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Common Tread

The Ducati 916 is 25 and still amazing after all these years

May 31, 2019

People throw around the adjective "iconic" pretty loosely, but the Ducati 916 deserves its status.

It was one of the newest models selected for the Guggenheim’s "Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit in 1998, and is represented in the Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum collection. So, its definitely collectible.

Two things differentiate 916s from a lot of other museum pieces: First, they’re still affordable. Decent examples show up at auction, on eBay, and even Craigslist for less than ten grand. And second, they’re still eminently rideable, with performance and handling that put many contemporary bikes to shame.

Looking at a 916, it’s hard to believe that the model’s now 25 years old and that bikes from the first full year of production are now eligible for historic plates. When I told Jim McDermott, another motorcycle journalist, that I was working on a 916 retrospective, he remarked, “I remember the first one I saw in a parking lot of a Nathan’s fast food restaurant on Long Island. It drew a huge crowd and, next to my 1993 900 SS, it looked 100 years newer.”

That difference was a tribute to Massimo Tamburini’s incredible styling job, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Ducati has almost always taken an evolutionary approach to motorcycle development, and the 916’s basic architecture goes back to the earlier 851/888 series.

Ducati 916 in the Ducati Museum
This alcove in the Ducati Museum shows the 916 in the context of its progenitor, the 851 (Tricolor version on right). The 916 motor was an evolution of the 851, seen in the background. Ducati photo.

The origins of the 916

In 1985, Claudio Castiglioni’s Cagiva company bought Ducati from VM Group. Some might say he "rescued" the brand, because VM was focused on diesel power. Castiglioni was enough of a traditionalist to respect Ducati’s L-twin heritage, but he insisted that the next generation of Ducati sport bikes have water cooling and four-valve heads.

Fabio Taglioni (the man who set Ducati on the desmo valve path) was still working at Ducati, but the new engine assignment went to one of his subordinates, Massimo Bordi.

Bordi had designed a four-valve desmo cylinder head as a thesis project, back when he was studying engineering at University of Bologna in 1973. He finally got to see that research bear fruit in 1986, when Ducati raced a water-cooled, four-valve 750 cc prototype top end, built up on Pantah cases. That led to the first production 851 model in 1987. Of course, it retained desmodromic valve actuation, but the overall architecture of the head and combustion chamber was heavily influenced by the Cosworth F1 race car engine. The 851 was also one of the first production bikes with electronic fuel injection.

The 851 and its successor, the 888, were effective on the race track but Castiglioni felt that the motorcycle’s styling held it back in the marketplace. The assignment to modernize Ducati’s flagship sport bike went to Massimo Tamburini, who worked at the Cagiva Research Center in San Marino.

Tamburini was far more than a stylist — he’d been a respected tuner, and his name had been the "ta" in Bimota — but he’ll always be remembered as the guy who penned the 916. Sometimes it takes a while for the public’s taste to catch up to a masterpiece, but in this case it was love at first sight.

Honda NR750
Tamburini admitted he was inspired in part by the Honda NR750. Photo by Greg Edwards.

Tamburini openly admitted that he took some of his cues from Honda’s 1992 NR750, which also featured a single-sided swingarm, undertail exhausts, and similar headlights. But while the oval-piston Honda comes across as a slab-sided monolith, the 916 is organic. Although it loomed large in motorcyclists’ imaginations, it was actually quite small.

The difference in displacement between the 916 and its 888 forebear came from a longer stroke. The new motor generated a claimed 114 horsepower at 9,000 rpm. (As usual, real-world numbers on the most common Dyno-Jet dynamometers were lower, usually around 105 horsepower — still impressive for a twin of that displacement and era.) Although the frame was conceptually similar to the 851/888 series, Tamburini shortened the wheelbase and made better use of the engine as a stressed member.

Ducati 916 prototype
An early prototype with a hand-made swingarm. Ducati was careful to depart from the Honda/ELF "Pro-Arm" just enough to avoid patent infringement. Ducati photo.

On closer examination, countless little things reinforced the message that the 916 was track-focused. The bodywork was held on with Dzus fasteners. The rake and ride height were adjustable. A hard seat and uncompromising riding position warned riders right away that comfort had not been part of the design brief! In that first year, there was no provision at all made for passengers (although later on, some "biposto" versions were sold.) And the 916 did indeed build its reputation on the track.

Carl Fogarty racing the Ducati 916
Carl Fogarty won four Superbike World Championships, arriving at the top along with the 916. Ducati photo.

The reign of King Carl

The idea that the 916 was a race bike for the street was supported by its results in the epic 1994 World Superbike season. Carl Fogarty came into his own on the new bike, winning nearly half the races and coming out just ahead of Scott Russell (who had won the 1993 championship on a Kawasaki).

The 916 was utterly dominant the next (1995) SBK season, too. Foggy finished 139 points clear of Troy Corser... who was also riding a 916. It’s hard to believe it now, but for the next few years — based largely on the strength of Fogarty’s personality — the Superbike World Championship threatened to usurp the 500 cc Grand Prix World Championship as the most important motorcycle racing series.

C Foggy license plate on a Ducati Panigale
Two decades after his championships, Ducati fans still remember King Carl. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Fogarty was as much an antihero as he was a hero. Fans either loved him, or loved to hate him. The U.K. hosted two rounds of the World Superbike Championship, and there were a few years in which the August round, at Brands Hatch, boasted larger crowds than either the British 500 GP, or the F1 car race.

The bet on Tamburini pays off

Claudio Castiglioni’s belief that a Tamburini design would revitalize Ducati’s open-class sport bike was vindicated immediately. First-year 916s arrived in the United States with a nominal MSRP of $14,495. That’s the equivalent of about $25,000 in today’s money. The entire American allotment was presold. Jim Koenig, a friend of mine who was a Ducati dealer in Kansas City at that time, told me they sold more 916s in that first year than the total number of 851/888s they ever sold.

Full disclosure: The Ducati Monster — which first appeared in 1993 — probably deserves its reputation as “the bike that saved Ducati.” Ducati sold far more of air-cooled, two-valve Monsters than 916s.

But when Castiglioni’s Cagiva found itself in financial difficulty in 1996, the private investment bankers at the Texas Pacific Group stepped in to acquire 51 percent of Ducati for about $225 million in equity and debt. TPG did not invest in Ducati because it was making cheap-and-cheerful Monsters. A look at the TPG investment portfolio proved that the bankers weren’t interested in manufacturing; they bought brands that they thought were valuable. They invested in Ducati because, thanks to the 916, it was seen as “the Ferrari of motorcycles.”

Within a few years, TPG wrested complete control of Ducati from Claudio Castiglioni, and the bankers took the company public to recoup some of their investment.

Ducati 916 SPS
This is a 1995 SPS model, which would have had the SP’s Ohlins shock and the benefit of lighter engine internals and hotter cams. Two years later, the SPS was punched out to 996 cc, and sold in just enough numbers to homologate that displacement for Superbike racing. The original 916’s three-spoke wheels were made by Brembo. The SPS had these five-spoke Marchesinis. Ducati photo.

Speaking of investment... should you buy one?

According to a list released years ago by Ducati, a total of just under 2,600 916s were sent to the United States (1,050 to California) between 1994 and 1999, when it was replaced in the Ducati catalog by the 996. I believe that figure refers to standard (aka Strada) and Biposto base models, but does not include a smaller number of special models, so I think around 3,000 bikes were shipped to the United States in total. The special models were designated:

  • SP
  • SP1
  • Senna
  • SP2
  • SPA (50 only, made in 1996-‘97 to allow for AMA Superbike homologation, 955 cc displacement)
  • SPS (World Superbike homologation model, 996 cc)
  • Senna II & III

Those are a lot rarer, more sought-after by collectors, and thus more valuable — and unless you’re really a member of the cognoscenti, it’s easy to be fooled into buying a parts-bin special that’s been disguised as a genuine SP or SPS.

To avoid being fooled, seek out a base-model 916, which is still a rolling design masterpiece. The first 2,000 or so were actually manufactured in Cagiva’s Varese factory, because a fire had damaged Ducati’s plant in Bologna. Those bikes have "V" for Varese, instead of a "B" for Bologna, right before the last six numbers of the VIN. Koenig, the retired Ducati dealer, still feels that the Varese bikes were slightly better-made. To this day, some people are willing to pay a little more for that "V."

There’s no way of knowing how many of those early 916s have survived, but even a cursory search of eBay and big-city Craigslist posts recently turned up several bikes that I would think warrant a look.

Craigslist ad for a used Ducati 916
After I wrote this article but before it was posted on Common Tread, I spotted this ad on Craigslist in my home town of Kansas City. Now if I only had $6,300. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Prices for 916s have already bottomed out and are now climbing again. Jeff Nash was one of the first guys to race a 916 in the United States and is the dealer principal at AMS Ducati in Dallas, where the used showroom is nearly a Ducati museum. Nash recently sold a late-1990s model for $25,000. That was an extreme case, as it had only two or three miles on the odometer.

Gently used, unmodified 916s still sell at prices a regular working stiff can handle. That’s not bad for a bike that you can appreciate riding and which will definitely appreciate as an investment. My friend Richard Chase, who probably buys more motorcycles off CL than any other person, told me he’s bought and sold a few recently between $6,000 and $8,500.

They really are fun to ride, too. I called Daric Cheshire, whose Cheshire Performance shop in Portland handles a lot of independent Ducati work.

“I just had one in the shop yesterday,” he told me. “When we finished servicing it, one of my mechanics took it for a test ride. He’d been working on bikes for 15 years, but had never ridden a 916. It blew him away. He came back with this huge grin and said, ‘That’s what it’s all about!’”

New open-class sport bikes make more power, albeit mediated by fly-by-wire throttles, and traction control systems. And many will turn in faster than a 916; back in its World Superbike heyday, teams ran longer clip-ons, to give riders more steering leverage. But the confidence-inspiring mid-corner stability of the old Duc’s chassis has rarely been matched.

Although its EFI was very advanced for its time, the 916 still provides a completely analog riding experience; there’s no slipper clutch, ABS, TC, or quickshifter. Nash told me that he recently rode one back-to-back with a Panigale at an AMS track day, and while the new bike was objectively faster, he was reminded how much fun he used to have spinning up the rear wheel at will on corner exits. Riding at a more mundane level, quite a few owners went to a one-tooth smaller countershaft sprocket, to help with stop-and-go traffic around town.

Ducati 916
The 916's rear end was distinctive, with its signature undertail exhausts and single-sided swingarm. It appeared around the time Kurt Cobain killed himself. Eras began and ended. Ducati photo.

Ducati 916 buying tips

Sold on the idea of getting a 916 before they’re all squirreled away? Here are some tips from experts.

“There was a recall, early on, for swingarm spindles, but by now those have probably all been taken care of,” Daric Cheshire told me. Like most people, he favors original bikes, but he admitted to appreciating some period-correct modifications. For example, all the early 916s came with rubber brake lines; braided steel lines improved feel and initial bite. Woodcraft rearsets were also a nice upgrade. For his part, Jeff Nash felt that like most Italian bikes from that period, the 916 was under-sprung for aggressive riding. The regulator/rectifier was also prone to failure, and when Ducati tired of replacing them under warranty, they started supplying a new part.

One thing that’s true for 916s (and all the Ducatis with cam belts) is, unless you acquire a bike with a full service history, new buyers should preemptively replace the timing belts. Cheshire told me that his shop usually charges about $850 to install new belts. That’s not cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than repairing the damage if a belt breaks. It also makes sense to check valve clearances at the same time, and a valve adjustment could add another $300. Besides cam belts, other rubber and/or plastic parts, such as air filters and chain sliders, deteriorate, too.

Mark Sutton, of Ducshop, in Marietta, Georgia, is one of the country’s top Ducati tuners, and he’s rebuilt a number of 916s for collectors. “There are no really bad ones. It’s not like there’s certain specific years that were lemons,” he said. “But you should watch out for bikes that have been raced. The motors were assembled with tolerances too tight for the track. That’s where you got those stories of bikes that would spin a bearing.” (New Ducatis are still assembled with tight tolerances. When Sutton blueprints Ducati motors for racing, he loosens them up quite a bit.)

It’s nice to find an older bike that has been stored, as opposed to worn out, but that often comes with bad gas. “We clean a lot of injectors,” Sutton told me, ruefully.

Sutton said that while rare SP models now command $20,000 to $30,000, he still hears of solid 916 runners in the $5,000 to $12,000 range — subject to condition and mileage, of course. The official Ducati Performance slip-on was made by Termignioni, and lots of people value that upgrade. However, Sutton’s opinion is that neither the end can nor the chip upgrade that was often sold with it really added much to the bike’s performance.

He agrees that the 916 still a very satisfying ride, with a caveat. “It’s still a 25-year-old Italian motorcycle with a 25-year-old wiring harness,” he warns. “If you plan on taking it to the mountains every weekend, you can expect to do some repairs.”

If you love that Tamburini styling and really want a weekly rider, Sutton recommends the slightly newer 996, which still had Tamburini’s bodywork, but benefited from a variety of detail changes, including better metallurgy, that improved durability.

Ducati 916 cockpit
The 916 was all business, a race bike made for the street with few compromises. Ducati photo.

If all this puts the foam on your cappuccino, there are reasons to consider buying a 916. You can rest assured that there is no more historically significant motorcycle that’s as rideable — and no more rideable bike that’s anywhere near as significant.

A now-classic 916 is not cheap to run; a routine service every 6,000 miles will run $1,300 to $1,600. Generally speaking, there’s still pretty good parts support, helped by the fact that the 916 shared a lot of parts with its underrated little brother, the 748, and even its successor, the 996. This much, however, is true of almost any old sport bike: If you get one with good original bodywork, you should immediately remove the factory stuff and fit replica bodywork before riding it hard.

With those provisos, a solid, original 916 is a best-of-both-riding-and-investment-worlds Craigslist find, and a perfect antidote to modern superbikes. I told one collector friend I was writing this essay and he moaned and said, “I wish I’d bought one a few years ago!” Sure, in a perfect world you would have picked up one five years ago for five grand. But I bet you that in 20 years they’ll go for 20 grand.