Dear Ducati…

I’ve owned your bikes since 1982, albeit with a longish break along the way. My current machine is getting a little leggy and, despite its so far consummate reliability, I’m looking for a replacement. But here’s my problem: you simply do not make a motorcycle that meets my desires. And a quick glance at your 2005 sales figures suggests that many people feel the same way — your motorcycle revenues worldwide were down 13.1%, with total unit sales down 5.5%. Margins were also down, occasioned by a 40% collapse in the sales of your higher margin Superbike models. The only ranges that increased sales were the Multistrada (up 57.9%) and the new-retro Sport Classic range.

And it’s not the market — even your corporate-speak refers to “a negative product mix”. By way of comparison, BMW motorcycle shipments were up 5.6% (to 97,474), with revenue up 18.9% and profit (remember that?) nearly doubling. The new boy on the road bike block, KTM, raised revenue by 12%, with a 5% rise in the number of machines sold, with improvements largely attributed to expansion in the road bike market. Triumph have turned, literally and metaphorically, from ugly duckling to motorcycling swan, with global sales up 29% on 2004 and a range of bikes that now very much appeal to the heart as well as the head.

But back to you and me, o wayward scions of Bologna: the really frustrating thing is that you make bikes with all the bits I want — just not in the same machine. Here’s what I’m after: quite simply, a SPORTS tourer. Got that? Something with no-compromise engine and cycle parts, but that is capable of crossing Europe comfortably in a day, two-up, while throwing in, for instance, a couple of brisk laps of the Nurburgring at lunchtime. I don’t want a TOURER, I don’t want a sanitised and market-researched bimbling machine — that way lies the horror of the Deauville — I want a full-on sporting motorcycle, one that happens to be comfortable long-distance two-up, inspirational to look at and to ride and as relaxing or edgy as I choose to set it up and ride it to be.

That’s pretty much exactly what my ST4s offers: huge low-down torque, a relaxed mid-range and howling top-end punch, combined with superb frame, top-class suspension and brakes and a half-decent fairing. But, oh look, you’ve dropped it: replaced it with the ST3s, with it’s 107bhp DesmoTre (6-valve engine) – a good bike but, in engine terms, not a patch in power, delivery or that great elusive, character, on the DesmoQuattro (8-valve) 996 engine it replaces. Not only that, but you did a half-hearted restyle on the ST range a couple of years ago, replacing the balanced, if ageing, elegance of the original ST lines with a malproportioned (although effective) barn door of a top fairing. So, while everyone else is bringing out sports tourers that are faster, lighter, handle and look better than their predecessors, you’re bringing out slower, uglier machines that entirely fail to inspire anything other than grudging acknowledgement. Go figure.

You do make another superb-handling machine that can be capable of decent distances in comfort: the Multistrada. But you only do that with the 84bhp (measured honestly) DesmoDue air-cooled engine, even in the Ohlins suspended 1000S: a fine and characterful unit, ’tis true, but not up to long-range ballistics. A Multistrada with the wonderful Testastretta DesmoQuattro engine would definitely light my fire.

But hang on, here’s the ‘new’ Monster S4RS — a parts-bin special which combines the Testastretta engine with a frame near identical to that of the ST4s, the package rounded off with Ohlins suspension all-round, radial brakes and a gorgeous single-sided swing arm. Stunning. So just how much effort would it be to take the same basic machine and stick the ST sub-frame, bodywork and luggage-friendly exhausts on it? Look guys, it’s something Luigi and his brazing kit could knock up in the back lot of Borgo Panigale over lunch. Hell, give me an S4RS, a set of ST bodywork, sub-frame and tank and I’ll do it myself. OK, so it would be nice if you gave the bodywork a modern makeover, but even as it is, it has a nicely timeless line. Please Ducati, this is quick, easy and cheap — is it too much to suggest that this would be a Good Thing to do?

Which brings us on to the vexed issue of visual design. Large capacity performance motorcycles are bought with heart, soul and a small nod to notional sensibility. So you need a design language that inspires your market with distinctive, desire-inducing beauty and elegance rather than what you’re actually delivering: a Cyclopean and intellectual Iconoclasm: the only really successful design by Sgr Terblanche being the Multistrada. For a company that sells itself on the passion that its designs inspire, this verges on the paradoxically nonsensical.

You can argue that you’ve taken bold steps to move the design language of motorcycles on, and I’d have some sympathy with that. But you’re not moving the language on in a way that appeals to your market. You were one of the first motorcycle manufacturers to create bikes that use complex surfaces, where the play of light on their surfaces needs even near-subliminal movement to reveal their shape — something that Chris Bangle and his “Flame Surfacing” team have known about at BMW (cars) for years. And even they only get it right about 30% of the time. But others are now doing it better. If you want an example, take a look at Yamaha’s current range: models as diverse as the brutally handsome, locomotive-engineered MT-01, the elegantly flowing lines of the current R1, the distinctive funkiness of the new FZ1 Fazer or the truly boundary-shifting design of the latest R6, the last of which has to be seen in the flesh to be really appreciated.

And all this time you’re ignoring your core constituency by putting your efforts into digging yourself into the same hole that Harley-Davidson are trying to haul themselves out of — building a retro trio of Sunday-run “Sport Classics”, two of which could actually be considered good-looking motorcycles (the third, the GT1000, seems to have been inspired by one of the ugliest Ducatis of all time, the Giugario ‘styled’ 860GTS) plus the niche-within-a-niche Hypermotard concept, while apparently neglecting the “low-hanging fruit” of a matrix of core market modern machines that utilise your already superb engine, chassis and suspension technology.

So, in the niche market of motorcycles that aren’t inline fours, who are you losing out to? The aforementioned KTM, BMW and Triumph, for a start, each of which are now producing individual and well-styled machines that appeal to their market by all routes that reach the wallet. You may still have some room to manoeuvre though — BMW seems incapable of understanding how to design a paint scheme… At the same time as these other niche marques are hugely raising their games, the mainstream is really getting the hang of things — have you noticed that the Big Four are starting to produce machines that not only work well, but which don’t need to be covered with shell-suit graphics to inspire covetousness? — and if Suzuki could drag themselves away from a cultural imperative to slap tacky stickers’n’stripes on all over the place, they’d find that they’ve some seriously good-looking, as well as superbly functioning, machines underneath.

You’re doing the Italian thing again, aren’t you? In a rising market for niche manufacturers and machines, one that you should be perfectly placed to exploit, you are, quite simply, throwing it all away. Please don’t.

2 Comments

  1. Stewart Milton October 17, 2006 at 12:16 pm #

    Richard.
    Have you actually sent this to Ducati? I loved the motor in the 999 but not the riding position… it would be great in my ST4.
    If they’d listen (and I wrote something similar to Ducati Aylesbury just a few weeks back). I’ll have the second one. As long as they don’t paint it grey with red wheels!
    Even better, I hear there’s a 1098 version of the Testastretta soon to appear… Now that in an ST4RS or whatever would be really something.
    Stu

  2. Richard November 4, 2006 at 2:04 pm #

    Stuart, I did indeed send this to Ducati – Ducati UK and Ducati SPa. Depressingly enough, not even the courtesy of an acknowledgement from either. Looks like I’m going to have to build one myself after all…

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