Today’s reading, brethren, comes from the Book of Luke, which tells us, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” Hence the Ducati 748, little sister of the now-legendary 916, which reaches the age of consent this year. On a race track, the 916 was the trustiest motorcycle of the day. On the street, where sheer horsepower is seldom the key to happiness, the 748 and its higher-revving L-Twin extended an even more sincere invitation to twist its grip and let the feathers fly. Amen.
First Impression: 1997 Ducati 748
To the joy of American riders, Ducati has finally decided to import the 748. Considered a baby brother to the 916, Ducati’s 748 has been the darling of the European motorcycling press since its introduction. Basically a smaller-displacement version of the 916, the 748 trades off torque and low-end grunt for a higher rev limit through tricks like a lightened flywheel.
The 748 made a surprise debut at the International Bike Show this year – Ducati showed up with one screaming-yellow single-seater, a price tag, and that’s it. No brochures, no specs, but promises to deliver 200 copies to the States starting at the end of January. Only the solo seat version would be coming here, they said.
Ducati’s latest creation shares its bodywork with its 916 sibling. And why not, as the larger Duke is arguably the most beautiful sportbike made today.But remember, we’re dealing with an Italian motorcycle company. The bikes did arrive on time, amazingly enough, but other features like owner’s manuals, shop manuals, warranty cards and so forth are apparently arriving “under separate cover.” Interestingly my local dealer, Salem Honda/BMW/Ducati, opened the crate to find not a solo version, but a Biposto. Today’s story from Bologna is that 40 of the promised 200 748s will be Bipostos.
Quick-release Dzus fasteners simplify bodywork removal and maintainence chores.Both versions are solid “I can’t believe it’s not butter” yellow, but the Biposto forgoes the single-seater’s white pseudo-number plate tail section, instead having a vinyl passenger seat dyed yellow to match the rest of the tail, which it does surprisingly well. The wheels, like the frame, are a bronze/gold color. Not only do they look great in combination with the yellow paint, but more importantly, they hide brake dust and road grime well. If you’ve ever owned a bike with white wheels, you’ll know what we mean.
The rear wheel comes without fender, but an optional carbon fiber fender and chain guard, are actually pretty reasonably priced.Although this bike is gorgeous, a careful inspection reminds you that it’s definitely not a Honda or a Suzuki. A close look at the painted bodywork reveals a substantial amount of orange peel — but nothing you’d notice unless your eyes were six inches away, waxing it under bright lights late at night in your garage (sigh). The neutral light indicates you might be somewhere near neutral, so you have to carefully feed out the clutch if you think you’re there. And just because the neutral light isn’t on, you can’t assume you’re in gear.
Gearbox action is pretty good (neutral demons aside), shifting easily but without the precision click feedback of a GSX-R. The shift lever is adjustable, of course, as are nearly all the controls on the bike, and shifting improved once I lengthened the connecting rod to tip the lever down more. Gearing is low compared to, say, a GSX-R, which is a good thing. First and second gears are not only usable around-town gears, but the shift down from second to first is very crisp, better than any other bike I’ve ridden, with the exception of a Honda RS125 race bike.
Although hydraulic, clutch effort requires the Jaws of Life. Also, brake feel is on the spongy side, but switching to braided steel lines made a phenomenal difference. The rear brake is pretty much ornamental. There’s no fear of locking it up, even if you did something as unholy as ride this bike in the rain. It merely serves to settle the suspension slightly, and to keep the bike from rolling backwards from a stoplight on a slight hill.
Surprisingly, Ducati has the Japanese manufacturers beat in a couple of design tricks. For instance, the positive terminal of the battery is easily accessible through the right body panel air vent, so you can hook up a trickle charger for storage season without removing any bodywork. And when you do remove the bodywork, it all comes off with Dzus fasteners. Additionally, Ducati has chosen to make the vast majority of other fasteners one of three sizes of allen wrench, or two sizes of ordinary nut, so you spend very little time scrounging in your toolbox for even fairly major servicing.
Gas mileage is pretty good, producing about 100 miles in around-town driving before the low fuel light comes on, indicating one gallon left of 4.5 gallons. Weight of Ducati’s 748 is just over 400 pounds, but feels much lighter.
On the road, you feel like Snoopy doing his vulture impression, perched seemingly out over the front wheel. Strangely, this doesn’t put your helmet out in the open wind, and turbulence is minimal. The reach to the bars is fairly extreme — remarkably similar in feel to the Honda RS125R two-stroke GP bike — feeling very narrow with extremely direct and sensitive steering. Unfortunately, it also puts a lot of weight on your wrists. Because of this, the passenger seat is for briefly impressing your friends. If your significant other isn’t tiny, you’re going to have to get rid of either them or the bike. The riding position throws much of the passenger’s weight on your upper back, which of course ends up on your wrists, tempting you to do a big wheelie and throw them off the back.
Throttle response is instantaneous, and thankfully devoid of the turbine-like windup experienced on a Japanese inline four. Under 5,000 rpm, it feels like an underpowered four-stroke single, making lots of thumping noises, but not really getting anywhere. Above 6,000 or so, it snaps alive and streaks away more like you’d expect, keeping your left foot busy on the shift lever. There’s very little perception of speed or acceleration compared to a Japanese inline four. On the Ducati, you either realize you’re screaming along by the rate at which other traffic appears to be parked, or by glancing down at the speedo.The suspension is fantastic, if a bit stiff in the rear. This will undoubtedly improve after I’ve played with the adjustments in the rear. The Duck seduces you into taking corners faster than you’re used to, not just because it’s so much fun, but because it deceives you into thinking you’re not really working it that hard – a lot more lean angle than normal feels just natural on the 748. The down side is that you find yourself unintentionally dipping deeper into your safety margin on the street, because severe lean angles on this bike don’t feel as “serious” as on a high-center-of-gravity in-line four.
Japanese and German engineers may be well-respected for technical savvy, but when it comes to style no one beats the Italians.The little Duck is an absolute blast to ride. Hell, it’s a blast just to sit on at stoplights, ripping the throttle open, pretending to be checking some adjustment in the engine. I want to ride it through the store when I get my groceries. I want to widen my front door, and build a ramp so I can park it in my living room (hey, it doesn’t leak oil). Get rid of that new car you bought, buy an old beater for those rainy days, and spend that car payment on one of these demons instead.
Manufacturer: Ducati Model: 1997 748 Price: $12,995 Engine: 4-stroke, 90-degree V-Twin Bore x stroke: 88mm by 61.5mm Displacement: 748cc Carburetion: Weber fuel injection Transmission: 6 speed Wheelbase: 55.5 in. Seat height: 31.1 in. Fuel capacity: 4.6 gal. Claimed dry weight: 440lbs