Why The Ducati 900 Super Sport Is A Quintessential Piece Of Italian Motorcycling
Photography by Will Broadhead
There aren’t many things that make my heart flutter like an Italian motorcycle. The first bike I can remember seeing as an infant was in a photo of my dad astride his Ducati Monza, with clubman drop handlebars and a racing seat. That stance and style was forever ensconced in my being—that was what motorcycles were supposed to look like.
So that was it, Ducatis were the bikes for me, especially growing up in the era of the 916 and Carl Fogarty. Since then I’ve owned a few, crashed a few, and even had the joy of an old Monza being back in the family for a short time. But there is one machine in the Ducati stable that has always captured my imagination a little bit more than the others; the 900 Super Sport of the 1970s variety.
Like many of the manufacturer’s great bikes, the 900 SS, was born out of a desire to go racing. 1970 saw the management of Arnaldo Milvio and Fredmano Spairani declare that Ducati would return to the track after a hiatus of 11 years, and with the Japanese manufacturers dominating the smaller-capacity classes with their two-stroke machinery, the Italians decided to go big. This led them on a journey that would result in the 900, and change the troubled company’s fortunes in spectacular fashion, laying the blueprint for Ducati machinery for years to come.
At the heart of the 900 SS is the Ducati Desmo L-twin, an engine synonymous with Ducati in the way that the boxer twin is with BMWs. Up until 1970, Ducati had only produced small-capacity single-cylinder machines, but in 1970 the first twin arrived in the guise of the 500cc GP motor. It was woefully underpowered, though, compared to the mighty MV Agusta’s campaigned by another Italian motorcycling legend, Giacomo Agostini.
A 750cc motor was being developed at the same time as the 500cc, and it coincided with the announcement of a new Formula 750 racing series for production bikes, with the inaugural 200-mile race set for Imola on April 23, 1972. This presented Ducati with a wonderful opportunity.
Taglioni finished the new 750cc engine in a month, and with Ducati’s Desmodromic valve system (using a system of cams to positively close the valve, as opposed to springs), specially-developed camshafts, and large Dell’Orto carbs the motor could rev to 9,200rpm and deliver 84 horses to the rear wheel; phenomenal numbers for a twin-cylinder engine at the time.
In the hands of British grand prix rider Paul Smart, the new bike, on road tires and still with center stand lugs on the frame, broke Ago’s lap record around the Modena test track. The bike, it seemed, “had the stuff.” Smart went on to win the Imola 200, and the 750’s status as an icon was sealed. From there people clamored for production models of the winning bike, and as the decade drew on and the four-cylinder Japanese machines began to eclipse the twins, Taglioni upped the capacity of the motor, producing the square-engine-cased 860GT endurance racer. This engine then appeared in a production model for 1975, housed in amongst 750 SS parts, and the 900 SS was born. It became something of an instant classic.
Early 900s very closely resembled the 750 race bikes, even retaining the right-hand side gear change—still the proper side, if you ride British bikes!—and had the race bike’s 40mm carburetors. Unfortunately, with the greater stress experienced by a race engine coupled with some iffy electrics, the bike had a reputation as being somewhat unreliable; the start of an ongoing fashion perhaps? The model photographed here is a later 1977 example, and part of the first true production variants of this bike. With upgraded electrics, as well as smaller carburetors and less expansive exhaust mufflers to meet noise and emissions standards, the bike could now be sold worldwide without issue.
Of course, if you mess with anything enough you can break it entirely, but the Super Sport is a handsome beast in all of its guises, even the later twin-seat models. For me though, the early-‘70s examples are the best, a true race rep’ for the road and a motorcycle that looks fast on its stand. It sounds as good as it looks, the signature thrum of the Desmo motor sings like a baritone, and the induction noise—especially on the earlier, larger carbs—is wonderfully audible, a pointer at what was to come with the drum-like airboxes of later Ducatis. The engine is of course part of the machine’s signature, a sculpture of mechanical function that instantly identifies it as being part of the Ducati stable—this is a piece of engineering that I could stare at for hours.
Romance plays a huge role in our adoration of cars and bikes, and this motorcycle certainly ticks that box for me, but I do believe that it is as good as it looks. With a style that is now being copied by not just custom builders with café racer dreams, but by mainstream builders like Triumph (and of course Ducati itself, with the Sport Classic Paul Smith tribute), the 900’s part in the impact on Ducati’s fortunes in its heyday—as well as it’s legacy—secures it as being one of the most important motorcycles ever built. But regardless of that, to my eye it is a motorcycle that simply sounds fantastic, looks tremendous, and makes me extremely happy every time I get to see one.
Thank you to the team at the Classic Motor Hub for lending me the bike featured. Perhaps when the weather clears up we’ll take it out for a proper ride.