Du­cati 860gT

'The GT’s de­signer, noted car stylist Gior­getto Gi­u­giaro (cre­ator of the Lo­tus Esprit, VW Golf, and many oth­ers), had com­bined the new Gran Turismo ma­chine’s striking lines with han­dle­bars that not only made sus­tained high-speed rid­ing un­com­fort­able, but

Bike India - - CONTENTS - WORDS & PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: ROLAND BROWN

we look back to one of the sweet­est-han­dling street-bikes of the time

THIS SHOULD NOT HAVE been hap­pen­ing. There I was, bank­ing through a gen­tle right-hand curve with the 860GT's speedome­ter read­ing about 130 km/h, when a slight twitch of the han­dle­bars an­nounced the start of a gen­tle weave. The bike set­tled down again when I slowed slightly, and it was cer­tainly noth­ing wor­ry­ing — but even so! Back in the mid-1970s, when this bike was built, Du­cati's rep­u­ta­tion for high-speed han­dling and sta­bil­ity was sec­ond to none.

My first thought was that the GT's ten­dency to get slightly light-headed at speed was due to this par­tic­u­lar bike's age and con­di­tion. But a look through some old mag­a­zine tests re­vealed that the 860GT was crit­i­cised for ex­actly the same thing when it was new in 1975. Words like “weave” and “wob­ble” had not been nec­es­sary when test­ing pre­vi­ous Du­catis such as the 450 Desmo sin­gle or the 750GT, but were used about the 860 by testers who were even more sur­prised than I was all th­ese years later.

At least the prob­lem could eas­ily be solved, be­cause it was traced to the high, wide han­dle­bars that helped give this bike a very dif­fer­ent look from pre­vi­ous Du­catis. The GT's de­signer, noted car stylist Gior­getto Gi­u­giaro (cre­ator of the Lo­tus Esprit, VW Golf, and many oth­ers), had com­bined the new Gran Turismo ma­chine's striking lines with han­dle­bars that not only made sus­tained high-speed rid­ing un­com­fort­able, but also cre­ated dis­rup­tive steer­ing forces that even the

Du­cati's ba­si­cally sound chas­sis could not com­pletely con­trol.

That did not pre­vent con­tem­po­rary testers from giv­ing the 860GT an en­thu­si­as­tic welcome, and con­clud­ing that a re­designed rid­ing po­si­tion was the only thing it needed to be­come a su­perb ma­chine. By no means ev­ery­one liked the an­gu­lar shape, but Du­cati's first big­bore sports-tourer was cer­tainly dis­tinc­tive, as well as be­ing the largest-ca­pac­ity bike that the firm had ever put into pro­duc­tion. And if it didn't match the glam­our or sheer speed of the 900SS that fol­lowed it into show­rooms in the same year, the GT promised plenty of per­for­mance along with more prac­ti­cal­ity and a lower price.

Its air-cooled, 864-cc V-twin mo­tor was es­sen­tially a pair of Du­cati's 450 sin­gle-cylin­der mo­tors on a com­mon crank­case. Cylin­der an­gle was 90 de­grees, drive to the sin­gle over­head camshafts was by bevel gear, and the GT used con­ven­tional valve oper­a­tion rather than the desmod­romic sys­tem that would be em­ployed for the SS. Du­cati re­vealed that peak power was pro­duced at 6,900 rpm. No fig­ure was given for the out­put, but the tuned SS pro­duced a claimed 80 PS, so the GT's fig­ure would have been a lit­tle less than 70 PS at the crank­shaft.

This softly-tuned mo­tor might not have had the desmo valveg­ear or high-revving horse­power of the SS, but by mid-'70s stan­dards it was still an im­pres­sive pow­er­plant. “As any­one who has done so will tell you, the only thing that beats rid­ing a good 450 MkIII sin­gle is rid­ing two,” one tester gushed. “The 860 en­gine has all the sin­gle's virtues of end­less torque, me­chan­i­cal re­fine­ment and sheer force of char­ac­ter — squared. The 860 mo­tor is un­doubt­edly one of the world's finest mo­tor­cy­cle en­gines.”

Be­neath its bold blue body­work the Du­cati's chas­sis was a typ­i­cal Bolog­nese blend of tubu­lar steel frame and firm, Ital­ian-made forks and shocks, sup­plied by Ce­ri­ani and Mar­zoc­chi re­spec­tively. This 1975-model bike was in good con­di­tion, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing Du­cati's rep­u­ta­tion for poor fin­ish. It was stan­dard apart from its in­stru­ments and seat, which were from the fol­low­ing year's 860GTS.

The later seat was slightly thin­ner, to re­duce the GT's ex­ces­sive seat height slightly. That didn't keep the bike from feel­ing tall when I climbed aboard, quickly be­com­ing con­scious not just of the pulled­back bars but also the for­ward-set foot-rests. The right foot-peg made it­self felt al­most im­me­di­ately, be­cause as the GT had no elec­tric starter (one had been avail­able as an op­tional ex­tra) I had to kick­start it — and the foot-rest was per­fectly placed to come into con­tact with a kick-start­ing leg's shin .... Ouch!

Such in­con­ve­niences were for­given when the big V-twin lump burst into life with a fairly re­strained V-twin rum­ble, and pro­ceeded to show just why it was such a good de­vice for a sports-tourer. Thanks partly to its low state of tune the en­gine was su­perbly re­spon­sive through the mid-range. This bike's pair of con­ven­tion­ally fil­tered 32-mm

Du­cati’s first 864-cc V-twin had a few flaws, but the 860GT de­serves a place in the Bologna hall of fame nev­er­the­less

Dell'Or­tos looked or­di­nary com­pared to the gap­ing 40-mm units of the SS, but when tugged open they sent the bike surg­ing for­ward with plenty of ur­gency.

Like many later big Du­catis the V-twin was snatchy be­low about 3,000 rpm, but smoothed out from then on. Vi­bra­tion wasn't a prob­lem even up near the 7,000-rpm red-line, al­though the big lump felt best between 3,500 rpm and about six grand, and its mid-range torque meant there was lit­tle in­cen­tive to use all the revs. Gen­er­ally, it was much better to change up early through the five-speed box, which shifted smoothly enough to make me for­give the neu­tral light's tra­di­tional hope­less­ness.

Given the slight­est op­por­tu­nity the Du­cati ac­cel­er­ated pretty rapidly up to an in­di­cated 145 km/h, be­gin­ning to feel slightly un­steady by that speed even in a straight line, and would have gone on to a top speed of about 185 km/h. Those high bars meant you'd have to be both brave and strong-necked to hold such speeds for long, though, and even my steady 130 km/h be­came tir­ing af­ter a while.

That slight high-speed weave gave Du­cati's rep­u­ta­tion for un­beat­able sta­bil­ity a knock but never threat­ened to get bad enough to do any dam­age of a more phys­i­cal nature. At least the bike re­gained some points with its han­dling in slower bends. The GT's rigid chas­sis and high-qual­ity sus­pen­sion gave cor­ner­ing power that few

bikes could match in 1975. Chas­sis ge­om­e­try was cho­sen for sta­bil­ity, and the good thing about the wide bars was that their lever­age made for easy steer­ing.

Once into a turn the Du­cati sailed round in style, its firm sus­pen­sion let­ting the rider know just what was go­ing on. Only the un­likely tyre choice — Chen Shins rather than Pirellis on a clas­sic Du­cati? — pre­vented me from do­ing the foot-rests more dam­age in the cor­ners. At least, I didn't have to worry about the front tyre's lack of grip when us­ing the front brake. The sin­gle 280-mm Brembo disc lacked bite and gave a very wooden feel at the lever. A sec­ond disc was avail­able as an op­tional ex­tra, and would have been well worth hav­ing, along with stick­ier rub­ber.

Du­cati did at least demon­strate a will­ing­ness to lis­ten to crit­i­cism, as the fol­low­ing year the 860GTS was launched not just with the GT's op­tional sec­ond front disc and elec­tric starter as stan­dard, but with flat­ter han­dle­bars too. For Euro­pean rid­ers the GTS was ba­si­cally the Gran Turismo ma­chine that the GT should have been all along. Its high-speed sta­bil­ity was im­pec­ca­ble (prov­ing that the orig­i­nal model's prob­lem was due to the bars, as sus­pected), it was well braked and started ef­fort­lessly.

Be­ing a Du­cati, of course, it still had a few an­noy­ing faults, par­tic­u­larly the cor­ro­sion-prone paint fin­ish and aw­ful switchgear that made it all too easy to plunge your­self into dark­ness when try­ing to op­er­ate the head­light's dip-switch. But with a sportier rid­ing po­si­tion the bike's per­for­mance could be more eas­ily used, and the es­sen­tial qual­ity of the orig­i­nal GT model's de­sign shone through. Du­cati's first 864-cc V-twin had a few flaws, but the 860GT de­serves a place in the Bologna hall of fame nev­er­the­less.

Du­cati's first 864-cc V-twin im­pressed testers of that time

In­stru­men­ta­tion was bor­rowed from the 860GTS

Mar­zoc­chi shocks han­dled rear sus­pen­sion duty

280-mm sin­gle disc reined in the front. Sec­ond disc was op­tional

Wide han­dle­bars made it ner­vous at high speed

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