I adore my 1992 Ducati 900SS and 1968 El Camino SS396. They stimulate me in deep and visceral ways, both dynamically and aesthetically, and they share more things in common than simply occupying space in my garage and driveway.

First off is the first part of motorcycle – motor – each having engines with 90-degree vees, two valves per cylinder and throaty dual exhausts. The 900SS was born about 25 years after the 396 cubic-inch Chevy, so it brings belt-driven overhead cams to the party while the big-block V-8 uses old-school pushrods. The Chevy counters with liquid cooling to the Duc’s archaic cylinder finning to shed heat.

The architecture and tuning of both motors are intended to punch out torque, with each delivering incredibly strong responses at low revs. Yet the 904cc V-Twin in the SS feels more like a torque pipsqueak relative to the torque monster that is the 6486cc BB Chevy. Each 104.0mm x 95.5mm cylinder in the ElCo displaces 811cc; the Duc’s 92.0 x 68.0mm cylinder yields just 452cc.

Chevy claimed 350 hp from the L34 big-block in my car. Ducati claimed about 84 ponies at 7000 rpm. The 900SS weighs about 420 pounds, while the 396 scales in at about 650. Yes, the cast-iron Chevy motor alone weighs 200-plus pounds more than an entire Ducati!

Riding the 900SS, first introduced in 1990, requires some recalibration if you’re familiar only with modern motorbikes. It truly feels several generations behind contemporary sportbikes, and it’s an experience not dissimilar to barging down the road in the 49-year-old El Camino.

John Burns, as is pleasingly (and aggravatingly) typical, can put into words descriptions of motorcycles that humble my own. Of the pre-EFI Ducati’s cantankerous starting ritual, he once wrote: “…the air-cooled desmo-due Twin demands full choke, followed by half choke, followed by much positive thinking and an attentive throttle hand… We turn a deaf ear on percussive pops and coughs from the airbox. We ignore a stiff clutch pull and a near-stadium-sized turning radius that rakes knuckles against fairing exiting the driveway. To own this motorcycle is to be a master of creative rationalization.”

It’s a similar theme with the ElCo. Imagine how placing nearly 700 pounds of engine over the front wheels of a truckish car can affect steering effort. Then imagine not having any sort of power assist to the steering, which is what the fool who originally bought my car a half century ago chose for himself. I could cut my upper-body workout time in half just by driving to the gym, assuming I actually went to one.

My lovable tank under the moonlight. In 1968, the SS396 El Camino was available in three states of engine tune. The L34 in mine was a step up from the 325-horse base version.

My lovable tank under the moonlight. In 1968, the SS396 El Camino was available in three states of engine tune. The L34 in mine was a step up from the 325-horse base version.

Since buying my Ducati 22 years ago, my contemporary dream bike has drifted into vintage/classic status. The few nods to modernity consist of only an aluminum swingarm, inverted fork and Brembo 4-piston brake calipers. For some younger riders out there, the Duc’s carburetors and air-cooling hold as much relevance today as photography with print film. Its traction control is limited to the analog IMU in a rider’s brain transmitting signals to a wrist, not to digital processors from Bosch and Continental.

Ask MO Anything! Do We Really Need the IMU?

MO Tested: Cornering ABS

My 900SS is certainly a throwback to simpler times, and to someone like myself who has ridden most every motorcycle built in the past two decades, its advancing age is extra apparent. Judged against contemporary sportbikes, it would fail miserably in terms of refinement. It’s cantankerous, kinda slow, has horrible electrics, and a sloppy transmission and grabby clutch sure to embarrass its rider several times during a ride.

But, although it’s been a couple of years since my Supersport last rolled down the road under its own power, I vividly remember exactly how it responds to my inputs and how it made me feel to firmly coax it into action. Riding it provides satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, perhaps akin to riders older than I who enjoy the challenge of riding a bike with a foot clutch and hand shifter. It feels like a living, breathing organism, not just a machine that gets switched on.

The ever-incisive Mr. Burns once carved up the value equation by positing that the personality of a motorcycle might be more important than perfection.

“To those who willingly suffer modern indignities like Windows 95, automatic transmissions and white zinfandel, the Ducati’s behaviors are flaws,” he wrote in 1998. “To once and future Ducatisti, they’re simply the undeniable signatures of the 900SS’s pursang persona: a small price to pay for the pure sporting brilliance that will flow like a Verdi aria through the first set of curves.”

My other lovable tank, shown here in Colorado where there are no helmet laws. Photo by Kevin Vesel.

My other lovable tank, shown here in Colorado where there are no helmet laws. Photo by Kevin Vesel.

Once its many peccadilloes are overcome or overlooked, my 900SS thrills in ways modern sportbikes can’t. Air-cooling helps keep the machine light and has the lovely byproduct of an engine that is gratifying to examine with curious eyes. Blood-red paint is highlighted by its novel white trellis frame. Power is delivered over a pleasingly broad torque curve and sounds burly and delicious being spat out of Termignonis. Its white-face Veglia instruments are exquisitely classy to my eyes and remind me of the 26,000 miles I’ve spent in its saddle, from Vancouver, Canada, to Denver, Colorado, and to California.

Anyway, I bring up the subject of my vintage vehicles because one of them must change forms – from yard art and maintenance nightmare to cash. I definitely don’t want to sell either, but apparently the IRS doesn’t make requests for payment, it makes demands, so at least one of my wheeled things must get liquidated.

The logical play would be to sell the Duc. After all, I am blessed with an endless supply of motorcycles via this job of mine that you readers allow me to do, and it’s unlikely 900 Supersports from the early 1990s will be appreciating much from their current value anytime soon.

However, the depth of emotions I’ve experienced with the ElCo pale in comparison to what I’ve shared with the Duc: touring from Canada’s west coast south on the glorious Pacific Coast Highway; riding the epic Rocky Mountains; flogging at a Colorado trackday; personalizing with carefully chosen modifications like the CBR900RR brake master cylinder, the 944cc big-bore kit and a Works Performance shock.

Indeed, the investment I have in the Duc – monetarily and personally – is far greater than what I have in the old Chevy. I suppose I have become, as Burnsie suggested, a master of creative rationalization. Besides, an SS396 ElCo would bring in more than twice the money of the aging Supersport. And assuming I can get the old Italian girl fired up again, I won’t need an ancient car-truck/ute to haul it around again!

Despite its up-to-date technology, the Aprilia Tuono never lets its rider forget that it’s also a living, breathing animal, just like an old ElCo or 900SS. This 1100RR also makes a nice color match. Maybe I could keep both...

Despite its up-to-date technology, the Aprilia Tuono never lets its rider forget that it’s also a living, breathing animal, just like an old ElCo or 900SS. This 1100RR also makes a nice color match. Maybe I could keep both…

Related Reading

Duke’s Den – Ride More!
Duke’s Den – Risk/Reward
Duke’s Den – Inside Moto Guzzi
Duke’s Den – Father’s Day
Duke’s Den – You Can’t Help Getting Older
Duke’s Den – Award Season
Duke’s Den – On TV
Duke’s Den – Decades of Fireblades
Duke’s Den – 1977 Yamaha XS750 Review (Of Sorts)
Duke’s Den – Inside Info
Duke’s Den – What is the Yamaha Sport Heritage Line?
Duke’s Den – Motorcycles and Cars
Duke’s Den – Motorcycle Bucket Lists

  • JMDGT

    F¥€£ the IRS and the horse they rode in on.

  • Larry Kahn

    Sonny Barger said something about when times get tough for some the bike is the first thing to go. For others it’s the last.

  • Born to Ride

    Sell me the SS. Problem solved.

    • Larry Kahn

      Which one?

      • Born to Ride

        Oh shit, they both say SS on them. Haha in that case I’ll take both.

        • azicat

          You blew it. The correct answer is “yes”.

          • Born to Ride

            Indeed

  • spiff

    Here is how I would decide. Imagine a Saturday afternoon, say 4:30. You just accomplished something that needed to be done, and you have gotta get out of the house. You decide to get ice cream. Which keys do you instinctively go for?

    I agree, let the Chevy go.

    • DickRuble

      Do you actually want to get the ice cream or is that just an aspiration? ‘Cause it says in the write-up (and on other threads) that the Duck hasn’t run in a long time. And getting it started also sounds aspirational.

      On the other hand, you won’t be able to get good money for something that won’t start.. So the Chevy has to go (the only one that can go actually).

  • Walter

    Normally it would be an easy decision. To wit:

    Sterling Archer: Well, actually, I just got a new El Camino, so…
    Ron Cadillac: Oh, so you’re all set. That’ll hold way more Hispanics and lawn mowers.

    Otoh, you don’t ride the Duc, so sell it too- preferably to someone who’ll ride it until it becomes as overpriced as roundcase bevels and put away again lol

  • SRMark

    Get a loan and keep both. Nothing more American than debt.

    • Kevin Duke

      The IRS is already carrying my debt… 🙁

      • DickRuble

        If you owe them money, it means you made money somewhere.

  • Andrew Capone

    You are a keen motorcyclist and esteemed moto- journalist. Keep the bike.

  • K Paul Cook

    Wow tough choice. But Been There Done that dance with the IRS. Got a bonus one year and failed to withhold…Wife was upset… John Burns is the best! You probably could get a good amount of money for El Camino if watching the Mecum auctions on Velocity is in any indication. I would sell the bike. In America, especially in Red States, you can’t go wrong with with the El Camino as an investment. Also you probably live in the best market for the for the Ducati.

  • kenneth_moore

    You’ll always regret selling the Duc. I doubt that’ll be the case with the car.

    • Kevin Duke

      I’ll regret selling either one, but life’ll still go on. Emotionally, it’s the Duc all the way.

      • kenneth_moore

        The dumbest thing I ever did was selling my 77 Low Rider. But it expensive, unreliable, and a guy from Japan offered stupid money for it. I started regretting it the day his shipping company took it away. I’ve had cars I liked; two that went thru the roof in value since I sold them. But they were just cars, and I’ve never felt the same attachment to them as my bikes.

  • Juliet Bravo

    I don’t know, is the Elco a manual? There’s nothing like dumping the clutch on a 396 and smoking the bejesus out of the tires in all 4 gears and going nowhere! Light em up! Usually an old Chevy doesn’t cost too much to get running.

    • Kevin Duke

      Not a manual, but it’s got a low gear ratio and an open differential, so tire smoke is almost always available!

  • john burns

    Did i really write that? Why didn’t anybody slap me? Why not sell both of them and get a new Corvette like Sean?

    • DickRuble

      ’cause what he would get for both of them wouldn’t even cover the insurance for a Corvette?

  • TonyCarlos

    Tough call. But think about this.
    Sixties muscle cars are at the peak of their value now because guys like me admired them when we were impressionable teens. Couldn’t afford them then, but now we can.
    That peak doesn’t last forever. Cars of the 50s are already losing value as “their generation” is moving beyond the acquiring toys stage.
    That said, the Elco’s uniqueness may keep it valuable longer than its contemporaries.
    The Duc? Nice bike, but not destined for collector greatness.

  • Old MOron

    Here’s another angle you might consider: which vehicle would your daughter like to inherit?

    • Kevin Duke

      My Les Paul…. 🙂

      • Old MOron

        LOL, spoken like a father – and a musician!

  • Cam

    In my humble opinion, the El Camino should go. With the extra money – after “reimbursing,” the IRS, you could perhaps get a used folding motorbike trailer that any car can pull, if you’re still needing to haul a bike to a trackday, etc.

    Having ridden a buddy’s ’95 900 SS with the flat side carbs, and it did indeed feel alive. Unfortunately, that SS isn’t running anymore, either.

  • Gee S

    Why is this even a question?

    One is just some car.

    The other is a Ducati.

    You’re welcome. 😀

  • JSTNCOL

    The burden of possessions.

  • SledZeppelin

    Words of wisdom: You buy Ducatis, you don’t sell them.

    • Bingo. I have traded or sold just about every bike I’ve ever owned, well over thirty…. I regret selling exactly two of them: Ducati 916 SPS, and Honda CR500R Motard/Roadracer.