Du­cati 175s


This ca­pa­ble sin­gle helped forge Du­cati’s rep­u­ta­tion half a cen­tury ago

'This 175-cc Du­cati sin­gle was built way back in 1957, but many of its most ex­cit­ing moments have come rel­a­tively re­cently, dur­ing nu­mer­ous com­ple­tions of the Mo­to­giro d’Italia, the spec­tac­u­lar an­nual event that leads en­thu­si­asts on a gru­elling route across Italy on bikes that were el­i­gi­ble for the orig­i­nal Giro race'

JUST ONCE I EX­PE­RI­ENCE the mo­men­tary sense of panic that this Du­cati's rid­ers must have known plenty of times over the years. Round­ing a blind bend on a nar­row coun­try lane, I find the road blocked by a lorry that has stopped to wait for a car com­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. My im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion is to squeeze the front brake lever and press on the right foot pedal. But squeez­ing the lever has lit­tle ef­fect due to the fee­ble front drum and my right boot has even less im­pact be­cause this old bike's rear brake is worked by the left foot, not the right!

For a mo­ment, I'm ap­proach­ing the sta­tion­ary lorry too fast — but al­most be­fore my pulse has time to leap, the drama is over. The lit­tle Du­cati is light and ag­ile enough to be flicked on to a dif­fer­ent line and brought safely to a halt, just as it doubt­less has been more than a few times dur­ing its long and event­ful life in which it has rounded count­less hair­pin bends in the hills and moun­tains of Italy.

This 175-cc Du­cati sin­gle was built way back in 1957, but many of its most ex­cit­ing moments have come rel­a­tively re­cently, dur­ing nu­mer­ous com­ple­tions of the Mo­to­giro d'Italia, the spec­tac­u­lar an­nual event that leads en­thu­si­asts on a gru­elling route across Italy on bikes that were el­i­gi­ble for the orig­i­nal Giro race. It's fit­ting that the 175S should be shin­ing on those roads all these years later. More than half a cen­tury ago, it was the sin­gle's per­for­mance in the Giro and other gru­elling “Gran Fondo” races that helped forge Du­cati's rep­u­ta­tion.

For make no mis­take, this lit­tle sin­gle-cylin­der ma­chine is one of the most im­por­tant mod­els in Du­cati's his­tory. As the firm's first pro­duc­tion model with an over­head camshaft en­gine, it was both hugely suc­cess­ful in its own right and also the spring­board for so much later suc­cess. The 175 was, as one Ital­ian com­men­ta­tor put it, 'the em­bod­i­ment of the Du­cati phi­los­o­phy, to pro­duce road ma­chines that won races or, to put it an­other way, to pro­duce race-bred pro­duc­tion bikes'.

There was no doubt­ing the 175's race-bred cre­den­tials on its launch in 1957. It was a direct de­scen­dent of the Gran Sport 100, known as the Mar­i­anna, with which en­gi­neer Fabio Taglioni had an­nounced his ge­nius two years ear­lier, hav­ing joined Du­cati in May 1954. The com­pany's man­age­ment had wanted a ma­chine ca­pa­ble of win­ning the pres­ti­gious Giro and Mi­lano-Taranto events. Taglioni's Gran Sport, notable for the bevel drive to its over­head camshaft, soon obliged, not only win­ning both races in 1955 and for the next two years, but filling most of the lead­ing plac­ings.

A road-go­ing ver­sion was the log­i­cal next step and the 175 en­tered pro­duc­tion in 1957 af­ter be­ing un­veiled at the pre­vi­ous year's Milan Show. Its SOHC en­gine was very sim­i­lar to the Gran Sport's, apart from hav­ing en­closed valve springs in­stead of the ex­posed ones de­signed to be eas­ily re­place­able by rac­ers. Bor­ing out the GS' mo­tor (which had also been pro­duced as a 125) to 62 x 57.8 mm gave ca­pac­ity of 174.5 cc. The first 175 was es­sen­tially a tourer, with high bars, rounded petrol tank and a max­i­mum out­put of 11 PS. It was soon fol­lowed by a Sport model with clip-ons, longer tank, bigger Dell'Orto car­bu­ret­tor and an out­put of 14 PS at 8,000 rev­o­lu­tions per minute.

The 175S' “rac­ing” tank was a cu­ri­ously shaped con­struc­tion, fin­ished in dis­tinc­tive red and brown paint­work and fit­ted on its top with eye­lets that were in­tended for strap­ping on ei­ther lug­gage or pad­ding to al­low the rider to lie flat on the tank dur­ing races. With its Giro rac­ing plates and stick­ers still in place, this bat­tle-hard­ened 175 was a sim­ple yet pur­pose­ful look­ing ma­chine. Its sin­gle down­tube frame, sin­gle-lead­ing-shoe brakes and large head­light were of ba­sic road-go­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tion, but its carb's bell­mouth and that bevel drive on the cylin­der's right side had al­ready be­come a clas­si­cal Bolog­nese com­bi­na­tion.

Ex­cept that this par­tic­u­lar 175S was not pro­duced in Bologna at all, but in Barcelona. This is one of the many ma­chines made by Mo­to­trans, the Span­ish fac­tory that be­gan build­ing Du­catis un­der li­cence in 1957 and would con­tinue pro­duc­ing the bevel-drive sin­gles even af­ter the Ital­ian firm had stopped. Mo­to­trans Du­catis were no sec­ond-rate copies. As well as gen­er­ally be­ing of com­pa­ra­ble en­gi­neer­ing qual­ity, many Span­ish sin­gles in­cluded worth­while mod­i­fi­ca­tions and fea­tured alu­minium wheel rims while the Ital­ian fac­tory used heav­ier steel.

Most Mo­to­trans 175s had dif­fer­ent car­bu­ret­tors, too: not Dell'Or­tos but Amals, copies of the Bri­tish units made un­der li­cence in north­ern Spain. But this bike's pre­vi­ous owner had swapped its worn Amal for a Dell'Orto and had also fit­ted steel wheels when he sold the bike, so he could keep its alu­minium ones for its re­place­ment. The lit­tle sin­gle was oth­er­wise stan­dard and in good if well used con­di­tion, its Veglia speedo's low 2,429-km odome­ter read­ing giv­ing no clue about how many times the dial had been round the clock.

My first im­pres­sion was of how tiny the bike was. The tank was nar­row, the clip-on bars closely spaced, and the seat low de­spite be­ing quite thickly padded. The Du­cati weighed barely more than 100 kg and felt de­li­ciously light as I pushed it off the slightly bent cen­tre-stand — then, af­ter sec­ond thoughts, dis­mounted and pulled it back on to the stand again, be­fore prod­ding the en­gine into life with the left-sided kick-starter. The mo­tor fired up with a me­chan­i­cal rustling and a fairly re­strained chuff­ing from the Si­len­tium pipe.

Af­ter tread­ing into gear with my right boot on the heel-and-toe lever and let­ting out the light clutch, I was off, the Du­cati ac­cel­er­at­ing eas­ily though with un­de­ni­ably mod­est per­for­mance, at least by most mod­ern stan­dards. The lit­tle sin­gle flicked through its four-speed gear­box smoothly enough, at least pro­vided I re­mem­bered which foot to use, and be­fore long was rat­tling along in top gear at about 80 km/h, feel­ing rea­son­ably smooth and thor­oughly un­stressed — as you might ex­pect of a ma­chine that has been rid­den al­most flat-out across Italy for days at a time on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions.

One of the Gran Sport's great­est as­sets was that it was very ov­erengi­neered; so much so that the more pow­er­ful 175, with sim­i­lar bot­tom end, was also ca­pa­ble of be­ing rid­den hard and far with­out me­chan­i­cal prob­lems. This bike had com­pleted six Giros with­out a me­chan­i­cal mishap, so I wasn't sur­prised that it ran fault­lessly on my rel­a­tively short ride. Electrics were a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. Thank­fully, my ride was not in­ter­rupted by a re­oc­cur­rence of the elec­tri­cal trou­ble that has of­ten de­layed its Giro progress over the years.

Han­dling was very good, too, given the lim­i­ta­tions of its size, age, and ba­sic spec­i­fi­ca­tion. The Du­cati's light weight made it very easy to flick around, de­spite the lack of lever­age from its closely spaced clipons. Its agility was aided by the nar­row 18-inch tyres, a Met­zeler front, Conti rear com­bi­na­tion whose lev­els of grip were re­as­sur­ingly good — no doubt far bet­ter than this bike's rider would have known when it was new.

The nar­row fork and sim­ple-look­ing twin shocks did a pretty good job, too, coping com­fort­ably with all but the worst bumps and keep­ing the Du­cati on course. The small sin­gle-lead­ing-shoe front drum brake re­quired a very firm squeeze of the lever to slow the bike with any ur­gency, though. By con­trast, the rear drum was quite sharp and re­quired cau­tion once I'd learned to remember it was op­er­ated by my

left boot rather than the right.

I needed a few kilo­me­tres be­fore my brain had re­cal­i­brated to han­dle the right-foot shift. But even­tu­ally us­ing the con­trols be­comes al­most sec­ond na­ture and, af­ter a while, I was fly­ing: wind­ing back the throt­tle to send the lit­tle bike clat­ter­ing to­wards its 130-km/h top speed on the straights, then calling on both brakes as ef­fec­tively as I could to slow it for the many tight bends. Rid­den like that, on these twisty roads, the 175S was fab­u­lous: quick enough to be en­ter­tain­ing, es­pe­cially given its limited chas­sis abil­ity, yet not so fast that it was en­dan­ger­ing life or li­cence.

Al­though the prospect of thrash­ing it around Italy in sim­i­lar fash­ion for five con­sec­u­tive days in the re­vived Mo­to­giro had ob­vi­ous ap­peal, long dis­tances un­der rac­ing con­di­tions on such a small, slim, and revhappy sin­gle would have been nei­ther com­fort­able nor re­lax­ing. Those Mi­lano-Taranto aces, who set out from the north­ern city early in the morn­ing to ride al­most the length of Italy with barely a break, were very tough as well as skil­ful.

Back in 1957, the 175 en­dured an even more de­mand­ing trial when two rid­ers — Leopoldo Tar­tarini (the leg­endary Du­cati works racer who would later de­sign the Darmah, be­fore found­ing the Ital­jet firm) and his friend, Gior­gio Monetti — set off on a round-the-world trip on a pair of iden­ti­cal sin­gles. They ar­rived back in Bologna al­most a year later, in Septem­ber 1958, hav­ing cov­ered 60,000 km and vis­ited 42 coun­tries. The duo fin­ished with a lap of hon­our around the city cen­tre es­corted by a horde of Du­cati-rid­ing fans.

That pub­lic­ity boosted sales of the 175, which be­came one of Du­cati's most suc­cess­ful and in­flu­en­tial mod­els. As well as the Sport and Touring mod­els, there was also a sports-touring TS ver­sion and a racier Su­per Sport, plus the faster still rac­ing de­riv­a­tives. The Bologna fac­tory also pro­duced an Amer­i­cano model for the US mar­ket, with cow-horn bars, stud­ded dual-seat, and twin-si­lencer ex­haust. In 1958, the en­gine was en­larged to 204 cc to power the Élite 200 which, in turn, led to the Di­ana 250 and, even­tu­ally, to the Mach 1 and Desmo mod­els that kept Du­cati's sin­gles pop­u­lar into the 1970s.

Eye­lets were meant to strap lug­gage or pad­ding on to the tank Sin­gle-lead­ing-shoe drum takes care of brak­ing duty at the rear

Gear lever was on the right -hand side

Neat and easyto-read dial

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