21st December 2020

Motorcycling Landmarks: the Ducati 750 Desmo

The history of Ducati motorcycles is divided into two eras, separated by the introduction of one particular engine and a sporting victory that has passed into legend. The engine that changed Ducati was the 750 Desmo and the event was winning the 1972 Imola 200 race.

Prior to the 750, Ducati’s entire history, from its first motorcycles in 1950, was built on single cylinder engines of various capacities, ranging from low-powered commuter models to sporty overhead cam machines with desmodromic valve operation (desmo). Chief designer Fabio Taglioni was a fan of desmo valve gear, in which the valves are mechanically opened and shut by cams. Unlike conventional engines that rely on springs to close the valves, a desmo keeps control of its valves even at the highest revs, essential for high power outputs.

In 1970, as the era of the superbike was dawning, Taglioni created a 750 V-twin based largely on a pair of 350 singles mounted at 90 degrees to each other; one pointing forward, one upwards, in what Ducati called an L-twin layout. The first production model, the 750GT, rolled off the line in late 1971. In a market dominated by Honda fours and BSA/Triumph triples it looked rather odd and ungainly to conservative buyers and sales were slow.

Ducati management took a gamble. They entered the inaugural Imola 200 race for Formula 750 machines, in the hope that a good result would boost market confidence in the new V-twin, and that sales would follow. They built a small batch of race bikes, adding desmo valve gear and upping the power from around 60 to over 80bhp. The chassis was based on experience with previous factory race bikes and input from Colin Seeley, the famous UK frame builder.

Despite riding for most of the race with no first gear, Paul Smart took his Ducati to victory, with team mate Bruno Spaggiari four seconds behind, ahead of the cream of international competition, including world champion Agostini on a special MV and teams from Triumph, Norton, Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki. The huge, mainly Italian, crowd went wild with delight and so did Ducati’s management, letting Smart keep the bike in addition to his $10,000 winnings.

Ducati’s gamble had paid off. As Taglioni himself said, “when we won at Imola, we won in the market too.” Sales of V-twin models began to pick up, setting a new direction for the company. In 1974 Ducati finally launched a road-going replica of the Imola bikes, the 750 Super Sport, complete with distinctive silver bodywork and blue/green frame. With a top speed of 135 mph and a ferocious roar from its Conti megaphones, it was one of the most coveted, and expensive, motorcycles in the world.

Further successes followed, including Mike Hailwood’s fairy tale comeback after 11 years, winning the TT in 1978 on a 900cc Ducati desmo. By this time, the singles had passed into history and Ducati’s future was to consist almost entirely of V-twins. Multiple World Superbike championships have since built on this heritage and turned Ducati into arguably the most glamorous of motorcycle marques – almost the two wheeled Ferrari?

Have you rode one of these amazing machines? Let us know what you thought in the comments