Duke's Den – 10 Cylinders Of (Stationary) Power

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

Contemplating high-performance anvils and weathered yard art

Lead Photo by: Kevin Vesel

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.

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.

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…

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Kevin Duke
Kevin Duke

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  • JSTNCOL JSTNCOL on Mar 27, 2017

    The burden of possessions.

  • SledZeppelin SledZeppelin on Mar 29, 2017

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

    • Sean Alexander Sean Alexander on Jul 16, 2017

      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.