Common Tread

A handbuilt frame and an interesting bevel-drive Ducati engine make for an exquisite custom

Aug 28, 2018

Chris Baglin, the builder of the gorgeous custom Ducati, can remember exactly what it was that ignited the flame inside him that eventually led to this exquisite creation you see before you.

He was 15 or 16 years old when someone bought him one of those coffee table encyclopedia-type books. In this case, the subject was custom motorcycles. Amongst the pages was a Ducati 900SS cafe racer. Chris was spellbound by the simplicity of the bike and the delicate design of the Ducati it was based on. From that moment, Chris was a fan of Italian engineering.

"They dare to be different and they put so much effort into making things look nice," he said.

Chris owns Merlin Engineers, a company based in Bedfordshire UK, and specializes in traditional metal fabrication, restoration and repair of light aircraft and historic race cars. He has fabrication skills that most of us can only dream of and there’s always something interesting in the shop. Currently, you'll find two Pitts Special stunt planes, a 1940s Russian Yakovlev Yak-11 airplane and a very early 3.8-liter Jaguar Series 1 E-Type coupe in his workshop.

His journey has included many bikes and cars of note and currently his collection includes a mildly cafed Matchless, a Honda XR400, a quad for the kids and some other bits and pieces, oh, and the bevel, of course.

Chris Baglin and his custom Ducati
Chris Baglin and his latest creation. Photo by Gareth Squance.

The story behind the bevel-drive custom

There’s an interesting story behind the custom Bevel. In the mid 1960s, a Swiss former motorcycle racer called Fritz Egli started building innovative and strong custom motorcycle frames with Cloud Nine Developments. He became a legend in the bike world and amongst many famed designs, built 25 Egli frames for the Laverda 750SF. Very rare and very beautiful, one of these bikes was the inspiration for what you see here.

custom Ducati
The custom Ducati bevel-drive. Photo by Gareth Squance.
As it happens, one of Chris' mates had an Egli Laverda and a spare Egli frame and Chris happened to have a Ducati bevel engine sitting around. You can see where this is going. Unfortunately the Bevel engine wouldn't fit the Egli frame, so Chris decided to utilise his extensive fabrication expertise and make his own frame.

Based on the Egli frames of the 1970s and borrowing geometry from the iconic Ducati 916, Chris's frame is a work of art. He used 4130N aircraft-grade chromoly seamless tube, commonly used in motorsport fabrication.

The frame is absolutely flawless, but Chris plays down the incredible fabrication, saying “the frame was quite straightforward.” Spindles, headstock and swingarm pivot points provided the biggest challenges, soaking up a large amount of fabrication time. All of the bushings, spacers and spindles in these four points alone took longer to fabricate than the rest of the frame.

One easily overlooked feature of the bike is the righthand gear shifter. Up until the early 1970s, the gear lever position on motorcycles hadn’t been standardized. British bike manufacturers and some other European manufacturers typically had the shifter on the right, American manufacturers put theirs on the left. Early Ducatis had theirs on the right, so when manufacturers started to standardize the gear shifter on the left, Ducati cobbled together a linkage to move it to the left side. It wasn’t very good, added slack to the shifter and because the linkage was routed behind the engine, added unwanted length to an already long package. Chris removed the linkage, returning the shifter to the righthand side, which meant he could shorten the wheelbase by one inch to improve handling.

righthand gear shift lever
Note the shift lever on the righthand side and the square engine case. Photo by Gareth Squance.

The custom bevel is no show queen. Mid corner, leaned over on the gas, it’s rock steady yet agile. Hit a cat's eye or bump in the road while you’re cranked over and it remains predictable and stable, no bucking or weaving.

Chris wanted high level exhausts but that brings its own challenges, like managing the heat generated.

custom handbuilt exhaust
The exhaust was routed inside the frame to keep the heat further from the rider. Photo by Gareth Squance.

He had to think outside the box to find the perfect solution — or rather, inside the frame! Tucked away from the rider, the exhaust's intricate routing meant every inch was painstakingly hand-fabricated using a selection of bends and straights, expertly welded, finished and finally nickel-plated. The megaphone silencers have been fabricated by hand, rolled from flat sheets with machined end caps, instead of using off-the-shelf parts. Rearsets, top yoke and disc carrier are more examples of Chris’ expert fabrication.

Continuing with the 1970s theme, Chris handformed a tank using 1050A alloy, following cues from the Imola race bikes of that time. The seat unit is handmade of fiberglass.

A lot of time and effort has been spent ensuring the beautiful lines of the bike have been kept as pure as possible. Motogadget electronics have been used due to their high quality and compact dimensions.

engine on custom Ducati
Dellorto carbs are among the parts you can see. There's more work inside the engine you can't see. Perhaps most eye-catching is the handbuilt frame. Photo by Gareth Squance.

The engine inside that frame

At the beginning of the story, I mentioned Chris had a spare Ducati bevel-drive engine lying around and this provided the thumping heart for this build. It's a heavily modified 900GTS 863 cc bevel-drive L-twin. The "square case" short-`stroke engine gets its name from the overhead cams, driven by a set of bevel gears, and it uses valve springs for closing (non-desmodromic). It also has distinctive outer engine covers designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Studio Italdesign.

This particular engine is fitted with a race crank, Carrillo rods, big valves and lumpy cams to ensure the old-school Ducati engine has the go to back up its show. There's a pair of ported heads with big Dellorto 40 mm carbs bolted to to them and a Hektik ignition.

Hanging off the front is an inverted WP fork and an Ohlins shock brings up the rear. The icing on the cake is a pair of lightweight, period-looking Dymag CH3 wheels.

After nine years and uncounted man-hours, Chris says the bevel is finally finished and up for sale. So what’s next? Chris has always had a thing for a Japanese-engined board tracker. Whatever he builds, I’m sure it will be drop-dead gorgeous.