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Saltarelli Collection. (Simon Clay/RM Auctions)
Saltarelli Collection. (Simon Clay/RM Auctions)

Classic bikes

In pursuit of Ducati magic Add to ...

What's the use of a little liquidity if you can't splash some of it around?

That appears to be the credo of Ferdinand Piech, recently reconfirmed for a third stint at the wheel of Volkswagen AG, who has just dipped into the deep corporate money pool for a bit more than a billion dollars to add legendary motorcycle maker Ducati to his collection of Italian companies.

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Ducati made a pretty nice birthday present, along with his re-election as chairman late last month, for the now 75-year-old Piech, who has been single-mindedly steering Volkswagen toward the goal of becoming the largest car maker in the world for the better part of two decades.

Although some industry watchers, possibly irked at having to buy their cars and bikes one at a time rather than by the factory-full, see it as perhaps a little self-indulgent. “It's a new toy,” sniffily opined one, who's perhaps never owned a Ducati, as Piech does.

But what true corporate collector – VW's “toy” box now contains a dozen brands – wouldn't round out his Italian portfolio by adding the classic Ducati name to that of previously acquired exotic car maker Lamborghini and renowned design house ItalDesign if they had the chance.

And, unlike many other periods in a history that has more whoop-de-doos than a stadium motocross track, Ducati's driving engine is currently as “on song” as it's ever been.

Piech is buying his bike company, which he first made a try for in the mid-1980s, from the Investindustrial Group, which grabbed it by the handlebars in 2006 (from Texas Pacific Group, which had acquired it from the Cagiva Group in 1996, which took over from Italian state-subsidized VM Group in 1985). IG has spent the past half-dozen years twisting its throttle hard. In recent years, it has introduced 17 new models, has an 11 per cent share of the global motorcycle market and is the world's most profitable bike company.

Despite being hit by the global downturn, sales reached 42,000 units last year; not bad for a company that in 1990 produced just 4,063 motorcycles.

The Ducati story began with three brothers who, in 1926, established Societa Scientifica Radio Brevetti Ducati in Bologna to make radio components, which they did successfully until the Italian government agreed to a treaty with the Allies in 1943. German troops promptly stripped the factory of anything worthwhile and shipped it home. To complete the job, the Allies bombed the place flat.

A couple of years later, the company was bankrupt and passed from Ducati brothers to government (and strange as it might seem, partial Vatican) control. It then began making an odd assortment of things that included radios, cameras, projectors and a tiny 50-cc single-cylinder engine designed by a lawyer and intended to clip on to a pedal bike.

The engine, which became known as the “Cucciolo” or puppy for its yappy bark, proved a huge success and got Ducati management thinking about building a complete motorcycle. To bump-start the process, it joined forces with aircraft maker Aero Caproni, but as neither knew anything about bikes, this partnership soon dissolved.

Ducati made some mopeds and then its first “real” motorcycles in 1950 with 65-cc and later 98-cc engines and also tried to cash in on the scooter market with what proved to be an unsuccessful model called the cruiser.

Ducati had likely been involved in competition since the first two 1.2-hp “Sport”-engined Cucciolo powered bicycles came across each other, but it was with the arrival of fabled and still much revered by Ducatistas engineer Fabio Taglioni that its real sporting reputation began to be forged.

Taglioni created a 100-cc single-cylinder engine with bevel-driven overhead cam that powered the Gran Sport, better known to Ducati cognicenti as the Marianna. It would win many races and lead to a series of single-, twin- and even four-cylinder racing engines, many with “desmodromic” valve control (that remains an exotic Ducati feature to this day) that won a lot more in the hands of riders such as Mike Hailwood and Paul Smart.

It was also the progenitor of single-cylinder production bikes such as 200-cc Elite of the late 1950s, the quick 250-cc Mach 1 of the mid-1960s and later in the decade, the first road-going and off-road scrambler “Desmo” models. The 450 Desmo “Silver Shotgun” of 1971 was likely the most famous of these before they disappeared in mid-decade.

Ducati made its first successful foray into big bikes with the Taglioni-designed 750-cc L-twins (a layout still employed today) of 1971, which evolved into the venerated Super Sports model a few years later.

In the decades that have followed there have been many magic machines: Monsters, Pantahs, Desmoquattros, Supermonos, Hypermotards, $70,000-plus Desmosedicis and some with just numbers 851, 888, 916, 996. And myriad racing successes, including World Superbike and MotoGP championships.

All of which have elevated the Ducati brand to the two-wheel equivalent of Ferrari status in the minds of both hard-core sports bike fans and motorcycling fashionistas who, in Canada, can spend between $11,000 for a 696 Monster and $31,000 for a 1199 Panigale S Tricolore to push hard at a track day or park curbside at a sidewalk café to be admired.

No official word yet on what kind of ride Piech is planning to take his new bike company on.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Don't forget to check out our Ducati gallery: In pictures: Monsters and Streetfighters – Ducati's latest line-up

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