Karl Webster is one of those typical Aussies – he’s a good laugh, loves his bikes and works hard to make sure he can realise his two-wheeled dreams!
The 49-year-old from Victoria, Australia is a signwriter and has spent a lifetime on bikes. “I was 19 when I saw my first Mike Hailwood Replica. I was really into motocross bikes then and I was on a trip to the beach on The Great Ocean Road when I spotted a guy who was on a 900SS MHR. Then he started it up! Oh man, the noise! This started an obsession with Ducati and the amazing sound that came from that bevel twin engine. Before that, I really liked the logo –I’m a signwriter see? I recall buying a Ducati sew-on badge when I was a kid and I loved the dual-line font and the name. I’ve been in love with Ducatis ever since!”
The Ducati 900SS Mike Hailwood Replica was built to celebrate the legend’s win in the Formula 1 race at the 1978 Isle of Man TT races: the bike itself was launched in 1979. It was powered by a 973cc SOHC desmodromic V-twin with a five-speed gearbox, the bike came in ‘almost’ authentic colours and gold Campagnolo rims. The bike changed little in its life: in 1981 a two-piece fairing was introduced and in 1983 the bike came with an electric start, improved gearbox and new wheels, hydraulic clutch and new exhausts.
In the meantime for Karl though, other bikes filled his life for a while: not just the off-roaders (which often spat him off and left him injured) but other gentlemen’s sporting motorcycles, such as GSX-Rs, ZXRs and YZF-R1s before an off-road crash led him to take some time off bikes – until 2007 when he bought a Ducati 1098S. Having an artistic bent, his Ducati would eventually become a full-on race-rep Xerox machine, as ridden by Troy Bayliss. Karl and partner-in-crime John Wilkinson were so good with the decals and paint, that KTM Australia asked them to repaint some of their RC8 sportsbikes in Red Bull livery so they could market them as special editions. This got Karl back into mainstream biking…
“So by now, I really wanted a Mike Hailwood Replica,” said Karl. “I saw a few on eBay but they were all around the $20,000 mark – I had $15k – so I took a chance and put a bid on all five, but had mixed responses from owners, the most polite of which was a firm ‘no!’ So I waited and then – about three months later – one of the owners came back to me and said that if I had the $15k on me, I could have the bike that very day – by midnight! Thing was I’d spent some of the cash so only had $14k, so I spoke to my partner and we grabbed the kids, jumped into my Silverado pick-up with some tie-downs and the cash. On the way we checked ownership to see if it was stolen and I was expecting it to be a rough one. We got there at 11.30pm and the bike was great. You could tell it had been loved. I rode the bike the next day and was blown away by how good it was – not just the condition. It was comfortable, smooth and so solid – even the gearbox was beautiful to shift through. I did many road trips on the bike that summer. I really loved it. Even compared to my modern bikes I loved riding the MHR.”
Sadly things started to go wrong from there, during a routine oil-change: “It was a disaster,” Karl explains. “The shop sold me the wrong filter, saying one for another Italian bike was the same. It stopped pumping oil to the bevel drives, which was evident through the window. Then when I gave it a rev it blew the rubber ring out the side. I had that sinking feeling so spoke to John Wilkinson, who assured me in his very special way by saying: ‘if it’s man-made, then man can fix it!’ By this time, Karl’s thoughts had set to building and painting the ultimate Mike Hailwood Replica. For this he began to seek out and get hold of pictures of the original man and machine in action…Karl was and is a big Hailwood fan: “Mike was the greatest and I wanted my bike to be the ultimate replica. I was obsessed but I had the help of a bike-building master in John, and he agreed that we should keep it road registered.”
The bike was taken all the way down to the bare frame but painted – not powder-coated – as that wasn’t the way back then. “We lightly sand-blasted the frame and the paint fell off as it had no undercoat from the factory! The colours were matched from the graphics on a Castrol Oil tin, the wheels were chemically dipped and a fresh coat of Ducati gold applied, but with a touch of matting agent to dull-it off a bit. John is a good man with a paint-gun.” They also sourced bearings, bolts, gaskets, a new tank/seat unit, fairing, screen, clip-ons and race rear-sets to refresh the whole V-twin plot. Karl explains: “The front needed a four-inch kit-car headlight from the UK, but John laughed, told me to bin it and rang his mate Jim, who builds race-replicas – he’s a master in his field – and he suggested a Honda CBR250 import light, but we did go back to the kit-car light as it seemed to look better – even if it was originally from a ride-on lawn mower!”
The result was a near perfect look, which in turn led them to replicate other parts of the original bike, not found on the original ‘MH Replica’. These included the vents in the side fairing and the vent holes cut in front of the bottom of the belly pan. Karl says: “Our friend Todd made a fibreglass seat base with bolts, and a seat that I had upholstered just like Hailwood’s with the same stitching pattern: it was perfect. We reinforced the underneath with carbon-fibre so it would take rider’s weight. I also found a new tachometer and cable almost identical to his race bike from pictures of his bike. I drew up a decal on my sign CAD program and put it on a piece of scrap 3mm aluminium I was able to cut the shape of the instrument panel and grind it into the shape of the sticker then use a hole-saw to cut a hole for the tachometer to sit in it. John found an old GSX-R instrument that fitted straight on the back of the tacho to hold it into place. I then drilled holes for small LEDs for turn signal, oil, high-beam etc. and mounted them: it looked great!”
While John got on with the main technical bits, Karl stripped the ‘legs’ ready for paint, sand-blasted the disc brake centres and masked them ready for John to paint silver: this was going to be good! Eventually both John and Karl either made or modified what they could to replicate the actual MHR bike: including the oil breather tank under the seat and the front fairing mount brace that hold the tacho and clocks in place. Karl says: “Being a signwriter I was able to spend hours researching the logos stickers and graphics so they would be perfect. It was hours of work painstakingly copying the logos, fonts to get the right size.”
Excitement was growing as they headed towards the final furlong: body panels were prepped for paint and then the paint went on. Most if not all of the work done ‘in-house’, thanks to two friends with the skill sets to do the job right. The motor – now sorted – was mounted in the frame, with forks and swingarm added. Then came carbs, brakes, carb and electrics. “The rear carb needed a straight intake manifold which came from Old Racing Spare Parts in Italy,” says Karl. “It’s where we got lots of the bodywork from. They were great. Everything fitted pretty good from the start except for the belly-pan which was too narrow for the electric start motor. John just cut it down the middle and added five extra inches. He then made the fairing mounts by hand from aluminium!”
Karl says: “I can’t explain the feeling as the final bits came together – John is a master. He makes it look easy. We are both very proud of what we achieved and we took it to the Phillip Island Classic where TT legend John McGuinness gave it his stamp of approval by signing it for us!”