Only a few motorcycles can be credited with defining an era. Edward Turner transformed the motorcycle landscape with the Triumph Speed Twin while Honda’s first 750 Four established a tradition of production across-the-frame four-cylinder motorcycles that continues today. In 1994 Ducati unleashed their 916, arguably as significant as both those illustrious predecessors.
The 916 was not only a benchmark motorcycle for Ducati, it created a styling blueprint for sportsbikes that continues today. I was fortunate enough to be given a private viewing of the 916 prototype by Massimo Bordi at the factory in 1993 and it remains an indelible memory. “No pictures please,” Bordi said but later one of the employees let us in a back door to take some illegal photos. I had never seen anything like the 916 and the features that set it apart in 1993 were so advanced it took the opposition years to catch up.
Although the 916 looked revolutionary; set off with a strong frontal aspect of twin poly-ellipsoidal headlights, single-sided swingarm, and exhaust system exiting under the seat; it still represented Ducati’s traditional philosophy of evolution. At the heart of the 916 was the Desmoquattro 90-degree V-twin, born in 1987 as a 748 before growing to 851 and 888c. The 851 and 888 were great Superbike racers but flawed production bikes.
When Massimo Tamburini set about designing the 916 at the Cagiva Research Centre in San Marino he was determined his baby would be faultless. So, while the 916 engine was essentially a stroked 888, with the same liquid-cooled double overhead camshaft cylinder heads and Marelli electronic fuel injection, the rest of the motorcycle was new. While serious consideration was given to the twin-spar deltabox aluminium frame then becoming popular, tradition won and Tamburini eventually eschewed this in preference to Ducati’s traditional space frame.
Requirements for the 916 included a reduction in the wheelbase from the 888, while providing as close to 50/50 weight distribution as possible, with adequate wheel travel. This meant placing the front wheel as close to the engine as possible with the engine rotated forward 1.5° to help the front tyre clear the cylinder head. Tamburini was also intent on creating an extremely strong steering head structure, now 80mm in outer diameter with special bearings to allow for a thick (35mm) steering tube. An important element in the design was the incorporation of adjustable caster without altering the wheelbase.
Another important consideration in the design was a reduction in frontal area and an improvement in aerodynamics over the 851/888. This resulted in a small overall size with the shape of the fairing, fuel tank, and seat homogeneously flowing from one to another. From above the shape was intentionally designed to emulate the curves of a woman.
Part of the Tamburini philosophy was to feature individually designed components for every part of the motorcycle, even the fasteners were not shared with the earlier 888. The front 43mm Showa triple clamps were machined in pairs, the chill-cast lower triple clamp notable for its exceptional depth. In the early 1990s Ducati still dreamed of winning the both the Suzuka Eight-hour race and the Bol d’Or, so the 916 was designed with a single-sided swingarm to allow for rapid wheel changes.
The first 916 Strada produced 114 horsepower at 9,000 rpm but sheer power wasn’t what the 916 was about. Although capable of 260 km/h, there were faster and more powerful motorcycles available. More than engine performance, the 916 provided a balance between the engine and chassis that set a new standard. Unlike most earlier Ducatis there was a homogeneity about the design that took the 916 into another dimension.
What the 916 did for Ducati was take the company beyond that of an enthusiast niche market manufacturer to that of the creator of a universally admired and desirable motorcycle. Since its release in 1994 the 916 went on to become arguably the greatest Ducati ever.
It provided the class-leading standard for close to a decade and no other Ducati had such success on the track for such a long period and remained at the top of the performance world for so long.
Five things about the Ducati 916
- Massimo Tamburini moved from Bimota (he was the “mo” in Bimota) to Ducati in 1984 and his first design was the Paso.
- Tamburini embarked on the 916 project during 1988. This lasted almost six years and was codenamed the 2887 project. Work on the geometrical aspect of the 916 frame took place over a two year period ,even before the construction of a prototype.
- The definitive frame configuration was completed in January 1992, an important structural component being the sealed airbox with the lower part of the fuel tank forming the top of the airbox.
- The 916 was immediately successful as a racer, Carl Fogarty winning the 1994 World Superbike Championship. He repeated this in 1995 and Troy Corser won in 1996. Fogarty went on to win the World Superbike Championship in 1998 and 1999 on 916-derived Superbikes.
- Between 1994 and 1999 the 916 grew to 955cc and eventually 996cc. The final Desmoquattro 996 was in 2001 before being replaced by the Testastretta 998 in 2002. The 916 also begat a similar 748 in 1995 and a wide variety of special editions.
Australia’s go-to-guy for classic motorcycle wisdom. Ian has written nearly 45 books on motorcycles that each offer unparalleled insight on the historical and technical development of particular makes and models.