The Best V-Twins Of Yesterday And Today

From the Vincent to the Ducati 1198, V-twin powered sportbikes are some of the most engaging machines on two wheels

Britten V1000
The Britten V1000Cycle World

In the 1990s and early 2000s, as superbike racing, particularly WorldSBK, became dominated by the sound of roaring V-twins from Italy and Japan, it was nearly impossible to not fall hard for them in race-rep guise.

Even as literbikes were taking over the world, the appeal of V-twins was undiminished because of the way they build power and the fact that their narrow dimensions afford a lithe overall package. Their characteristic long powerbands lay down tractable power and broad swaths of torque for unmatched mechanical grip from low in the rev range to redline-skimming heights. Just don't call their power delivery lazy.

Ducati’s production racing dominance forced the hands of the other manufacturers to play the V2 game, in a period that became flush with V-twins of different flavors, including the Aprilia RSV Mille, Suzuki TL1000R, and Honda RC51. In my family’s garage, more often than not, I reached for the keys to the RC51, overlooking the more powerful R1 and the nimbler GSX-R750 sitting next to it (yes, it was a charmed life for a 17-year-old). The RC51’s characterful engine and the beautiful racket of the exhaust made the inline-fours feel plebeian by comparison. The era culminated on the racing world stage with the showdown at Imola of 2002. Troy Bayliss versus Colin Edwards. Ducati versus Honda. The Zealot versus The Pretender.

Series B Vincent engine
The matter at hand: the V-twin engine. Here, a Series B Vincent engine.Jeff Allen

The time period might have been unique in the proliferation of racing V-twins, but some of history's most storied, innovative, and legendary sporting motorcycles have shared the configuration: Harley's VR1000 superbike, which never quite reached its potential, or our hopes for it; the iconic Britten V1000, a bike whose innovations stemmed from a brilliant man lost in his prime; the Brough Superior SS100, a machine of near-folkloric proportion that garnered the nickname Boanerges ("Sons of Thunder") by its most famous owner.

As 2018 will be the final year the WorldSBK grid includes a factory Ducati twin, we pause to remember two exceptional V-twins from yesterday and today.

Yesterday: Vincent Black Lightning/Shadow

Peter Egan and the Vincent
Cycle World columnist Peter Egan and the Vincent: two legends of the motorcycling world.Jeff Allen

The Vincent Black Shadow (and the high-spec Lightning variant) is a motorcycle that has inspired song and obsession. As Richard Thompson’s lyrics go: “In my opinion, there's nothing in this world beats a ’52 Vincent and a Redheaded girl. Now Nortons and Indians and Greavses won’t do. Oh, they don’t have a Soul like a Vincent ’52.” It’s hard to argue with that—especially when Del McCoury sings it.

Cycle World's long-time columnist Peter Egan, as usual, sums it up best: "One ride on a Vincent reminds you why people put up with the expense and vintage eccentricities of these bikes—and why I sold everything to buy one of my own. They feel compact and light, with a low center of gravity, and the engine has a relaxed, almost liquid-smooth V-twin gait and shuffle that make you want to motor down the road and off into infinity. It has great, easy torque, plenty of power and light, agile steering from the Brampton fork, while the rear suspension really works, soaking up bumps in a way that must have seemed unbelievably civilized in this hardtail era."

Today: Ducati 1198

Ducati 1198
Ducati 1198Sport Rider

Before legions of non-1198-owning Ducatisti get their Dainese leathers in a bunch because their specific Duck isn't represented, let me begin by saying, I'm one of you. I own both a '99 996S and a '15 899 Panigale. The 1198, though, is in many ways the final iteration of the long-stroke "rubber band" engines that defined Ducati superbike lumps for decades (it's still used in the Monster, Multistrada, and Diavel). The roots of its Testastretta Evoluzione engine can be traced back to the 851's original Desmoquattro, and even back to the Pantah engine, at least in basic architectural terms.

The Panigale’s Superquadro engine is an entirely different animal; it even ditches belts for chain-driven overhead cams. On the road, the oversquare Superquadro revs quickly and makes boatloads of power, but the low- and midrange grunt associated with the archetypal V-twin is somewhat abated.

As the dawn of the Ducati V-4 is upon us, only time will tell if motorcyclists will consider the 1198 or the Panigale as the “Last of the Mohicans.” Let the great debate begin.

Do you have a favorite longitudinal V-twin? Share with us your picks for best V-twin sportbikes of yesterday and today.