THE AFFORDABLE FERRARI
The 1990s Ducati 900SS
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.