, changed all that.
Imola 1972 was the race-winning debut of what would become Ducati’s trademark engine format – the 90º desmo V-twin. And for its debut race, unlike almost all its competitors in Formula 750, Ducati lifted the curtain on today’s Superbikes by equipping the Smart/Spaggiari racers with the same heavy steel frame fitted to its new V-twin road bikes, complete with long 1500mm wheelbase, and lugs for the centre stand. It was a true Production racer, and Smart’s Imola win proved racing really does improve the breed, as evidenced by the launch soon after of the green-frame 750SS street version of the Imola-winning racebike.
But in attempting to repeat his company’s Imola 200 victory in 1973, Direttore Tecnico Fabio Taglioni constructed Ducati’s first-ever outright V-twin racer, which moreover unlike the previous year’s bike didn’t use the 750SS chassis and engine. Instead, it had a special short-stroke motor with uprated 60º heads, and much higher 11.2:1 compression versus the 10:1 ratio of Smart’s bike. This format, reasoned Taglioni, would allow the Ducati to rev harder in pursuit of more power to deal with the increasingly dominant F750 two-strokes. The new engine measured 86 x 64.5 mm, compared to the 80 x 74.4 mm dimensions of the ’72 Imola-winner, but to produce increased horsepower of 89 bhp at 10,000 rpm it had to be revved harder, with reduced torque lower down the revscale, a traditional asset of Ducati’s V-twin motors.
To house the new engine Taglioni produced a much lighter and more compact frame, built by chassis specialists Daspa in chrome-moly steel tubing. Like the Smart bike this was an open-cradle spaceframe design using the engine as a semi-stressed member, but this time incorporating eccentric chain adjustment at the swingarm pivot, and offering a choice of three separate rear axle locators which meant the wheelbase (and thus the weight distribution) could be varied in 30mm increments from 1420mm to 1480mm.
Three examples of the all-new short-stroke F750 Ducati racer were built in time for the Imola 200 run in April 1973, in which Bruno Spaggiari again finished second, this time to Jarno Saarinen’s victorious Yamaha, though teammates Bruno Kneubűhler and Mick Grant each retired from at least one leg of the now two-part race. Next, Taglioni developed a larger capacity 864cc version of the engine – later to reach the marketplace as the 900SS – by combining the stroke of the 1972 Imola bike with the bore of the 1973 version, for 86 x 74.4 mm dimensions. This duly made its debut that July in Spain’s gruelling Montjuich 24-Hours race, winning first time out in the hands of local experts Salvador Canellas and Benjamin Grau, in a team run by Ducati’s Spanish importer, Ricardo Fargas.
As a reward for this victory, Fargas was entrusted with running the official two-bike Ducati Endurance team in September’s Bol d’Or 24-Hours in France, then still run on the Le Mans circuit, but which for 1973 was blighted by 15 hours of torrential rain. With the Bol d’Or one of the only two races alongside the Imola 200 officially sanctioned for 1973 by Ducati’s new state-appointed director Cristiano de Eccher, who disliked racing, three motorcycles were constructed inside the Ducati factory for the race, all fitted with 864cc engines. To ride them, Canellas/Grau were joined by Jaime Alguersuari/Alejandro Torrado, with a third bike as a spare. All three featured the same lightweight short-wheelbase chassis design as that year’s Imola F750 racers, but with only a single rear axle locator in the swingarm rather than three. Although Grau qualified third fastest for the race, and he and Canellas were up to fifth place by daybreak, they retired after 17 hours having covered 264 laps, while their teammates managed 403 laps before retiring, with Alguersuari unfit to ride because of the arduous conditions. With racing now frowned on by Ducati management the three bikes were returned to Italy, and did not race again that year.
However, the following year British importers Coburn & Hughes were eager to enter a V-twin Ducati for the first time in the 1974 Isle of Man Formula 750 TT, and were supplied with what transpired to be the spare Bol d’Or factory Endurance racer bearing chassis no.3. But to conform with the race’s capacity limit this was fitted with what was essentially a lightly tuned 86 x 64.5 mm 750SS street engine – top speed through the TT’s Highlander speed traps was a measly 134mph. Nevertheless, Coburn & Hughes sales manager Doug Lunn rode it to a fine 9th place in the six-lap race, averaging 95.81 mph for 2½ hours against all the faster two-strokes, to be the second four-stroke home behind Percy Tait in fourth place aboard the legendary works Triumph triple known as Slippery Sam.
With his job as works tester and factory-supported racer for Triumph now ended because of the Meriden factory closure in February 1974, Percy Tait acquired the Ducati from Coburn & Hughes via Lunn, whom he knew well. With support from Coburn & Hughes, Percy raced it at many British circuits in the second half of that year, including Snetterton, Darley Moor and Mallory Park, and demonstrated it for them at press and customer track days, although he experienced several mechanical problems which meant the bike made a couple of return trips to the Ducati factory. Percy then stepped up a level in performance by acquiring a Yamaha TZ750, and the Ducati lay unused until he sold it to Brian Cull for use by his brother Steve Cull in the Irish road races. It was on the Ducati that Cull established his International reputation, winning the 1976 Irish Road Racing Championship on it, having been timed at 155mph at the North West 200 that year on the Ducati.
After it inevitably became uncompetitive with the passage of time, the ex-works Ducati was passed down through the ranks of Irish riders until it was purchased in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s by Lancashire-based Graham Boothby and Tony Teasdale, whose TGA company provided a race meeting service for Classic racers for more than thirty years. They restored the bike, and Steve Wynne of Sports Motor Cycles, who had entered Mike Hailwood when he made his fairytale return to racing in the Isle of Man by winning the Formula One TT on a Ducati in 1978, prepared the engine for Graham Boothby to compete on it in Classic racing events all over Europe.
Boothby’s own personal highlights on the Ducati included a 90mph lap at the Ulster GP, and teaming with Graham Hurst to be the highest placed Ducati to finish the Monza 100 Miglia Classic Endurance race in 1989, a race run in a torrential downpour. Wayne Mitchell finished second on the Ducati in the IHRO F750 race at Croix-en-Ternois in France in 1998, after slowing while leading due to a leaking gearbox seal, while Steve Carthy was second on it in the Classic F750 race at Chimay in Belgium in 1999. Eventually the Ducati was retired from the racetrack, and owing to the owner’s passing is now offered for sale,
This is an extremely rare example of a genuine Ducati works racer from the Classic era, one of only six constructed in the factory in 1973 with the lightweight short-wheelbase chassis with eccentric swingarm pivot adjustment, and one of only three second series such bikes with the single rear axle locator in the swingarm. As such, it is one of the last three Ducati factory racers to be fitted with a special competition frame for exactly 30 years, up until the advent of the firm’s current participation in MotoGP racing – all others since it was constructed had been Superbike or Supersport entries using a production frame derived from Ducati’s roadbike catalogue. It’s understood that the motorcycle is in running order, but it will clearly need recommissioning before use on the race track. It should be noted that as well as being stamped with frame number 3 on the headstock the machine is also stamped with a street motorcycle designation ‘075401’. This was almost certainly to aid the movement of the machine across borders, a common practice in those pre-EU days.
Report by Bonhams