Ducati 750 Imola Racer, '74 750 Super Sport And PS1000 LE - The Holy Trinity - Paul Smart

The Religious Right May Object, But What Else Can You Call Ducati's Original 750 Imola Racer, The Incomparable '74 750 Super Sport And The New PS1000 LE? Imola 200 Winner Paul Smart Tests All Three.

Serendipity just falls your way sometimes. You meet the love of your life in an elevator. The car that just passed you hits the deer. Or the fortunes of your company soar on the basis of a single event. Such is the case of Ducati, which in 1972 was a little-known Italian manufacturer of buzzy single-cylinder road bikes. That is until April 23, when everything changed as 29-year-old Englishman Paul Smart outran the best Formula 750 bikes and riders in the world to win the inaugural Imola 200, the Daytona of Europe, on the company's brand-new 750. Surprised? Most everyone was. "Before the race, people thought me riding a Ducati at Imola was a joke," Smart recalls today. "No one had ever heard of a V-twin Ducati."

That would quickly change. Enthused with the victory of Ducati's first big bike in its maiden race, company management announced a road-going version of the Imola racer. Delightfully, when it arrived two years later, the '74 750 Super Sport really was a race replica-and the most audacious streetbike of its time. With an exotic desmodromic valve train, gigantic pumper carbs, triple disc brakes and the sexiest bodywork this side of Brigitte Bardot, the limited-production "greenframe" soon became iconic on street and track.

Fast forward three decades, and with retro fever gripping manufacturers from Apple to Zippo, it was inevitable that Ducati would spin its venerable two-valve air-cooled powertrain into the Paul Smart 1000 Limited Edition to celebrate what is arguably the company's most important race win. But how faithfully does it follow the tire tracks of its ancestors? We wanted to know.

Smart has ridden his Imola winner occasionally over the years, had once sampled an original greenframe in the U.K. and has enjoyed the occasional whirl on the new PS1000 LE. But he never rode all three bikes in sequence to measure the genetic evolution that his Imola triumph began and said he'd like to try. With Smart willing and Willow Springs Raceway available, all we needed were the bikes.

Seven Imola racers made the short trip from Ducati's Borgo Panigale race shop to Imola in '72 and three are known to exist in original form today-including Smart's race-winner, which he was given after the event and still owns. According to the best knowledge available, the bike seen here is his backup machine from Imola that later raced in Europe, Canada and Africa. Fortunately, it's slightly easier to find an original 750 Super Sport streetbike, and this example is a solid runner showing 15,600 kilometers on its Smiths speedometer. Outfitted with grippy new Avon classic racing rubber to match the Imola racer's, it was ready to prove its heritage on the track. Finally, with most of the new PS1000 LEs now in private hands, we were lucky to find Eric Beaman, the lead mechanic at Southern California Ducati, willing to turn his personal bike over to Motorcyclist for testing-with the only proviso that it return bearing Mr. Smart's signature.

Nobody was in much of a hurry to ride anything when black ice greeted us in the pits at Willow on a subfreezing morning in January. And yet, as the winter sun tracked across the desert skies, eventually enough heat baked into the track surface to make hot lapping possible. Smart first went out on his namesake, the PS1000 LE, to familiarize himself with The Fastest Road in the West. He liked it, and with just a few laps of reconnaissance was ready for the program.

First up was the '72 Imola racer. Far from the nearly stock machines that Ducati publicized, the Formula 750 bikes actually used special frames, highly modified engines with racing crankshafts, primary drives, valve train, twin-plug ignition, carburetion, oiling and exhaust systems, plus the triple disc brakes, Ceriani shocks, a giant fuel cell and roadracing bodywork. Stock appearing though they might have been, they were highly developed machines credited with making 84 horsepower from their 748cc displacement-a very respectable 112 bhp per liter, even by today's standards. With appropriate gearing, Smart reckons they were good for 150 mph in '72. We push-start Smart and a sharp staccato bark jumps from the unique high/low megaphones, so configured to provide cornering clearance for Imola's predominantly left-hand turns.

Smart accelerates the Imola racer by on his first hot lap, his black leathers and white helmet virtual carbon copies of 35 years ago. This 63-year-old can still fly, and many laps later he returns the bike with the right-side pipe scuffed and the tires feathered to the edges. Smart is credited with developing the modern hanging-off cornering style that virtually every roadracer uses today. It was born of necessity. "I didn't go racing until age 22; I just rode bikes on the street," he explained. "Then I went to the MCC High Speed Trials at Silverstone on an old BSA and it dragged terribly. I hung off the thing just to keep the undercarriage off the road. Kenny Roberts later complimented me by saying he learned a lot about body weight control by following me at Ontario."

As for the high points of the original Formula 750 Imola racer: "It's incredibly torquey, isn't it?" he began. "It has big old carburetors and basic ignition, but the thing works so well. That's the advantage of the desmodromic system-because you can open and close the valves a lot quicker, you can put more efficient ramps on the cams. And considering the age of the thing, it does handle. Its geometry is all wrong with a long wheelbase and a fork angle of who knows what, but it behaves itself extremely well, doesn't require a lot of rider input and the brakes are faultless. The biggest Achilles' heel is it's so long you have to crank it to get through tight corners. Also the riding position where you're sitting well back and low with your knees under your chin feels strange. But those motorcycles were just right. They were easy on the rider and relaxing to ride. I honestly can't fault it."

Thanks to the commitment of Ducati executive Fredmano Spairani and the genius of engineer Fabio Taglioni, the 750 Super Sport went into series production in January 1974. Though outfitted with a new frame, street equipment, a downsized fuel cell and abbreviated fairing, it was still the progeny of the Imola racer. The desmo valve train-the first on a production Ducati V-twin-along with the 40mm Dell'Orto carbs, triple disc brakes, clip-on handlebars and rearsets with remote linkages remained. Many Super Sports, like this example originally sold in South Africa, were pressed into racing duty, then later returned to street use.

Smart expertly kick-starts the SS, pulls the right-side shifter up for first and enters the track. The motorcycle is obscenely loud, even by early-'70s standards, and the combined thrashing of the gear-driven cams, the intense intake chuffing and the bark of the straight-through Conti mufflers is definitely plug-your-ears painful at close range. No wonder Maggie Smart, Paul's wife and the sister of the late, great Barry Sheene, had reminded him to wear his earplugs. Smart laps, well, smartly, on the Super Sport, but not quite at the same pace as on the racer. It's the brakes mostly. Italian Scarab front calipers-cheap knockoffs of the factory racer's Lockheeds-became standard equipment on production Super Sports and never offered the same performance or feel as the originals. Besides that, the Super Sport doesn't have the Imola-spec camshafts, bold cylinder-head development, straight-cut primary gears, efficient racing fairing or light weight of the factory bikes. Even so, its DNA remains intact.

"I haven't ridden one of those in probably 30 years," Smart exclaimed after returning. "It is amazing how well they steer. The chassis does feel very much the same as the racebike, and the engine characteristics do, too. It's probably 20 horsepower less, but it has the same wide torque spread. The fairing is not as efficient as the racebike's, and it feels like you're falling off the bike, you're sitting so far back. But the point is, you're riding a bike whose heart is the same. One thing Ducati has managed to do is take the racing-bike feel and translate it to the street."

Smart endorsed the classic Avon racing tires on both bikes-patterned after the tiremaker's vintage rubber but using modern race compounds. "They are incredible, aren't they?" he mused. "It's amazing just how good they are. The tires definitely contribute to the fact that these old bikes can be ridden as hard as they can."

But he definitely didn't like the Scarab braking system on the Super Sport. "The brakes on the racebike are really good for their age," he continued. "They work extremely well and people are still using them in classic racing. But the ones on the streetbike feel leaden, sallow and unresponsive."

So far we had established that the hallowed 750 Super Sport, the derivative of the Imola racers, was indeed from the same breeding stock. Despite some missing ponies and flaccid brakes compared to the factory bikes, it still honestly and emphatically established Ducati as a superbike builder.

But the big leap was yet to come. While less than two years passed between the creation of the Imola racebikes and the 750 SS, some 32 years-and numerous architectural changes-separate the greenframe from the new Sport Classic PS1000 LE. Mechanically, they share little except their 90-degree engine configuration and a few ounces of silver and turquoise paint. Would Smart find any connection on the track?

He jumped aboard the borrowed PS1000, flicked up the sidestand, thumbed the starter button and motored up the pit exit. Already, it was easy to see a dramatic difference. Like all modern motorcycles, the fuel-injected PS1000 LE is utterly simple to use. No flooding the carbs, no fishing for TDC, no leaping on an awkward kickstarter and no fogged faceshield when the thing won't fire. Smoothly and much more quietly, the PS1000 accelerated onto the racing line. After a lap to warm the tires, here came Smart, whooshing down the front straight. Hunkered behind the windscreen, those same black leathers looked equally at home-or more so-than on the old bikes. And he was going faster.

After slinging past the pits, the PS1000 shot into the braking zone for Turn One impossibly late-or so it seemed. But by the grace of the big twin-piston brakes, Smart got it slowed in time, neatly dropped it over and accelerated out of the turn and away. Lap after lap, he cut smooth lines in the corners, ripped down the straights and dug deep into the brakes. And when he was done, the PS1000 murmured back into the pits as contentedly as a coed's scooter.

"The geometry is very contemporary," Smart began after removing his helmet. "You get lots of feedback and it still feels very planted, especially in fast corners. I really do believe a steel frame gives great feedback-just like on a bicycle. This is not a highly tuned engine, but it does make a tremendous amount of torque so you really don't have to rev it. Overall, though, the modern tires, suspension and brakes are really what separate it from the old bikes. In comparison, the frame and engine are probably the least developed."

He then made an unexpected announcement. "The bike that surprised me most today is the old streetbike," he said of the 750 SS. "I thought I would go out and do one or two laps and put it away. But if you just ride it smoothly and pick your line, it's really very nice."

Hungry for a decisive conclusion, we cornered the genial Mr. Smart and asked him which bike he'd select if he had time for just one more session. "I have to be honest: It's the new bike," he confessed. "Everything works and the machine is far better than the rider in my case now. You can just go out there and ride it as hard as you can until you run out of tire."

It's a good thing Smart said that, because when serendipity hands you a chance, you'd better make it count. Now 35 years removed from that fateful day at Imola in 1972, we can finally rest assured that Ducati did just that. And that in the Paul Smart 1000 Limited Edition, the Holy Spirit lives on.