Mike Nick's May 2015

The 860 was such a flawed anti-climax in its day, but it could make a tempting weekend bike today

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I’ve never seen a restored mid-’70s Ducati 860GT or GTS. It’s almost like a forgotten motorcycle in a classic world where the name Ducati carries massive cachet. There’s usually a reason for these things, and in the 860’s case it would lie in the bike’s confusing identity.

Ducati followed the success of the 1971 750GT with the 750 Sport and 750 SuperSport, and the company’s trajectory as a sports bike maker seemed assured.

When it was announced, the 860 triggered dreams of gushing power and endless torque, because it would consist of the top halves of two of Ducati’s 450 singles on a common crankcase. The surge was there alright – but it also had a confusing and unexpected identity. Ducati were targeting the American market, and had engaged car stylist Giorgio Giugiaro to work on the 860. He gave it high, wide bars, and a seat height of 32.5in.

So you had this surging, vibration-free V-twin engine in a stable frame, with Ceriani forks and Marzocchi rear units, yet it was impossible to savour thepackage. The 860 loped gracefully in the 80-90mph envelope, but the handlebars made it exhausting to maintain that rhythm. A gran turismo experience it certainly was not. The broad handle bar also provoked a slight high-speed weave over rippled surfaces, which was exaggerated at the timing session, where we tested for maximum speed by putting our feet on the rear footrests and curling the left hand around the fork leg. In that situation, the Ducati broke into a yawing motion at over 90mph, and we reverted to a normal crouch, whereupon the 860 chundered through the lights at 111.1mph. The 860GT’s brakes were also disappointing. This 225kg motorcycle had a single 11in disc from the 450, but on the bigger bike it lacked feel.

Those early Ducati twins also suffered from laughable build quality and poor attention to design detail, which often resulted in erratic electrics, orange-peel paint, uneven chrome finish and inaccurate instruments. At Bike magazine we would point out these failings, yet we were empathetic towards Ducati, the plucky little European factory battling against the Japanese giants.

Ducati 860 had a surging V-twin and stable frame, but a too-tall seat and a high-speed weave

Ducati 860 had a surging V-twin and stable frame, but a too-tall seat and a high-speed weave

But the 860 GTS exhausted our tolerance. Ducati addressed complaints about the riding position simply by trimming half an inch of foam from the saddle and putting knee cut-outs in thetank. Flat ’bars eliminated the weave – but introduced another problem. Now you could fully explore the bike’s handling, but the 860’s engine was 19.5in wide (against 12 for the 450 single), which meant the footrests dragged through fast curves. If you leaned a degree or two too far, you might kick the rear wheel in the air...

The GTS’ lighting was just as dangerous. Bike’s Peter Watson railed: “It’s that nasty plastic CEV switchgear again, still looking like something out of a Christmas cracker from Tesco.” The three-way dipswitch had a parking light option in the middle position, and it was easy to flick the control into this setting when you were changing between high and low beam.

Also, the on/off lighting switch was placed close to the dip control, and it was easy to plunge yourself into total darkness. As a road tester, you learnt to live with a certain sense of constant danger, but after a series of heart-stopping frights, we elected to ride the bike only in daylight.

It was as though you were spending your £1499 on an engine, frame and suspension – anything else appeared to be a thrown-together afterthought. Already, in this test bike’s short life, chrome was disappearing from the rear springs, headlamp and Radaelli front rim.

Ducati saw the light (pun intended) and scrapped the 860 pretty quickly. Where does that leave it today? Restored bikes are not usually subjected to all-weather riding at continual high speeds. Ironically, an 860GT or GTS could now make sense for someone who wants to savour the endless torque of its V-twin: Ducati character, with the flaws invisible.