… In my dream it suddenly dawns on me that I’ve somehow overlooked the fact that I still own the 900SS. There’s no doubt about it, it’s still there in that lockup in Thornton Heath, waiting to be kicked back into life like some forgotten Norse god glowering in his cave…
So ends one of the early chapters in Adventures in Motorcycling about owning a Ducati 900SS at 19 years of age, back in the late 70s. The other day I tasted a faint déjà vu of that ‘Ducati in the cave’ scenario. In the absence of anyone better qualified, an ageing relative has asked me to help sell their bike for them – a 1978 Ducati 900 GTS. It’s been sitting for years in a cave-like barn alongside a vintage tractor that’s at least twice as old.
As you can see the paintjob is not the original green as on the right (advert from 1977 Bike magazine) but it does have an authentic naff/groovy 70s look. Enquiries soon revealed that it was not, as I’d hoped, a highly collectable factory Sophia Loren Special of which ten were made, and only three are thought to survive, with one in the Guggenheim Bilbao. No – it’s just a moderately tasteful bit of home decorating. Wheeling it out into the daylight showed the old ‘Cat was in surprisingly good nick for a marque famed for their bad finish (as were most bikes back then, except BMWs). As you can see below Sophia, some young dudes of the times did manage to produce worse paint jobs for which one can only blame the era’s prevalence for drug-taking. I am sorry to say that even before such mind-expanding substances came into my orbit, I was guilty of even worse spray-brained idiocy, though luckily I limited it to a crumby TS185 field bike, not an Italian thoroughbred.
Those images have been pinched from the ducati-upnorth classic forum where each respective owner has painstakingly detailed their restoration (blue one here – pinkfloyd here) into something that a current-day fashion-conscious sleb would hope to get paped on. On the left and top right you can see the blue one (with the nifty colour-coded padded rack to stop the Mrs bruising her coccyx) has turned out rather well. That’s what a 900 GTS would have looked like fresh out of the bath. Not bad at all for a bike that was slated as ugly at the time.
As a teenager I recall wondering what next after selling the Bonnie and ditching an execrable 400 Dream. For a short time the underdeveloped sensible fragment of my brain quite fancied a plain, no-nonsense GTS. Less flash than the Desmo streetracer, it was a good, solid tourer in the old-school mould of a T140V or a Guzzi T3, a bike you could introduce to your girlfriend’s parents, but with that rich Bolognese allure that was cool then and is even cooler now.
According to the old MoTs the bike’s hardly done 100 miles in the last decade but has been started and run regularly in that time following a bit of a refurb. That may explain the ‘modern’ Battlax tyres on a bike with only 2840 miles on the clock. The originals were probably cracking long before they got anywhere near worn out, but the wheels are fur-free Akronts, not nasty Radelli steels. The carbs run non-standard K&Ns and the indicators are missing plus the seat’s been redone, but I’m told by an expert this is a genuine 900 GTS (registered May ’78), not an 860, despite that number appearing on the LHS electric start cover. Both bikes used an identical engine anyway, ‘900’ was just a marketing ploy to try and distance the new model from the unsuccessful 860, but even this GTS got overshadowed by the sexier Darmah, let alone the 900SS and later MHRs.
Not surprisingly the huge battery was as flat as a Blakes 7 plot, but I thought even then, what chance of this thing firing up and running smoothly? The portents were good: the astonishingly light clutch didn’t need freeing as I gave the kick a series of swings to pump some oil around. Then I parked my Kawa alongside and flicked up what I took to be a choke by the clocks (my SS didn’t run such effeminate starting aids).
After only a minute of cautious five-second bursts on the button the GTS rumbled into life and settled into a high tickover without even a puff of blue smoke. Glory be, who can resist breaking into a smile at giving an old geezer a bit of CPR! It may have been nearly 40 years but I instantly recalled that ‘Ducati smell’, a petrol/oily whiff that emanates from somewhere among the 900’s pores. And this being a 90° V-twin (none of that ‘L-twin’ round here, please) and despite a cacophonous clatter of valve gear which the original Lafranconis failed to mute, there was no vibration, just an ambient, primal throb. Whoever buys this thing, I hope they slap on the closest equivalent to some ‘straight-through’ Contis. Among motorcycles, that sound does for the ears what juicy ripe mangos do for the taste buds.
While it warmed up I topped up the Bridgestones then rode it into the farmyard but was taken aback by the heavy steering, probably down to the lazy rake which gives the already long bike its famous stability. The bike’s owner these 30-odd years was thrilled to see his old steed rattling away like a steam loom and took a loop round the farmyard. Seeing all was well, I selflessly volunteered to ‘run it up the lane to clear the Brembos, like’.
‘Long-legged and easy to live with’ ran the adverts back then. OK, that was for Guzzis. Ducatis? they ‘Laid it on the Line’ in a sequin see-thru body stocking, but long-legged would apply to a GTS. The gearing feels more spaced out than Sid Vicious on the Bill Grundy show; I don’t think I anywhere near into top before a roundabout hurled itself at the cloudy Brembos. My SS never handled as well as they said it should, but perhaps the intervening years of accumulated ballast, the BT45s and non-original Koni shockers saw the GTS rail around the ’bout just like it was supposed to. I’d have preferred some higher, flat-track bars like Clint’s Triumph in Coogan’s Run. That’s what was clamped to the original 860s, but Ducati dropped them on the 900 after it’s said road testers complained of the 860’s un-Ducati-like weaving at higher speeds.
What a thrill it was to ride this old beveller, even if it felt as agricultural as its setting and as noisy as a Brixton riot. If I had the space, the tools, the know-how (and I suppose more money then I’d guess), I’d be tempted to slowly do the thing up to run around on sunny days, like so many middle-aged bikers. They say many GTSs quickly got made over into ‘SS-replicas’ to boost their value and image, but without the desmodromic valve shimming complexities.
I’ve learned the value of GTSs are on the rise (‘up to €12,500 for a perfectly restored example’).The irresistible draw of nostalgia is seeing its once lowly status upgraded to what it always was: an honest and unpretentious big twin that today would be as satisfying to ride as any iconic bike from motorcycling’s heyday. This example isn’t worth anywhere near €12k of course,
but if you want to take on that task, get in touch for details.