I really shouldn’t have been surprised at just how good this Ducati GT750 was After all, as a teenager in the 1970s I’d admired and lusted after those big Bolognese V-twins; read about them and dreamed about them, while riding around on a succession of much cheaper and less glamorous Japanese and British machines. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to ride numerous classic Ducats, and not one has been a disappointment.
But the brilliance of the GT750 – the first of the Ducati V-twin line – still came as a surprise. Simply looking around this immaculate bevel-drive twin was a treat; admiring its stylish orange-and-black paintwork, its period badges, and the lines of that big air-cooled engine with its cooling fins going off in all directions and its attractive, rounded alloy crankcases. Sitting astride the firmly padded seat and firing up the motor with a lazy kick to send the slender Conti pipes barking out their uniquely tuneful sound…
But after finally riding away on what, After all, was the first and least powerful of the twins, I was stunned to discover that it was not just respectably rapid but torque, stable, bursting with character and most of all wonderfully enjoyable to ride. After 20minutes I was severely tempted to turn round, head straight back to Made In Italy boss John Fallon and make him an offer to buy it (before the thought of mortgage payments, my more mundane motorcycling needs, and the commitment needed to keep an old Ducati on top form brought me sadly to my senses).
Perhaps my sense of surprise at how good the GT was came because such is the reputation of more famous models such as the 750 Sport, 750SS, 900SS and others that followed it, I’d subconsciously assumed that the basic 748cc V-twin that began the line was relatively ordinary. It was overshadowed by the more glamorous sports models, and presumably had some teething problems or at least some minor design flaws that made it less than desirable all these years later?
But nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, the GT750 with which Ducati’s design genius Fabio Taglioni introduced the V-twin line was not just a bold and innovative high-performance machine when introduced in 1971, it was also remarkably capable and well-sorted right from the word go. Apart from paint colour and a few relatively minormods there was no difference between this late-model GT, which was built in 1974, and the first machines off the Bologna production line in 1971.
For a relatively small and financially struggling company such as Ducati to get things so right in the early 1970s was an impressive achievement. And a hugely significant one, too. It could be argued that, of all the hundreds of models that Ducati has produced since the marque began bike production in the mid-1940s, themodel that started the V-twin line is the most important of all. As well as launching Ducati’s superbike range in such style, and leading to somany other great roadsters, the GT was also the basis of vital racing success, most notably with Paul Smart’s famous Imola 200 victory in 1972.
The GT was verymuch the work of Taglioni, who had joined Ducati from Mondial in 1954 in the all-powerful post of chief designer and technical director, at the age of just 34. As an engineering student at Bologna University six years earlier he had produced a design for a 250cc, 90º V4 with cylinders running in line of the bike.
At Ducati in the early 1960s, after revitalizing the company with successful singles including the legendary 100cc Gran Sport, he adapted this V4 layout to create the mighty Apollo, which never reached production largely because its 1260cc engine was too powerful for contemporary tyres to handle.
Ducati had long been aiming to produce a twin, but not with cylinders in a Vee. The firm had raced parallel twins in the 1950s, and in themid-1960s developed a succession of larger engine parallel twins, with the aim of creating a roadster to compete with dominant British models. But although a 500cc twin was displayed at the Daytona Show in the US in March 1965, neither that bike nor the 700cc prototype that followed two years later reached production. Meanwhile Honda launched the CB450 twin, whose arrival helped ensure that an improved 500cc Ducati parallel twin was met with little enthusiasm by the Italian firm’s dealers in the vital US market. the project was abandoned.
By this time Ducati was in financial trouble, and in 1969 the firm was taken over by the Italian government. Honda had recently introduced the CB750 four and fortunatelyDucati’s new management team not only saw the need for a 750ccmodel, but also realised that it needed to be something special rather than another parallel twin. Taglioni, whose stated design aim was “simplicity, carried out to its ultimate extreme”, adapted his earlier V4 layout to create a V-twin, or more accurately an L-twin, that was essentially two 350cc singles on a common crankcase.
Ducati worked fast. Taglioni’s design was finished by March 1970, the first engine was being tested four months later, and it was so impressive and trouble-free that by September a complete bike was ready to be unveiled to the press. By June 1971 it was in production: called the GT750 (also often referred to as the 750GT), and incorporating a few changes from that prototype, including flat bars instead of clip-ons, a 280mm Lockheed single front brake disc instead of a Fontana drum, 30mmAmal Concentric carbs instead of Dell’Ortos, and a reshaped tank and seat unit.
As well as being distinctive, the engine layout had obvious advantages of small frontal area and low centre of gravity. The 90º Vee angle gave perfect primary balance, while Taglioni’s decision to raise the front cylinder by 15º from horizontal allowed good cooling to both pots while also helping exhaust routing and ground clearance. The effect of the L-motor’s inevitable length was minimized by the way the front cylinder head fitted between the down tubes of the tubular steel frame.
Like the factory’s well-proven singles, the V-twin featured bevel drive to a single overhead camshaft, wet sump layout, and an integral five-speed gearbox. The 748ccmotor had conventional coil valve springs instead of the Desmo layout that Taglioni had already introduced on some racing singles, and produced a claimed 60bhp at 8000rpm. At 185kg dry the GT750 was 15kg heavier than the prototype, but considerably lighter than the 67bhp Honda CB750 four. That gave the GT a very impressive power-to-weight ratio back in 1971.
With its rider’s chin on the tank the GT was good for a genuine 125mph that made it one of the world’s fastest bikes in the early 1970s. And its handling, especially at high speed, was notably better than that of heavier Japanesemultis such as the CB750, Suzuki’s GT750 and Kawasaki’s 500 and 750cc air-cooled triples. Right from this model – its first superbike–Ducati hit on the format of relatively light-weight, minimalist but rigid frame and fairly firm suspension that would make the marquee’s name a byword for handling excellence.
With just a single disc up front, the GT’s braking ability didn’t live up to its cornering performance. the other fork leg had lugs for a second disc but Ducati never fitted one, though the factory did introduce a few updates on later versions, including this bike’s centre axle front forks (instead of the original leading-axle design), and the addition of an electric starter on the last bikes to leave the factory. There was also a GT750 USA model, with higher bars, and a police version with screen, pannier and single seat.
Production ended in late 1974, when the GT750 was replaced by the 860 GT, with its controversial angular styling. By this time the 750 had been hottedup to create the more aggressive 750 Sport, with its clip-ones, rear sets and optional half-fairing; and the even racier 750 Super Sport, with its Demo valve operation and single seat, that was inspired by that famous Imola victory
Ducati’s V-twin range was well under way, and one of the great motorcycling dynasties had been established. More than four decades later those sportier models and bigger 864cc Desmos get the lion’s share of the publicity, but the GT750 that began the V-twin line in such brilliant style is far from forgotten.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO RIDE?
An example as good as this one is fantastic, at least after it has warmed up. we Ducati’s cold motor needed several kicks before it reluctantly fired up, though the glorious mix of rustling mechanical sounds, Dell’Orto sucking (later models went back to the prototype’s Italian carbs) and Conti bark meant I soon forgave it once it did come to life. Manoeuvring at slow speed highlighted the lack of steering lock, and the gearbox was initially very stiff, as well as providing an unfamiliar one-up, four-down pattern for my right foot.
But after just a few miles the engine was warm, the gearbox was working fine, the sun was gleaming off that shapely tank (whose high-quality paintwork doubtless surpassed the notoriously poor original finish), and the Ducati was running so well that it was amazing to think that any bike, let alone a first attempt at a V-twin, could have been so good all those years ago.
That 60bhp claimed maximum was doubtless a rather optimistic figure, and this engine couldn’t match the midrange grunt of the bigger-bore V-twins that followed it. But the GT still accelerated with plenty of enthusiasm, its straight-line performance emphasized by the fairly upright riding position that was still sporty enough to allow a comfortable crouch into the wind at higher speeds.
In best Ducati V-twin fashion the engine was smooth enough to be pleasant throughout the range, but had enough vibration to give an involving feel. This motor had been fairly recently rebuilt so I wasn’t revving it to the start of the red zone at 7500rpm, let alone the proper redline 500rpm later. But that was fine because the valve-spring unit was at its leisurely best when short shifted, and was happy to keep the bike cruising at a relaxed 70mph with a bit in hand.
Stability was impeccable, and although the blend of conservative chassis geometry and 19in front wheel meant the GT required a fair bit of steering input, it was light enough to respond quickly when I needed to change direction on a narrow and twisty country road. This bike’s ever-reliable Pirelli Phantoms also helped by being sticky enough to make good use of the GT’s ground clearance, which was generous despite the reasonably low-set and comfortable footrests.
The only chassis part that really felt dated was the single-disc front brake, which was a bit wooden and lacking in power. But that didn’t detract from the enjoyment of riding a classic V-twin that looked gorgeous and had the engine and chassis performance to match, as well as an addictively sweet sound and feel.
WHAT THEY COST
The GT750’s blend of looks, historical significance, riding pleasure and raritymeans that it’s far from cheap. Especially if you want one from 1971 or ’72, because they’re even more scarce than the later versions. “We get between £12,000 and £18,000 on average,” says John Fallon, boss of Made In Italy Motorcycles, who supplied the test bike. “An early one would definitely be towards the top end of that.” the price goes up considerably, to around the £30,000 mark, for a restored, not least because this relatively humble valve-spring roadster is very nearly as expensive to rebuild asamore exotic Desmo Super Sport. “You can easily have £15,000 of restoration costs, on top of the donor bike,” says John. “A good new crankshaft costs close to £2000 and you need around 100 hours of labour.”
For that sort of money though you can be looking at a GT – like the stunningmetalflake red example currently on theMade In Italy website – that is better than new, with electronic ignition, twin Lockheed front discs and modern shocks. Lottery winners can go a stage further by searching for one of the original 100 bikes, which had sand-cast engine cases and are worth up to £50,000.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
Despite early Ducatis’ reputation for unreliability the GT750 is essentially pretty sound, although any 40-plusyear- old Italian bike has plenty of potential for hideously expensive problems.“ there’s nothing in particular that goes wrong with them, just the normal things you’d expect on any old bike,” says John. Correct engine and frame numbers are as vital as on any valuable classic.
Most running GTs will have been updated to some extent by now, often with components that are better than the originals. “More modern electrical parts are better, especially the ignition and charging systems,” says John. “But despite what a lot of people think they’re very good. And parts availability is probably better than when it was in production. Some original bits like stainless mudguards and headlamps can be difficult to find, but there’s not much you can’t get.”