Ducati 916: Our bikes

Date 10.9.2013

Presented by
  • Motorcycle Trader

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Ducati 916

Guido Italiano

I usually end up writing these stories shortly after adding some unsuspecting transport of delight to the fleet and therefore am caught in the first flush of ownership when, assuming it doesn’t actually throw a rod, the bike can do no wrong.

For whatever reason, this time it’s been a year since I managed to get the scone-grabbers on the Ducati – so it’s had ample opportunity to disgrace itself. And hasn’t.

This is my first Duke. For a while their questionable reputation for reliability, and being expensive to fix, put me off. Then it just came down to the fact that the right example never seemed to show up at the right price. In the end, like most of these things, it came down to opportunity.

Muggins couldn’t help but notice that prices on 916s were low – ridiculously so, given their reputation and performance.

ITALIAN LESSON

For those who don’t know a lot about them, here’s a little potted history. Noted author and MT team member, Ian Falloon, says this about them in his book on the model (a must-read for would-be owners, pictured over the page): “There is no doubt the 916, and its derivatives, are the most significant models produced by Ducati. The 916 single-handedly elevated the status of that from a niche market producer of non-mainstream V-twins to the level where a Ducati became the most desirable sporting motorcycle available.”

I remember how much of an impact they made when introduced and got to ride several examples. First, the design by Massimo Tamburini (who went on to pen the MV Agusta F4) was an absolute stunner and, in the opinion of many, has become timeless. It certainly made the job of anyone who designed subsequent models a whole lot tougher.

The basic stats of the machine – around 77.2kW/105hp (in Strada trim) for around 195kg dry and a top speed of 260km/h – seem pretty tame by current standards. In 1993-94, when the bike was introduced, they were pretty damned good and certainly groundbreaking for a V-twin.

The relatively modest performance stats belied the real-world performance, however, which was stunning. Given a set of free-breathing pipes (which nearly every owner added), they were noisy, fast enough in a straight line and a real weapon on a twisty bit of road. Even now, some 20 years after their introduction, there’s plenty of excitement for most people.

A significant extra layer on the 916 story is the phenomenal success it enjoyed in the World Superbike Championship, with Carl Fogarty in the saddle in 1994, ’95, ’98 and ’99, with Aussie Troy Corser taking the intervening year in 1996.

MONEY CAN BUY HAPPINESS

What got my attention last year was the fact that prices had slipped to a little more than $10,000 for a good Strada, the ‘cooking’ version. That, in my book, is a lot of exotica for the money. Back in 1994 they had a price tag of $24,990 and bumped up to $26,990 for 1995-98, according to Glass’s Guide. That was a lot of money back then, when you could buy a litre-class Japanese sportsbike for about $10,000 less.

You could, of course, buy more exotic, powerful and expensive SP or superbike replica versions. Very nice and very collectable, though they had a reputation for being more fragile and costly to maintain.

So what’s it like after all this time? Though quite tall, it’s incredibly narrow and feels short – tiny, really. There’s an angry bellow available at the twist of the wrist, with enough acceleration to lift the nose if you want.

Braking is strong, though the feel really belongs to another era – not as precise as you’d expect from current kit. The adjustable steering is on the heavy side, while the suspension copes remarkably well. There’s no mistaking the ride position for anything other than a hard-edged sportsbike – it’s spectacularly uncomfortable over a distance.

This example is a 1996 Strada which a previous owner dressed up as an SP. Those who know their Dukes will pick the difference. It wears a few aftermarket bits, such as the Sil Motor carbon-fibre cans and an open clutch cover – just so you can fully enjoy the cacophony of that dry multi-plate clutch. To anyone unfamiliar with them, they sound like the motorcycle is in imminent danger of exploding.

I’ve only covered a few thousand kays over the last year and, now the honeymoon is over, I’m still very happy with it. It’s just good to look at. Though it’s hardly suited to large people (I look like an elephant riding a bicycle), it’s great fun and you certainly know you’ve been for a ride.

LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS

By far the biggest worry with these things is their mixed reputation when it comes to maintenance. Adjusting the valve lash in the Desmodromic set-up is not a job for the amateur mechanic and can end up being costly.

I spoke to long-time expert Bob Brown (tel (03) 5428 6096) about this. He charges around $750 for the twice-yearly belt change and service, but says he’s heard of double that being charged.

The belts need to be swapped over regardless of whether the bike has been used and he says it’s a necessary precaution with these engines.

As for buying one, he reckons the best advice is to get an expert to look over the machine for you. Failing that, a complete service record is a good start.

Parts are plentiful, if pricey. I needed an ignition pick-up for this bike and a similar vintage Triumph recently, and the Ducati part cost $240 compared with $140 for the Triumph. You must be careful to order for the correct year, as a number of running changes were made during the life of the series.

Other than the ignition pick-up (the symptoms were the bike would stop when it got hot, then restart once cooled down), the only other job has been to get the Öhlins rear shock (an aftermarket item – the Stradas have Showa) serviced and rebuilt, which cost a few hundred.

That, combined with tyres and fresh oil in the fork, did wonders for the handling.

So far, it’s been a happy relationship, in part (I suspect) because I only use it as a sunny Sunday bike. It would be an awful everyday machine.

Falloon reckons good 916s are going to end up being very collectable one day.

It’s not something you’d base your retirement investment planning on, but he’s probably right.

In my case, I’ve gradually pulled together the bits to take this bike back to standard, while the parts are available.

Was it a worthwhile purchase? Ask me any time after I’ve just stepped off the thing – you just can’t help but have a mile-wide grin on the dial.

WHAT’S DESMODROMIC?

Desmodromic, or Desmo, valve gear has become something of a Ducati trademark. Instead of using springs to close the intake and exhaust valves on a four-stroke engine, the system uses a cam and follower.

Ducati did not invent the idea but first toyed with it in the 1950s. It first appeared on a production bike in 1968 and became a mainstay during the 1970s.

THUMBS UP

– Great fun

– Nice handling

– Potential collectable

THUMBS DOWN

– Check them out carefully

– Can be pricey to fix

SPECIFICATIONS

Ducati 916

ENGINE:

Type: Liquid-cooled, four-valves-per-cylinder, 90-degree V-twin

Bore and stroke: 94 x 96mm

Displacement: 916cc

Compression ratio: 11:1.0

Fuel system: Electronic injection

TRANSMISSION:

Type: Six-speed constant mesh

Final drive: Chain

CHASSIS AND RUNNING GEAR:

Frame type: Lattice steel tube

Front suspension: USD 43mm Showa fork, fully adjustable

Rear suspension: Showa monoshock, fully adjustable

Front brakes: 320mm twin discs with four-piston Brembo calipers

Rear brake: Single 220mm disc with twin-piston caliper

DIMENSIONS and CAPACITIES:

Dry weight: 195kg

Seat height: 790mm

Fuel capacity: 17lt

PERFORMANCE:

Max power: 78kW (105hp) at 9000rpm

Max torque: 88.25Nm (65.09ft-lb) at 7000rpm

OTHER STUFF

Price when new: $24,990 to $26,990 (plus ORC)