If you can't abide Japanese bikes and don't trust old British twins, there ain't much option but to go the Italian route. BMW Boxers are ridiculous pieces of engineering and Harleys a pile of crap, in my totally unbiased opinion. Of the Italians, Ducati had always struck me as making marvellous pieces of engineering, though sometimes going to extremes. I didn't want a 900SS, too uncomfortable and lacking in reliability to be of interest. I wanted a serious Ducati, something that would have all its engineering excellence but still be practical for everyday riding.
What I ended up with was a 1979 Ducati 860 Desmo in red and white, a fabled one owner, relatively low miler at twenty-one thou (this being 1992). Mine for £1200, a touch expensive but good value given the as new condition and full service history. The test ride revealed a heavy clutch, tight gearchange, bags of torque and taut handling. Paradise on earth.
A month after purchase the right-hand silencer fell off. One day it looked like faded chrome, the next it was pockmarked with rust and the day after that it dissolved. It has to be said, that the ninety degree vee-twin motor grumbled away to itself, giving out quite fierce vibes below 3000 and above 7000 revs; that these rumblings probably acted on the already weak structure, rapidly reducing the whole thing to a pile of iron filings.
This wasn't very funny as the front pot then refused to run cleanly, bellowing out a discordant misfire that had both dogs and cops running around in a frenzy. It wasn't clever to try to cross the City when they were on a terrorist alert but I got away with it - just! Well, if you ignore the frenzied signals to stop just what are they going to do?
Back home, I gave the other silencer a tentative kick, sure enough it was reduced to rubble as well. The downpipes were still quite shiny so it was down to the local motorcycle emporium where a pair of illegal universal silencers were purchased. It has to be said that the stock, rotted silencers weren't very effective in diminishing the lovely vee-twin rumble - is that a motorcycle you got there or a bloody piledriver, one once friendly neighbour had enquired. So the universal cans were actually quite restrictive until they began to rot away after six months, but they had no apparent effect on the sixty horses the mildly tuned mill managed.
This rot didn't just affect the silencers. The next thing to go was the battery's bracket. True, the ancient battery was leaking a smear of acid which no doubt ate into the metal, but it still came as a shock and surprise to suddenly find the engine turning itself off and something whacking my leg. Both the sidepanel and battery had done a runner! Of the battery's bracket there was no sign, just some jagged remains of its weld on the rear subframe.
The Desmo weighed about 450lbs but was also burdened with dragging discs and clunking chain, a real literal pain in the spine to push the five miles home - I couldn't abandon a valuable classic in Central London, could I? On close inspection some of the metal in the frame had also been eaten away. My father's an expert with the welding gun, we decided to weld in some sheet metal so that the whole rear subframe had extra bracing and strength, would be unlikely to break up.
I took the tank off for a look at the hidden part of the frame, sure enough a blitz of rust and some weak looking welding. So that was given a going over with the torch too. I then decided the best thing to do would be to blast the frame and powder coat it bright red.
I was pretty annoyed when I found that the wiring loom fell to pieces in my hands but at least the rectifier and electronic ignition weren't the standard junk. I made up a new wiring loom and spent many a pleasant hour trying to get everything to work. Switches were also Japanese, the colour coding different, which made no sense at all until I went over everything with the multi-meter.
As I had the chassis in pieces I thought I might as well strip the Brembo calipers down and fit some new pads. They were powerful but a bit on/off, felt like they were sticking and then freeing up. Unfortunately, the only way I could get them apart was by destroying them. I couldn't believe it, I thought this kind of crap was purely Japanese in nature and not anything to do with Ducati's. After paying for the powder coating, doing the wiring and buying new calipers and pads, I was down over two hundred and fifty notes!
At least the motor was still running fine. I checked the valve clearances and did the carbs, changed the oil, and cleaned the mill up until the cases had a mirror shine. A beautiful piece of work - loads of torque and nice power punch once over 5000 revs. The vibes did worry me a bit as a 90¼ vee-twin's supposed to have perfect primary balance, but I put it down to Ducati's clever use of the engine as a stressed frame member. The only thing with the engine is that the bevel drive, Desmo activated valves need major work when the clearances go out, but they can last for 10,000 miles. About £200 to a proper Ducati dealer.
A lot could be said about the superiority of a vee-twin over a straight four. It's mostly down to their compact nature and punchy power, although they lose out on high rev kicks, but make up for that with an excess of character and a much more laid back nature.
The one area where fours score is that they aren't so heavily stressed, can run for longer with a higher degree of neglect than vee-twins - at least Italian vee-twins. After about seven months and 4500 miles, the engine began to go off. Starting became erratic to say the least and I began to hear strange engine noises. One morning, she eventually started up and the knocking noises were very clear. I had no doubt about it, the main bearings were shot.
This is quite common between 20-30,000 miles, depending on how the engine's been treated. This began a saga with one of London's Ducati dealers, who I was foolish enough to entrust the rebuild to. Basically, it took four months of escalating hostilities and £900 to sort the engine out - I only wanted the main bearings replaced but they reckoned it needed new small-ends, pistons, valves, gearbox cogs and a myriad of minor bits.
I don't know if all the work was genuine or a con, but the final result wasn't as good as when I bought the bike. I was told I'd have to run it in very carefully for 2000 miles, and after I did that was accused of thrashing the thing into the ground. Previously, top speed had been 120mph, now it rarely wanted to go over the ton. Fuel was down (up?) from 50mpg to 40mpg and general vibration had increased.
After I'd done 3750 miles, I let another dealer service the engine - he reckoned the valve timing was out by a tooth! The motor was transformed. As soon as I heard the urgent engine note I knew something good had happened. It would now do 125mph and 55mpg! The engine was the smoothest it had ever been.
I went back to the original dealer to complain and was basically told to clear off or I'd be given a good kicking for wasting their time and insulting their highly trained mechanics. We almost came to blows when I laughed out loud at the last exclamation. To be fair, a friend recommended them and had always had good work done by them, so perhaps I caught them on a bad day. The Desmo valvegear's so finicky and difficult to set up that I was very lucky no permanent damage had resulted.
I ran around on the Duke for another 9000 miles, nearly forty thou on the clock, when the vibration started to come in a bit heavy again. This is the first sign of the main bearings wearing out, so if you're interested in the breed make sure you know what a good engine sounds and feels like.
As I'd already spent more than I'd paid for the bike getting it into good fettle, I couldn't face another major engine rebuild. It was time for a trade-in. A 1993 Moto Guzzi 1000S had caught my eye, a 3000 miler for £3750. I couldn't believe my ears when I was offered £2250 for the 860. I did the deal there and then, bunged down a deposit and rushed down to the bank before the dealer had a change of heart.
The 1000S has its styling based on the old 750S, basically an instant classic with relatively modern Guzzi engineering. I thought the Duke had heavy controls but the Guzzi was in another country. For the first four months it hurt like hell, only then had my muscles toughened up after I'd become used to the pressure on them.
The other thing with the Guzzi was its shaft drive reaction, which had the back wheel leaping up and down in a quite dramatic way. It was a long old bus that needed some care in the corners, making the Duke feel like a real lightweight, but as long as it was set up on the required line it was equally as stable and the 75hp punch could be quite startling at the ton in top. I saw 140mph on the clock but its accuracy was questionable, more like a true 130mph I'd say.
The motor already had modded airfilters and loud exhaust - stock ones are very constipated as it's a very old engine design that doesn't sit well with modern noise laws. If anything, I preferred the Guzzi's bellow to the Duke's but it was a narrow run thing - both exhilarating and exciting.
The Guzzi must be one of the easiest machines for home mechanics to service, the valves miraculously simple after the Ducati - one of the reasons I went for the bike. Unfortunately, very frequent maintenance's necessary - every 500 miles for carb balancing and 1000 miles for valve clearances. Tedious but as I could do it myself it cost absolutely nothing.
The Guzzi also vibrated, rather more than the Duke when it was in good fettle, but somewhat less than when its bearings started to rumble. Big Guzzi twins have a fine reputation for longevity when in a relatively mild state of tune and not used to excess - 50,000 miles is easily possible, twice that not out of the question. Their dynamics - long, heavy and slow turning, make them hard to ride in anything other than a relaxed, almost staid manner, so few end up thrashed. Surprisingly, the bike can lope along at high velocities, ton plus cruising no great shakes, and cover ground in less time than more frenetically ridden bikes.
One well known weak spot's the universal joint in the shaft drive. Mine went at eighteen thou, making the back end go all weak legged and the shaft rumble and vibrate in a thoroughly fierce and disturbing manner. So bad that I had to call it a day and get the AA to take me the sixty miles back home. Spares weren't a problem and it was an easy job to do.
The finish needed lots of elbow grease to keep it presentable. Tyres lasted for over 10,000 miles, the brake pads have yet to wear out and fuel is a reasonable 60mpg (again the stock bike ain't likely to be so good...). Overall, the Guzzi's a good stab at providing practical wheels with Italian style, although the 1000S never really made any inroads into the UK market and they are both rare and cheap to buy secondhand.
Having said all that, the Guzzi's a bit lacking in the Ducati's sheer integrated flamboyance, which as soon as you flick a leg over the saddle comes over as a real riding machine, developed by proper motorcyclists. Whether or not this is enough to compensate for its relative frailty is down to personal taste - and, basically, I had so much trouble with mine that I won't be buying another one. Even modern Ducati's, for all their on the road brilliance, are burdened with the same old engineering frailty. Basically they have messed up in a big way.
Modern Guzzi's don't appeal either, too race replica orientated. Not to worry, though, the motorcycle business has turned full circle and Triumph are back in the game with a vengeance. Think about it, all the panache and style of the Italians with the same toughness as the Jap's. And the 1000S will fetch enough for a deposit on a new Daytona - where do I sign up?