Re­flec­tions

Motorcycle Sport & Leisure - - Contents - WORDS: Roland Brown PHO­TOS: Oli Ten­nent

Du­cati’s 1979 Pan­tah. Es­sen­tial to what we now know as Du­cati.

Rev­o­lu­tion is cur­rently in the air in Bologna, with the re­cent launch of the Panigale V4 that leads Du­cati into a new era of V4 su­per­bikes. It ar­rives al­most 40 years af­ter the firm in­tro­duced a much less pow­er­ful but sim­i­larly sig­nif­i­cant model: the Pan­tah 500 which, in 1979, be­gan a new gen­er­a­tion of desmo V-twins with belt-driven sin­gle over­head cams.

That first Pan­tah pro­duced 52bhp, less than a quar­ter of the Panigale V4’s awe­some 211bhp out­put, but it was one of the most im­por­tant mod­els that Du­cati has ever built. Not only did the Pan­tah it­self do much to re­vive the firm’s for­tunes, but its en­gine lay­out formed the ba­sis of mod­els in­clud­ing the 900SS and Mon­ster right through the Nineties.

The Pan­tah’s im­pact was par­tic­u­larly cru­cial be­cause it helped re­store Du­cati’s im­age and point the way to­wards a vi­able fu­ture dur­ing per­haps the dark­est pe­riod of the com­pany’s his­tory. A few years ear­lier, in the mid-Seven­ties, the firm had been strug­gling fi­nan­cially and un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol, its sta­tus as a mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­turer un­der threat. Its bosses had de­cided to pro­duce a mid­dleweight par­al­lel twin to com­pete with Laverda and the Ja­panese firms, much to the dis­may of chief en­gi­neer Fabio Taglioni.

The leg­endary cre­ator of so many suc­cess­ful desmo sin­gles and V-twins had re­port­edly re­fused to have any­thing to do with the project, and threat­ened to take early re­tire­ment un­less he was al­lowed to con­tinue work that he had al­ready be­gun to de­velop a mid­sized V-twin. De­spite Taglioni’s protests Du­cati had gone ahead with a range of par­al­lel twins, de­signed by other engi­neers. Mod­els in­clud­ing the GTL500 and 350 had been very un­pop­u­lar, partly due to the flaws of vi­bra­tion and oil leaks that were only too fa­mil­iar from Bri­tish par­al­lel twins.

The story goes that in 1976, when Du­cati’s man­age­ment had to ac­cept that the par­al­lel twins were a sales dis­as­ter, Taglioni smiled, reached into his of­fice drawer and brought out a full set of draw­ings for a 499cc V-twin. He’d used the ex­pe­ri­ence gained on Du­cati’s early-Seven­ties 500cc V-twin Grand Prix racer, which had used toothed cam belts, to de­sign a sim­i­lar sys­tem that was quiet, re­li­able and rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive to pro­duce. The 90° V-twin unit had sin­gle over­head cams, work­ing two valves per cylin­der via desmod­romic op­er­a­tion. It pro­duced its max­i­mum of 52bhp at 8500rpm.

The Pan­tah in which the new en­gine made its de­but was vis­ually strik­ing. Its frame, a neatly formed trel­lis of straight steel tubes, was mostly hid­den be­hind the petrol tank and dis­tinc­tive body­work.

This com­bined a tall, an­gu­lar half-fair­ing with a rather large seat unit whose in­te­grated side­pan­els ex­tended down to cover the top half of the pair of piggy-back Mar­zoc­chi shock units. Front forks of the first Pan­tahs were also by Mar­zoc­chi, but

Du­cati switched to Paioli shortly af­ter­wards.

That orig­i­nal Pan­tah, dis­played at the Cologne

Show in 1978 and first pro­duced the fol­low­ing year, com­bined im­pres­sive all-round per­for­mance –

120mph top speed, fine han­dling and pow­er­ful Brembo brakes – with a level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion that had not been seen be­fore from Du­cati. Fea­tures such as its quiet en­gine and ex­haust, re­fined 12V elec­tri­cal sys­tem (no kick­start was pro­vided, although iron­i­cally the elec­tric starter was one of very few parts that proved un­re­li­able), and even de­tails in­clud­ing its good paint fin­ish and lock­able fuel cap were not what fans of tra­di­tional Bologna-built bikes had grown used to.

Re­ac­tion from the press was mostly en­thu­si­as­tic. Jour­nal­ists test­ing it at the time com­mented that:

“This mid­dleweight V-twin rep­re­sents the best of every­thing that has come to be as­so­ci­ated with Ital­ian mo­tor­cy­cling, only more so,” and “The Pan­tah is a pol­ished, fully-fit­ted road trav­eller as well as a finely honed sports 500.” The Pan­tah’s high price meant that it was never go­ing to sell in huge num­bers, but it made a big im­pres­sion and was much more suc­cess­ful than its par­al­lel twin pre­de­ces­sors.

In 1981 Du­cati up­rated the bike slightly to pro­duce the Pan­tah 600, which used a larger 80mm bore to give a ca­pac­ity of 583cc, in­creas­ing peak power out­put by 6bhp to 58bhp at 8500rpm. The 600 also had a slightly more rounded fair­ing (which was also fit­ted to

the 500), re­vised front mud­guard and a new sil­ver colour scheme; and its en­gine gained an im­proved ver­sion of the five-speed gear­box, plus a new hy­draulic clutch op­er­a­tion.

The 600’s ad­di­tional ca­pac­ity didn’t make it no­tably faster, es­pe­cially be­cause its gear­ing was very tall. But in Italy, Mo­to­ci­clismo mag­a­zine speed-tested it at just un­der 125mph, and its all-round per­for­mance meant that it was ar­guably the quick­est and best mid­dleweight on the roads. It was gen­er­ally well re­ceived although, at £2799 in the UK, it cost al­most as much as Suzuki’s mighty four-cylin­der GSX1100.

“The sin­gle thing about the Pan­tah that im­pressed me most was the ease with which it could go fast,” wrote one tester. “It’s such an easy ma­chine to han­dle and so de­cep­tively quiet that to be­gin with I was unim­pressed. I didn’t feel like I was go­ing fast. I didn’t have to work at get­ting cor­ners right. Only the im­mensely tall gear­ing, which turns top into over­drive and first into a ne­ces­sity un­til al­most 30mph, makes life at all awk­ward.”

Com­fort was rated poor, the heavy clutch came in for much crit­i­cism, as did the flimsy fuse-box, fee­ble steer­ing lock, kph speedo on UK bikes, and lack of mir­rors. But other de­tails in­clud­ing the Ja­panese-style elec­tric starter and spin-off oil fil­ter were praised, as was the more tra­di­tional chas­sis per­for­mance. “I know it sounds trite, and I used to dis­be­lieve it too, but there’s noth­ing like a thor­ough­bred Ital­ian bike for find­ing out how a mo­tor­cy­cle should re­ally han­dle,” con­tin­ued that same tester.

And his con­clu­sion left no doubts about not only the Pan­tah’s abil­ity but its sig­nif­i­cance. “As well as be­ing a supreme ex­am­ple of the Ital­ian chas­sis de­signer’s art, the Pan­tah is also a ma­jor engi­neer­ing land­mark for the in­dus­try. For the first time Du­cati have used a fair num­ber of ideas bor­rowed from the Ja­panese, sorted out their sub­con­trac­tors and pro­duced a mo­tor­cy­cle that truly be­longs in the Eight­ies, rather than a han­gover from the Six­ties.”

WHAT’S IT LIKE TO RIDE?

A blast on this well pre­served Pan­tah 600 was much more re­ward­ing than my first ride, back in 1982, when the model was new. Back then I’d just started out as a bike jour­nal­ist and was very ex­cited to ride the Pan­tah, hav­ing been crazy about Du­cati’s big, boom­ing bevel-drive V-twins for years. But the new 600, with its ef­fi­cient si­lencers and mod­est straight-line per­for­mance (it was slower than the pair of 550cc Ja­panese fours on test at the same time), seemed small, quiet and not par­tic­u­larly fast.

Hav­ing been dis­ap­pointed by the Pan­tah 600 when it was brand new, I wasn’t ex­pect­ing too much when the chance arose to ride an iden­ti­cal ma­chine many years later. Mo­tor­cy­cles have im­proved so much since the early Eight­ies that an age­ing, clean but less than im­mac­u­late 600cc V-twin would surely seem slow, un­wieldy and dull com­pared to a mod­ern mid­dleweight, let alone a new Du­cati.

But that wasn’t how it turned out at all. This Pan­tah fired-up with a loud rum­ble from its stan­dard look­ing but dis­tinctly free-breath­ing pipes. It had plenty of per­for­mance for the twisty coun­try roads on which I was rid­ing. Helped by a set of rel­a­tively mod­ern tyres, the Du­cati’s han­dling, nor­mally the weak point of old bikes, was ex­cel­lent, too. Far from be­ing dis­ap­pointed again, I en­joyed the Pan­tah far more than I had when it was new.

One rea­son for that was that this sil­ver ma­chine had been mod­i­fied with in­di­vid­ual fil­ters on its Dell’Orto carbs, and a pair of free-breath­ing Conti pipes that made it sound just like an old Du­cati should. The bike was in good, ap­par­ently orig­i­nal con­di­tion, with well-pre­served paint and chrome, and 30,000 clicks on its kph speedo. Closer in­spec­tion re­vealed a pair of re­dun­dant han­dle­bar clamps stick­ing up from the top yoke, sug­gest­ing that it had been con­verted to the fa­mil­iar 600SL spec from the 600TL, the less pop­u­lar tour­ing ver­sion of the Pan­tah.

This bike’s 18in al­loy wheels were white in­stead of the orig­i­nal gold fin­ish, and the graph­ics of its pil­lion seat cover didn’t quite match the rest of the tail­piece. But those mi­nor faults were soon for­got­ten once I got un­der way. I’m sure it must have been some ex­tra power lib­er­ated by the free-breath­ing carbs and ex­haust, rather than sim­ply the il­lu­sion given by its ex­tra noise, that made this bike feel dis­tinctly more lively than I re­mem­bered from all those years ago.

Some­one had clearly done a good job of set­ting-up this bike’s car­bu­ra­tion af­ter junk­ing the stan­dard cylin­dri­cal plas­tic air­box be­neath the tank, be­cause the Pan­tah had a beau­ti­fully crisp throt­tle re­sponse that made it very easy to ride. The tacho’s high-rev zone starts with a half-yel­low band at 7500rpm, ris­ing in stages un­til the real sug­gested limit at nine grand, and the mo­tor was very happy to rev to­wards that point.

An in­di­cated ton came up very quickly if the Pan­tah was given some stick through the gears, and equally im­pres­sive was the midrange torque that sent it surg­ing for­ward from be­low 4000rpm with en­thu­si­asm. Of course the Pan­tah was not ex­cep­tion­ally fast in a straight line even when new, and the V-twin’s vi­bra­tion would doubt­less have been more no­tice­able on a long mo­tor­way trip. But the tall, pro­tec­tive fair­ing and sporty rid­ing po­si­tion sug­gested that this bike would cover even quite large dis­tances in com­fort, de­spite the thin seat.

And it would cer­tainly pro­vide plenty of cor­ner­ing fun on the way. The Pan­tah’s sim­ple yet ef­fec­tive rigid trel­lis frame and taut, well-damped sus­pen­sion gave it han­dling that few ri­vals could ap­proach in its hey­day. This bike not only had those parts present and cor­rect but its Met­zeler ME33 front and Avon Road­run­ner rear tyre, although nar­row, gave plenty of grip.

With the Pan­tah’s re­spectable dry weight fig­ure of 188kg and its con­ser­va­tive steer­ing ge­om­e­try, it was supremely sta­ble at high speed and in fast curves, but needed muscling into slower turns. It kicked a lit­tle over bumps, but tracked round cor­ners so solidly that I in­vari­ably ac­cel­er­ated down the next straight think­ing I could have taken the turn 10mph faster.

De­spite cor­ner­ing pretty hard on oc­ca­sions I didn’t man­age to ground any­thing, partly be­cause the cen­tre­stand’s tang had been bro­ken off (this made lift­ing the bike onto the stand very tricky, de­spite the thought­fully pro­vided han­dle next to the left shock). Brak­ing power was more than ad­e­quate, too, de­spite the dated look of Brembo’s twin-pis­ton calipers and rel­a­tively small 260mm discs.

I had to keep re­mind­ing my­self that this was an el­derly bike – built in the early Eight­ies. I hadn’t fully ap­pre­ci­ated it at the time, but the new 600 that dis­ap­pointed me all those years ago had lacked old-fash­ioned desmo V-twin char­ac­ter for a rea­son: the Pan­tah was the start of the mod­ern era for Du­cati.

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