Thursday, 21 April 2016

Loose Lines: In which the editor eats his words by praising an Italian motorcycle [July 1992]


The largest deluge of mail in the history of the UMG was caused by my need to use the word Wop to describe Italian machines. At the time, five to six years ago, it appeared to me to perfectly sum up the nature of Italian bikes. Despite all the on the road fun you might derive from owning one there was something decidedly finicky about their reliability. Admittedly, if you rewired something like a 250 Ducati single, bunged on a proper carb and exhaust and spent a few months sorting out the rest of idiosyncrasies, the end result might be rather useful. More normally, until the classic codgers went mad over them, they were thrashed and neglected.

I can well recall one particular, late sixties Ducati 250. These were machines that looked awful with none of the flowing lines of the later Mark 3 or Desmo. Its owner had given up after he had broken an ankle trying to start it. I dismissed this wimpishness, used as l was to igniting the fires in a highly tuned (and largely self destructive) 650 Triton. i do not boast much by way of weight so my technique is a full body weight lunge. I also have an intense dislike of pain, so such lunges were always mitigated by heavy motorcycle boots and the cunning insurance of slipping my foot off the kickstart before it reached the end of its travel.

My first attempt at starting the 250 resulted in a fireball shooting out of the open mouthed carb but no kickback. A bit of fiddling with the points allowed the second kick to produce an earthquake in the chromeless silencer. A bit more fiddling with the points produced a huge kickback that swung the kickstart lever up the inside of my leg. Even with the protection of the boot the leg was badly bruised. The engine was eventually persuaded into life by the simple means of getting half a dozen mates to push it up the lane. Things got rapidly worse, mostly down to fierce vibes depositing various essential items on to the tarmac.

It passed out of my hands after a few days... l later learnt that the kickstart had broken in half, the jagged remnants digging so deeply into the new owner's leg that he only avoided bleeding to death by being rushed to hospital. The machine was not sold on. The owner, once bandaged, was so seething with anger that he took a lump hammer to the heap; probably the only decent thing to do. What was left was pushed up the side of a mountain and rolled off the top into a deep gorge. l'm damn sure that its owner would not have objected to my description of Italian machinery.

In the same way as ownership of an NSU Quickly turned me off two strokes for many a year, I kept well clear of Italian machinery. Occasional rides only seemed to confirm my poor opinion of the breed. Their riders exulted in owner involvement (they probably didn’t have much choice). pouring forth a stream of improvements made with the joy of the true fanatic; the gleam in their eyes only matched by a train spotter finding a weird and wonderful train in an unusual location. I secretly enjoyed the evident horror with which they viewed my disparagement of their beloved marques in the days when the UMG was less objective than it should perhaps have been.

That, of course, didn't stop me from featuring the occasional review of Italian machinery, whether in praise or horror. In fact, the more that was revealed of life with Italian machinery the more accurate appeared my general denigration of them. One contributor was so incensed when I used the word Wop in his article instead of what he had written that he sent in a very abusive letter; thereafter he was never heard from again and it probably still full of crazed anger whenever he sees the UMG on the magazine rack. Whether this had anything to do with a brick being thrown through the window, I don't know.

That I mutually stopped using the term was more down to the machinery becoming better, horror stories of almost instant electrical demise, switches falling apart and chrome falling off were less prevalent on the more modem stuff (though, by no means entirely rare) to the extent that the term Wop had become less valid than in previous years.

Tlme moves on, companies either produce better products or go bust and my memory of past abuse afflicted on my innocent self from unworthy machinery became less acute. It ought to be understood, that when a machine fails, even after years of abuse and neglect, I tend to take it as a personal insult, as if some living, breathing motorcycle has reached out to try to wreck my day. This irrationality probably explains a lot, but we won't go into that here.

The cause of this lengthy preamble is, of course, another bloody motorcycle. One I do not own, one I have only managed to ride for a few hundred miles and one which I will not be able to afford for a few years yet until the secondhand market mitigates its obscene new price, although if the economic ball gets rolling again and the classic clowns descend upon it the price may never go down to a sane level.

This particular piece of bright red lunacy is a remarkable bit of engineering from the Cagiva owned Ducati factory. The 750SS manages to combine stunning performance with excellent economy (around 55mpg). mostly down to its low 380lb dry weight and torque heavy motor. On paper its performance looks less than impressive, but on the road the way the motor delivers its power is reminiscent of the better British twins, only with even more grunt available and a hell of a lot less vibes.

The tubular frame is both strong and good to look at, the vee twin engine sits very low in the frame and the modern suspension produces a smooth ride for an Italian machine The feeling of completeness and balance overwhelms every other sensation. It has all the character of the more obscure and dubious British bikes but with none of their self destruct nature (although time and mileage could be cruel to such praise). The only bit of Wopishness that I could find was a rattly and slightly abrupt clutch.

It will not stay with a GSXR750 but it does not seem to matter, the instantaneous way the power hits the back wheel and the large thump delivered to the body when it accelerates is quite different from the frenzied insanity of the Japanese race reptiles — or maybe I'm just getting old and looking for an easy way out.

The 750 engine is derived from the old Pantah unit, its 90 degree vee twin layout exemplary in its general simplicity save for its Desmo valvegear. The latter I've always viewed with suspicion, especially when driven by the difficult to set up bevel gears and shafts, but with the belt drives it's at least possible to remove and replace the cylinder heads without needing the skills of a world class surgeon. With just two valves per cylinder the Desmo valvegear may be justified, although with 60hp developed at a mere 8500mm it's hard to believe that modern valve springs would allow float even if the valves are big buggers. The good fuel economy may be down to the precision of the valvegear.

I could ramble on about the Ducati but you probably wouldn't believe such an excess of praise from such a cynical hack, so I won't bother. If you're in the market for a newish plastic replica I do recommend you give one a try, though. And that's one big problem. Most Ducati dealers are as fanatical about the bikes as are the owners, only likely to let you have a ride after you've handed over the money. I had to go halfway across the country to test ride a slightly used one, naturally denying any connection with this dubious rag. Even then the dealer showed a marked reluctance to let me take the bike out and nearly turned violent when I came back two hours later with 150 miles on the clock.

Persuading another dealer nearer home to part with his personal machine, which acted as a demonstrator, for an hour or so proved equally difficult. Only a pile of lies about having the money sitting in the bank ready and waiting if I liked the Duke, allowed the precious machine out of his grasp. With that kind of attitude. the Ducati's prime attribute — its riding experience — is going to be so difficult to experience that not very many are going to be sold. But then I got the impression from these dealers that they were not looking to sell very many. With a six grand new price and a massive recession, perhaps that's not surprising.

Bill Fowler

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