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.