On a morning next month Zed Zawada will once more perform the ritual: fuel taps on, depress the tickler on the rear and then the front 40mm Dell’Orto carburettor until petrol spills onto the floor, ease over compression with the kickstarter, turn on the ignition, twist the throttle three times to squirt juice from the accelerator pumps, and finally, lunge down on the kickstart.
The 1975 Ducati 900SS will respond (Zed has performed the ritual many times), and the pair will beat a 4000rpm/90mph path to the Bol d’Or Classique at Le Castellet, 800 miles from his home north of Rome. “If you don’t follow the sequence precisely, one of two things will happen,” Zed says. “Either it will kick back and throw you over the handlebars, or you’ll spend the rest of the day trying to start it.”
Zed bought his 900SS in 1977, when it had done 4000 kilometres (2500 miles) from new, for around £2000 – then a year’s salary for a young guy in London selling ads on a motorcycle magazine. In the next ten years he destroyed the myth that you couldn’t cover high mileages with early Ducati V-twins by racking up 62,500 miles as he and his wife Anne traversed Europe. But he also proved the accusation that Ducatis were fragile – the 900SS destroyed its bigends three times.
“The early bikes had a 38mm big-end, but on the later models it was increased to 42 or 44mm, which was much more durable,” he says. “My problems were partly self-inflicted because I raised the gearing by fitting 16- and 34-tooth sprockets. It gave a cruising speed of 100mph at 4000rpm, but there was a tendency for the engine to lug around town, which knocked out the big-ends.”
The 900SS brought other problems. Pinions in the five-speed gearbox could flake and chip, and the electrics were terrible – Zed replaced the standard fuse box with a Bosch item that was standard on Porsche 911 cars, and fitted a Lucas Rita ignition unit. And if it rained when the bike was parked up, the front carburettor would fill with water dripping from the edge of the fuel tank.
Why sign up to all these problems, when he could have bought a Suzuki GS1000 or Kawasaki KZ1000 and just pressed a button to enjoy 60,000 trouble-free miles?
Zed has written the following in the Ducati owners’ club magazine: “UK roads were over-run with ubiquitous Japanese across-the-frame fours with elastic chassis, stainless steel disc brakes that didn’t, and perfectly competent engines that sounded like domestic appliances.”
He’s right. Japanese fours of the day wobbled on the English A-roads of the time, and if today’s tighter legislation had been in place, the wetweather delay inherent in their braking systems would have had them banged up in court. Zed is also not alone in feeling that four cylinders are one or two too many for a road bike – there’s just too much mechanical busy-ness going on, and riding on public roads simply doesn’t require the top-endy horsepower that a four-cylinder motor can deliver.
So Zed fitted a dual seat and Krauser panniers to the 900SS – sacrilege really, for a bike originally designed for production racing – and he and Anne loped around Europe to holiday destinations or race circuits such as Spa, Monza and Le Castellet, where they formed part of the crew for the famous (and occasionally infamous) Team Bike endurance racing frolics of the 1980s, Zed on the spanners, Anne on the gas-rings. More recently, Zed restored the 900SS, with the engine being handled by the highly-rated Nigel Lacey, in Portland, Hants. Zed recently enjoyed a 2000-kilometre, five-day jaunt at the Giro d’Italia, and this year’s big thrash will be to the Bol.
Are you swayed? Do you ride Japanese bikes like those tested on page 46, but feel tempted by a 900SS (along with the 1000cc Laverda Jota, one of the fastest bikes on the road on its day)? Early problems with the 900SS will have been sorted by now. But two problems you might encounter: cost (a 900SS apparently sold for £125,000 recently) and fakes. Ducati made only 246 900SSs in 1975, and Zed believes that only 100 survive. Yet there are dodgy ones masquerading as the genuine thing: like ex-Mike Hailwood Manx Nortons or ex-Giacomo Agostini works MVs, 900SSs have an uncanny ability to breed.