Classic Bike Guide - - Buy­ing Guide – The Ja­panese 125 - WORDS AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY:


Ducati were on the rise, but needed to break the US mar­ket. A dif­fi­cult task with small bikes, so Taglioni upped the style

Times change, and to­day the Ducati Amer­i­cano looks about as kitsch as a pizza ash­tray. But when this bike rolled out of the Bologna fac­tory gates in 1958, it turned heads for all the right rea­sons. With its swept­back cowhorn bars and a sad­dle fes­tooned with chrome stars, the Amer­i­cano was tak­ing Ducati Mec­ca­nica from the race­track to the good old US of A.

The story be­hind Ducati’s ex­otic over­head cam sin­gles started in 1954 when Fabio Taglioni walked into his new of­fice at No3, Via An­to­nio Cava­leri, Ducati. His task: to de­sign a mo­tor­cy­cle that would win races. Up to that time the fac­tory used con­verted road bikes for the clas­sic Ital­ian long dis­tance road races like the Mi­lan-Taranto and Mo­togiro – and they stood no chance against real rac­ers en­tered by other Ital­ian mar­ques.

Ducati bosses de­cided that if they wanted to win the pop­u­lar 100cc class they needed some­thing a lit­tle more ex­otic than the sim­ple 98cc over­head-valve sin­gle used in the 98 Sport that was the flag­ship of the 1954 range. With just 6.8hp and a top speed of only 56mph it was never go­ing to light up the roads, let alone fire the imag­i­na­tion of Ital­ian teenagers.

What Taglioni came up with was a tech­ni­cally ad­vanced bevel driven sin­gleover­head camshaft de­sign. The 100cc

Gran Sport may have been fit­ted with lights, a horn and kick-start but make no mis­take – this was a real racer. With a bore and stroke of 49.4 x 52mm, the 98cc sin­gle used a forged pis­ton to give a com­pres­sion ra­tio of 8.5:1. A steeply down­draught 20mm SS1 Dell’Orto car­bu­ret­tor with a huge bell­mouth fed the mix­ture into the com­bus­tion cham­ber. Ex­posed hair­pin valve springs were used so that they could be changed quickly if they tired in a long dis­tance race. Ig­ni­tion was by re­li­able 6v Bosch oil-filled coil.

Be­cause this was never go­ing to be a pro­duc­tion mo­tor­cy­cle, the crankcases were sand­cast to keep down costs. The air­cooled en­gine was canted for­ward by 10 de­grees for bet­ter cool­ing, with oil car­ried in the sump. Straight-cut gears were used for the pri­mary drive, with a close-ra­tio four-speed trans­mis­sion. Ducati claimed 9hp at 9000rpm for Taglioni’s master­piece, and a top speed of over 80mph.

While the en­gine might have been tech­ni­cally ad­vanced, the cy­cle parts were more mun­dane, with a sin­gle-down­tube open cra­dle frame that used the en­gine as a stressed mem­ber, tele­scopic forks and twin shocks con­trol­ling the swingarm. Run­ning on 17in wheels and skinny 2.75in tyres, the Gran Sport weighed in at 80kg be­fore a drop of petrol splashed into the light­weight alu­minium fuel tank.

Ducati had en­tered the 1953 Mi­lanTaranto and Mo­togiro with a mo­tor­cy­cle based on the pull-rod Cuc­ci­olo en­gine in the 75cc class where Petrucci fin­ished an im­pres­sive third; then in 1954 with the pushrod 98S when their best rider fin­ished

a lowly ninth. Now it was time for the Gran Sport to show its paces. In March 1955 Degli An­toni romped home to win the 100cc class of the Giro with a 61mph av­er­age. Next up was the Mi­lan-Taranto, and again An­toni tri­umphed, cov­er­ing the 870 miles dis­tance at a stun­ning 64.1mph av­er­age. Be­hind him was a string of Du­catis filling every place back to no. 13. Taglioni was one very happy man.

And so he should have been. A stream­lined ver­sion of his 98cc baby broke over 40 world records at Monza in Novem­ber 1956, in­clud­ing records for mo­tor­cy­cles up to 250cc. Rid­ers Mario Carani and Santo Ciceri did a fastest lap at over 105mph and even cov­ered 1000km (621 miles) at a record-break­ing

96mph. The bevel-drive

Ducati was fast – and re­li­able. Within a year of its de­but the Gran Sport had be­come un­beat­able in its class in Ital­ian pro­duc­tion rac­ing.

But al­though Taglioni car­ried on de­vel­op­ing the Gran Sport into a 125cc dou­ble-over­head camshaft and of course the Des­mod­romic rac­ers, his bosses knew that pro­duc­tion mod­els paid the bills. So Taglioni went back to the draw­ing board – and came up with a bevel drive over­head cam road bike.

The first of the new road­sters were the 125S sports model and two 175cc ver­sions, one aimed at the sporty rider and the other at the tourist. These three were to be­come the foun­da­tion of Ducati’s fourstroke de­signs. The 125 spawned 100 and 160cc vari­a­tions, while the 175 grew to 200, 250, 350 and even 450cc. Taglioni’s beveldrive road­sters would be pro­duced in Italy for 18 years.

The bevel drive road­sters made their de­but at the Mi­lan Show in Novem­ber 1956. Like the Gran Sport, the 175 was an all-al­loy unit con­struc­tion en­gine with the camshaft drive by ver­ti­cal shaft and bevel gears on the right, al­though they were he­li­cal gears for qui­eter op­er­a­tion in­stead of the straight-cut gears of the racer.

Pro­duc­tion mod­els also fea­tured he­li­cal gears in the pri­mary drive in­stead of straight cut. Like the Gran Sport, the crankcases were split ver­ti­cally with a large, finned oil sump. The en­gine’s bot­tom end fea­tured a ro­bust ball and roller bear­ing assem­bly. Both 175T

(Tourismo) and the 175S (Sport) shared the same 62 x 57.8mm en­gine. The short­stroke was to give low pis­ton speeds and the big bore to al­low for max­i­mum valve size. All ver­sions fea­tured a wet mul­ti­plate clutch with four-speed trans­mis­sion, op­er­ated by a heel-and-toe rock­ing pedal on the right. Ano­raks will note that ‘Ducati 175 Bologna’ was cast into the tri­an­gu­lar cover at the top of the camshaft on the first pro­duc­tion run, but later mod­els stated sim­ply ‘Ducati’.

The 175T’s en­gine was softly tuned with a 7:1 com­pres­sion ra­tio and a Dell’Orto MB 22 B car­bu­ret­tor to give 11bhp at 7500rpm. It was enough to push the Tourismo to a top speed of 71mph while sip­ping petrol so slowly that a litre could take you 350km.

But the star of the show had to be the 175S. While the Tourismo was fit­ted with a small solo sad­dle and was fin­ished in dark red with white pan­els on the 17-litre tank (with equally bor­ing black and white or black and red tank op­tions), the Sport was fin­ished in a sparkling metal­lic cherry red for the tank, mud­guards and tool­boxes with metal­lic gold for the frame, forks and swingarm. Metal­lic gold pan­els on the petrol tank made the 175S a real stun­ner.

With a com­pres­sion ra­tio of 8:1 and a sporty UB 22.5 BS2 Dell’Orto breath­ing through a ve­loc­ity stack in­stead of the Tourismo’s air fil­ter, the Sport de­liv­ered 14bhp at 8000rpm and a top speed of 84mph. Now that was im­pres­sive – in 1956 the most you’d get out of a BMW R50 was 90mph, while a 500cc AJS would top out at 80. With a race-bred chas­sis, Taglioni’s bevel-drive Duke might have been a gi­ant killer but it was hardly a gas guz­zler, al­most match­ing the petrol-sip­ping econ­omy of the Tourismo.

With sales on the up in Europe, Ducati started a sales drive in the Mid­dle East, North and South Amer­ica, and Aus­tralia. But track suc­cess in light­weight races didn’t count for much in the USA, so Joseph Ber­liner of im­porters Ber­liner

Mo­tor Cor­po­ra­tion of New Jersey asked Bologna to come up with a model es­pe­cially for Amer­i­can rid­ers. For­tu­nately, Taglioni was a bril­liant stylist as well as an en­gi­neer­ing ge­nius and he came up with the Amer­i­cano. Take a look at Har­ley’s full­dresser Hy­dra-Glide and you’ll see where he took his in­spi­ra­tion from.

The Amer­i­cano hit the US with as much razzmatazz as a cow­boy lead­ing a rodeo pa­rade. Metal­lic blue paint elec­tri­fied the frame, chain­guard, fork and swingarm; sil­ver-painted valanced mud­guards and tool boxes bright­ened the look, and lash­ings of chrome added even more sparkle. Bor­rowed from the 100 Sport, the chrome plate and elec­tric blue gas tank was pin­striped with gold and car­ried the ‘Ducati 175’ script at the front.

Swept back bars wide enough to grace a Texas Longhorn car­ried cush­ioned To­maselli grips and sparkly plas­tic clutch and brake lever cov­ers. Crash bars every bit as cur­va­ceous as Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe pro­tected the paint­work – and the stacked Si­len­tium si­lencers – in case of a tum­ble. Twin airhorns along with the stock elec­tric horn blasted a path through rows of bor­ing com­muters.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the

seat was as im­pres­sive as any cow­boy’s sad­dle, its blue skirts dec­o­rated with over 100 chrome studs and a cou­ple of stars that wouldn’t look out of place on John Wayne’s chest.

The Amer­i­cano might only have the 11bhp of the 175T but the mo­tor was un­burstable. You re­ally could hold the throt­tle against the stop all day long with­out wor­ry­ing about blow­ing it apart. The en­gine might have been re­mark­ably smooth for a sin­gle, but that didn’t stop the nee­dle of the 140km/h Veglia speedome­ter swing­ing wildly so that you never knew whether you were trav­el­ling at 80 or 120.

Those cowhorn bars knock a few mph off the top speed, but thanks to the Si­len­tium si­lencers at least you wouldn’t frighten the horses. Al­though this Ducati looks every inch the Amer­i­can cruiser this is not just a boule­vard poser. Mar­zoc­chi forks and rear shocks en­dow the Amer­i­cano with ex­cel­lent han­dling – use those wide bars to turn in late and you’ll soon ground out the cen­tre­stand or si­lencer. Full-width brakes (180mm at the front, 160mm at the rear) are more than up to the job of pin­ning the 108kg Amer­i­cano down. You could even make the front wheel lock up with­out too much ef­fort.

Ducati sales were helped by the ad­ven­tures of two in­trepid trav­ellers who set off from Bologna on 30 Septem­ber

1957 for a world tour on 175cc Touris­mos. Leopoldo Tar­tarini (a one-time Ducati fac­tory racer who later founded Ital­jet) and his friend Gior­gio Monetti cov­ered 37,000 miles as they trav­elled across five con­ti­nents and 42 coun­tries with all their worldly goods packed into card­board suit­cases strapped to the rear car­rier. The lit­tle Du­catis per­formed fault­lessly and they re­turned to a hero’s wel­come al­most a year later on Septem­ber 5, 1958.

But a mere 175cc was never go­ing to be enough for the Yanks. When the Sport was bored out to 67mm to pro­duce the 200cc Elite – an 18hp, 90mph pro­jec­tile – Ber­liner was on the phone straight away to ask for a 200cc Amer­i­cano. Launched for the 1959 sea­son it was a mere shadow of the orig­i­nal. Gone was the stud­ded seat, air horns and twin Si­len­tiums. All that sep­a­rated the 200 Amer­i­cano from the Elite was a de­tuned mo­tor, a new petrol tank (later to find a home on the first 250 Monza) to re­place the Elite’s clas­sic ‘jelly mould’, and the crash bars. It wasn’t a suc­cess, and pro­duc­tion of the big Amer­i­cano didn’t live long enough to see the end of 1960.

The Amer­i­cano look didn’t end there. By the early 1960s Ber­liner Mo­tor Cor­po­ra­tion was sell­ing over 80 per cent of Ducati’s pro­duc­tion. So when

Joe Ber­liner asked them to de­sign a mo­tor­cy­cle to take on Har­ley-Davidson in the heavy­weight cruiser mar­ket, they came up with a mas­sive elec­tric start 1257cc 90-de­gree V4. There were crash bars, valanced mud­guards, cowhorn bars, Si­len­tium si­lencers and a seat with chrome studs and stars (ed­i­tor’s note: the Apollo has Db on the petrol tank to sig­nify Ducati-Ber­liner). But they didn’t call it the Amer­i­cano. The Amer­i­cans had started their manned space flight pro­gramme and the race to put a man on the moon. So they called it the Apollo.

Spe­cial thanks to Alessan­dro Al­tinier, who re­stored this Amer­i­cano. Check out­tinier­mo­tor­cy­

“Track suc­cess in light­weight races didn’t count for much in the USA, so Joseph Ber­liner of im­porters Ber­liner Mo­tor Cor­po­ra­tion of New Jersey asked Bologna to come up with a model es­pe­cially for Amer­i­can rid­ers”

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