Ducati 900SS

The Ducati 900SS – Chasing Perfection

900SSWhen 1980 arrived the 900SS had reached its fifth year in production and many believed the ‘end was nigh’ for the sophisticated semi-naked Ducati design. Let’s be honest, their earlier 750 nailed the vision, one which was only enhanced over the following decade; a look that still works today, especially with Miss Knightly on board. That years Earls Court Show featured Barbara Windsor perched on a Honda CB1000R, whilst a largely unchanged 900SS sat alongside the much-delayed Mike Hailwood Replica and the new 500cc Pantah; as with all Ducati’s their unique talents came at a price. Averaging £40.00 a week, Bologna bikes were ‘pipe dreams’ and unlikely to be the pride of your average spotty teenager; mostly ‘Pigeon holed’ into the 250 brigade (of which I proudly represented) carrying little in the way of style, greasy hair escaping from the base of a battered Nova ‘full-face’ with unwashed jeans and purple DMs completing the uniform. Your Honda 400 four pilot (our achievable aspiration) enjoyed the correct Frank Thomas footwear, often tucked into an all in one plastic suit with matching gloves and a dirty but unscratched Bell lid. The chap aboard one of Ducati’s finest knew he looked cool, often getting away with brown (non-biker) leather pants, matching knee length boots (minus white socks) and a leather trimmed peak free lid with shades. He could have arrived wearing nothing but a smile, for the ‘classe e stylo’ came courtesy of the 900SS, black with gold pinstripe complementing the highly polished alloy, a poster bike then and even more so now. It was a time of ‘life-altering’ decisions, choices that would affect the future, should I stick with my ‘stoker’ and save for Italian or look again to the far east? I took the easy option, bought a car and nearly swopped Phil Collins for Soft Cell; yes, it was a difficult period! Even so I would still spin round faster than a disco dancer to the tune of a pair of Conti exhausts barking through Kingston town centre.

Following the Roman Way

Ducati 900SSWhilst I travelled a path to the dark side, a young Gary Keen stayed on the course of righteousness and enjoyed a 900SS in his life, an experience that would leave him with thirty year memories. He has become a veteran of many a Bevel-Resto and although he is far too modest to confess his knowledge and abilities, attention to every minute detail ensures that when he says ‘it’s ready’ an orderly queue automatically forms to admire. When asked why he parted company with his original 900SS Gary explained ‘marriage and the required house purchase’, enough said. What did he remember of those early yearnings chasing a future aboard the special Italian? ‘Well, my love affair with bevel Ducati’s started back in the late 70’s – early 80’s when my friend’s older brothers had them, from then on I knew I must own one; or many as its turned out’. ‘My 1st Black and Gold 900SS was a rare 1978 version (which featured special paintwork applied at the time by the UK importer Coburn & Hughes). This eventually was sold on, like all early loves of youth then regretted much in later life as you hanker for those days and memories’. Finding a 900SS available for restoration could prove to have been a challenge as Gary was looking for a specific colour scheme but via his Ducatisti contacts he got lucky.

Ducati 900SS rolling chassisAfter working through various Ducati models, I knew the time was right for another Black & Gold 900SS to nurture, love and to empty my bank balance with. The problem was solved by a good friend who had one that was a little unloved by the previous owner. Eventually in September 2015 it was sitting in my garage looking a bit forlorn and needing some TLC. It was all pretty original with Brembo Goldline calipers, FPS wheels, factory dual seat and black and gold paintwork. So I did the only thing that should be done and started tearing it down in earnest’.

Legendary Status

For those of a certain age group the 900SS has earnt its place at the top table of motorcycle heritage, it was a bike built without compromise and minus any niceties or rider aids. Lean, loud and built for speed as one correspondent reported but it begs the question, which came first the chicken or the egg? In creating such a single minded race-bred machine Ducati produced a bike worthy of any art museum. Accident? Did the package just end up being a stunner on the road or did the designers influence just encourage the factory to bin all but the necessary. Kick start only and filter free carbs present their own challenges, especially with a hot engine on a summers day.  Whilst the frame may have been a light weight in the kilogrammes department, it wasn’t when it came to rigidity. At the end of the 70’s most of the worrying engine issues that beset the UK importers were past and the buyer purchased the best high speed handling available (thanks Marzocchi) with a rich race pedigree. Seventy-nine BHP and enough torque to plough a trench up the M1 whilst pulling a mere 414lbs to 130mph and the pilot looked like a filmstar doing it! Name drop a Paul Smart and the odd Mike Hailwood and suddenly you become the most popular bloke in the village; well that’s how us lesser mortals viewed it.

Ducati 900SS front endLeaving Bologna in 1980 Gary’s Super Sport could be considered a second generation version of what road testers ‘in-period’ often referred to as a highly strung thoroughbred. By 1980 the earlier spoked rims and fatally flawed magnesium Speedline alloys (which were prone to shattering) were replaced by the very robust by gold FPS alloys and its motor breathed in via 40mm Dell’Ortos and exhaled (very loudly) through Conti silencers. Gary’s bike initially looked in reasonable shape but would receive the same all-consuming TLC that any ‘basket case’ would enjoy. He explained ‘A top end engine strip revealed quite a bit more wear than was hoped and with the barrels off the rods moved side to side quite considerably, this required a complete strip. Consequentially, all that was needed to be done to ensure top spec ensued, ending up with new internals (crank, big end main bearings, oil pump, kick-start shaft (due to a broken flange), all internal bearings, rods, hi comp Omega pistons, re-bore and the list goes on (as does the pounds notes) and eventually it yielded a vapour blasted engine looking like it had just been delivered from the factory; all shiny and lovely’. To achieve its precision performance and unique soundtrack a big thanks and hats doffed to Pietro & Tony @ Motori Di Marino.

With the rest of the bike stripped into its component parts it was easy for Gary to identify what had to be done, he continued once the last of his cheese and ham on white was consumed. One of those new fancy ‘Pannini’ burgers may have been more appropriate (Mediterranean) but this is Sussex.

Ducati 900SS engine‘The frame, swing arm and main stand were shot blasted and powder coated by Vulcan Stove Enamelling (beautifully I may add), they have done my frames before and give a splendid smooth and even finish. New headstock bearings were fitted in preparation for the freshly rebuilt and painted Marzocchi forks & yokes. One aspect I was keen on doing right was the stippled effect satin black finish on the yokes and fork legs – smooth shiny black is often done because it’s easier…but that doesn’t make it right’. I did question our restorer’s ability to be completely anal over the detail to which he responded ‘Could I go into any more detail? Well, I could keep every original bolt’.

Wheels & Brakes

‘The wheels were next – a time consuming process due to them being the FPS with a polished edge. The procedure is shot blast, polish the edge, mask up and wet spray the gold finish and then lacquer the gold paint only, fit new bearings and fresh rubber (Bridgestone BT45’s). Then dress and fit the original Brembo cast iron brake discs. The rear wheel needed a new cush drive rubber and sprocket with new tabs and bolts’. The look of the finished item justifies the time and effort. Brake calipers followed, ‘this SS was supplied with the Goldline Brembo versions but the gold was faded and worn so they were treated to a re-anodise and rebuilt with Teflon pistons, new bleed nipples, stainless steel pins & springs and brake pads. The front and rear Brembo master cylinders were also restored’. Brembo only arrived on the automotive scene in 1961, their base at Padalina just 50klms from Milan was 2.5 hours’ road travel from Ducati’s factory. Alfa Romeo was the initial Italian manufacturer to install the companies brake systems, two-wheel interest didn’t come to the fore until Honda announced the CB’s. The first to blink was actually Moto Guzzi followed by Laverda and soon after Ducati and designers at Brembo were tasked with making a caliper/disc combination that not only performed a function but for motorcycles had to look good; the gold finish being part of that process. Gary completed the ‘stoppers’ with ‘brake lines changed for new braided versions (finished in black) with stainless steel fittings from Venhill. They were mated to new bundy lines on the front calipers and stainless steel hose guides’. Autumn turned to winter and the garage doors closed but work continued; questioning the man behind the machine one gets the impression Gary really enjoyed this restoration. Unrushed and precise he can remember how, when and why each item demanded his attention.

Dash & Brightwork

Ducati 900SS dashboard‘The tacho and speedo were stripped, rebuilt and fitted with new glass and chrome bezels. The idiot lights were overhauled with fresh coloured inserts. The dash itself had to be replaced as it was badly damaged – luckily I managed to source an excellent replacement from Germany! The original bent Verlicchi clip-ons were replaced with some nice straight ones! Switchgear was overhauled. This all provided a very pretty view from the rider’s perspective. The rusty rear light bracket and headlight rim were re-chromed. The single seat was an option and one arrived with the bike, consequently is was re-upholstered (nice job P&D Custom Cycles). Luckily the original dual seat cover was good enough to go again! Other shiny bits were polished including the rear brake holder, chain jaws, end caps and stainless steel chain guard. Exhaust wise…well it had to be original Conti (the aftermarket stainless steel version fitted was ok certainly but you know, not quite right). Luckily an original pair of Conti silencers were found for sale on a forum which had been purchased by the owner in the late 70’s / early 80’s then never fitted, they were still in the original boxes with bubble wrap and a lot of grease; a real find, albeit at a price. The down pipes and crossover pipe were also sourced together with some nice exhaust clamps bearing the ‘Conti’ logo’. Obsessive, I did warn you!

Deviations from Factory?

‘The original rear Marzocchi shocks were rebuilt and had fresh satin finish powder coated springs, painted bodies and Marzocchi decals. They are now kept in a box as the bike runs Ikon shocks which are somewhat superior to the originals’ – Based just a stone’s throw from the Ducati factory in Bologna since 1949 the folks at Marzocchi may not agree, saying that the Ikon’s have the benefit of forty years’ progress. His next alteration though did make perfect sense to me. ‘To make the bike run well and to start without too much trauma (as being an SS there is only a kick start…no electric assistance) I fitted a new electronic ignition system from a German company called Silent Hektik – the original Bosch system was good but any 40-year-old technology is not going to last forever. Also, the original Dellorto 40mm carbs had worn slides – so to achieve smooth running and a dependable tickover, new PHM40 AD & AS carbs were sourced and fitted together with fresh cables and were fed via Cavis benz fuel lines (big thanks to Andrew @ Mdina Italia for all his help on sourcing & supplying parts).

Final Straight

Ducati 900SS rear endThe Ducati 900SS reviewBy this stage the invoices must have surely been matching the roof height of a bungalow but not deterred in the least our intrepid restorer continued towards conclusion. ‘The wiring loom was overhauled and tidied up and a set of original CEV indicators were sourced and fitted. Paintwork was done by SVR coachworks in Ford to an exceptional standard (as always). The gold decals are under layers of lacquer and the lustre is deep and lovely!! The original front fairing had some serious issues so a new one was sourced together with a screen from Brancato Engineering – he laid the fairing up using ‘chopped mat’ fibreglass to replicate the look of the original (nowadays it is undamaged by the ethanol in the petrol…so it looks right and is robust). Lots of other small items have been replaced/ refurbed during the rebuild, which is usual when you are trying to get the whole thing right; any restoration is only as good as its worst part, so it pays to be picky and exacting when it is required! Fast forward to June 2016 and riding the bike after the rebuild has bought back many memories of owning one in my youth. I guess I’m pleased that I can still get myself in to the riding position which is somewhat cramped for the legs and a stretch for the arms, sure she’s typically Italian but ultimately…it’s been worth it.

Out & About

Ducati 900SS road testPerfect conditions for our ride gave Gary the chance to offer the ‘SS’ some gas and me the job of keeping pace. My modern is a V twin of similar capacity but following closely I am sure those Conti pipes were blowing my efforts backwards. For a forty-year-old design the Ducati owns the road in more ways than just performance, once that engine note attracted either drivers or pedestrians a lot of finger pointing and nodding with approval took place. Park up at your peril, especially a busy biker-cafe, you would have thought a movie star had arrived; Gary doesn’t look anything like Keira Knightly and I doubt pink leathers would help. The black and gold colour scheme certainly works well for this 900 and perched on the centre stand it automatically becomes the centre of attention. The ‘kick start only’ prospect offered no problems, if she didn’t fire up first time, a second heave did the trick and once on the move Gary looked confident pushing through the bends of the South Downs. Those of a certain build may struggle with distance riding and being six foot three and bulkier than my doctor advises I have little doubt hip pain would follow just after arm pump arrived. Nevertheless, these are small sacrifices for custodians of one of Bologna’s finest to endure, for the rest of us we can only sit and admire, just like I would have 37 years ago.