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.