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Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Ducati SuperSport

A look at the SuperSport through five decades as the latest 950 enters production

As the Ducati 950 SuperSport enters production, our Italian correspondent Bruno dePrato takes a look back at the past five decades of the SuperSport.Ducati

The new Ducati SuperSport 950 was revealed last November and analyzed here by Seth Richards. Now Ducati has announced that the bike will enter production and is scheduled to go on sale next spring. This is the latest in a lineage of SuperSport Ducati models that runs back to the end of the ’80s, keeping in mind that the mythical Ducati 750 that won the 1972 Imola 200 was based on the first edition of the Ducati “bevel gear” 750 SS.

These models remained in production until the mid-1980s, and were the basis for the limited-edition Mike Hailwood Replica, a model inspired by the bike on which Hailwood won the 1978 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy and with it the TT Class world title.

1972 Imola-winning race machine
Paul Smart’s 1972 Imola-winning race machine was based on the 750 SS.Ducati

The second-generation Ducati SuperSports were no longer Ducati’s top sport models, coming as they did after the mighty 851 four-valve desmo had gone into production. They were intended to be entry models, an introduction to Ducati magic. That proved to be very smart marketing.

The first Ducati SuperSport 900 model was a huge success largely because Ducati technicians worked quickly to correct the company’s weak first attempt, the 1988 750 Sport, based on the old 750 F1 rolling gear and the Paso 750 power unit. In the very first edition, the chassis was somewhat flex prone due to the rear swingarm structure and the inconsistent quality of its early generation 16-inch radials, and its centrally located Weber twin barrel carburetor didn’t breathe as well at low speeds compared to its installation in the Paso.ADVERTISEMENT

750 SuperSport
The 750 SuperSport was a weak attempt, but the following 900 SuperSport promptly corrected many of the issues.Bruno dePrato Collection

Ducati’s technical team promptly went to work fixing the chassis and installing a new 904cc power unit, giving life to the first 900 SuperSport. The heart of both the old and new bikes was derived from the air-cooled Pantah 500cc SOHC 2-valve desmo designed by Ducati stalwart Dr. Fabio Taglioni. The 904cc version’s 92mm bore and 68mm stroke were housed in a heftier crankcase based on the 851 four-valve desmo’s. This allowed the 900 SuperSport to use Ducati’s new six-speed gearbox. The 904cc engine also received a more effective air-/oil-cooling system that further improved the general efficiency of the 80 hp unit, as improved cooling led to smoother response from the Weber DCOE carburetor.

The 900 SuperSport featured a nicely designed steel-tube trellis frame that set the style for all the units that followed. It shared its 1,450-millimeter/57.0-inch dimensions with the Paso, but not that model’s advanced front end geometry, which at 25 degrees incorporated a steeper steering axis rake. Ducati’s technical team was still strongly tied to their old-style steering geometries, and consequently the 900 SuperSport featured a heavier 28-degree rake angle. The 900 SuperSport was lean, relatively light, and represented an attractive value for the money given its price to performance ratio.

1989 750 SuperSport
The 1989 750 SuperSport on the track.Bruno dePrato Collection

In 1992 Ducati created the 900 SuperSport Superlight by paring the 900SS down to a net 397 pounds. I had multiple opportunities to test the 900 SuperSport; I loved the semi-dressed version better than the fully faired one. The half-fairing left the bike’s mechanical beauty open to appreciation, and in a Ducati, that is a positive factor. The engine was strong, with plenty of torque from below 4,000 rpm to a 60 pound-feet peak at 6,500 rpm, and thundering runs up to 8,000 rpm, 500 rpm past peak power, were easily done. The engine and the light weight combined for very pleasant performance, not extremely aggressive but very solid.

I liked the steering response much less. I never loved the old-style Ducati steering geometry championed by Ducati engineer Franco Farné, who was a great engine technician and superb tuner but not a chassis specialist. Yet Farné had a strong influence on the design of Ducati frames. Perhaps only Maestro Massimo Tamburini designed Ducati frames combining advanced geometry and perfect weight distribution. Typical Ducati chassis geometry induced the front end to go wide, and I never liked fighting this characteristic. Yet the light weight and the ergonomically very inviting riding posture made the problem much less relevant at the track, where the SuperSport proved smartly responsive and stable around fast corners.

That made the first-generation 900 SuperSport highly appreciated by the public, soon becoming a pillar of Ducati’s growing success on the market. At the peak of their popularity, the 750 and 900 SuperSport models accounted for more than 10,000 sales per year. The impressive success of the Ducati 851 four-valve desmo in the SBK series boosted the image of the 900 SuperSport, itself a bike of high quality in every detail, featuring top-quality components such as Brembo’s Gold braking system and latest-generation Marzocchi suspension.

A further touch of refinement was added to the limited-edition 900 SuperSport Superlight version, which featured a vented dry clutch cover, lightweight Marvic wheels, Brembo Gold brakes all around, and carbon fiber front fender and other body bits. It was the swan song for the first edition of this generation of SuperSport models.

Ducati SuperSport
The final edition of the first generation of the Ducati SuperSport with Brembo Gold components.Ducati

In 1999 Ducati introduced the second-generation SuperSport. Hopes were high, because Ducati planned to introduce a complete range of models from 620cc to a smart 800cc to a full 1,000cc in order to address all possible levels of the sportbike market. All power units were based on the old-faithful air-cooled SOHC two-valve desmo, which underwent a technological updating program including the adoption of Marelli’s latest fully integrated digital ignition-injection system.

The profile of the original combustion chamber was modified slightly, and the 1,000cc version received a twin spark ignition to ensure that combustion would be as complete and clean as possible inside its 94mm bore/71.5mm stroke cylinders. Engineer Pierluigi Mangoli had worked with Dr. Taglioni and knew all the secrets of the Pantah 500 unit. Mangoli was able to bring emissions down to the soon-to-come Euro 2 standards while extracting brilliant power output from a classic old design.

RELATED: The 1991–1997 Ducati 900SS Is The Used Motorcycle You Need

The 80mm bore/61.5mm stroke 618cc unit featured a fairly high 10.5:1 compression ratio and breathed through a 45mm centrally located throttle body to generate 61 hp at 8,750 rpm, with 40 pound-feet peak torque at 6,500 rpm. These numbers are rather impressive for an air-cooled two-valver, and the 2,250 rpm separating peak torque from peak power and indicate pretty good flexibility. The 620 V-twin was based on the original crankcase, allowing it to be paired with the equally original five-speed gearbox.

The 88mm bore/66mm stroke 803cc unit breathed through the same 45mm throttle body and features the same remarkable 10.5:1 compression ratio to generate a substantial 74.5 hp at 8,250 rpm and 51.6 pound-feet peak torque at 6,250 rpm. Again, I find these numbers indicative of a very positive thermodynamic efficiency, which on the road translated to very solid performance and throttle response.

Dr. Gigi Mengoli
Dr. Gigi Mengoli with an original and modern version of the air-cooled SOHC twin. He had a part in every version.Bruno dePrato

The real SuperSport was the 1000 SuperSport, powered by what was recognized as the most advanced air-cooled desmo V-twin ever built by Ducati. With a 10:1 compression ratio and breathing through that same 45mm throttle body, it delivered 86 hp at 7,750 rpm and 65 pound-feet peak torque at 5,750 rpm for a positive combination of good top-end power and a very solid torque curve.

Dry weight was just above 400 pounds for a power-to-weight ratio that ensured consistent all-around performance, particularly in terms of midrange throttle response and acceleration, with a top speed exceeding 140 mph. I rode the bike extensively on all sorts of roads, but unfortunately, never on track time.

The chassis geometry marked a clear departure from the previous generation. The steel-tubing trellis frame structure was modified slightly to increase torsional rigidity, while the original cantilevered monoshock rear suspension evolved into a state-of-the-art cantilevered Öhlins shock absorber actuated by a link located at the top of the triangulated bracing of the new aluminum swingarm. At the front, a 43mm Showa fork replaced the traditional Marzocchi unit. The big difference was in the general geometrical setup.

The second-generation SuperSport got more torsional rigidity and a shorter wheelbase.Bruno dePrato Collection

The new SuperSport models spanned a much shorter 54.9-inch wheelbase and had steeper steering geometry, with 24 degrees of rake and 100mm trail. While the steering geometry numbers meant that the Ducati technical team had fully absorbed Dr. Tamburini’s lessons, the 2.1-inch-shorter wheelbase prevented the new chassis from taking full advantage of it. While the front wheel had indeed been moved closer to the center of gravity, it was only by about a half-inch, once the transition from the previous small-diameter 16-inch tires to the new 17-inch radials was taken into consideration. The “L” configuration of Ducati’s air-cooled SOHC V-twin had no mercy, its shape and placement preventing the front wheel from moving any further back. Thus, a good share of the removed 2.1 inches was gained at the rear, causing a more rearward weight distribution bias.

The shorter wheelbase in turn forced a taller seat height, which grew from 29.5 to 32.3 inches. In the case of a 200-pound rider (me), the combination resulted in a less confidence-inspiring feel. Despite the steeper steering geometry, the rearward weight distribution still forced the front end too wide in the turns. Luckily, the solid frame structure ensured excellent high-speed stability.

second-generation SuperSport
The second-generation SuperSport was an excellent performer.Bruno dePrato Collection

The bike was a very good performer, thanks primarily to its unusually strong and progressive engine. The motorcycle was very well equipped in all departments, with lightweight Marchesini aluminum wheels, a full Brembo Gold braking system featuring twin 320mm front rotors, an oil cooler, and Michelin Pilot Sport radials. At that stage of its life the 1000 SuperSport was not priced cheaply, at more than 10,000 euros, but it was still a very attractive value for lovers of Italian sportbikes.

And there was one thing about the bike that did not work. Ducati hired South African designer Pierre Terblanche. But his styling for the motorcycle was bulbous, unclean, almost crooked. The previous generation might have looked a bit basic, but it was simple and neat, as expected of a Ducati. The second-generation SuperSport series was a flop. In 2007, Ducati shut down production.

Pierre Terblanche SuperSport design
Pierre Terblanche’s design on the second-generation SuperSport was not well received.Ducati

Ten years later Ducati resurrected the SuperSport logo. Cycle World thoroughly tested the bike that, as in previous generations, was intended as the perfect sportbike for the common rider. The bike is state of the art in many respects; its chassis is intended for the Panigale engine, and when teamed with the mildly tuned 950cc Testastretta V-twin, delivers a glorious combination of great dynamic qualities and smooth power delivery. The motorcycle is easy to harness and keep under full control in perfect safety, with the assistance of one of the most advanced electronics suites in the business. It’s a supremely capable sport-touring bike, the likes of which we have been missing for years. It even included nicely designed touring bags, emphasizing the “touring” element of its avocation.

air-cooled SOHC L-twin
The air-cooled SOHC L-twin at the center of the SuperSport’s success is now powering the highly popular Scrambler line.Bruno dePrato

Yet it is not exactly the natural heir of the old SuperSport. This is a much richer, much more sophisticated bike, more expensive, but also more versatile. I would say that, when looking back to the previous generations, it misses the basic, versatile power unit that the air-cooled SOHC V-2 was and that determined the good value for money price.

950 SuperSport
Will the 950 SuperSport sell 10,000 units like SOHC-powered units that came before it? Only time will tell.Ducati

That legendary V-2 still is there—in Ducati’s new 1,100cc, 86 hp edition that might be adequate for an old-style, low-price, basic SuperSport. But I might have gone a bit too far down memory lane. Even in a sport-tourer, today’s riders want state-of-the-art technology, refinement, power in reserve, versatility, comfort, and safety. The Ducati SuperSport 950 coming to the market in about a month enhances the qualities of the previous version, adds all the modern technology that is required of a Ducati, and will get the job done smartly and in style. But probably it will not sell 10,000 units a year like the old ones did.

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