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Ducati 916

A bike that defined an era

ducati 916

Author Ian Falloon looks back at his very early encounters with the Ducati that would redefine the marque – the 916

(April 2024)

Note: this is from Ian's Substack subscription service – find it here.

As it is now thirty years since Ducati released the 916 it’s appropriate to have a look at this bike and assess its general significance within Ducati’s historical landscape. Throughout the 1990s I was a regular visitor to the Ducati factory at Borgo Panigale, and during one of these visits managed to view and photograph the prototype 916. While visiting my good friend Maurizio “Mr Pompone” Bavaresco at the Bikers’ Restaurant near Monte Grappa in September 1993, Maurizio suggested we ride down to Bologna. A friend of his at the factory said there was something we should see.


ducati 916

The ride with Maurizio’s group was nearly as memorable as the visit, with no care taken to observe speed limits and the traffic in small Italian towns miraculously clearing to provide a path for half a dozen speeding motorcycles. On our arrival at Borgo Panigale Massimo Bordi agreed to a private viewing of the 916. It was set up in a special room in preparation for the release at the Milan Show. In the meantime Bordi said, “no photos please”, but later one of the employees who was mates with Maurizio let us in a back door. I took the photos and sent the roll of Kodachrome film airmail to Ken Wootton at Australian Motorcycle News. It appeared on the cover a few weeks later with the title “World Scoop Photos".



Although the 916 looked revolutionary with its strong frontal aspect of twin poly-ellipsoidal headlights, single-sided swingarm, and exhaust system exiting under the seat, it still represented Ducati’s traditional philosophy of evolution. At the heart of the 916 was the Desmoquattro 90-degree V-twin, born in 1987 as a 748 before growing to 851 and 888c. The 851 and 888 were great Superbike racers but flawed production bikes.


When Massimo Tamburini set about designing the 916 at the Cagiva Research Centre in San Marino he was determined his baby would be faultless. So while the 916 engine was essentially a stroked 888, with the same liquid-cooled double overhead camshaft cylinder heads and Marelli electronic fuel injection, the rest of the motorcycle was new. Serious consideration was given to the twin-spar deltabox aluminium frame then becoming popular, however tradition won and Tamburini eventually eschewed this in preference to the Ducati space frame.


Tamburini embarked on the 916 design during 1988. This lasted almost six years and was codenamed the 2887 project. Work on the geometrical aspect of the 916 frame took place over a two-year period even before the construction of a prototype.

ducati 916


From Ducati’s racing experience with the 851 and 888, the requirements for the 916 included a reduction in the wheelbase from the 888, yet provide as close to 50/50 weight distribution as possible, along with adequate wheel travel. This meant placing the front wheel as close to the engine as possible and the engine was rotated forward 1.5 degrees to help the front tyre clear the cylinder head. Tamburini was also intent on creating an extremely strong steering head structure, with an 80mm in outer diameter, with special bearings to allow for a thick (35mm) steering tube. An important element in the design was the incorporation of adjustable caster without altering the wheelbase. The definitive frame configuration was completed in January 1992, an important structural component being the sealed airbox with the lower part of the fuel tank forming the top of the airbox.

ducati 916


Another important consideration in the design was a reduction in frontal area and an improvement in aerodynamics over the 851/888. This led to the small overall size of the motorcycle, and the shape of the fairing, fuel tank, and seat. From above the shape was intentionally designed to emulate the curves of a woman.

ducati 916


Part of the Tamburini philosophy was to feature individually designed components for every part of the motorcycle, even the fasteners were not shared with the earlier 888. The front 43mm Showa triple clamps were machined in pairs, the chill-cast lower triple clamp notable for its exceptional depth. In the early 1990s Ducati still dreamed of winning the both the Suzuka Eight-hour race and the Bol d’Or, so the 916 was designed with a single-sided swingarm to allow for rapid wheel changes.


ducati 916

The first 916 produced only 114 horsepower at 9000rpm but sheer power wasn’t what the 916 was about. Although capable of 260km/h, there were faster and more powerful motorcycles available. The 916 offered more than engine performance, providing a balance between the engine and chassis that set new standards. Unlike most earlier Ducatis there was a homogeneity about the design that took the 916 to another dimension.


But while the 916 was ready for production by the end of 1993, Ducati was still owned by Cagiva and they were always teetering between staying afloat or sinking. Cagiva was based in Varese near Milan and I would always visit Varese on my trips to Italy. I got to know the press man Luigi Giacometti very well, and also the boss Gianfranco Castiglioni. The factory at Varese back then was still a relic of the Aermacchi days and basically a series of converted aircraft hangers on the shore of Lake Schiranna. Somehow they still managed to assemble a range of Cagivas, including the Ducati-powered Elefant.


On a trip to Bologna in September 1994 I found Borgo Panigale is disarray. A fire in the paint shop some months earlier had virtually closed the Ducati factory and all 916 production had moved to Varese. Borgo Panigale was still producing the engines but that was it. Ducati’s press lady Silvia Frangipane suggested I travel to Varese to check it out. On arrival I found nothing had really changed. It was still only an assembly line, and much more rudimentary than at Borgo Panigale. Boxes of parts were strewn around without the organisation evident in Bologna, but they still managed to manufacture 3196 916s of various types.

ducati 916


Today there is a certain folklore surrounding these “Varese” 916s, and much of it is probably concentrated on the variability of specification due to the staggered delivery and haphazard storage of components. Unlike Borgo Panigale which was still a manufacturing facility, the Cagiva factory at Schiranna was only an assembly works, and a remarkably disorganised one. And with Cagiva always struggling to pay suppliers often the supply components would dry up. Whether there was any difference in assembly quality between the two locations it is hard to say but certainly the engines were the same specification as they were still built in Borgo Panigale.


What the 916 did for Ducati was take the company beyond that of an enthusiast niche market manufacturer to that of the creator of a universally admired and desirable motorcycle. The 916 went on to become arguably the greatest Ducati ever. Providing the class-leading standard for close to a decade no other Ducati had such success on the track for such a long period and remained at the top of the performance world for so long.

ducati 916


Note: this is from Ian's Substack subscription service – find it here.


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