Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder, and who is there among us that does not behold the silver and green round-case Ducati 750 SS as the personification of motorcycling beauty?
“Whenever I have an old Super Sport out the front of the shop,” says Ducati guru Arthur Davis, proprietor of Byron Bay’s Desmo HQ, “people actually stop their cars and get out and walk in, then stand there viewing it as if it’s in an art gallery. And they come into the shop and ask what it is, and how old it is. They don’t know anything about it but it stopped them driving past to come back and have a look. People are in awe of them and, after thirty years, there’s surely no greater accolade to the Ducati designers than that.”
It’s also said that beauty is only skin deep, but not in this instance. The 750 SS is solid perfection through and through.
The artistry began in 1972 when famed engineer/designer Fabio Taglioni and his dedicated team at Ducati prepared eight racing bikes to take on the field in the first 200 mile race at Imola in Italy. This new 750 formula was the MotoGP of its day and had been dominated by Honda and BSA triples, with Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Moto Guzzi and the occasional MV Agusta making up the field.
Taglioni’s machines were based on 750 GT V-twin models taken off the production line. Wherever possible they were lightened and the latest Dell’Orto 40mm accelerator pump carburettors were fitted to the desmodromic two-valve heads, which replaced the GT’s spring valve heads.
“The desmo head was especially important,” says Arthur Davis, “because spring technology back in the ‘70s was nothing like it is now and there was no way they could make a spring valve motor rev out or behave like a desmo motor. Desmo valves gave the Ducati motor a big advantage and made insane cam timing possible.”
What emerged were eight sparse-looking, fully faired machines painted in silver metal flake with pale blue frames, developing 80 bhp at 8,500 rpm. Two Italians, Ermanno Giuliano and Bruno Spaggiari, and two Englishmen, Paul Smart and Alan Dunscombe, were engaged to ride them and, much to everyone’s surprise and delight, Smart and Spaggiari came in first and second.
It’s hard to credit but this single victory changed Ducati’s fortunes forever and turned the Imola desmo into one of the most famous racing bikes in the world.
In conversation with Arthur, Paul Smart still marvels that his whole racing career is remembered for that one win. “I rode factory Kawasakis and Hondas, raced all over the place, and yet all people can recall is me at Imola on the Ducati.”
Spaggiari’s second-placed Imola machine was brought to Australia soon after by Ducati importer Ron Angel and was raced by Kenny Blake wherever competition rules permitted. It recently turned up at an auction house in England and was sold for several hundred thousand pounds.
Flushed with the success of Imola, Ducati then set about producing its piece de resistance, transmogrifying the racing bike into the 750 Super Sport, distinguished by its half fairing, flared fibreglass fuel tank with a clear strip down the side to show fuel level, a single seat, that inspired combination of pale green frame and silver paint, and the divine desmo round-case V-twin motor fully on display.
Every previous attempt at the café racer style was embodied in and then engulfed and overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and functionality of the 750 SS. The Italian Renaissance had finally extended to motorcycles. This avant-garde creation made practically all other modern motorcycles look like Gothic horrors.
The front cylinder was mounted forward of the front two frame down tubes so that the upright rear cylinder was well within the frame. This allowed for excellent cooling, a low centre of gravity and a short wheelbase that greatly helped the machine’s superb handling. The brakes were absolutely startling for the day and the stainless steel Conti mufflers gave off a sound that made heads turn and pulses race.
With a five-speed unit construction gearbox, power output of 65 bhp at 8,000 rpm and a top speed of 135 mph (217km/h), the 750 SS was the ultimate sports bike of its day. The factory also supplied a kit that transformed it into a full-on Formula 750 racer and many owners enjoyed success on them at the track.
Arthur Davis is pretty sure that only 220 round-case SS models were made, though the figure of 450 has been opined by another well-regarded source. No one is positive because Ducati’s record keeping was rather haphazard back then. Somewhere between 20-25 came to Australia and New Zealand, and Arthur can account for 22 of them still in service.
“None of the 750 SS’ went to America, though,” Arthur recalls. “ When the Japanese decided that the whole world couldn’t use its right foot to change gears any more, only left-hand change motorbikes could be sold in the U.S. Ducati basically botched the job of trying to get the gear change to the left hand side and that held them back, too. It wasn’t ‘til the time of the Hailwood replicas that it became a nice mechanism.”
“The SS’ are magnificent things to ride,” says Arthur. “The riding position is a perfect balance between feet, arms and seat, with the fairing taking a little bit of pressure off your chest. They might not look comfortable but you can ride them for hundreds of miles with ease. They were a great tourer, even though you couldn’t carry much more than yourself. You could sit on a hundred miles an hour all day and the faster you went, the easier it got.
“The main reason people still love them so much is they’re such a nice thing to ride.”
These attributes have made the round-case 750 SS one of the most highly sought after motorbikes ever produced in reasonable numbers.
“They went through a period when they were practically worthless,” Arthur remembers. “People considered them to be horrible, unreliable old Ducatis. Now you’ll get no change out of a hundred grand, if you can find one.”
The defining distinction of that first 750 SS is the round-case motor, and the square-case motor that followed didn’t quite have the same aesthetic flow but Arthur is quick to defend the latter.
“The silver and blue ’75 model 750 SS was a much better, much faster motorcycle. It was released alongside the 900 SS, which looked identical except for the side cover transfers declaring its larger capacity.”
There are some underlying factors that also contribute to the 750 SS legend in general and to Ducati in particular.
“Ducati always sold the public what they raced and even the road-going superbikes could easily be tweaked to make them the same as the full-on racing bikes,” Arthur says from experience. “Ducati makes their highest technology available to Joe Soap. When superbikes were using control tyres, customers could enter their over-the-counter machines and win races. Gary McCoy won one at Philip Island. The same goes for these 990 Desmosedici MotoGP replicas that are coming out soon. They’re the real thing, made to exactly the same engineering standards as the factory racers. Ducati were like that when the 750 SS first came out and they’ve never changed. They’ve never been scared of bringing the company undone by spending money to go racing. It’s a passion they have and they’ll never be able to let go of it. They will never let making money get in the way of having fun.”
It almost sounds too good to be true but Ducati have shown that it is, over and over again, with great racing successes and closely-related models being released to the public soon after. The green and silver round-case 750 SS was the first example of Ducati’s passion for all things fast and beautiful. It was the spark that exploded Ducati onto the world market and into motorcycling consciousness.
Patrick O’Brian, famed author of the Aubrey/Maturin seafaring sagas, once said, ‘words are essentially beside the point when it comes to art’. He’s right. No words can capture or relate the charismatic beauty of this machine. It’s wholly within that mystic realm called ‘art’ and will remain so for ever. And, unlike your average Rembrandt or Van Gogh, it will do a hundred miles an hour all day, and the faster you go, the easier it gets.
Arthur Davis started working with Ducatis at Gowanlock in Sydney during the ‘80s, then went to Fraser’s in 1992 to build desmo engines for their Superbike team. He ended up running the team and they won the Australian Superbike title in 1999, after lots of trying and near misses. He then travelled between Australia and the U.S. to help the racing efforts of Advanced Motor Sports, a Ducati franchisee in Texas. They won the AMA No 1 plate in the ProThunder Series using 748 Ducatis, and came 2nd the following year. Arthur then moved to the Byron Bay area and opened DESMO HQ, where he continues to indulge his passion for Ducatis. His first motorcycle, a 450 desmo single, is still in his possession, along with many others of the same illustrious marque.
Arthur’s tip of the week: ‘if you have a spare hundred grand lying around, buy a MotoGP Desmosedici replica. They’ll be worth twice that within six months’.
The Ducati disease
Murray Kahler likes his Dukes. The obsession started when, at just 18 years of age, he bought a 900SS, and he still owns it. His Ducati collection numbers around ten and will shortly increase by one with the imminent arrival of his new Desmosedici – the MotoGP replica that was an instant classic the moment it was announced.
At the other end of the scale sits his 750SS Green Frame “Round Case”, and although it hasn’t been started for a few years, is in running order with the exception of the brakes. The original Scarab callipers are still fitted and the internal seals are now long past their prime. “If I put fluid in, it would just leak out all over everything, and I don’t want to put later (Brembo) callipers on, that would ruin the originality. I’ve got plenty of others to ride”, Murray says. These include much more recent examples, including a 996R and 999, which get outings in ride days at Queensland Raceway when Murray’s busy schedule permits, as well as a 1977 900SS with less than 1000 kilometres on the clock. It still has the as-supplied ‘quiet pipes’ fitted, with the obligatory 40mm Dell Ortos and Conti mufflers still in their original wrappers.
Entering his home in Toowoomba, you’re immediately confronted with a large glass case, containing the green-frame 750SS, the famous Eddie Lopez 900SS (raced by Andrew Johnson and others), and his ex-works 860 NCR, which OBA’s editor demonstrated in New Zealand earlier in the year. Downstairs in the workshop there’s a mouth-watering array of Ducatis and a few ‘other’ makes, a gleaming stainless steel-topped bench, work-stands, special tools, spare parts – everything a man should have to truly enjoy his hobby.
We sent along ace lensman Michael Andrews to capture Murray’s 750SS and we’re grateful to Murray for the opportunity.
Story: Michael Robinson • Photos: Michael Andrews