FAST motorbikes are a national passion in Italy, and few more positive stories have emerged from that country in recent years than the revival of Ducati. A decade ago, Italy's biggest motorcycle manufacturer was on the verge of closure, suffering from poor sales, outdated bikes and a chronic lack of investment.
In 1983, the struggling state-owned firm was taken over by Cagiva, a young company owned by two bike- crazy brothers who invested heavily to develop new models and improve quality, while retaining Ducati's traditional appeal. Now the range is stronger than ever. Ducati racers based closely on road machines have won three consecutive world championships, and the old factory near Bologna can barely make enough bikes to meet the worldwide demand.
Most of them are machines in the classic Ducati mould: blood-red sportsters with aerodynamic fairings, racy riding positions and powerful V-twin engines. But the firm's latest model is different. The M900 is an all-rounder with high handlebars and unfaired, aggressive looks that have earned it the official name Monster.
The 900 was the personal project of Miguel Angel Galluzzi, an Argentinian-born stylist employed by Cagiva, who sketched a naked machine in his spare time and persuaded the factory bosses to put it into production. Galluzzi was inspired by classic Harley-Davidsons of the recent past, and the connection is clear in the Monster's simple layout and barrel-chested styling, which incorporates a handful of parts in lightweight carbon fibre.
This bike is essentially a combination of two Ducati V-twin sportsters, the popular 900SS and the more sophisticated 888. The SS donates its engine, a relatively simple aircooled 904cc unit with just a single camshaft and two valves to each cylinder. Only the exhaust pipes and carburettor workings are changed.
Simply sitting astride the Monster reveals that it is like no other Ducati. The handlebars are wide and slightly raised. The low seat and blunt, sparsely equipped nose section - instrumentation is limited to a speedometer and handful of warning lights - emphasise that, far from being monstrously large, the M900 is tiny by superbike standards.
At just over 400lb (180kg), it is also refreshingly light, which makes for thrilling acceleration. The engine's peak output of 73bhp is modest but is backed by abundant midrange performance that is ideally suited to the laid-back Monster. Winding open the throttle in top gear sends the Ducati surging forward with a relaxed feel and an evocative V-twin exhaust note.
Handling is excellent, the rigid frame and well-controlled suspension combining to give light steering with great poise in corners. In town, the wide bars and lack of weight make for easy manoeuvring through traffic. The large twin front disc brakes are superbly powerful, and the wide radial tyres provide plenty of grip.
Even approaching its 130mph maximum speed, when wind pressure makes some unfaired bikes prone to weave, the M900 remains reassuringly stable. But at least this is one unfaired bike that is not built down to a price.
Rather the reverse, in fact, for at pounds 7,750, Ducati's naked newcomer is expensive, costing pounds 100 more than the half-faired 900SS model. The high price is partly a reaction to the huge demand that has resulted in Ducati repeatedly increasing its production to the point where a quarter of the factory's 1993 output of 20,000 bikes will be M900s.
The Monster's success has meant that plans to make mudguards and several additional parts from carbon fibre have been abandoned, because the lightweight fibre's construction process is too labour intensive for the numbers required. Not that Ducati's management is complaining. The problem shows just how far the firm has come since the dark days of 10 years ago.
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