The 1990s Du­cati 900SS

Cycle World - - Origins - By PE­TER EGAN / Pho­tog­ra­phy by CW Ar­chives

If the 1980s was the age of Disco, then you might say the 1990s was the age of Du­cati—at least for those of us who like the mu­sic of big-bore Desmo V-twins from Italy.

For me and many of my rid­ing friends, the bikes from Borgo Pani­gale are still per­haps the most en­dur­ing and col­or­ful sym­bol of good times from that decade, as re­mem­bered through a lens of vi­brant red or bright yel­low—or maybe even ebony black, over a white trel­lis frame.

Du­cati, of course, turned out an un­bro­ken string of charis­matic street- and race­bikes in that era, but the one that re­ally took the world by storm was the 900SS, in­tro­duced in 1991.

When it ap­peared on the cover of our July is­sue that year (“At Last! Ital­ian, Awe­some and Af­ford­able!”), you could sense a world­wide baro­met­ric-pres­sure drop from the sharp in­take of breath among sport­bike fans who were on the brink of buy­ing a mod­ern Du­cati but hadn’t quite been sold on the looks or prac­ti­cal­ity of pre­vi­ous mod­els.

On that cover photo, the new 900SS was leaned over hard to re­veal the beau­ti­ful lines of its full

fair­ing, which flowed back from the rec­tan­gu­lar head­light like red flames from a me­teor hit­ting the at­mos­phere. Our test rider was, of course, wear­ing a tri­color Jimmy Adamo replica hel­met, just to re­mind you that Du­cati was a ris­ing force in Su­per­bike rac­ing, in case you’d for­got­ten.

The road test was lauda­tory and raved about the light­ness (414 pounds dry), agility, fine han­dling, and deep, sat­is­fy­ing torque pumped out by the 904cc air-/oil-cooled Desmo Twin. A pair of Mikuni carbs had elim­i­nated all the flat spots of pre­vi­ous We­ber-fed mod­els and— won­der of won­ders—the thing was com­fort­able. The mod­er­ately high clip-ons, good seat, and dropped rearsets made this a Du­cati you could ride all day. All three edi­tors— Ed­wards, Canet, and Cat­ter­son— gave it the stamp of ap­proval.

It was nice to have my own in­stincts re­in­forced be­cause I’d just flown to Italy a few months ear­lier for a First Ride and had im­me­di­ately fallen un­der the bike’s spell.

Our gang of moto-jour­nal­ists mounted up in a ware­house at the rear of the fac­tory, and by the time we reached the front gate, I flipped up my face shield, turned to

Cy­cle mag­a­zine’s then-edi­tor Steve An­der­son, and shouted, “I must have one of these!” Steve just smiled and nod­ded.

Af­ter a full day of rid­ing over the Apen­nines, my en­thu­si­asm re­mained undi­min­ished. Steve and I had lunch at an out­door cafe near the Futa Pass and spent most of the hour drink­ing espres­sos and silently star­ing at our bikes in the moun­tain sun­shine. In child de­vel­op­ment, I be­lieve this is called “im­print­ing.”

Ap­par­ently, I was not im­print­ing alone; Du­cati sold al­most 28,000 of these bikes world­wide dur­ing their seven-year run, to in­clude the solo-seat Su­perlight mod­els, half­fair­ing CR ver­sions, and sil­ver 1997 Fi­nal Edi­tions. By the time I bought my own Su­per­sport (red, full fair­ing, white frame) in 1992, about half the guys in our mo­tor­cy­cle club had bought one—or were about to. And by the mid-’90s, four out of the six mem­bers of our per­pet­u­ally un­der­rated garage band, the De­fend­ers, owned nearly iden­ti­cal 900 Su­per Sports. Even the late, famed gonzo jour­nal­ist Hunter S. Thomp­son had one—and wrote an ar­ti­cle about it for Cy­cle World. Some read­ers loved it, and others thought he was crazy as a bed­bug. Imag­ine that.

In 1996, I sold my ’92 model and bought a new SP (Sport Pro­duc­tion) ver­sion—essen­tially the same bike but with up­graded brakes, bronze-painted frame and wheels, and a few car­bon-fiber bits that low­ered the weight a whop­ping 4 pounds. My buddy Pat Don­nelly had one too, and we rode the two bikes out to Stur­gis for Bike Week, with duf­fel bags strapped over the back seats. Thus equipped, they made per­fectly com­fort­able long-dis­tance tour­ing bikes, but on

wind­ing roads through the Black Hills, they meta­mor­phosed back into sport­bikes of deep fi­nesse, with killer, real-world midrange and light, in­tu­itive han­dling.

Be­yond this func­tional ver­sa­til­ity, the 900SS had a spare, me­chan­i­cally di­rect charisma that could prob­a­bly only have come out of Italy. For less than $9,000, you re­ally could ride some­thing that felt like the twowheeled equiv­a­lent of a Fer­rari. In my dou­ble life as a car jour­nal­ist I’d tested quite a few Fer­raris, and felt this com­par­i­son was not the least bit strained. Draw­backs to own­er­ship? Not many. The dry clutches were al­ways loud and chat­tery, the hy­draulic slave cylin­der for the clutch was short­lived—but eas­ily re­placed—and the Desmo valve ad­justs were ex­pen­sive, and gen­er­ally best left to a skilled me­chanic with the right tools and shims. Stock gear­ing was very tall—to get those boom­ing pipes through a fed­eral noise test—but a coun­ter­shaft sprocket change (which I did) was a sim­ple and ef­fec­tive cure. The stock rear sus­pen­sion was a bit stiff over road seams, and the full fair­ing low­ers (essen­tially two par­al­lel air­foils af­flicted with ran­dom stall and lift) could be a hand­ful in gust­ing cross­winds. All rather mi­nor stuff, how­ever, that never di­min­ished my en­joy­ment of the bike. Some later mod­els suf­fered frame cracks around the steer­ing head (a re­call, and al­ways a good thing to check), but mine never did.

Af­ter some time, I fi­nally sold my 900SS to buy a Du­cati ST3— and then an ST4S, with lug­gage— hop­ing to do more tour­ing, but nei­ther bike was ever as all-day com­fort­able as the 900SS. Nor was the less-beau­ti­ful and ver­sa­tile Terblanche-de­signed 900 Su­per Sport that re­placed it in 1998—and hence stiffed on the mar­ket. Would that I had kept my 1996 SP.

There are others out there, of course, and at very rea­son­able prices, with $3,500 to $6,500 be­ing the typ­i­cal range. The rea­son I know that is I’m al­ways look­ing at them on­line. I’ve found that very few bikes that win your heart at first sight lose the ca­pac­ity to do it again.

Even though this was the be­gin­ning of Du­cati’s true, mod­ern-era suc­cess on the world’s rac­ing stage, the 900SS was never about that. Still, knee pucks were ru­ined.

The ’90s were a time when mo­tor­cy­cle color schemes were as rad­i­cal as the decade’s wind­break­ers. The 900SS paint job per­son­i­fied the ma­chine—bright and pow­er­ful, yet stately and clas­sic.

Imag­ine how blurry this photo could be and you would still know it was a Du­cati, with the an­gu­lar tank and yel­low shock spring peek­ing through the trel­lis frame.

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