Much like Harley-Davidson and Moto Guzzi, Ducati is associated with a single engine design—its signature 90 degree “L-twin.” Save for the V-four-powered MotoGP racebikes, it’s been since the ultra-rare, race-only Supermono single was discontinued in 1995 that the Italian firm has produced anything other than desmodromic-valved V-twins. But this wasn’t always the case. For the three decades prior to 1985, the year Cagiva bought Ducati and decided to focus almost exclusively on the V-twin layout, the company also produced a variety of singles and parallel twins, while the testing department experimented with a wild diversity of engine configurations and designs—most of which have been lost to history and not even displayed in Ducati’s factory museum.
For a few days during the summer of 2007, Australian photographer Phil Aynsley was offered the rare and remarkable opportunity to visit the test-department archives and photograph some of the surviving prototypes. The variety is remarkable—inline triples, V-fours, supercharged V-twins, fan-cooled singles, desmodromic V-eights, two-stroke motocross singles, and many other designs that are anathema to our modern notion of Ducati. His photos provide a fascinating and intimate look into the Ducati’s history and offer an alternate vision of what we now consider to be a very tradition-bound company.
Desmodromic valve actuation was cutting-edge technology in the late 1950s, especially in the automotive world. Period metallurgy made the construction of valve springs that would tolerate high-rpm running quite the challenge, so any design that obviated the need for conventional valve springs was strongly considered. And successful. Desmo-valved, straight-eight-powered Mercedes racers won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1954 and ‘55, leaving other automotive manufacturers scrambling to catch up. Ducati was an early leader in desmodromic technology—its first desmo-valved GP racer appeared in 1956—so when OSCA, a subsidiary of Maserati, set out to develop a desmo-valve race engine they turned to nearby Ducati for assistance.
Famed Ducati engineer Fabio Taglioni, with help from fellow engineer Giorgio Monetti, created this stunning, air-cooled, 1500cc V-eight by grafting eight cylinders from the company’s Grand Prix racing single onto a common crankcase. The top ends were simplified with gear-driven single overhead cams—not triple overhead cams like the GP racer—but otherwise the architecture was very similar. This engine was never entered in competition—OSCA chose to further develop its existing inline-four instead.
Abandoned Prototype Engines Make Us Wonder “What If?”
350cc Ricardo Triple
When Ducati prepared to re-enter Grand Prix racing in the early 1970s after a 10 year absence, it developed two separate engines: a house-built 500cc V-twin and a 350cc inline-triple farmed out to British engineering firm Ricardo. Intended to beat then-dominant MV Agusta triples ridden by Giacomo Agostini, Ricardo engineer Martin Ford-Dunne’s design was cutting-edge in every way, incorporating liquid cooling and mechanical fuel injection. Belt-driven dual overhead cams operated four valves per cylinder, with a dry clutch and seven-speed gearbox attached to the back of the engine. The triple was engineered to safely rev as high as 18,250 rpm. The sound was reportedly amazing, with split exhaust ports emptying into six separate, small-diameter headers.
The Ricardo triple was designed in Britain and built in Bologna under the direction of Bruno Tumidei—Taglioni reportedly wanted nothing to do with the inline design. Tumidei hoped the engine would produce 80 horsepower, but early testing was disappointing, resulting in a pathetic 30 bhp. Even after the fuel injection was replaced with more reliable carburetors, output climbed to only 50 bhp. The failed project was summarily scrapped in late 1972.