Think rare Ducatis, think 1993 Supermono or an original 1973 Green Frame 750SS. But how about the Utah?
Nobody has scripted a movie about the labyrinthine politics of the Ducati factory in the 1970s. Someone should, because it would be almost as riveting as that 1972 classic, The Godfather.
The trouble is, like The Godfather, so all-consuming is the plotline, you’d have to make it into a series. One subplot to the amazing 1970s transformation of the Ducati factory is this soft off-roader. Called the Utah, it was aimed squarely at the US market, but it was only ever shown in Europe, then quietly tucked away in a corner of the Bologna factory.
Now, nearly 40 years later, we persuaded the Ducati museum to pull it out of the storeroom, dust it down and allow it to be photographed. Amazed at our luck? So are we. Amazed that the factory would hold such an icon out of view? So are we. But to delve into the reality of all this we need to go back in time to the mid-1970s.
In late 1974 some corporate bright spark decided Ducati should abandon all its established models and replace them with untested, clean-sheet designs to cover all market segments.
Forget the steady-selling overhead-cam singles and V-twins aimed at a niche of devoted road riders. Let’s build enduro two-strokes, a futuristic-looking ‘square-case’ V-twin grand tourer, and then some chain-driven overhead-cam parallel twins and singles. Yeah? Oh, yeah.
The result was a confusing period of declining sales and rickety machine development that was only arrested when the 860GT was redesigned into the Darmah and the Pantah, with its distinctive belt-driven overhead cams, arrived in 1979. Meanwhile, the factory went through three managers in as many years.
The Utah was spawned during this crazy era, conceived by charismatic designer Fabio Taglioni and his small team of backroom boffins.
Ignoring all the boardroom shenanigans going on above them, they quietly and efficiently beavered away on prototypes. These would eventually form the Pantah series, which is the basic architecture of all Ducati’s present-day models, up until the Panigale.
Like many factory engineers before and since, Dr T’s team played around with variations of their original ideas to see what would work and what wouldn’t. This even included supercharging a 350cc version of the Pantah twin.
Perhaps the most radical was a design that predated the Ducati Supermono by two decades. They took one cylinder from the prototype Pantah to create a single. That eventually morphed into the street scrambler Utah which, if you look closely at the photos, has some styling cues used on Ducati’s latest Scrambler.
The surviving 1977 Utah pictured here could lay claim to being Ducati’s rarest production prototype. Both the Utah and the Rollah road version were displayed at trade expos and intended for full-scale production but never got past the running prototype stage. The Rollah has disappeared so we only have the Utah to examine.
Taglioni, and a few other like-minded visionaries, had definite views about the direction Ducati management was going but it wasn’t until the dust had settled in the late 1980s that one of them was prepared to spill the beans.
Massimo Bordi, who had started at Ducati in 1978 straight out of university, was now the factory’s technical director.
“There should have been a single-cylinder design for a new Scrambler,” Bordi told an Italian journalist. “It would have been perfectly in keeping with the history and needs of the range.”
The Scrambler 450 was described by US magazine testers as “a pleasant mix between the European and American schools of motorcycling”.
“No one had to stop production of the Scrambler in 1975,” Bordi said. “That single could have continued and it could have protected the company from the setbacks it suffered. Instead we closed off the single-cylinder, made a terrible parallel twin, and then were left with the Pantah, before we finally stopped the bevel [in 1986].
“We created confusion,” he said.
Years later in another interview, Bordi would describe Ducati’s 1970s parallel twins as “delusional”. By this time, he had developed four-valve heads and liquid-cooling for the new twins, and the delectable Supermono of the early 1990s.
MAN ON A MISSION
In Taglioni’s view, a belt-driven, overhead-cam desmo design was the future for Ducati. Easier and cheaper to manufacture than the complicated bevel, it also employed Taglioni’s latest ideas on performance efficiency. This technology could be applied to a range of engines in different sizes of twins and singles.
When the 500cc Pantah twin was launched it blew existing conceptions of engine capacity equals performance out the window. The robust, high-revving little twin also blew motorcycles twice its physical size into the weeds.
The twin may have been the future but it wasn’t a great leap of logic to plan a single-cylinder version. As far back as the early 1970s “Dr T” experimented with a bevel-drive four-valve overhead-cam version of the existing single. Later, he built another single-cylinder engine based on a bevel V-twin minus the front pot.
It’s been claimed these experiments resulted in a near-50hp, 450cc engine that could have powered an Italian rival to Honda’s XL500 and Yamaha’s XT500 trailbikes. That output equalled the production Pantah twin in 500cc form.
There was another experiment using the old bevel single’s crankcases with a belt-driven overhead cam (the belt was on the other side of the engine than the later production Pantah twin).
Meanwhile, Ducati was gearing up to launch the pre-production version of its ground-breaking 500cc Pantah. That happened at the end of 1977 when the Pantah was displayed at the Milan show along with two smaller single-cylinder versions, the Rollah and the Utah.
Interestingly, the singles’ cam-belt drive was now on the right side of the engine just like the twin, rather than on the left like the earlier experimental version.
The crankcases also looked to be based on the Pantah’s. This was in line with Dr T’s belief that a modular engine range would guarantee Ducati’s survival.
At the time Ducati was part of the EFIM group, a government finance corporation that controlled a variety of Italian manufacturers and had no great love of motorcycles.
Company officials had to tread warily regarding investment and marketing as there was every chance EFIM might pull the pin on them, whether they were a motorcycle, car, ship or tractor factory.
The unexpected success of the tiny Pantah against big-bore European and Japanese rivals saved Ducati but the price paid was the stillbirth of the Utah and Rollah.
The sad thing is that there wasn’t much wrong with the design of these baby singles.
An 83 x 64mm bore and stroke gave an engine capacity of 346cc. A 30mm Dell’Orto carburettor hinted at serious head flow and claimed power was 27bhp at 7000rpm with peak torque at 3500rpm. By contrast the 500cc Pantah twin (74 x 58mm) produced 45bhp at 9000rpm using 36mm carbs.
The 1977 Pantah and Rollah prototypes featured the styling of the existing 500 Sport parallel twin. But, in the case of the Pantah at least, this was a ruse to mislead journalists (and possibly Ducati’s financial masters) about how deeply committed Ducati’s management was to producing a dashing, risky all-new model. The production Pantah arrived in 1979 with entirely different bodywork.
The 155kg Rollah featured blue paint and resembled a Darmah. Perfect for its target market, entry-level motorcyclists with a hankering for a big V-twin.
The 10kg-lighter Utah had styling all its own. This started with black and gold paintwork. The prominent, voluminous mesh air cleaner took up a large area under the seat, along with the cantilever rear suspension.
The delicate Campagnolo alloy wheels measured 21 and 18 inches, front and rear respectively, and were shod with Pirelli trials-type tyres. Mudguards were heavy-duty plastic.
Like the Rollah, it had three tiny Brembo discs, highly unusual for a small-capacity street scrambler of that era.
Marzocchi suspension included a state-of-the-art pressurised rear shock. It also had electric-starting, like the Rollah, and reliable Nippon Denso electrics.
This machine didn’t follow the look of contemporaries like Honda’s XL. Even the badging made a statement that Honda and Yamaha wouldn’t have thought of at the time.
Two feathers stick cheekily out from behind the spaghetti western-style Utah lettering in a nod to American culture.
The Utah’s chief designer, Leopoldo Tartarini, even had his name inscribed on the lower part of the tank. How many of these features, including the lightweight street wheels and triple discs, would have made it into production for a US-focussed scrambler is unknown. Certainly, the company had more faith in the Utah than the Rollah.
GHOST OF AN IDEA
The Rollah was never shown again but the Utah was displayed on the Ducati stand at a motor show in Paris in late 1978. Not long after, the announcement came that both projects had been abandoned. Only the Utah prototype survives, in Ducati’s museum.
However, there’s another chapter in this intriguing tale. Soon after the demise of the Utah, Mototrans, Ducati’s Spanish partner, launched its first complete in-house design. Called the MTV Yak 410, this trailbike’s engine bore a close resemblance to one of Ducati’s pre-Pantah prototypes. It was loosely based on an early 1970s single but with modified crankcases and belt-driven cam in a Pantah-like head, but on the opposite side of the engine from the later production Pantah.
The Yak’s 406cc single-cylinder engine (bore and stroke 86 x 70mm) had a desmo head with a belt-driven cam on the left side. It developed a claimed 38bhp at 8000rpm and looked every bit the part of an early Japanese trailbike.
Only about 80 were manufactured in a two-year production run and they had proper enduro styling.
Not quite a Utah, perhaps the Yak was a lovechild of the original idea.
All About The Prototypes
Talk about a barn find. All indications on the factory visit were that the Utah prototype hadn’t been seen since 1978. Even the company press officer who came down when the museum staff pulled it out of storage said he’d never seen it! A significant day started to feel like an archaeological discovery, although the 1970s produced a few of those.
The decade was a time of desperate innovation by some motorcycle companies. In 1973, Triumph’s chief design engineer Doug Hele secretly shoe-horned a 1000cc four-cylinder engine built from twin and triple parts into a modified Trident frame to create the Quadrant. Hele had built the first prototype of the 1969 production Trident in 1964, called P1. It could have been in showrooms in 1967. Often it’s a long road from prototype to production.
Perhaps the most embarrassing way to develop a prototype is to go racing on it. That’s what Norton did with its liquid-cooled P86 Challenge in 1975. The company was in its death throes but pressed ahead with two cylinders hacked off a Cosworth F1 engine. It was a disaster.
If the engine didn’t overheat, the gearbox would get stuck in top. Strangely, the project was revived by a private owner and the so-called Quantel-Cosworth won Daytona’s Pro Twins classic in 1988 with UK racing legend Roger Marshall on board and John Surtees as team adviser. By then an all-new Norton company was developing rotary engines.
Even the mighty Japanese have developed prototypes that never went into production. Wonder where Suzuki’s 2003 G-Strider is now? It had Akira comic-book looks, a 900cc parallel-twin engine, shaft drive and a gearbox that could work either as a manual or automatic. Perhaps it’s time to try again, Suzuki, or are you too busy racing MotoGP?
Want some more motorcycle factory intrigue? Try nosing around the Chinese motorcycle industry.
Its oldest two-wheeled company actually dates back to 1875. That’s Jialing, which first built military hardware and finally got into motorcycles in 1975. By 2012 it was exporting to 90 countries. Not hard to do when you’re producing a million motorcycles a year.
At last year’s Canton Fair it displayed its latest products up against major rivals Zongshen, Loncin, XGJAO, Andes Motos, Haojin and Senke. The year before Senke won the show’s design award with its prototype café-styled Raptor. Last year it had three versions on display and ready to sell. Sometimes a prototype ticks all the boxes.
This article by Hamish Cooper. Photos courtesy Phil Ansley