Bevel heaven

From the Archives:

Ducati’s first production bevel-drive bike was hot stuff in 1956. And, phew, it’s still a little scorcher…

WORDS BY Frank Melling PHOTOS BY Carol Melling

AT AGE NINE, I was in love with a Ducati Silverstone Super. Forget being a cowboy out on the range or a Spitfire pilot battling the Nazi hoards, I went to bed every night dreaming of riding a Ducati in the TT. The reason was simple. Pre-Japanese lightweight motorcycles were dull, dull, dull. Little bikes were for beginner riders, or the poor, or stupid, or those with no taste.

Two silencers but just a single cylinder. Then, as now, style was everything to Italians

Real men rode BSA Gold Stars and Velocette Venoms and Triumph T110s. Bikes which went grrrr and bared their teeth if you looked at them the wrong way. Yet, in Italy, lightweights were anything but boring or mundane, partly because of the Italians’ love of racing, and a very interesting slice of postwar history.

Just before the Second World War, Ducati was a radio company – and an extremely successful one. The Ducati brothers, Bruno and Cavalieri, were world leaders in the production of shortwave radios and the key supplier to the Italian Navy. This made the Ducati brothers a lot of money and in 1935 they were able to open a state of the art factory at Borgo Panigale, employing over 7000 staff. The factory was air conditioned and used the very latest machine tools to manufacture precision components. That was the good news.

The bad news was that the Ducati factory became a ‘must bomb’ attraction for the Allied air forces during the Italian campaign. The American 15th Air Force was particularly determined to take out Ducati – and it achieved its aim with great success, totally razing the factory to the ground. Having a large, smoking hole where your factory used to be was not immediately helpful to Ducati.

But good news was to follow. Because of Ducati’s high-tech prewar reputation, the Italian government re-equipped the factory with the best machine tools that were available in the 1950s. This put Ducati in a stronger position than other Italian factories which weren’t bombed. Thus, a fortunate turn of fate provided Ducati with an ace card to play. Uniquely among the European manufacturers, the Bologna factory was capable of mass-producing a complex engine.

Ducati was about to be given another ace card. In 1954, it was staggering on the very edge of bankruptcy. Even paying the few workers employed making motorcycles was proving very difficult. Ducati’s rival Mondial had just won the prestigious Moto Giro d’Italia – but the young designer who played such a large part in Mondial’s success was not invited to the post-race party. That designer was Fabio Taglioni and this is how he remembers the incident: “I arrived at the racing department of Mondial, owned by the Boselli brothers, and was hired immediately. That year the federation came up with the Tour of Italy. We were inexperienced. In fact, though we won each leg, we lost the Tour. In the second year we won. But I was not invited to the victory celebration dinner. The following day, I left without giving an explanation…

“Then I received a proposal that was destined to change my life forever. I was called in by the general manager of Ducati Meccanica… who said, and I quote: ‘I know your talent and I need you. If you build 100 motorcycles to win the Tour of Italy, Ducati will stay open, because I only have one month’s salary for my workers. If not, we shut down and everyone goes home’.”

At the time, the Milano Taranto and Moto Giro d’Italia were more important to motorcycle sales in Italy than Grand Prix racing or winning the Isle of Man TT. The Italian races were long distance trials of speed and endurance and success meant sales. Taglioni designed a bevel drive, sohc engine which appeared simultaneously in 100cc and 125cc forms to give Ducati two chances in the multi-class Moto Giro. The bike bore many of Taglioni’s trademark design traits. In reality, it was a very conservative concept breaking no new ground.

Norton, in particular, had been racing bevel drive engines since the 1920s with incredible success. Unit construction engines, where the engine and gearbox are one item, had also been in production since before the First World War.

What Taglioni did was to put all the best of known engineering practice into one, unified, package. The result was a neat, reliable and very beautiful motorcycle.

Almost simultaneously, there was a series of disasters in road events throughout Europe. In 1955, 82 spectators were killed in a single accident at Le Mans, and the accidents piled up in the Moto Giro and Milano Taranto too. 1957 saw the end of the original Moto Giro. Despite this, Ducati was left with an extremely marketable, race-inspired road bike – the truly magnificent 175 Sport. The Sport, launched at the Milan Show in November 1956, incorporated all the lessons and characteristics of the race bikes, in a hot road bike package. It was Ducati’s first production bevel-gear motorcycle, and it spawned a range of singles – including the Spanish-built Mototrans machines – which lasted until 1974.

The all-alloy engine was a typical Taglioni design. The heart of the Sport was an over-square (62 by 57.8mm) high revving, single overhead cam motor. It moved on from the earlier Gran Sport design by enclosing the hairpin valve springs. As with all Taglioni’s motors, the cam was driven by a shaft and the wet sump kept the oil low in the chassis and the engine simple. In standard trim, power was a class leading 14bhp at an astonishing 8000rpm. This gave an 85mph performance – comparable with many 500s of its day. The race bike carried the exotic name: Silverstone Super. Ducati provided a hotter cam, bigger carburettor, race exhaust and rev counter. A small pilot, glued to the fuel tank and with his knees tucked in, could expect to see a genuine 95mph; Grand Prix-level performance.

The chassis was just as good. Taglioni understood all about mass centralisation; the latest vogue among current designers. The Sport is wafer-thin with its mass located low in the frame. The result is outstanding handling. The bike also had excellent brakes with a full-width, seven-inch unit on the front, complete with air scoop, and a six and quarter incher on the back.

Then there was the detailing. The scalloped fuel tank was all the vogue and was carried forward onto the next generation, the 200 Elite. The Silverstone’s razor-thin saddle was designed for the rider to stretch right back, tucked into a racing crouch on the track or look cool on the road. The fuel tank came complete with clips to take a chin pad and a cam box ready for a rev counter. Fifty years ago, these were the equivalent of today’s Moto GP replicas.

So does this mean that the Sport is a bike every enthusiast would want to ride every day? Well, no. The rock-hard suspension, narrow seat and low bars make for a very committed riding experience. The motor vibrates and the left-side kickstart, mounted high on the engine case, is very much an acquired taste. This is not a bike for long relaxing rides through the country lanes – although the less expensive touring/roadgoing versions are rather less demanding to ride and to buy.

The Silverstone is, however, a bike that brings grace to any garage. Like everything from the Bologna factory, quality is everything. Machines that are well presented and in their original specification attract substantial attention from Ducati enthusiasts – and there’s even a Moto Giro d’Italia ‘historical re-enactment’ if you really do want to get into the swing of things…