Best of the 1970s?

Ducati 900 Super Sport

Count me among those who regard the 1970s as motorcycling’s golden age, highlighted by its incredible run of landmark superbikes. Driven to brilliance by intense market competition, some natural rivals emerged and thus began the dividing of favorites. Before the 70s, Honda v Kawasaki’s battle for four-stroke supremacy had not happened yet, while the Europeans and English had been squaring off for decades. Trailing on the sales floor most manufactures took aim at Honda’s top selling four, and those who see the SOHC 750 as that era’s most profound development have history to back their position. Naturally, arguments for the Z900 and Kawasaki’s explosive two-strokes are acknowledged, followed by those who favor late arrivals like Suzuki’s GS1000 or the 1100cc Yamaha. Developed for longer, sports models from BMW and Moto Guzzi endure with the simplicity they were criticized for, while the competitive fires at Laverda found the family punching their inline triple to 1200cc before the decade ended. All worthy contenders and each uniquely qualified, highly publicized racing victories at Imola, Daytona, the Isle of Man and other events rocketed the company to a new level. It is because of this and many various reasons the Desmo eared its 1970’s superiority.

You don’t have to be the sporting type to appreciate Ducati’s 900SS Desmo, but it helps. Stating its purpose with plain language and absolutely no frivolity, it is this singular focus that causes enthusiasts to either love, or hate it. In my opinion It’s impossible for anyone who has pointed a proper 900SS up through a winding pass to dislike it, but even the most ardent Ducatisti understands the bike’s limitations as an all-rounder. On that basis, the 900 Desmo SS is ranked by many as the best pure-performance production motorcycle for a ten-year span that began in 1975.

Getting my first real ride back in 2005, the 900SS I tested was a rocket. There really wasn’t much to getting the bike going; fuel on, find the kick starter, move the key to ‘R’ then come down on it after a couple of twists to prime. Narrow enough to plant both feet flat, the rider slots between tank and tail to reach…and reach some more for the Desmo’s bars. I’ve happily toured with clip-ons and rearsets for decades, but must report this tester did nothing more than endure the experience of threading the Super Sport through traffic. My hopes dashed, the freeway offered no relief as the unforgiving Marzocchi / Koni trackday suspensions allowed even matchbook-sized lumps to torture my aching sciatica. Until then, I didn’t know I had one. But just as you might have read or experienced, the outlook reverses when the road climbs and curves upward. Here, the Desmo comes into focus; seducing with dead neutral steering, a smooth, ripping engine and by being unflappable and effortlessly composed. As I have told friends and written elsewhere, the road seemed twice as wide on the Ducati, making the experience easier and more relaxing.

Chiseled into stone tablets somewhere on a Turkish glacier, the story of Ducati’s rise to prominence begins with engineer Fabio Taglioni, a host of talented riders, and the magic of Desmodromic mechanical valve actuation. Dr. T got the ball rolling in the mid-50s then went on to produce an excellent line of sports Desmo and conventional single cylinder models ranging from 100 to 450cc. Recognizing the shift in market demographics Ducati and several other financially stressed Italian firms competed for a lucrative government contract by introducing new ‘big bike’ designs for availability in 1966. Dr. T hoped to trump the twins with his 1200cc Apollo L-4 (plus reap import rewards from Berliner in the US) but that plan failed.

When the winds of change blew through Bologna’s top brass in the very late 1960s, the new bosses leaned on Taglioni to turn his attention away from the still popular Desmo single in favor of a twin cylinder future. As the first production twin Ducati’s 750 GT roadster was ready for review in just a few short weeks, leaving many to speculate Taglioni had mentally developed the machine far in advance. As it did with Paul Smart’s Imola win, Ducati’s victory at the 1973 Barcelona 24hr on a bored-out, round-case 750SS spiked demand, but a shortage of available Super Sports left many buyers out. Production for 1976 improved supply, but the sanitized ‘world market’ Desmo 900 was a few rumbles below the first-series production racer. You’ll be hard pressed to find any 900SS fit with its original Dellorto 32mm carbs, air-box or seamed Lafranconis, but I’m told some later UK-market imports were delivered in the original 1975 tuning. US owners paid an extra $400 for this option.

Like the preceding 750SS, the 900 Super Sport Desmo was made in unequal parts from various and existing sources. Taglioni’s Imola 750 racer mixed the Seeley frame 500 works bike and 750 GT to spawn production versions of the 750 SS. The 900 carried Super Sport specification forward, mating the 860 GT’s new ‘Ital’ styled engine with the SS frame. A critical element, far too many reports gloss over the 900’s chassis on their way to the Desmo magic, but that’s a mistake. US journalist Phil Schilling wrote that at 450-lb wet the 900SS was a light motorcycle built with a heavy frame; “The stuff they make water pipe from.” Pinned to the engine via butt-welded circular bosses, four straight tubes connect to a braced, horizontal spine. The advantages are clear as both the 29mm pin and the swingarm’s 40mm cross tube doubled the diameter found in most competing sport bikes, and that theme continues throughout the build. The problem? Ducati’s lack of consistent assembly frustrated owners who were forced to fund the fixing. But like any romance fueled by passion, all was forgiven when the Desmo’s tune was played.

Boring to 86mm and retaining the 750’s 74.4mm stroke increased capacity to 864cc, but the real news was inside the timing cover. The 750’s six piece, perpendicular crank-to-worm-gear-to-towershaft square dance was binned in favor of a flat support plate housing bearings and gears. A stronger, simplified layout, a straight gear on the right side of the Ducati’s pressed crankshaft passes through to drive two straight cogs located in the center of the bearing/straight gear/spiral gear sandwich. From there, the spiral gears meet with the bottom towershaft gears to spin the Desmo’s four-lobe cams. Each valve uses two rockers; the inner lobes push the top rocker down to open and the outer lobes pull the bottom rocker up to close. According to period literature, Ducati redesigned the drive gear to allow an oil filter, now residing where the 750’s points housing was. The added benefit of electronic ignition deleted one service chore off the list, but patience and experience is key when servicing. 

There wasn’t much that could run with the 900SS in 1975, Slater’s Jota and the Z900 being the exceptions. Both could zip away from the Desmo from a stop, but the Kawasaki’s chassis wasn’t close and the Laverda is nearly 80-lb heavier. When Cycle magazine tested the Desmo SS in 1978 a great number of new performance players had debuted, and more were on the way. The Desmo held steady, especially if fitted with the factory’s optional race kit consisting of 40mm pumpers, intake manifolds, cables, a pair of open Conti megaphones, plus a 36-tooth (from 38) rear sprocket. Thus prepped, Ducati’s top draw shaved half a second off its ¼-mile (12.4 seconds) and if heavier clutch springs were added, it’d stay with the Jota on top. Comparisons in handling to Japan’s CBX and XS Eleven were predictable, but the hotshots were forced to respect Suzuki’s GS1000. “A licensed racer will get around quicker on the Suzuki by working around its limitations,” Cycle’s editors said in 1978  “But not having any of that to deal with, the average rider will feel safer and have more fun going fast on the Ducati, which remains ridiculously easy to ride quickly.”

This is how I remember the 900SS, and that one defining moment when I realized the railing, long and booming Desmo was the best vintage flier I’d ever tried. Avoiding the usual hyperbole, it was the ability to feel what the wheels were doing through the grips that sealed it for me, and the experience is sensational. Now I understood why owners were willing to deal with the frequent inspections, fragile components, measuring, checking, misinformation, complexity and all the rest. Sure, it’s a moot point now, but it took the next generation of Gixxers, FZ Yammies and even Ducati’s own Pantah to actually better the 900SS – at least in terms of making speed. We’re talking real world, over the road action here, not advert quotes or campfire stories. Looking back, and even taking the newest models into consideration, nothing I’ve tried has offered that amount of pure riding enjoyment. And that, along with its jaw-dropping style and rich history, is why people love them. Nolan Woodbury

Ducati 900 Super Sport

Air-cooled, 90° twin with Desmodromic 2v
Bore x stroke: 86 x 74.4mm (864cc)
2 x 40mm Dell’Orto
Ignition: Electronic
Transmission/drive: Five-speed w/chain

Frame: Tube steel spine with two front and rear downtubes
Suspensions: Marzocchi 38mm fork, twinshock rear
3 x 280mm Brembo
Weight 420-lb (dry)
Top Speed: 140-mph

Classic Throttle
Legend Motors
WMM/N. Woodbury

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