Ducati 250 Engine – The building block for greatness.
The premise from ‘Gotham’, a popular TV series, “much before there were superheroes, there were the legends that led to them”, suits the story of the Ducati 250 engine pretty well. For the ones who were born in the 80s like us; the world has always drooled over one or another Ducati motorcycle. All of them were sublime pieces of motorcycle design, poster boys of uncountable dreams. They exuded absolute Italian flair. Characteristic elements such as trellis frame (more or less) that wore a characteristic Ducati Desmodromic L-Twin heart. However, before these iconic Ducati L-Twins came into being, it was Ducati’s single cylinder engines that established the racing legacy of the Italian company. The Ducati 250 engine was the legend that came before the superhero.
In late 50’s, the entire European motorcycle industry, still suffering from the aftermath of WWII, was in decline. The Italians weren’t immune to it either nor was Ducati. It wasn’t just the economy either; cheaper and more reliable Japanese products were eating into whatever sales they had. The other significant issue was the arrival of smaller and much more affordable cars in the market during the same time. This meant that the local motorcycle makers such as Gilera, Moto Guzzi, Mondial and Ducati, had to find ways to survive. Low sales numbers also meant that racing was no longer financially possible. At Ducati, in order to reinvent itself in the tough times, a few ambitious projects were sent on a sabbatical and work began on a smaller capacity engine.
Interestingly, almost throughout the 50s, Ducati single cylinder engines had been racing and winning against tough competition. These were smaller 125cc high-revving master pieces were designed by Fabio Taglioni, the mind behind bringing Desmodromic tech to motorcycles. This tech was initially used by Mercedes in its straight-eight Formula 1 W196 cars. The cars once dominated the series, however, when Mercedes retired from F1 so did their desmodromic tech. The tech never showed up in Mercedes cars again. However, the technology was too advanced and expensive at the time to be put into production models.
Around the same time, a Ducati dealer from Oxford, King suggested Ducati to construct a 250cc engine to compete with Japanese and British products. The resultant 250cc Prototype won a lot of races in America and the foundation of the production Ducati 250 engine were laid. This race spec Ducati 250 engine, traces its roots back to the Ducati 125 Monza. The Monza was essentially a renamed 125 Sport that was celebrating Ducati’s race success, and was for UK market only. The idea was to make Ducati’s own smaller capacity, light, nimble and affordable motorcycle range. However, the desmo tech was too advanced to put into production for financial viability.
In 1961, Ducati brought Diana to the market, and it became the first ever production Ducati 250. The Diana proved to be a huge success for the ailing Italian firm. The huge success of the Diana prompted Ducati to bring the Diana Mark 3 Super Sport in 1963. Instead of the Desmodromic mechanism, the Diana featured a shaft driven OHC single cylinder engine. With the Diana Mark 3 Super Sport, Ducati had not just created a perfect 250, but it was also a performance power house. Back in early 60s, the Diana Mark 3 Super Sport was the fastest 250 on the planet, even faster than the TD-1 Yamaha racer. Diana also gave birth to a US only product, Ducati Scrambler which was launched in 1962 and went on to become a legend.
In 1965, the 350 Sebring expanded Ducati’s single cylinder range, this engine later came on the Scrambler in 1967. From 1961 to 1968, the Ducati single-cylinder engine has a narrow crankcase design. In late 60s, Ducati brought more race learning into its products, thus a wide-case engine design arrived. It was around the same time that Ducati managed to make the desmodromic valve design production ready. After 8 years of effort, in January 1968, Ducati declared plans to build and market the 450 cc Mark 3D. The hugely successful Ducati 250 engine had given way to the new era of Desmodromic brilliance. The technology has since then been the definition of Ducati’s legacy. It is legacy that finds its origin in the brilliant single cylinder Ducati 250 engine.