Ducati 900 SSD Darmah

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“You won’t get me off an old bevel.” So says the owner of this rare example of when Ducati aimed its sights at a sports tourer. With help from the storeman raiding the 900SS and Darmah shelves, this is the result of the work…

Words by Oli Hulme Photos by James Archibald

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The Ducati 900SSD was intended to be a machine that bridged the gap between Ducati’s classy Darmah 900SD street bike and the unhinged 900SS, while combining elements of both and creating a sports tourer par excellence. It came in dramatic silver and blue and used the 900SS engine with desmo heads, which allowed the use of 40mm Dell’Ortos but with the addition of an electric start. There was a twin seat, a faintly space-age swoopy tail piece and a fairing that was similar, though not identical, to the 900SS. It was certainly as crudely finished on the inside as the SS fairing. It used the Darmah frame, got rear sets, clip-ons, stainless mudguards and remote reservoir Marzocchi shocks – and it was touted as the ultimate sport tourer.

This concept had worked for other manufacturers, but for some reason the SSD failed to capture buyer’s imagination. It was, after all, competing with the standard Darmah which, despite having smaller carbs, was no slouch and was more comfortable to tour on. Fewer than 1500 SSD machines were made, with about 100 sold in the UK.

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Like other Italian bikes of the period, it was considered more important that it looked right than anything. The riding position, therefore, with the Darmah frame and SS rearsets, is a challenge. The Italians did seem to have two basic riding positions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There is either absolutely spot-on, such as on the Morini 350 or Ducati Pantah, or the absolutely excruciating, as in the Moto Guzzi Le Mans or a Ducati 450 Desmo, which should have come with a season ticket for a chiropractor.  The Ducati also has the turning circle of a battleship.

The SSD came off the drawing board in 1978. Ducati had already realised its 860GT tourer wasn’t capturing buyers’ imaginations, so the Tartarini-designed Darmah replaced it in 1977. Build quality was much improved by using a mixture of Bosch, Lucas, and Nippon Denso electrics and controls.

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History and restoration

The bike here belongs to Mike. His SSD uses the second-generation V-twin engine, the 900cc square case. More than just a simple over-bore of the 750, the square case engine incorporated a new camshaft drive arrangement, improved oil pump, cartridge-type oil filter, and electronic ignition.

Mike has plenty of experience with big Ducati twins. “I had a 900SS for some 27 years, having some great rides on this bike and as any bevel twin owner knows, you need a strong left hand for the clutch. They used to say if a biker had a large left hand, he owned a bevel.

“I purchased this bike in March 2010 in a deal that had a tragic back story. The previous owner, Eric Newsham, had stripped the bike completely, with the intension of restoring it. He had the crank uprated to the stronger pin and had reassembled the bottom end only. All the paintwork had been removed; this now has a sealer primer on it. Every other component was stripped to the last nut and bolt.

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“Eric was having work on his house done but at the same time he had devastating news regarding cancer and was told he had only weeks to live. This meant he could no longer work and could not clear the builder’s debt. A work colleague told me the sad story, and also where the bike was and how much the debt was, so I approached the builder and purchased it.

“I had not expected it to be in so many pieces but I wasn’t fazed as I had owned the 900SS, taking it apart on many occasions! I could not decide at first whether to make a rat bike out of this one. When I researched the frame and engine number, I discovered it was in fact a Ducati 900SSD, so did a little more research to discover from Bonhams that it is one of Ducati’s rarest production bikes. This meant only one thing – a full restoration that took near four years to complete; I only have one last item to find, original rear shocks.”

Mike’s SSD currently runs on Hagons. “And I have the Kahini stainless exhaust system on the bike now, but have the original complete set tucked away.” Paintwork is by JBS Motorcycle Painting of Yeovil, who you may have seen at classic shows over the years. “John is in my mind one of the best restoring sprayers out there,” said Mike. Parts came mostly from specialists Mdina Italia. “This company offers outstanding quality parts and is happy to help in any way.”

Mike continued: “The restoration is also in memory of Eric Newsham. He owned the bike from 1985 and it is used – it’s not a garage showpiece. I ride it to work and to bike meetings.” Despite being used, the Ducati picked up a Best Classic trophy at the Ilfracombe Bike Show, run by the Air Ambulance and MAG. “I had gone to see the show bikes but on arrival had to pay £2 to park the bike and was given a number. I asked what the number was for and was told it was my show entry number. Later in the day, returning to my bike, a note said please go to the show controller’s tent. I had won Best Classic and was presented with a crystal plaque.”

Comparing a 900SS to the 900SSD

“Comparing the SSD to my old 900SS, on the 900SSD I have to do leg stretches before riding this bike – if not I get cramp in both calves at the same time… not only painful, it is near impossible to get your feet off the pegs. Being 6ft 2in tall, it feels a lot tighter to fit onto this bike, unlike my 900SS.”

The chain is adjusted on eccentric swingarm pivots, and Mike uses SAE50 monograde oil in the summer and SAE30 in the winter – this is because the engine uses needle roller bearings and a multigrade will get too thin as it warms up, unlike the monograde.

“The clip-on bars are another thing that could have been better as the cranked angles make the bars turn in, so not in a comfy position to grip. As with all bevel café racers, you need to be traveling at 80mph-plus to lift the weight off your wrists; in the 1980s this was not such an issue as we sped along but now, with so many cameras, it’s not such fun. The 900SSD seems heavier and a bit more of a beast to tame than the SS but at the end of the day, for the extra hassles of this bike, it is still a great ride when travelling at higher speed away from towns.

“On long and twisty roads I always finish my ride with a grin. I may have a bit of an ache in the back and left hand that needs a larger bike glove, but you won’t get me off the old bevel.”

1978 Ducati 900SSD

ENGINE: OHC L-twin with bevel drive cams and desmodromic valve gear BORE AND STROKE 86 x 74.4mm CAPACITY: 864cc COMPRESSION RATIO: 9.3:1 CARBURETTORS 2 x Dell‘Orto 40mm BRAKES: 2 x 280mm discs front, 1 x 229mm disc rear TYRES: 3.50 x 18in front, 4.25 x 18in rear WHEELBASE: 1500mm (60in) WEIGHT: 213kg (470lb)

What are desmodromic valves?

A desmodromic valve system positively opens and closes the valves, whereas a conventional spring-operated valve is positively opened but closes against the spring’s natural return strength. Desmodromic systems eliminate valve float which occurs at higher revs (where a spring would need to be stiffer), meaning a desmodromic engine can rev much higher but operate just as well at lower revs than an engine with spring-operated valves. The system loses less energy and the performance curves are smoother and more predictable – but it is more complicated and more expensive to manufacture.

In 1956, Fabio Taglioni developed a desmodromic valve system for the Ducati. Taglioni’s desmodromic system means Ducati valve timing is more accurate and constant. Desmodromic valve actuation has been applied to top-of-the-range production Ducati motorcycles since 1968. According to clever clogs Ducati experts, you need a 0.000 thou feeler gauge to adjust the valves…

 A brief guide to Ducati history

The 750 GT and 750 Sport

The first Ducati bevel twin – and whether you call the 90-degree engine a V-twin or an L-twin is entirely up to you – was the 750 GT of 1970. It is known as the bevel twin as it uses a shaft and a bevel drive camshaft to operate the valves.

These days it seems to take manufacturers two years to deliver a new paint scheme, but back in 1969 Ducati started work at the end of the year, finished the design work in the spring, built the engine by mid-July… and just 60 days later the first 750GT was unveiled to the press. These first 750s are often referred to as round case models. The 748cc engine was essentially two Ducati single barrels with bevel drive camshafts, pressed-together flywheels, and a slight off-set between the two cylinders, placing the rear exhaust port in the cooling air as the rider rushed along. It was wet sump with the engine and gearbox sharing the crankcase.

As a 90-degree V-twin, it was blessed with great balance and little vibration. The 750 weighed just 409lb. The 750 GT was joined in 1972 by the 750 Sport, with higher compression pistons, bigger carbs, and a sleeker look. And by sleeker look, I mean ‘the best-looking motorcycle of the 1970s’.

Ducati intended to break cover with the 750 Sport in the USA at Daytona, but when it realised that it needed 200 production models to be available to race in production categories, and that its racer had to be auctioned off after the race, it declined, deciding instead to launch at Imola. Two bikes were ridden to a one-two victory at Imola in 1972 by Bruno Spaggiari and Paul Smart, in the days when a racing win meant sales at the dealership. The duo defeated not only the race-proven Triumph Tridents of Percy Tait, John Cooper and Ray Pickrell, but also the works 750 MV Agusta of Giacomo Agostini. A handful of 750cc race replicas were sold the following year and the model entered limited production in 1974. Today those first 750cc L-twins with round case engines join Vincent and Brough Superior as part of the exclusive club for motorcycles that reach ridiculous prices at auction.

The 860GT

In 1975, Ducati made the 750 into an 860. This had what was to become known as the square case 864cc four-stroke 90-degree L-twin engine. The new engine first appeared in the curious squared-off 860GT, made in 1974 and 1975, which was replaced by the slightly restyled 860 GTS for 1976 to 1979. There was an electric start version called the 860 GTE. All the touring models had electric start after 1975.

It’s a big unit and sits between the two cylinders with a big alloy casing covering the drive mechanism. For the final two years, 1978 and 1979, the name was changed to 900 GTS. These had the new square casings, which were more acceptable in their time, but these days they simply don’t have the style of the old round case engines.

The 860 GT did not prove massively popular, partly because of its curious looks, so Ducati replaced it with the 900GTS which had the same engine but also a new rounder-edged petrol tank. To save money it also came with a drum rear brake, a conventional OHC engine rather than a desmo valve operation, and a new frame and swinging arm.

The 900SS

For the red-blooded sportsbike rider there was something almost as special as the uncompromising 750 Sport, the 900SS. This produced 68bhp, which might not sound a lot today, but in 1975 it was top of the shop. It featured desmo valve gear, special heads and 40mm Dell’Orto carburettors, along with a right-foot gear change and what were laughably described as silencers.

It had what were at the time state-of-the-art Marzocchi forks and shocks, Brembo disc brakes on the front and 18-inch spoked Borrani-rimmed wheels, while the tank was a 20-litre fibreglass item similar to that fitted to the previous 750SS. The first 900SS had British-made Smiths instruments and, showing off its racing pretensions, there were no indicators. There was also no electric start; something that lasted through the production run of the SS. This was a true sporting rider’s machine, and 1975 models were barely road legal in most markets. 

When the 900SS was put into regular production for 1976 there were various modifications to make the bike available for sale around the world, including a left-foot gearshift, a steel fuel tank, indicators and a revised instrument panel with reliable Nippon Denso clocks. To keep the lawmakers happy, the 1976 model also got smaller carbs and much quieter and more restrictive Lafranconi exhausts which took the power down considerably. Many owners swiftly swapped the silencers for Contis and fitted the original 40mm Dell’Ortos.

The SS was also equipped with some very Italian features, such as the roughly finished interior on the fibreglass nose fairing, a fibreglass front mudguard that didn’t quite fit the profile of the front tyre and the zip-up access to the seat hump, which provided storage just big enough for a few tools, or for a toothbrush and a clean shirt for use when heading for exotic assignations. Ducati kept developing the SS and by 1979 listed a 900SS as producing 72bhp at 9500rpm with a highly optimistic claimed top speed of 150mph. According to Ducati, the bike weighed in at just 393lb, 150lb lighter than that year’s Z1000 and just 20lb heavier than a Honda CB400 Superdream.

The 900SS (and the Darmah) was replaced by the 900S2 in 1983 with a better gearbox and a fairing that looked like the one fitted to the all-new Pantah 500, which was to become the basis for Ducati for decades to come.

Darmah SD

The Darmah arrived in 1977, pitched as an ultra-stylish everyday street bike to replace the GTS. This got an engine with a major redesign and the bike was styled by Leo Tartarini, of Italjet, with a dramatic red and white paint scheme (colouring Ducati perseveres with to this day) and gold Campagnolo wheels. Nippon Denso clocks, electronic ignition from Bosch, revisions to the lighting, gearbox, an uprated electric start with bigger battery to turn it over and a beefier alternator to make sure there was going to be power there next time you pushed the button. There were more resilient double-skinned exhausts, too.

Curiously there was a steering damper fitted as standard, which seemed out of place on a fine-handling Ducati, and a heavily revised frame. A classy black and Gold Darmah Sport with Conti silencers and 40mm carbs was sold alongside it.

The Mike Hailwood Replica

Following Mike Hailwood’s triumphant return to the TT in 1978 Ducati made 500 Mike Hailwood Replicas – rebodied 900ss twins that came with a certificate of authenticity.

The MHR was such a hit that once the first 500 had been sold, a Mk2 version went on sale in series production, with a revised fairing that allowed access to the engine without completely taking the fairing off. Later there were quieter silencers and a metal (rather than fibreglass) petrol tank as standard. There were then cosmetic additions like side panels, a new gearbox, and eventually – and to many a rider’s relief – a hydraulic clutch. The MHR was rebranded the 1000 Mille in 1984 and this was the last bevel drive Ducati twin, surviving until 1986, and a great way for the bevel twin to bow out.

 


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