The Apollo

Forty years ago, Ducati built a V-four-powered prototype in an effort to steal some police-bike business from Harley-Davidson here in the United States. Politics and financial problems killed the project, yet one of the bikes survived, and no one outside t

Photography by Kel Edge, Kyoichi Nakamura

When Ducati's new 990cc desmosedici MotoGP racer competed for the first time at Suzuka this April in the hands of Troy Bayliss and Loris Capirossi, it represented the end of a 40-year odyssey for the Italian factory--to at last see one of the three four-cylinder prototypes it built during that period come to fruition.

For decades, Ducati flirted heavily with the four-cylinder concept. Ducati's Fabio Taglioni produced as many as 1000 different engine designs during his 30 years as the company's engineering guru (1954 until '84), three of which were fours. The most recent was the stillborn Bipantah project (see sidebar, page 59), killed in '82 on the eve of Taglioni's retirement. The first was his only inline design, the four-cylinder, 125cc GP engine he created in '64, though it was never raced. But the most famous Taglioni four is undoubtedly the Apollo 1260 V-four, built in '63.

Few motorcycles have enjoyed as mythical a reputation as the Apollo, the Italian marque's failed attempt to produce a Harley-Davidson-style heavyweight cruiser aimed at the U.S. market. Only two of the 1256cc behemoths were built, one of which is now on display at Ducati's factory museum in Bologna thanks to the generosity of its Japanese owner. No one knows if the second Apollo still exists.

Back in the early '60s, Ducati was one of dozens of small Italian manufacturers struggling to overcome the attack on its crucial home market leveled in '55 by the Fiat 500 minicar, which brought an end to the postwar boom in Italian biking fueled by the war-ravaged country's need for basic transportation. This collapse in bike sales not only forced Ducati, Gilera and Moto Guzzi to withdraw from GP competition--a sure sign of distress in such a racing-mad country--but also forced them to focus more closely on their export markets, particularly the United States.

For Ducati, with production declining and the company kept afloat only by state subsidies, this meant an ever-greater dependence on its New Jersey-based U.S. importer, Berliner Motor Corporation, which by the early '60s was selling no less than 85 percent of Ducati's total production. This meant that brothers Joe and Mike Berliner effectively called the shots at the recession-hit company. Elder brother Joe was convinced the U.S. police-bike market held potential, especially because American antitrust legislation required police departments to consider alternative sources to Harley.

Berliner, also the U.S. Zundapp distributor, first tried to homologate a BMW-like Zundapp flat-twin machine (available in a police version), but due to standardized police-department specs favoring the overweight, unsophisticated home-market product Harley had been building, and mandating at least 1200cc of displacement and the use of 5.0- x 16.0-inch tires, the attempt failed. Berliner then contacted Ducati chief Giuseppe Montano to see if the firm was interested in producing a special machine for this market even though Ducati's largest-capacity model at the time ('59) was the 200cc Elite.

After considering the archaic 74-cubic-inch Harley design that was then standard-issue, Montano and Taglioni agreed, certain they could produce a more efficient and modern design. Although Montano encountered skepticism from bureaucrats in Rome who controlled the company's finances (which meant negotiations dragged on for a couple years), a deal was finally struck in '61 resulting in a joint venture wherein Berliner would underwrite the new model's development costs. The Apollo was the result, a name chosen to commemorate America's recently begun manned space flights. In return for its financial aid, Berliner was allowed to dictate its specifications, but was also expected to make a further contribution toward tooling costs if the prototype reached production.

Apart from meeting U.S. police regulations, the brothers' only stipulation was that the bike have an engine bigger than anything in Harley's range, which was then topped by the 1215cc FL-series models. The remainder of the technical specifications were left to Taglioni, who decided on a 90-degree V-four whose perfect primary balance negated a counterbalancer, even with 180-degree crank throws (each pair of pistons rising and falling together) and separate, differentially finned air-cooled cylinders. The two valves per cylinder were operated via pushrods and rockers with screw-type adjusters, while the horizontally split wet-sump engine featured a single crank running in a central support, with each pair of con-rods sharing a single caged roller-bearing big end.

Taglioni considered liquid-cooling but rejected it due to complications and bulk, and likewise turned down Berliner's suggestion to incorporate shaft drive (which Taglioni mistrusted) in favor of a duplex final-drive chain. With the cylinders of the mighty 1256cc engine measuring 84.5mm x 56.0mm, the Apollo's V-four motor was the most oversquare design Taglioni had ever produced for Ducati. It was installed as a stressed member in a beefy open-cradle frame with a central box-section downtube between the front two cylinders. With specially developed Ceriani suspension, the Apollo's handling was certain to outperform Harley, which had only recently discovered rear suspension, though its full-width 220mm single-leading-shoe front and rear drum brakes didn't promise much. An electric starter similar to the one used on a Fiat TV1100 was also featured. A massive generator was fitted in order to cope with the additional load imposed by sirens, lights and radios.

Relatively compact, the alloy V-four engine allowed the Apollo to favorably compare with its Harley rival, weighing 596 pounds dry with a 61.2-inch wheelbase vs. the American V-twin's 62.2-inch stance and 640-pound weight. So even though Ducati test rider Franco Farne came back from an early test complaining that "it handles like a truck," this was strictly The American Way, and the Ducati Berliner 1260 Apollo, as the bike was officially known, made up for this with its straight-line performance, delivering a claimed 100 horsepower at 7000 rpm (vs. 55 hp for the Harley) and good for a top speed in excess of 120 mph. Pretty impressive for its day.

But also damning, for its meaty performance was the Apollo's primary downfall, a fact confirmed by Ducati tester Giancarlo "Fuzzi" Librenti, who was the first to suffer the heart-stopping experience of having the specially made 16-inch rear tire come apart at high speed on the autostrada. "It's a miracle I never crashed...I just wrestled it into submission with the back wheel locked, like a cowboy with a bull. I should have taken up rodeo!" Fuzzi joked.

The agreement called for Ducati to construct two prototypes and two spare engines. The first of these, painted in ritzy metallic gold and sporting a huge cowboy saddle fitted with a chrome grab handle, was handed over to the Americans in a formal ceremony in March, '64. Ape-hanger handlebars, deeply valanced fenders and fat whitewalls completed the Italo-American styling, which made the Apollo look much bigger and bulkier than it really was. The second prototype looked more tasteful, with leaner fenders, altered side covers, and a more discreet black-and-silver paint job--albeit still with the Wild West seat.

While testing proved the Apollo had plenty of power, it was quickly discovered that Librenti's experience was not an isolated incident. The V-four--combined with the bike's heft--was too much for the 16-inch tires, even after power had been reduced to approximately 80 hp. Alarming stories of riders nearly killed in high-speed testing filtered back to Bologna. The solution was to detune the twin-carb version of the engine further (to 65 hp)--adequate to meet police performance specs and still superior to the Harley, thanks to the V-four Ducati's lighter weight. This finally cured the tire-disintegration problems.

But this effectively ruled out selling the Apollo as a luxury sport-tourer because its power-to-weight ratio was now inferior to the BMW and British twins that would have been its import rivals in the U.S. market. Joe Berliner was so confident in the bike's potential that he'd already begun marketing the Apollo in the States, and printed a brochure quoting $1500 for the touring version and $1800 for the Sport--substantially more than its European twin-cylinder competition and double the cost of the equivalent Harley. At that price, the Ducati would have had to boast an additional edge in performance to justify the extra cost, but in detuned form it could not. With the V-four set up to deliver the right kind of power to meet the marketplace demands--power it was capable of--it would be lethal until tire technology could catch up.

This situation provided the perfect opportunity for the bureaucrats in Rome to kill off a project they'd never had faith in, and which emanated from a city (Bologna) controlled by their bitter Communist rivals. Citing the fact that the model was now suitable only for the specialist police market, the bureaucrats claimed sales would be insufficient to justify the immense tooling costs involved in gearing up for production. Berliner, who had already successfully demonstrated the Apollo to selected police chiefs, was appalled. He had promised that production of the reduced-power version would commence in '65, yet now the whole project seemed in danger of collapse.

So it proved. Further funding for the Apollo was withdrawn, and Montano was reluctantly forced to cancel the project early in '65, leaving the second of the two prototypes constructed to head straight back from Daytona into the Berliner warehouse in New Jersey, where it remained for the next two decades in a corner of the storeroom--a sad reminder of a motorcycle killed by a mixture of government infighting and its own advanced specification. The Apollo was simply too much, too soon. As an indication of how proud he was of the design, though, the spare engine sat on display in Taglioni's office for 20 years until his retirement, a silent testament to his versatility and farsightedness.

However, the memory of the Apollo lingered on, for as a prophetic article in Italy's Motociclismo magazine suggested when the existence of the Apollo was first revealed in '63, one half of the engine would--and did--provide a superb basis for a range of 90-degree V-twin models. Five years after the project's demise, Taglioni proved the worth of that assertion when he designed Ducati's first ohc, 750cc V-twin, closely inspired by the Apollo's architecture.

So what's it like to ride? Because of safety concerns due to the tire problems of 40 years ago, no journalist has ever ridden the bike--until now.

But first, a little more history.

In '86 Hiroaki Iwashita acquired the Daytona show bike, the second of the two Apollos built, from Cincinnati-based DomiRacer, one of America's largest vintage-parts specialists whose owner, Bob Schanz, had purchased the contents of the Berliner warehouse when the company closed in '84. Among the many Ducati artifacts was the Apollo prototype, "neglected and shopworn," according to Schanz in a letter written to me in April '84 enclosing the documentation for the '59 Ducati 125cc desmo twin-cylinder GP racer I'd bought from him earlier. "I'll let you know if I get it running, unless you want to buy it from me as-is?" What a missed opportunity, passing up on what today is most assuredly a million-dollar motorcycle!

So instead, Iwashita bought the Apollo for $17,000, big money back then. The bike was secreted to his private collection in Japan until '95, when he displayed it at a vintage bike show in Tokyo. This alerted Ducati to the bike's existence, and when the factory museum was established at the end of '96, it became a centerpiece exhibit on what will hopefully be an extended loan.

But it had never been ridden in public. So when Ducati decided to bring the Apollo to the United Kingdom to run it at the '02 Goodwood Festival of Speed in front of 120,000 spectators, they asked if I'd ride it for them. Family commitments made that impossible, so instead they asked me to come to Bologna a month earlier to make sure it was running OK for whomever took my place. Happy to oblige, amici, provided you have some modern tires fitted to make sure I don't emulate Fuzzi Librenti!

Actually, while the whitewall 16-inch Goodyears the Apollo wears today are the same basic type as those used at Daytona 40 years ago, at least they're freshly fitted new-old stock, and plenty adequate for the gentle cruise I had planned. At just 29.5 inches high, the plush seat is low enough to throw a leg over easily, and once astride the Apollo you're immediately surprised at how low slung and slim it feels--it seems barely bulkier than a bevel-drive desmo V-twin. The high, pullback handlebar is very '60s, though not as exaggerated as on some later Harleys, and combined with the well-placed footpegs delivers surprisingly comfy ergos, which aren't a problem at speed in spite of the high bar. Just chill out and cruise....

OK, time to do just that. The four Dell'Orto carbs the Apollo currently wears (which indicate that this bike has the most powerful state of tune, not the restricted twin-carb spec) scorn the choke, but on a warm Italian day the motor catches quickly, then settles down to a fast idle with an unmistakable cadence more akin to an American V-eight than an Italian four. The Apollo's exhaust note is totally unique, unlike any V-four Honda, and quite loud, too; the slender twin silencers don't have a lot of packing, and the result has the same trademark growl as a later desmo V-twin, only busier-sounding and higher-pitched.

I was impressed with how smoothly the Apollo took off from rest, even with the clutch slipping slightly, though upshifting through the gears brought the Apollo's age to light. Shift slowly and firmly, and do not rush; you'll get false neutrals if you do. Once securely in gear, the Apollo thrusts forward eagerly with a long-legged feel, especially in the intermediate gears; there's great response from the light-action throttle, and frankly there's no way this engine feels like a child of the '60s. Top gear (fifth--at a time when practically all other bikes had only four-speed boxes) feels like overdrive and would have been ideal for freeway cruising. There's enough midrange to use the bottom four ratios as a means of getting into top gear and leaving it there, surfing the waves of torque available at almost any rev. Impressive.

Compared with a (pre-Isoelastic) British twin or any Harley ever made, the Apollo is a sewing machine to a concrete mixer in terms of vibration and riding comfort, with only a BMW Boxer of the era delivering anything close to the same smoothness. Out of respect for the bike's rarity (and the lack of any spares!) I didn't rev it out, but even at a higher rpm the same unruffled, lazy-feeling response we came to take for granted a decade later on any V-twin bearing the Ducati badge is evident on the Apollo. At a time when there were no four-cylinder motorcycles of any type on the market, the Apollo would have established a standard of performance and rider comfort that even a decade later would set the benchmark for the Japanese. Truly, this was a bike ahead of its time.

Well, enginewise, at least, for the Apollo's handling is only adequate rather than exceptional, even by the standards of the era. The culprits are the U.S. police regulations, which imposed the use of 16-inch tires on a bike crying out for the 18-inch sport rubber then being introduced in the mid-'60s. Even without the safety considerations that led to the bike's demise, the dynamic limitations of the car-type four-ply tires irredeemably handicap the Apollo's handling potential. They look and feel completely unsuitable for anything more than approximately 15 degrees of lean, and you can feel the tread squirm as soon as you ask much of the tires in corners. The long wheelbase makes the Apollo handle like a truck in tighter turns, though the payoff is good stability through sweepers, where the effective Ceriani suspension felt good by '60s standards. And the springy seat helped soak up any bumps that got past the twin rear shocks.

Really, the Apollo's only problem--apart from those ludicrous tires--are the brakes. While the matched pair of single-leading-shoe drums are adequate at slow speeds, they fade badly after a couple hard stops, sending the lever back to the bar and turning the rear pedal loose and floppy. By the standards of the era they were probably the industry average, but with the performance delivered by that fantastic engine, the brakes were nearly as big a problem as the tires.

And that was literally a two-wheeled tragedy, because the inability of the tire companies to come up with a product capable of harnessing the performance delivered by such a big-engined, heavy bike deprived '60s enthusiasts of the thrills and satisfaction of riding the first of the next generation of four-cylinder sportbikes. Although Joe Berliner had the right idea in commissioning the Apollo back in '61, it was for what turned out to be the wrong reasons. If he hadn't focused on the police market, with its insistence on 16-inch rubber, and had instead conceived the Apollo as the world's first four-cylinder sportbike with tires and handling to match, even at the higher price the Italian V-four would have dictated, the U.S. market--and those of us in Europe--wouldn't have had to wait another 10 years for Kawasaki to do the job properly with the arrival of the Z-1.

After riding it, I'm convinced the Ducati Apollo was one of the great missed opportunities of world biking. The new desmosedici has a lot to live up to....

Bipantah!

Ducati's other V-four

The 40-year gap between the 1963 Apollo and the '03 advent of the 990cc MotoGP desmosedici was neatly bisected by a third, little-known Ducati V-four prototype engine--the so-called Bipantah. Conceived by Taglioni on the eve of his retirement and coming much closer than many people realize to supplanting Massimo Bordi's V-twin desmoquattro project, the Bipantah was a significant design.

Drawn up under Taglioni's supervision in January '81 by Pierluigi Mengoli, Ducati's current head of engineering, the Bipantah, as its name suggests, essentially represented a pair of Ducati's existing 500cc ,Pantah V-twin, belt-drive, SOHC, desmodue engines twinned together to produce a 1000cc V-four. Created one year before Honda stamped its mark on the V-four-engine concept with the '82 launch of the VF750, the Bipantah was conceived as a means of allowing the company to ensure its future existence. Ducati had passed into the hands of the Rome-based VM Group in '78, a state-subsidized manufacturer for which motorcycles were a low priority. And with worldwide bike sales declining, and twin-cylinder bikes unfashionable and disregarded, Ducati's future looked bleak. A range of V-four models seemed the best hope for future survival.

The Bipantah project was clearly the pinnacle of Taglioni's lifetime in engineering, and represented the fulfillment in metal of his first-ever complete engine design: the 250cc, 90-degree V-four he produced in '48 as his mechanical-engineering degree project. With a bore and stroke of 78mm x 52mm for a capacity of 994cc, the design was the most oversquare of any Taglioni engine, primarily to reduce engine height and length. Even so, the complete engine was just 100mm wider than the Pantah V-twin it was descended from, with the rear pair of vertical cylinders sharing a common block and two separate horizontal cylinders sitting outboard. The format provided extra room for front-wheel deflection under braking, though the differentially finned cylinders were tilted 20 degrees backward on the vertically split crankcase to further reduce length and enhance cooling of the oil/air-cooled motor; Taglioni's dislike of liquid-cooling for thermodynamic reasons, as well as increased bulk and weight, dictated this solution.

Taglioni was equally prejudiced against employing four valves per cylinder, meaning the V-four featured desmodue cylinder heads with a single camshaft per bank driven by a pair of toothed belts, Pantah-style. A 50-degree included valve angle provided the best cylinder filling, with electronic ignition firing a single 12mm plug per cylinder, and four 40mm Dell'Orto carbs facing forward and mounted on long, curved intake stubs for maximum ram-air effect. When I first saw the engine in early '82, Taglioni was eagerly awaiting the arrival of an electronic fuel-injection system from SPICA, then suppliers of fuel injection to the Alfa Romeo F-1 team (though the project was cancelled before this materialized). One year later, the BMW K100 was introduced with the Bosch electronic fuel injection Taglioni had always wanted to employ; he hated carburetors on the grounds that they were "inefficient, outdated and don't permit economy allied with performance.

The Bipantah's pistons were a two-ring design in an effort to reduce friction without suffering oil blow-by problems, while the one-piece plain-bearing crankshaft saw each pair of con-rods sharing a common crankpin. Power was fed via a large-diameter dry clutch mounted on the right side of the engine to the five-speed gearbox that for the first time on any Ducati was a fully extractable cassette-type cluster, just as on today's new desmosedici. Although conceived and developed as a one-liter sportbike motor, Taglioni envisaged the Bipantah being bored and stroked up to 1150cc if necessary for sport-touring purposes or for the police market (shades of the Apollo!), and wanted a transmission capable of harnessing the extra power.

How much power did the V-four make in 994cc guise? "It was the most successful engine I ever designed, almost from the first dyno run," Taglioni told me as we stood looking at it in '84. "With little development, fitted with touring cams and silencers meeting all current worldwide restrictions, it initially produced 105 horsepower at 9500 rpm at the rear wheel. With more extreme cams and valve timing, and open exhausts, we later [achieved] 132 hp at 11,000 rpm, but in this form there was acceptable power only from 6000 rpm upward--whereas in the softer tune the engine would pull from 3000 rpm in top gear without a problem. Thanks to the evenly spaced firing intervals, vibration was nonexistent. If I could have fitted fuel injection, we'd assuredly have obtained more than 150 hp with a racing exhaust."

So why was the Bipantah project scrapped at the end of '82, when Taglioni was in the process of wrapping a trellis frame around the motor? With production slumping to an all-time low, VM management believed Ducati's future lay only as an engine manufacturer, producing alongside VM's diesels a range of bike engines exclusively for Cagiva. Even with the Castiglioni brothers assuming a share of the R&D costs, the costs of tooling up to start production was simply too great given the projected sales volume in a declining market. Another reason was the concurrent Japanese-driven move away from 1000cc bikes to the new generation of smaller, lighter 750cc models--and the doppiopantah would be too heavy in 750cc guise. Although BMW's directors, then about to launch the K100, would have agreed with Taglioni when he declared that the whole point of producing motorcycles in Europe was not to copy the Japanese but to offer something distinctive and better, if more costly, the VM bureaucrats responsible for Ducati's fortunes didn't share his vision.

Sadly, the last of Fabio Taglioni's more than 1000 different engine designs remained a stillborn monument to what might have been. If only.... --A.C.

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