The 1976 Ducati 900 Sport Prototype
by Dan Bockmier

 
Out of the Blue
 
During a late winter trip this year to Bologna, my wife and I were having lunch at the Ducati factory with a Ducati employee friend when she mentioned there was a newly restored bike on display upstairs in the administrative offices that I had to see. She knows I own and enjoy early Ducatis and said the bike was a bevel 900 Sport.
 

If you have not been to the factory before, there is a great museum there, which focuses on Ducati’s racing history and is full of prominent racing bikes. Yet there are also a few historic production models sprinkled here and there in the hallways of the administrative offices, where the public does not normally have access.
 

When she said 900 Sport, I assumed she meant 900 Super Sport, since there was no such thing as a 900 Sport model in Ducati’s history. So I replied to her that I love the early Super Sports and would be happy to see the bike. She politely corrected my assumption about the bike, saying it was a 900 Sport, not a Super Sport! With a gleam in her eye, she insisted that I had never seen one of these before and explained that there was an absorbing history to this machine, which had been obscured for many years. My interest was piqued, so off we went to her office where the fascinating story of this unique 900 Sport was revealed.
 

Turbulent Origin and Demise
 
Many a Ducati enthusiast is aware that the first square case 860 L-twin GT models, styled by Giugiaro, were soundly rejected by the buying public. This sales failure led to several hastened factory measures to redo the model, or introduce new ones, in an attempt to salvage what sales they could. Perhaps the most serendipitous of these efforts was the creation of a limited run of five hundred 1975 square case Super Sport motorcycles, which proved successful enough that the model was subsequently sanctioned for continued production and saved the Super Sport line from oblivion. It is now known that during this panicked period of depressing sales fallout, that an ill-fated 900 Sport prototype was also hurriedly developed.
 
Throughout this period of time, in late 1975 through late 1976, Ducati was in the chaotic throws of their third general manager in as many years. Each of them pulling the company in a different direction during their tenure. These leaders were often at odds with chief engineer Fabio Taglioni and, more often than not, failed to anticipate what the motorcycle consumer wanted to buy. Yet it was the third of these gentlemen who is responsible for, at least inadvertently, the birth of the 900 Sport.
 
In mid 1976, Sebastian Leonardo took the helm of Ducati, replacing Franco Zauibouri (who had replaced Cristiano de Eccher). The exiting Zauibouri had granted Taglioniís request to continue the Super Sport model during the '76 model year and he approved the redesign of the 860GT into the GTS. Yet it could be argued that the newly hired Leonardo would make the biggest contribution during this period by authorizing the creation of a brand new bevel twin model that would become the commercially successful Darmah series.
 

To accomplish the Darmah styling, a recent successful collaborator was brought in for the work. This was designer Leopoldo Tartarini. What is significant about this choice, with regards to our story, is that Tartarini also happened to be the stylist for Ducati’s very first round case 750 Sport a few years earlier.

 
Though Tartarini’s Darmah prototype was due for unveiling at the Bologna motorcycle show in late 1976, it could not possibly begin production until 1977. Hence, it could not contribute to the factory's immediate need for liquidating the glut of bikes and parts that had by then stockpiled due to their sales slump.
 
Thus, in another stop-gap marketing measure, hoping to mimic the success of the previous year’s resurrected Super Sport model, it was proposed that Tartarini should also design a 900 Sport prototype. Who better, after all, to create a new Sport than the man who had created the very first Sport! There were some serious restriction however. The prototype had to be built and ready to show in six weeks and it had to be assembled from at least ninety percent available production parts. In essence a parts bin bike – hardly a designer’s ideal. Presumably the prototype would then be shopped around to select dealers and if enough interest was shown, a hasty production run would be viable before 1976 was over.
 
Despite these restrictions, Tartarini was up to the task and the prototype was built, but it apparently disappeared before any dealer ever saw it. So abrupt was the demise of the prototype that even now many details regarding the decision to kill it are unknown. It leaves one to logically speculate that there was a power struggle regarding the project and that the supporters of the project lost the struggle emphatically. Ducati history buffs would find it easy to presume that Taglioni was the champion of the effort and Leonardo was the axe.  In any event, the prototype ended up being unceremoniously dumped in the refuse pile with little record of it left behind. (Incidentally, this inglorious demise of significant pieces of Ducati history has befallen more than one prototype in Ducati’s past. Most recently, David Gross in his book “Fast Company” reported that the ultra expensive MHe prototype was rotting away on the refuse heap).

 

Uncovering a Mystery
 
It's been said that the victorious write the history books and therefore it is no surprise that zero evidence of the 1976 900 Sport prototype existed for many years after its disappearance. That all ended in the late nineteen nineties when a small batch of  8x10 photos was discovered during an office remodel at the factory. The photos were all the same image and appeared to be a publicity portrait of a bevel twin from the seventies, but no accompanying documentation or verbiage in the photos gave a clue to the machine’s origins. It was clear the bike was a square case twin Sport model, but was this just a Super Sport with the fairing removed for some sort of styling exercise or something more? It was a tantalizing clue that spawned more questions than answers.
 

The next step towards solving the mystery came at World Ducati Week in 2000. It was at that gathering that veteran Ducati works mechanic Giuliano Pedretti was sought out by an inquisitive Ducati accounting employee named Livio Lodi. Lodi, who has since become the Ducati Museum curator, was even then, well known for his encyclopedic interest in Ducati history. He had seen the mystery bike photo, was captivated by it and he was digging for the story. He'd heard a rumor that Pedretti might know something about the bike’s history. However, at that time, Pedretti claimed to know no details of such a bike.
 

A couple of years after that first meeting, Lodi received an unexpected phone call from Pedretti and he confessed to Lodi that, in truth, he knew quite a bit of the prototype’s history and he even had the bike in his possession. He told Lodi that he did not wish to come forward with the information back in 2000 because of the acrimony it might rekindle, but with the passing of the great Ducati patriarch, Dr. Taglioni, the time had come for the bike and its history to be returned to Ducati.
 
It turned out that as a young man Pedretti had purchased the discarded prototype from the factory
for little more than scrap value, just a few years after it was abandoned. At the time he hoped to make a club racer out of the bike, that he and his cousin would then campaign. Yet when his cousin backed out of the effort, their fledgling racing team was dissolved before it ever reached the track. The bike was ultimately sold, then lost sight of for many years. In 1999 an unsuspecting seller dragged the bike to the Gambettola scambio where Pedretti recognized it. Though rusty and missing various parts, Pedretti knew it was the old prototype instantly and with the intent of preserving what was by then a piece of Ducati history, he purchased it once more.
 
Resurrection
 
That phone conversation between Pedretti and Lodi was back in 2002, when Lodi had recently become curator of the Ducati museum. Lodi spent the next several years with other museum priorities, yet when time permitted he endeavored to learn more detail and verify various aspects of the 900 Sport’s story with other sources. Finally in 2009 it was deemed that the bike should be scheduled for restoration.
 
It is clear from observing the bike in person that Tartarini was inspired by his original 1973 750 Sport design for the 1976 900 Sport prototype, or perhaps it was simply more expedient to mimic his original design given his severe deadline.  And as mandated, mainly existing production parts were used on the prototype. From what I could tell examining the handsome machine, it was made using a
Super Sport frame and body work, a later GT headlight and Darmah instruments. Even the paint colors used appear to be standard SS production colors for that time. One apparent indulgence to Tartarini’s personal style is his use of curved Conti silencers. He had also used them on his 750 Sport prototype in ’72 but they did not make it to the '73 production bike. He must have really loved their look – and who can blame him.
 
Would the bike have generated dealer interest and ultimately resuscitated the Sport model series? We will never know. Two things for sure though, the bike along with its story were absolutely the highlight of my trip to Bologna and Ducati fans owe a debt of gratitude to Pedretti and Lodi for saving it.