Monday, 13 March 2017

Ducati Pantah 500

Knowing several acquaintances who ride old Italian cycles, I shouldn't have been so surprised when the Pantah suddenly lost all of its illumination as we were trundling down the A118 at a mere 80mph. Some imbecile had painted the edge of the pavement white, making it resemble a white line in the neon glow. Pulling over to what I thought was the hard shoulder, fortunately, having lost 40mph, the front wheel hit the pavement.

As anyone who spent their youth trying to knock fellow pushbike owners off their mounts knows, just a gentle touch of the rival's front wheel is sufficient to leave a sprawled mass (and a broken leg in one case) in your wake. Hitting the kerb at 40mph was rather more violent, resulting in a bouncing Duke and a rider flung clear.

Wearing a thick leather jacket, gloves and boots confined the damage to a torn pair of jeans, a bleeding thigh and a bruised shoulder. Rushing after the Ducati, which had continued for 25 yards, stopping in the centre of the road, I picked up 430lbs of broken metal, pushing it into the kerb before any cars could finish off the wrecking process. Naturally, the headlamp had switched itself back on. The damage wasn't too bad.

Another couple of dents in the tank, the usual bent levers and indicators and a squashed silencer. This wasn't the first time I'd fallen off the Pantah. I've found the frame, forks and cast wheels to be of very sturdy construction. A friend of mine rode one straight into the side of a bus at 40mph and the frame didn't need any straightening, although the front wheel ended up touching the front pot of the 90° vee twin engine.

It only took some careful heating over the gas-stove and some gentle bending to rehabilitate the levers. The silencers were almost rusted through after 4 years, so were due for replacement, anyway. And, I was saving up my pennies for a respray; for the moment, the dented tank matched the rusting frame and grimy wheels. The paintwork of this '83 bike was rather too typical of Wop attitudes to anything other than basic engineering necessities.

Don't think that all my crashes were a result of poor handling from the Duke - they were caused by either my own stupidity or that of a third party. The Pantah is probably a bit of a heavyweight for a 500 these days, but it has most of the basics in its favour. The forks are just as strong as those on the older vees but rather more supple and they are just as well damped and precise as when I bought the bike new. The shocks aren't quite up to that quality and really need replacing after 2 1/2 years, although they are still hung on the back end. The swinging arm bearings are a bit of a weak point - in 40000 miles I've had to replace three sets.

The combination of tubular frame and stressed engine works well with newish swinging arm bearings; with a bit of wear the bike is upset by bumpy curves, but I've never had a speed wobble out of the thing. With most of the engine mounted low, it has a favourable centre of gravity for flicking through curves not as quick as the single but better than the older vees. At ton plus speeds it can go into a mild weave but it's not the kind of thing that leads to wet underpants. Motorway cruising at the ton is rock solid (and the bike does 45mpg).

Wet weather riding is impressive with a great feeling of security and tyres that never suddenly lose traction. The mild nature of the engine below five grand helps here as there are never any sudden bursts of power to upset the balance of the bike. The discs even work well in the wet, although pad wear at both ends means three sets are needed every 600 miles. Expensive.

Whacking on all the brakes in emergency stops tends to throw the rider over the handlebars and when the going gets really desperate there is a very slight, inexplicable tendency for the bike to steer to the left (probably all those crashes - Ed.) - but this is corrected with just a little pressure on the bars.

The calipers are resistant to the deluge of rain water that constantly hits the poor old UK - I've had to take them apart just once, at 21000 miles. Hardly any hydraulic fluid is used and neglect of regular changes doesn't impair braking efficiency.

The desmo heads have OHCs driven by rubber belts with no fixed life. I replaced the first one at 10000, the other at 12000, but both replacements lasted for over 20000 miles which gives some kind of reason for hope. I've heard of a few cases of snapping belts, one case resulting in the valves hitting the piston. Nasty. It pays to keep a careful check on them.

Apart from replacing these belts, I've had no trouble from the engine despite neglecting the desmo heads. My friend had the clutch explode at twenty grand on an earlier bike and I've heard quite a few tales of pre '82 bikes breaking gearboxes, so it's certainly worth checking out. A vague acquaintance claims to have run his bike to 65000 miles without stripping it down - at the cost of regular and expensive (£150 a time) services.

Power delivery is modest up to five grand but backed up by good torque, at higher revs it accelerates briskly with a nice growl. It's about equal to Jap 550s of the same period. At 90mph in top gear the bike is relaxed, power and torque coincide and there's still enough punch to knock the speedo up to an indicated 120mph (true 110mph). It returns around 50mpg cruising at 90mph. The bike has really good economy if the revs are kept below five grand, giving anything up to 70mpg. As it's still possible to cruise at reasonable speeds, the bike can work out rather cheap to run.

Riding above the ton turns a normally moderate oil consumption into an oil sheikhs dream. It takes about a pint every 300 miles. It's done this since new and seems common among 500s.

The forty eight horses the engine develops were never produced in the silky smooth manner of a straight four, l'm always aware of two pistons thumping away beneath my body, but it never wrecked anything, unlike the older singles and vee twins which could leave quite a trail of bits in their wake. The engine was smoothest between 75 and 95mph (in top gear), which was fine for me as these were the speeds I normally employed. The only thing I didn't like was the vibration on the overrun in second or third, which had the petrol tank shaking in sympathy.

The important qualities of the Pantah — handling and meaty power — have survived four years and forty thousand miles rather better than most Jap bikes subjected to an equal amount of neglect. Both the handling and the power are still very sharp. The relatively unimportant items like the finish and the electrics have decayed very rapidly, but they can be sorted with the minimum of expense and maximum of physical effort. It's just a question of finding the time and accepting that the bike will be off the road for a couple of weeks while it is repainted and rewired - and that's the problem, I just like riding the bike too much to take it off the road.

Postscript: after writing this, the gearbox has become hard to use and it's started slipping out of second and third gear. The alternator has stopped charging the battery and the lights only work intermittently. It looks like I'll be forced to take the bike off the road. i'm still determined to get another forty grand out of it. It's also started making funny noises in the crankshaft area and one of my mates reckons the mains are on the way out - but he owns a Suzi four and will say anything to put Wop Stuff down.

Al Culler

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