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 out
“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”