Jim Lind­say rides his stun­ning restora­tion.


If rid­ing any of the later desmo­quat­tro vari­ants, 916, 996 or 998, does not stir your soul – con­sult an un­der­taker. You are most likely dead. Aprilia tried with the RSV, Honda found World Su­per­bike suc­cess with the SP-1 and 2, Moto Guzzi still plugs away with its quirky trans­verse en­gines, but no­body, not even Du­cati it­self in later years, has ever got the V-twin sports­bike as right as the Bologna fac­tory did as the 90s drew to an end. The sub­ject of this test is a stan­dard 1999 Du­cati 996 Bi­posto and as a rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it is un­beat­able. It is the most af­ford­able of the desmo­quat­tro twins and, in stock trim, as user­friendly as these de­vices get. As a rider, you are en­gaged from the mo­ment you press the but­ton and wince as the starter mo­tor strug­gles to shift the 98mm pis­tons against the 11.5:1 com­pres­sion ra­tio. Any­thing less than a fully charged bat­tery and the re­sult will be mar­ginal, and don’t for­get to push in the but­ton un­der­neath the twist grip to give the re­quired smidgen of throt­tle open­ing. But, oh that noise when it catches! Even on the stan­dard pipes (which I pre­fer) the ‘crobba-crob thump’ of the ex­haust, the low fre­quency vi­bra­tion on tick over, and the rat­tle of the dry clutch plates bang­ing around in their bas­ket is one of the great sen­sory de­lights in the world of mo­tor­cy­cling from any era. On the move, the 996 is noth­ing like as un­com­fort­able as some peo­ple may have you be­lieve. The pegs are high, the bars low, and the

seat firm, but even my old bones can en­dure for two hours be­fore re­fu­elling and the protest­ing knees joints call a halt. Part of this is to do with adrenalin, of course. When a body is hav­ing as much fun as the 996 of­fers, it tends to ig­nore dis­com­fort. I’ve been lucky to ride a few desmo­quat­tros over the years and the most com­mon fault I’ve found is a ten­dency for the sus­pen­sion set-up to be too firm, of­ten in the mis­taken be­lief that it aids han­dling. It doesn’t, it just makes it un­com­fort­able, es­pe­cially on bumpy roads. As, for the mo­ment, this is my bike, I made sure ev­ery­thing was cor­rect. My ref­er­ence point for set-up was a thor­oughly sorted 916 that I spent the day with about five years ago. It was so easy to ride for long stretches. On the bike tested here, the Showa forks and rear sus­pen­sion unit have been re­built. I set up sag, com­pres­sion and re­bound to suit my 94 odd kilo­grams of meat and bone. Get it right and the 996 will re­turn a tol­er­a­bly smooth ride on gnarly B-roads and a bril­liant ride on more even Tar­mac. In high-speed curves, the Du­cati is ex­cep­tion­ally sta­ble. It also re­sponds well in slower bends, turn­ing quickly and pre­cisely. It gives away lit­tle to newer bikes when cor­ner­ing. In the ex­tremes of a track day fast group, you can still see the oc­ca­sional 916, 996 or 998 giv­ing newer ma­chin­ery a hard time. Star­ing with the 916, Du­cati did an amaz­ing job of keep­ing the bike short. This is no easy feat with a 90° V-twin (or L-twin as some folks in­sist it be called). Which­ever way you po­si­tion it in the chas­sis, it’s a lengthy lump. Go back to the old air-cooled, bevel drive 900SS from 1977, and you’ll find a wheel­base was a whop­ping 1500mm (about 59 inches). It was an art get­ting them through tight cor­ners. The first desmo­quat­tro, the 851, got this fig­ure down a bit to 1460mm. The 888 man­aged to shrink it to 1430mm. The 916, 996 Bip and 998 all had a wheel­base of just 1410mm. That com­pares well with its con­tem­po­raries, many of which had in­her­ently shorter en­gines. The 2001 Suzuki

GSX-R1000, for ex­am­ple, had ex­actly the same 1410mm be­tween the axles as the Du­cati. Whip the body­work off and you can see how Du­cati did it. The swingarm piv­ots on the rear of the crank­case sav­ing length on the chas­sis. Com­po­nents that you of­ten find un­der the seat on other bikes, like the bat­tery and starter so­le­noid hang off the right-hand side of the frame along­side the front cylin­der where they share space with the rec­ti­fier. The space be­tween the cylin­ders, while heav­ily pop­u­lated by the fuel in­jec­tors, coolant hoses and wiring, also man­ages to make a home for the coolant over­flow tank. In a fur­ther neat piece of com­pact de­sign, the un­der­side of the petrol tank forms the up­per por­tion of the air-box. The ex­haust, that exquisite set of pipework, is so com­pact that it needs no ex­ten­sion of the chas­sis to pro­vide mount­ing points. Du­cati prac­tised mass-cen­tral­i­sa­tion long be­fore it be­came a buzz­word in Moto GP and then in bike de­sign as a whole – even if it was part of the orig­i­nal Fire­blade’s make-up. The sus­pen­sion has all the tun­abil­ity you would ex­pect, front and rear. The Showa com­po­nents give great ser­vice when prop­erly set-up. For road use the Oh­lins parts on the more ex­pen­sive vari­ants do not add a use­ful per­for­mance ad­van­tage. The steer­ing ge­om­e­try has built-in ad­justa­bil­ity which is still found on few pro­duc­tion bikes even to­day. Up front, the steer­ing head bear­ings are clamped in an ec­cen­tric hous­ing. On the stan­dard road set­ting, you get a steer­ing head an­gle of 27° with trail of 97mm. If you want quicker steer­ing, you can slacken the pinch bolts, ro­tate the bear­ing holder in its hous­ing and you end up with a steer­ing head an­gle of 23° 30’ ac­com­pa­nied by trail of 91mm – a no­tice­able dif­fer­ence but again, not some­thing you need for road use. If you do want to try it, you need to know that the steer­ing lock does not work on the sportier set­ting. Also, move the steer­ing damper its al­ter­na­tive mount­ing point. The rear ride height is also eas­ily ad­justable. For track work, you will prob­a­bly want to ex­per­i­ment at both ends but I found that the stan­dard ge­om­e­try was near per­fect for road work. The ma­chine here is shod with Bridge­stone BT-014 tyres. These are more than ad­e­quate for the Du­cati’s per­for­mance. They give great feed­back and work equally well wet or dry. Un­less you’re head­ing for the fast group on a track day, you need noth­ing more. Su­per-sticky tyres look good and may even mas­sage the oc­ca­sional ego. If all your miles are on the road, how­ever, they are costly pieces of van­ity. The brakes on this par­tic­u­lar 996 took a bit of sort­ing out. When I first rode the bike they were pow­er­ful and hor­ri­ble in equal mea­sure. They had all the pro­gres­sion of rid­ing into a brick wall. Deglaz­ing the pads, re­plac­ing the fluid and eas­ing up the sticky pis­tons had them work­ing as you would ex­pect a set of Brem­bos to work. They are pow­er­ful and pro­gres­sive with plenty of feed­back at the lever. The frame is Du­cati’s tra­di­tional tubu­lar trel­lis. For all the trick­ery of modern, twin-spar alu­minium chas­sis with vari­able wall thick­nesses to get the flex just right, it’s both sober­ing and amus­ing to note that Du­cati’s old school tube work does just as well over the full range of road con­di­tions, giv­ing ex­cel­lent sta­bil­ity and good feed­back. It also looks great in its bronze or sil­ver fin­ish.

“Du­cati did an amaz­ing job of keep­ing the bike short. This is no easy feat with a 90° V-twin. What they also did was make it ut­terly beau­ti­ful.”

The sin­gle sided swingarm looks ace, and makes get­ting the rear wheel in and out easy. That said, though, it I do not imag­ine that it of­fers any han­dling ad­van­tages over a dou­ble-sided com­po­nent. And so to the en­gine, the mag­nif­i­cent, bel­low­ing, four-valve per cylin­der, desmod­romic magic in­gre­di­ent. The de­sign had its ori­gins in the Du­cati Pan­tah, re­leased in 1979 and de­signed by Fabio Taglioni, al­beit air-cooled and with just two-valves per cylin­der. With some in­put from UK en­gine spe­cial­ists Cos­worth, Mas­simo Bordi de­vel­oped a pro­to­type, liq­uid-cooled en­gine with four-valves per cylin­der and a ca­pac­ity of 750cc. In 1986 this en­gine in a mod­i­fied 750 F1 frame was rid­den by Marco Lucchinelli, Juan Gar­riga and Vir­ginio Fer­rari in the Bol d’or 24 hour race. It was ly­ing 7th with nine hours to go when a failed con-rod bolt forced the ma­chine into re­tire­ment. The re­sults were promis­ing and from this ex­per­i­ment came the 851 and later 888 ma­chines, both of which claimed World Su­per­bike cham­pi­onships in the hands of Ray­mond Roche and Doug Polen re­spec­tively. It’s a beau­ti­ful pow­er­plant to use: a good one will shove out some­thing around 100bhp at the back wheel (Du­cati claimed 112bhp at the crank­shaft). Peak power comes at 8500rpm and although the en­gine will hap­pily rev to 10,000rpm, you don’t re­ally need to. Keep it flow­ing be­tween 5000 and 8000 and you’ll get all the drive you need, smoothly de­liv­ered and ut­terly ad­dic­tive. No high revving multi can match the feel­ing. It en­cour­ages thought­ful, rapid progress where plan­ning and pre­ci­sion win out over point and squirt drama. The gear­box of­fers sim­i­lar de­light. The ac­tion is light and the en­gage­ment of gears pre­cise. I have yet to hit a false neu­tral and find­ing proper neu­tral is as easy as on any Ja­panese bike. Put the whole lot to­gether, head for your favourite roads and you are stone guar­an­teed a great time.

“Du­cati’s 916 fam­ily was so far ahead of its time that it still feels modern to­day. Let’s not make any bones about it, the Du­cati 916/996/998 is a modern clas­sic. Try one, buy one.”

The 996 is a bike that hangs to­gether so per­fectly, that it turns most rides into dreams. The del­i­cate bal­ance of power, han­dling and brak­ing ef­fi­ciency in­spires con­fi­dence. Ev­ery time you ride one, your life will be en­hanced by the ex­pe­ri­ence. Be­lieve me when I say that this is mo­tor­cy­cling at its very best.


The Du­cati 996 pro­vides a unique blend of clas­sic ap­peal and modern abil­ity. It was so far ahead of its time that it still feels modern to­day: some 23 years af­ter the first of the line took to the road. They re­quire more care and at­ten­tion than a Ja­panese clas­sic from the same era. There are plenty of in­de­pen­dent spe­cial­ists who can help here. If you do your own span­ner­ing, it’s a sat­is­fy­ing bike to work on. Most parts are easy to get at. Chang­ing the cam-belts is okay if you ap­proach the task care­fully. You may want to go to a spe­cial­ist if the valve clear­ances need al­ter­ing though. It’s a com­plex task. The 996 Bi­posto is still the most af­ford­able of the desmo­quat­tro twins. The more ex­otic S, SPS and R mod­els all com­mand much higher prices and (for road use) are less easy to live with. Prices, as al­ways, are head­ing to­wards that de­press­ing ter­ri­tory beloved of col­lec­tors who care more for in­creas­ing value than for two-wheeled fun, but you can still pick up a rea­son­able bike for around £5000, which is an ab­so­lute bar­gain for what you get: scratch that itch while it is still within reach.

Swingarm is mounted di­rect to the crank­case to keep wheel­base short. The lines of the ex­haust pipes are exquisite.

It looks per­fect from any an­gle. The Desmo­quat­tro re­tains its charm 23 years af­ter it was first in­tro­duced.

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