Timing is everything in a battle – military or sales. Initiate actions too late and you will be on the back foot. Commit your resources too early and they will be wasted – and you will lose. Nowhere is this adage more apparent than with the Ducati Classic range.
The Classics owe their birth to a series of fortunate, or maybe unfortunate, circumstances for the Bologna factory and the story is a fascinating one.
At the epicenter of the tale is Pierre Terblanche, the South African born, but internationally domiciled, designer who engenders unequivocal responses whenever his work is seen in public. Terblanche fans rate Pierre as one of the great motorcycle designers of all time with a string of iconic motorcycles to his name – such as the first Ducati Multistrada, the MH900E Ducati and Confederate X132 Hellcat Speedster.
His critics point to the universally reviled Ducati 999, which was bland compared to the genius of the 916, to show what happens when the South African misses the mark.
Pierre is a Mike Hailwood fan and, born in 1956, is old enough to remember the classic era of motorcycle racing. Having, nearly, been there when this wonderful period of motorcycle racing was taking place the sights, sounds and the very feel of these evocative motorcycles are interwoven into his DNA. This is an important factor in the Ducati Classic story.
In an homage to Hailwood, and his 1978 TT winning 900SS Ducati, Terblanche penned the MH900E for Ducati in September 1998. The bike was a sort of Retro, Café Racer, tribute bike – or something along those lines – and immediately elicited rave reactions both from the press and Ducatisti. I was at head of the queue praising the bike for its style, originality and honesty.
The E stood for Evoluzione and was a really clever interpretation of what a Ducati 900SS might have looked 20 years on from Hailwood’s legendary win.
Ducati tested the market with a web survey and, on the basis of the positive response, the factory decided to take a chance on the radical new bike and produce 2000 units. However, Ducati’s CEO at the time, Massimo Bordi, was still nervous about the project so decided to protect the company’s back by selling the MH directly from Bologna and just giving dealers a PDI and delivery fee for handling the new motorcycle.
Sales opened on January 1, 2000 at 00:01am GMT with a price of 15,000 Euros – which was a lot of money at the time. The first 1000 units were sold out in just over half an hour and the rest of the production run went in a couple of weeks.
Clearly, Retro was hot, Terblanche could deliver the styling goods – and a brand-new money tree had just popped up in Ducati’s income orchard.
With the benefit of hindsight, which I didn’t possess at the time, I think that it was the Mike Hailwood name which led Ducati astray. Like so many other motorcyclists of my generation, I worshiped Hailwood and, had I not been re-building my life after some very severe financial challenges, I would have been logging into Ducati’s website desperate to put my 15,000 Euros down and own a piece of Hailwood memorabilia.
However, when I took delivery of my MH I would have stroked, polished and loved it – but the motoart would have probably seen very little time on the road. In this respect, I was an archetypal MH900E customer.
Fast forward to the 2003 Tokyo Motorcycle Show and Ducati appear with another radical Terblanche concept – this time for Retro motorcycles and now doffing the cap of nostalgia towards Paul Smart’s 1972 Imola 200 win.
The new bikes were fairly hard core, café racer styled machines complete with low handlebars and rear set footrests which demanded a committed riding stance. That’s the classic DNA dominating Terblanche’s pen once again. The new bikes were well received – particularly by the media, who didn’t have to buy them!
So, the middle aged, but amply funded, wended their way into Ducati showrooms all over the world, test rode the new bike on their own and then returned with aching knees and numbed wrists. And yes, I was one of them.
Meanwhile, their life partner had been drumming her fingers on the Ducati salesman’s desk wondering what was her part in the proceedings – other than signing off the check. And another yes to this part of the story too.
If the lady was motorcycle minded, the price of the Classic had also come to her attention. If she liked Ducatis, the company would sell the couple the fast, comfortable, sophisticated ST Tourer for almost an identical price to the Sport. Triumph’s insipid Bonneville was much cheaper, and more practical, if the pair wanted to go down the still nascent Retro route. Just as importantly, the Bonnie was over $4000 cheaper than the Duc – and that’s a lot of money in the purely recreational end of the motorcycle market.
There was another problem – and a major one too. Riders migrating from Supersports bikes to the Bonneville, often because they were drinking in the last chance saloon in terms of retaining their license, were full of praise for its mild, inoffensive, law-abiding power.
Equally, classic bike owners liked the Bonneville because its performance was not much better than a good British classic motorcycle – if at all.
By contrast, the Classic was most certainly not dull. With a 92 horsepower V-Twin engine housed in a package weighing only 400 and a bit pounds, the new Duc was very frisky – much more so than even the sportiest genuine old bike. This was not a motorcycle which middle-aged, ever-thickening waist and thinning hair customers recognized at all.
At the same time, sports riders coming from Fireblades and 999s looked at 92 horsepower with contempt. 92 horsepower and 130mph? That’s disability scooter territory!
The handling was also completely out of synch with its time. For a start, instead of faking a classic bike with 18-inch wheels, the Classics came with 17 inchers laced on to sports bike wide rims. 43mm, inverted Marzocchi forks were not paying homage to anything produced by Ducati post Imola – and even less to a classic British bike.
None of this meant Ducati did not understand, in a very intimate way, how the bike should handle. With a steering head angle of 24 degrees and 103mm of trail, the Classic was balanced perfectly on the edge of sports bike steering geometry. Another one-degree steeper head angle, and a tiny bit less trail, and you are into counter-steering and all the other modern sports bike nonsense. As things stood, the handling was race track steady while remaining utterly intuitive and neutral.
The brakes also caused eyeballs to pop out on prospective customers. There were no single discs or drums here. On the contrary, a pair of walloping great Brembo 320mm anchors lived up front and an equally impressive 240mm disc was at the rear.
Clearly, where the Classics fitted perfectly was in a brand-new category – the Supersports Retro. Sadly, for Ducati, this slot didn’t exist at the time!
The problem for Ducati was that by this point in the project, serious money had been invested in the new bikes. At the heart of the range was the best ever air cooled motor produced by the boys from Bologna. The new, six speed engine was 992cc and produced a very acceptable 92 horsepower at 8000 rpm and a just as impressive 67.25 lb-ft of torque at a mere 6000 rpm.
Ducati spent a lot of cash developing the powerplant to make it efficient and Euro 3 compliant with a huge amount of effort going into the cylinder head, which has a very narrow valve angle, together with a brand-new combustion chamber shape and much shortened exhaust tract. These changes, plus 45mm Marelli electronic fuel injectors feeding each short stroke 94 x 71.5mm cylinder, and twin spark ignition, allow the motor to run very lean and yet still efficiently.
In the real world, the engine is a peach – torquey, powerful and with a very anthropomorphic throb: authentically classic and yet thoroughly modern. The six speed gearbox is faultless and the hydraulic clutch rider friendly and progressive.
In fact, Ducati hit the dead center of the target with this engine. All that was missing was a mass appeal chassis.
Enter then, in 2006, the GT – the first bike Ducati should have made in the Classic range. Gone is the rather affected, single-sided swinging arm of the Paul Smart rep, and the café racer riding position of the Classic Sport, to be replaced by a traditional twin sided design and much more upright riding position. The divorce inducing single seat was shown the door, to be replaced by a truly lovely dual saddle. Relocating the footrests, and raising the ‘bars, meant that the ergonomics became instantly rider friendly.
Not that the new bike lacked anything in terms of handling or performance. The chassis was a close sibling of the café racers and the brakes and motor were identical. How good was the handling? In 2008, I was very much on Ducati’s Christmas card list and so I got an invitation to ride in their TT celebration with a lap of the TT course on closed roads – and with no speed control. The old GP bike I was supposed to ride ‘phoned in sick and so the only thing available was a Classic GT and I can report that the handling is sublime at 100mph plus speeds – all the way to unintentionally touching down the right-hand silencer at Sulby Bridge!
I was so impressed with the bike that, once more, I nearly bought one.
Nearly was the key adverb because a lot more customers for the Ducati Classics almost, but not quite, got out their wallets – and nearly doesn’t pay the bills. Retro, complete with faded, fake t-shirts and life-style accessories, hadn’t quite yet come to town and so the GT, and its siblings, were just slow, old-fashioned modern motorcycles.
With sales grinding to a halt, production was stopped in 2010 and the bike entered a dark and gloomy backwater. If you wanted a cheap Retro/Modern Classic, this was the time to buy one.
Ironically, the winter of 2010 was just the time when the youngsters discovered Retro!
Andrew Woods, of Woods Motorcycles, is a long standing Ducati dealer. He remembers the situation well. “We had plenty of customers test ride the Classic but they never bought them. The problem was that there were many other bikes you could get for the same money.
“The Sport was also uncomfortable. Your bum was stuck up in the air and the clip-ons were far too low. The saddle height was also too high. Compared with a Triumph Bonneville, this wasn’t a bike you could imagine riding all day – for the very good reason that you couldn’t ride it all day without getting off crippled!
“In the end, we discounted them, as every other Ducati dealer in Britain did, just to get rid of them.
“Ducati should have launched the bikes with the Paul Smart and the GT, which is really comfortable, and then brought out the Sport later.
“The odd thing was the people who did buy Classics loved the bikes, particularly the GT, but there just wasn’t enough of them to keep the range in production.”
The road to anonymity was helped by the fact that even owners of the GT version of the classic didn’t ride them very much, so the bikes weren’t even seen out in public sufficiently to generate a critical mass of interest.
This is a shame because an alternative way of viewing the $11,495 selling price is that Ducati had provided a motorcycle of stunning quality. For example, very few production motorcycles can match the quality of the paintwork. Each fuel tank was hand sprayed and then flatted down four times before leaving the production line.
The attention to detail is sublime, with a polished alloy top fork yoke and a truly magnificent alloy bracket for the front mudguard on which all the weld puddles can be seen, just like a classic thoroughbred.
For me, the attention to detail and finish of the bike are what make it special. Terblanche almost, but not quite, got the overall look perfect too. Walk round the bike and it is catch-your-breath beautiful from every angle – except one. Why there is such a huge gap between the rear wheel and the mudguard is beyond me.
Out on the road, the GT is superb – very involving but without the constant worry of license-losing speeds. With peak torque at 6000 rpm it’s an easy, relaxing ride and, even two-up, hills are dismissed with contempt. Like all Ducatis, it’s over geared for radar and laser monitored Britain and the GT needs a tooth smaller gearbox sprocket to keep the motor in the sweet spot at legal speeds.
Being a V-Twin, with the weight concentrated along the center line, the bike feels lighter than it is, even with a full four-gallons of fuel which the GT sips at a miserly 40mpg plus.
Relaxed cruising speed is 80mph and it will zip up to this with ease and enthusiasm. The ergonomics are excellent with a near perfect riding position for me at 5’ 10”. The saddle is thick and supportive and there is plenty of wriggle room for Carol on the pillion too.
Being light and slim, the GT is also city center friendly and ideal for lane splitting.
The standard silencers emit a lovely, deep Ducati throb and why anyone should think that fitting aftermarket cans to a GT, and so annoying everyone, is utterly beyond me. In fact, it’s the perfect bike for 2016.
The word slowly got around amongst Ducatisti that the Classics were worth having. The first bike in the range to go collector-priced ballistic was the Paul Smart. There were only 2000 of these built to begin with and it didn’t require much interest to hike up the price. However, there is a vast difference between what greedy owners, and dealers, think that they can get for PS Classics and what money actually changes hands. $15,000 will still buy a mint PS.
The situation is the same for the Sport and GT models too with a fair sprinkling of avaricious vendors hoping for an easy hit.
Not that the story is over quite yet. By 2015, the Retro market was on fire – led by Triumph’s excellent Bonneville range. With the arrival of the Triumph Thruxton R the GT was back in the frame – not as a collector’s bike but rather as a legitimate motorcycle to own and ride in its own right.
Here’s where things become very interesting indeed. The GT is a direct competitor for a standard Thruxton R – except that it is better in many ways. The performance is very similar – even down to the fuel consumption – and the handling is just as good. The Triumph brakes better but there is very, very little to choose between the two bikes.
Where the GT wins hands down is that it is a vastly more practical motorcycle. The Duc has a dual seat as standard and the riding position is much more sensible. It’s also an expensive exercise to get a Thruxton R into GT trim. Finally, it is possible to buy a really nice GT for half the price of a Thruxton. In fact, all the Ducati Classic range are available to be bought at sensible prices – especially if you have cash to put down on the table rather than taking a part exchange into a dealer.
So, don’t be put off by the apparent “collector’s prices” you will see advertised and don’t be persuaded by the argument that you can never lose money on a Ducati Classic because the actors for what maybe the final act in the saga are currently in the wings, waiting to come on to the stage.
In 2014, Ducati launched their own Retro with the Scrambler range of bikes and these became an immediate best seller. However, the one thing missing was a 1000cc Café Racer. The word among the media now is that this is an absolute certainty for the near future…
When the new bike appears, the Ducati Classic range will immediately fade into becoming just nice, old bikes. So if you are thinking about selling your Duc Classic, now is the time to do it. If you are going to buy one, and are price conscious, wait until next year.
And now for a final, personal, post script to this story. Carol and I had decided that we didn’t need, or really want, another road bike. We were a racing couple and the race paddock, with our race bike, is where we naturally live. Equally, we had never, since we first met, been without a road bike.
I wanted to write a story about a Ducati Classic GT so we called in at a dealer who had one for sale to refresh my memory. The GT sat there – 10 years old, gleaming red and with just 3500 miles on the odometer. Carol was smitten on the spot. Then she sat on the saddle and was even more impressed. Ten minutes later, a spot of informal research had become a sale – and that doesn’t happen many times in a motojournalist’s career!
One thousand miles later, the GT has been one of the best motorcycle purchases I have ever made. It’s everything I want as a solo rider or for us as a riding couple – and it’s saved us more than $7000 over the cost of a new Thruxton R. As for price increases or falls, we’re having too much fun to bother.