Icons & Innovations: Ducati: Staying Power
Customers wanted Ducati motorcycles in 1995. The products were modern, attractive, fairly priced, and backed by a race-winning heritage. Company ledgers should have been dripping black ink, yet there was a better-than-even chance that the Bolognese firm would not survive to see 1996.
Ducati began, in the mid-1920s, as a parts manufacturer for radios. This business proved lucrative, and might well have led the company down a completely different path had it not been for World War II, when the company’s factories were bombed to rubble. Italy had new priorities after 1945, and one of them was low-cost transportation. Ducati began manufacturing small gasoline engines that could be attached to bicycles. Soon thereafter, an aircraft firm called Caproni started building frames specifically for these Ducati powerplants. The resulting small two-wheeler, called the Cucciolo, competed in the marketplace with vehicles from another former aircraft builder, MV Agusta. In time, a small scooter, well appointed and bearing a futuristic shell designed by Carrozzeria Ghia, joined the Ducati line.
With these small bikes selling well, Ducati hired engineer Fabio Taglioni, who started work on larger motorcycle designs. Taglioni’s arrival led to a heavy involvement in racing. He was an advocate of desmodromic design, in which the engine’s camshafts are used to open and close the valves, making springs unnecessary. When it debuted in 1956, Taglioni’s 125 Desmo established the design pattern for all future Ducati motorcycles.
Success followed success, on roads and racecourses alike. Mike Hailwood rode Ducatis to several world championships, while an unending stream of new models maintained customer interest. The exception was the 1960 Apollo, which was intended for the U.S. market as a Harley-Davidson alternative. It could be called a failure; only two were built. The warm reception accorded the U.S.-specific Scrambler of 1961—a high-riding, go-anywhere machine—more than compensated for this setback.
Ducati entered the superbike market in 1973 with the 750SS, and then vaulted to the front of the field with the 851 SBK in 1989, a 132 hp rocket capable of more than 170 mph. But even this was overshadowed in 1993 by the Monster, a so-called naked bike (sans fairing), a basic, brutal confection of tube chassis, large tank, engine, wheels, and a small saddle for the rider.
But it appeared that even the Monster could not save the company in 1995, when the Castiglioni brothers, who bought the firm in 1983 and added it to their Cagiva conglomerate, overextended and left Ducati short of cash. Nearing bankruptcy in 1996, Ducati was bailed out by Texas Pacific Group, an American investment partnership, which chose to continue production, expand the model range, and reach out to its customers through continued success on the track.