Ducati’s venerable Monster was lauded for its simplicity. A major contributing factor to this praise comes from being equipped with relatively simple air-cooled engines. Later, the decision was made to deliver even more power from Ducati’s popular seller, and the boys in Bologna wedged liquid-cooled L-Twins into the Monster.
Eventually, Ducati decided to experiment, separating its air-cooled and liquid-cooled naked bike lines, returning the Monster to its simple roots of air-cooling. Meanwhile, the engines with radiators were stuffed into a new model, dubbed “Streetfighter,” and given a completely fresh facelift. Reaction to the Streetfighter, from both the press and consumers, was mediocre at best and with the introduction of the new Monster 1200, Ducati has seemingly righted the wrong it committed by splitting the two engines into separate models, once again equipping a Monster with a liquid-cooled superbike engine.
In this week’s Church of MO feature, we take a trip to 2001 and recount Yossef Schvetz’s experience sampling Ducati’s first liquid-cooled Monster, the S4. The idea behind the S4 was simple: stuff the all-conquering superbike engine from the 916 into a Monster chassis and create a Ducati that lives up to the name stamped on the gas tank. Thanks to retrospect we know now the bike has become a cult classic, but what was the bike like when new? Let Schvetz give you his first-hand account.
By Yossef Schvetz
Bologna, Italy, 08 Aug 2001
One power wheelie, exactly one minute into my ride on the new Ducati Monster S4, was enough to convince me that Ducati have built a proper Monster at last!
Let face it, even back in 1993, when the 900 cc Ducati Monster was unveiled, there was nothing monstrous about the 80 horsepower that the old air-cooled mill produced. Even back then, dinosaurs like GSX-Rs, FZRs and ZX-11s roamed planet earth, and the name “Monster” seemed a bit presumptuous to say the least. Nevertheless, the not-so-aptly named bike turned out to be Ducati’s salvation. Tens of thousands of Monsters in various displacements became a Ducati staple and opened new markets for a factory that has always been identified with uncompromising hyper-sport torture racks.
The story of the original Monster is nothing short of a miracle. One day, a young designer named Miguel Galuzzi started to play with a left over 888 frame, a big front headlight from the backyard parts bin, and a clay modeled gas tank. That first prototype was something that Ducati’s management just couldn’t – or wouldn’t – approve of. But the Argentinian-Italian designer was onto something. It looked ugly enough to be called “Monster” but it was a captivating bike with rugged, street-fighter looks.
Amazingly, the original bike from ’93 has made it into the new millennium without major changes in it’s eight year life, save for the introduction of digital fuel injection last season. But new kids on the block like Triumph’s Speed Triple, Cagiva’s Raptor 1000 and Honda’s X1 started to cast menacing shadows over the under-powered Monster. It wasn’t a moment too early to slot the 916’s water-cooled power unit into the Monster.
The heart transplant has required quite few changes in the frame. Most notable to the naked eye is the sturdy new swing arm that incorporates a totally different rear suspension linkage. It looks just like the one on the ST4 tourer, but with the rear cylinder’s exhaust pipe routed right through it. Rests of the changes simply makes room for the different dimensions of the engine and a higher seat. To further distinguish the S4 from its lower siblings, the bike is packed with shiny carbon fiber parts. Front and rear mud guards, cam belt covers, side panels and silencer protectors play games with the sunlight and make you feel like a Stealth Bomber pilot. A factory-mounted bikini fairing, rear seat cowling and red wheels set the S4 farther apart.
As impressive as all these parts are, there are still a few unpleasing, out of place details. The cheap looking mirrors don’t belong here. Then, the left-hand side-mounted water pump is a bit of a sore thumb, sticking out notably from the frame’s smooth plane. Ditto for the lower, black rubber water pipe that goes from the pump to the radiator. Just make sure to park your S4 next to a wall when possible.
The engine itself has been detuned from its original Superbike state to better match the requirements of street-fighting. Milder cams bump the torque curve towards the midrange and, of course, slash top end power somewhat. Other than that, little has been changed in the basic power unit that brought Ducati quite a few WSBK championships and, indeed, the feeling of exhibiting this fine piece of engineering all over town is very satisfying.
Italy is quite full of Monsters, but at the stop lights you can see other Ducati owners casting envious looks on the S4’s race-bred engine. Thankfully, in the case of the S4, there is substance behind the pose and it is really the power that grabs your immediate attention. One hundred or so horses at the rear wheel might not sound that much nowadays, but coupled with the shorter gearing of the S4, this easily supplies superb acceleration. From 4,000 rpm onwards, the S4 flies into the rev limiter at 9,500 with ease, catapulting the rider into the 100-plus mph range with a force that the old monster could only dream about. No less impressive than the acceleration is the fluidity and smoothness of the 916 mill. Compared to the old unit, the new one gets the job done with much less fuss and clattering. Sure, the trademark rattle of the dry clutch is still there, but that’s about it.
Thankfully, there is a definite improvement in the ergonomics too. My memories of the old model where of a seat that was too low and foot pegs that were too high. The new Monster has gained more than an inch in seat height and my knees did not have to bend to race replica angles.
The founders of Ducati sure knew where to build their factory. The amazing and hilly playground of Tuscany begins at Bologna and that’s where I decided to head towards upon picking the bike at the factory. As impressive as the engine is, on these mountain roads, there is still something that I don’t like about the handling.
Steering is very precise and stable, but the bike seems to squat down on its rear end too much, giving an uneasy feeling when pitching it into turns. This also creates a bit of under-steer during the exits. Later on, I decided to check the suspension settings only to discover that they’re way off. Front preload was way too high and at the rear was just the opposite. I had been riding with at least one degree more rake than planned and the rear suspension damping was at 8 instead of 16. Somebody has been trying to turn the bike into a chopper!
Setting the correct preload at both ends and reverting to the standard damping settings transformed the Monster completely. Steering was instantly transformed and hence, much lighter. The bike now settles down to perfect, neutral tracking while leaned way over. The wide and straight bars allow plenty of leverage and the Monster needs it as it doesn’t steer as quick as, say, a Cagiva Raptor. But when really cranked over, it feels, oh-so planted. On this mountain road, with 50-80 mph bends, the combination of the excellent chassis manners, torquey engine, superb brakes (Brembo gold series) and upright seating is crushing. It’s hard to imagine a hyper-sport bike being any faster here.
At first I play around with the gears, 600-style, helped by the nice gear change mechanism. But eventually I find that it’s best to leave the S4 stuck in third, the engine pulling me out of the slower bends with great control while providing an aerobic sprint up to 100 mph in the short straights. The response of the Magneti Marelli DFI system is a joy that must be experienced often. The only limit to going really nuts here is the ground clearance. It’s a bit wanting, but only when I am really pushing my luck. Just like with the old Monster, the silencers touch at extreme angles of lean, so don’t plan on emulating Ben Bostrom on an S4. Ducati has the 996 for that, after all.
On the open road, the S4’s manners are impressive. The amazing stability of the 888-derived frame keeps the S4 steady in triple-digit sweepers. Notable for a Ducati is the fact that the suspension keeps everything under control without jarring you. Added comfort comes via the bikini fairing that does a reasonable job of reducing wind blast while cruising along at a rapid clip. A lot less impressive are the vibrations of the little fairing, though. It flaps around quite badly and its mountings are way too flimsy. Definitely out of place on such a flagship.
On the super-slab, the engine is happy to once again show its wide torque range. Rolling on from 3,000rpm has the S4 advancing forward purposefully. In the boredom that is the Bologna-Milano highway, I decide to see what she’ll do. Almost 140 on the clock, and rock steady at that pace. Back to normal speeds, the Monster could be an even better light-touring mule with a better seat. As with previous Monsters, there is something wrong with the seat curvature that puts a lot of pressure on your tail bone. After an hour my mashed butt cried for relief.
In Italy, the term Bar-Motorcyclist is well known. These are the guys and gals for whom riding means a daily visit to the local watering hole, parking the bike in a prominent position for the entire world to see, and the occasional sprint between stop lights. All in all, a very valid concept for some, and the S4 will adapt to this task admirably. Its small size makes city riding and lane-splitting a knack so you’re sure to arrive early, ready to grab the best parking spot next to the bar’s front window. No less important, first gear is spot-on for pulling wheelies from stop lights – a major Italian pastime.
Wheelying or not, even in mid-summer Bologna with temperatures into the 90 degree neighborhood, the cooling fans seldom switched on and, when they did, the blast was directed outwards and away from the rider’s leg. Smart.
Less impressive in town was the limited steering lock, an old Ducati Monster trait. For short trips, my girlfriend found the rear seat reasonable and there are useful grab rails under the removable seat cowl. City riding revealed the only fuel injection glitch in our test. On a steady throttle, in a low gear at 3,000 rpm, the system tended to hunt a bit. Just to make you understand how far Ducati has come in civilizing its creatures, I can reveal that the side stand is not self-retracting! On a Ducati, God forbid!
Returning the S4 back to the factory was not easy. Having owned a sport bike that I turned into a naked street-fighter might make me biased toward naked things, but the Ducati is one cool piece of kit. The motor is so well behaved, yet subversively powerful, that it’s not hard to fall for it. And then the cycle side of things can really handle whatever you pitch at it. The tasty carbon bits and the exotic engine are simply the sexy icing on the cake.
The only pity is that, as with all water-cooled Ducati things, the pose does not come cheap. Sure, bikes like Cagiva’s Raptor 1000 and Triumph’s Speed Triple might undercut the Duck’s price, but they are neither powered by that legendary motor, nor do they have that sexy frame and exquisite marque’s logo emblazoned across the tank. And for once, this is a case were the posing factor comes with a healthy dose of performance to justify the price.
Specifications Engine Type: twin cylinder, 4-valve Desmodromic, liquid cooled Displacement: 916 cc Bore x Stroke: 94 mm x 68 mm Compression Ratio: 11:1 Claimed HP: 101 HP @ 8,750 rpm Claimed Torque: 92 Nm - 9.3 Kgm @ 7,000 rpm Fuel system: Marelli Electronic Injection, 50 mm throttle body Exhaust: 2 aluminum mufflers Gear type: Six-speed with straight gears Final drive: Chain (front sprocket 15, rear sprocket 37) Clutch: Dry multi-plate with hydraulic control Frame: Tubular steel trellis frame Wheelbase: 1440 mm Rake: 24 degrees Front suspension: Showa upside-down 43 mm fork fully adjustable Front wheel travel: 120 mm Front wheel: Five spoke light alloy 3.50x17 Front tire: 120/70 ZR 17 Rear suspension: Progressive linkage w/ Sachs fully adjustable mono shock Swing arm: Aluminum swinging arm Rear wheel travel: 144 mm Rear wheel Five spoke light alloy 5,50x17 Rear tire: 180/55 ZR 17 Front brake: 320 mm discs, 4-piston calipers Rear brake: 245 mm disc, 2-piston caliper Fuel capacity: 16.5 liters (3. l reserve) Claimed dry weight: 193 kg (423 lbs.) Seat height: 803 mm MSRP: $12,495 US dollars