SD900 Ducati Darmah: An Alsatian in Tiger’s clothing

Bike Profile

Friday night was pub night back in the seventies and early eighties. Our watering hole was the Old Commodore Hotel at Blues Point (North Sydney) where a bunch of us with a common interest in bikes and drinking (in moderation of course) had our own private parking area on the footpath in Union Street, a sort of a free bike show for the other patrons, most of who regarded us with a mixture of suspicion and sorrow.

One of our brethren, Doggie (we all had nick-names; The Duck, Ding, Opals, Zed, Red Ott, The Blade, the Vile and Filthy Builder, to name but a few) had made it known that he would be arriving at the pub on a new and exciting motorcycle, the likes of which had never been seen and which were available only to a select few buyers, of which he was one. Zed got wind of this, and being a cunning Yugo that enjoyed a game, sauntered over to Fraser’s on the Friday afternoon with his well-thrashed Honda and traded it on a new red SD900 Darmah, with the lovely blatty Confi mufflers (open megaphones would be a more accurate description). He headed straight for the pub and parked in it prime position, hours before the rest of us began to arrive.

Appropriately late, and with Zed’s 17 km-old Darmah gleaming in the midst of other machines, the sound of a pair of Contis and Dell’Ortos wide open began to echo from the buildings in Lavender Street, heading from Kirribilli. Doggie had obviously chosen this route as it afforded the most dramatic entrance. Luckily collecting a green light at the intersection, he rode straight up onto ‘our’ pavement, dropped the also-red Dharma onto the stand, then went through his usual routine of methodically removing his riding gear. The sound of the v-twin between the buildings was only matched that evening by the sound of Doggie’s jaw as it hit the footpath the moment he spied Zed’s bike. He was speechless. It took him several minutes before he could manage. “You bastard. Where the #%*! Did you get that?”

A few beers soothed the savage beast, and all was soon forgotten, except by me. Here was a new type of Duke, clearly part of the family, but adapted to make it less rotten to ride. I’d done plenty of miles, some of them horizontal, on v-twin Dukes, but all of the SS variety. The few short road stints were enough to convince me that these machines had in fact been designed by chiropractors in order to drum up business. Great on the track but like riding a broom on the street.

Top left: East meets west. Nippon Denso instruments and switchgear brought new electrical reliability to the Italian marque. Above right: At the heart of the matter was the now-familiar SOHC 864 cc, 86 x 74.4 mm v-twin engine, virtually identical to the 900SS but with slightly lower (9.3:1) compression ratio, smaller 32 mm Dell ‘Orto carburettors and slightly different valve timing, desmodromically operated of course.

The Blade, a man not overly-endowed in the height stakes, was impressed with the low seat height (790 mm) and light weight (216 kg) of the Darmah, as well as the rakish good looks. We made a pact to investigate the matter further. Within a few months, there were four Darmahs at the pub, the two red models and two new black and gold versions owned by The Blade and me. But there was more this quartet than just a colour change. Most un-Ducati like, the model had been substantially re-vamped, rather than re-designed, in just a few short months.

At $2,695 the Darmah was not exactly cheap, but it had quite a few touches I liked; Campagnolo wheels, Brembo brakes, Bosch electronic ignition, electric start, and even Japanese switchgear and Nippon Denso instruments. The recently conceived Australian Design Rule 28 had theoretically consigned the glorious Conti mufflers to the scrap heap, and locally-register Darmahs were fitted with the rather mundane-looking and muted Lafranconi jobs – at least until they were registered. After that, Contis seemed to resurrect themselves from the scrap heap and miraculously reappear on the bikes. The advent of the electric starter called for a higher output 200 watt alternator, combined with a hefty Japanese battery. There were also nice touches such as a dashboard light to warn when the side-stand was down, and clear bowls on the fuel taps so you could tell when water and gorp had entered the system, which in those days, was often.

At the heart of the matter was the now-familiar SOHC 864 cc, 86 x 74.4 mm v-twin engine, virtually identical to the 900SS but with slightly lower (9.3:1) compression ratio, smaller 32 mm Dell ‘Orto carburettors and slightly different valve timing, desmodromically operated of course. The model had its roots in the electric-start 860 GTS, but in reality, shared little apart from the engine. The frame, although visually very similar to the SS, had been altered for very good reasons. The rear upper frame tubes were lowered by 35 mm, and narrowed at the base of the fuel tank by 25 mm, with extra gusseting around the steering head in an attempt to improve high speed stability. The swinging arm was 12 mm longer than the SS, resulting in a long wheelbase for a model already quite lengthy. A hydraulic steering damper mounted on the right side of the steering head seemed almost a gadget, given the quite heavy steering of the bike. Unless the damper was set at the minimum, round-town riding required a strong set of shoulder muscles.

The original Ceriani-equipped red Darmah shown in the factory brochure (inset) and a Darmah shown on the Ducati web site, finished in the red décor of the first model but with the later suspension, wheels and seat.

So just what gave Ducati the inspiration for the Darmah, which is named after a mythical man-eating Tiger-like beast that was supposed to have prowled the Subcontinent before the introduction of cricket? One factor was the influence of former racer Leo Tartarini, the man behind Italjet who had a major hand in numerous other projects including the unloved Enfield Indian, and styled the 250, 350 and 450 cc Ducati singles and the 500 Sport Desmo parallel twin. In fact the 500 Desmo Sport’s lines were very similar to the Darmah’s, but coupled to Ing. Taglioni’s v-twin donk, represented an altogether more desirable machine. Clearly, styling won out over practicality when it came to the capacity of the fuel tank. Although bulbous looking, the tank holds only 15 litres, mainly because the widely-splayed top frame tubes take up so much room underneath, and with a reasonable thirst (about 15 litres/km or 44 mpg) it meant fairly short runs between fuel stops.

The early models of the Darmah – the red and white jobs – seen early 1978, used Ceriani forks, but those that reached the Antipodes later in the year sported Marzocchis front and rear. Both ends were longer (and stiffer) than the early models, giving much-appreciated extra ground clearance of about 25 mm. Braking was definitely a strong point – the cast iron discs and double-acting Brembo callipers, combined with the new Pirelli MT18 tyres producing a stopping package second to none, with far superior feel to the Japanese kit of the time.

Subtly, the power unit/transmission had come in for some changes as well. With left-side gear changing mandated in the USA, the former cross-over shaft transferring the pedal from right to left had been eliminated and the mechanism transferred inside. At 216 kg dry, the Darmah weighed in 28 kg over the SS, which is quite understandable given the starter motor and its ancillaries, side stand and other concessions to practicality.

Once the initial euphoria of charging about the place and revelling in the racket from the exhausts wore off, I found the Darmah to be a bit of a chore where it was used most, that is, around town. The steering, typically Ducati, was heavy at low speeds, and there was precious little in the way of steering lock, as the lock-stops had been set well forward to stop the fork tubes clouting the front of the petrol tank. The low seat and high footrests didn’t work for me, giving a very cramped riding position and sore knees in no time. The narrow, scantily-padded seat didn’t lend itself to long periods in the saddle either. However on the one occasion I used the bike at decent speeds – as a Travelling Marshal at an open road race meeting at Amaroo Park – it seemed very good. The steering got better as it went quicker, the brakes were more than adequate, and there was plenty of ground clearance. You still needed to be patient with the gearbox – no rapid stabbing of the lever like on a Japanese four – but the torque of the engine compensated for the leisurely process of swapping cogs.

The local Ducati importers certainly saw the Darmah as the way to crack volume sales, as opposed to the specialist market enjoyed by the SS and other tricky Latins like the Laverdas and Moto Guzzis. But inevitably, the SD 900 was seen as a soft touch compared to the SS, so to demonstrate its tiger teeth, one was entered by Bill McDonald for the 1979 Castrol Six Hour Race at Amaroo Park, fettled by Peter Lane with riders Terry Kelly and Stuart Avant. In qualifying, the Darmah struggled to break the minute barrier, placing it way down the grid, but as the race progressed so did the SD 900, making steady process through the field and turning regular 59 second laps until it was sidelined at the four hour mark with a broken throttle cable.

This was not an altogether uncommon malady. The previous (SS) twin cable twistgrip had been replaced by a single cable with a junction box under the fuel tank. The final (single) section of cable ran in a nylon sleeve, which was known to become detached, bunching up inside the twistgrip housing and jamming the cable. I can attest to this through personal experience. Riding with a mate around the back streets of Lane Cove, I grabbed a big handful of throttle up a hill, which culminated in a roundabout, at which point I had planned to turn left. Shutting the throttle at the crest of the hill, the Darmah carried on with increasing gusto, hurdling the roundabout, which thankfully was devoid of turning traffic at the time. Fortunately the kill switch did its job and a disaster was averted. The twistgrip was obviously jammed, and on dismantling it on the side of the road, I found the plastic sleeve scrunch up inside. The simplest fix in the circumstances was to take a cigarette lighter and melt it away, leaving a rather mangled looking cable, but one that worked well enough to make it home.

Ross Kramer’s SD900, rebuilt from a wreck. Note later type seat compared to Greg Free’s bike (below).
Greg Free’s original, unmolested Darmah that he has owned since new and has ridden for 48,000 trouble-free kilometers.

It was another in a long line of niggling traits and faults that were leaving me less and less enamoured with the Darmah, blown headlights, the tediously heavy steering around town, a rather uncomfortable (too narrow) seat, a battery that refused to stay charged and other minor things adding to the growing feeling of dissatisfaction. One week later I read of the new DOHC Honda CB900 and the Darmah’s fate was sealed. Off it went to Ric Andrews Honda shop in Hornsby to be traded in without a backward glance.

All his is not say that the Darmah was a crook bike – far from it. By far the most practical use of the 864 v-twin engine so far, it introduced the joys of Ducati ownership to a whole multitude of new owners who yearned for something different to the Japanese multis. The Darmah had style and character, and with the Contis fitted, sounded superb. Out on the open road, at least the sections with corners, it was Heaven on a stick.

Ian Gowanloch, a man who knows a thing or two about Ducatis, reckons the original (red) model was the best of the lot. “ It was a better bike to ride. The Campagnolo wheels were much lighter than the later FPS wheels, so the bike steered better. The shorter suspension also helped the steering, but the trade-off was that things dragged on the ground.” The Campagnolo and Speedline wheels, lighter or not, were susceptible to cracking and were recalled by the factory.

The Darmah continued with minor changes for another five years. Curiously, one of its most endearing features, the ‘ducktail’ rear seat moulding, made way for a nondescript flat-sided affair that rather destroyed Tartarni’s lines. Its final incarnation was the 900 S2, with its half fairing – mid-way between an SS and the SD. The factory churned out Darmah-ish models in various colours to use up surplus bits, so the very last machines were something of a pastiche compared to the original concept.

Probably the SD900 was at its best in exactly the situation I first encountered it – posing at the pub, because in a crowd, it certainly stood out like the proverbial tiger’s testicles.

Off the Shelf: 1978 Ducati 900SD Darmah

Engine: Air cooled, four stroke, 90°“L”twin cylinder, SOHC, desmodromic 2 valve per cylinder.
Capacity: 864 cc
Bore & Stroke: 86 x 74.4 mm
Compression Ratio: 9.4:1
Induction: 2x 32mm Dell’Orto PHM  carbs.
Ignition / Starting: Bosch electronic  /  electric or kick
Max Power: 74hp @ 7500 rpm
Max Torque: 55.1 Nm @ 5,800 rpm
Transmission / Drive: 5 Speed  /  chain
Front Suspension: Marzocchi Telescopic forks
Rear Suspension: Marzocchi shocks 5-way spring preload adjustable.
Front Brakes: 2x 280mm discs
Rear Brakes: Single 260mm disc 1 piston caliper
Front Tyre: 3.50-18 Pirelli MT18
Rear Tyre: 4.25-18 Pirelli MT 18
Dry-Weight/Wet-Weight: 216 kg  / 224 kg
Fuel Capacity: 15.6 Litres
Standing quarter mile: 13.6 sec / 159 km/h
Top Speed: 184.5 km/h

Story and photos: Jim Scaysbrook • Featured machine: Owner Greg Free

This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.16