1975 Ducati 860 GT
Claimed power: 60hp @ 6,900rpm (approx.)
Top speed: 109mph (period test)
Engine: 864cc air-cooled SOHC 90-degree V-twin
Weight (wet): 504lbs
Price then: $2,549
Price now: $2,500-$5,500
This should not have been happening. There I was, banking through a gentle right-hand curve with the 1975 Ducati 860 GT speedometer reading about 85mph, when a slight twitch of the handlebars announced the start of a gentle weave.
The bike settled down again when I slowed slightly, and it was certainly nothing worrying — but even so! Back in the mid-Seventies, when this bike was built, Ducati’s reputation for high-speed handling and stability was second to none.
My first thought was that the GT’s tendency to get slightly light-headed at speed was due to this particular bike’s age and condition. But a look through some old magazine tests revealed that the 860 GT was criticized for exactly the same thing when it was new in 1975. Words like “weave” and “wobble” had not been necessary when testing previous Ducatis such as the 450 Desmo single or the 750GT, but they were used to describe the 860 by testers who were even more surprised than I was all these years later. At least the problem could easily be solved, because it was eventually traced to the high, wide handlebars that helped give this bike a very different look than previous Ducatis.
The designer of the Ducati 860 GT, noted car stylist Giorgio Giugiaro (creator of the original VW Rabbit/Golf, the DeLorean and many others), had combined the new Gran Turismo machine’s striking lines with handlebars that not only made sustained high-speed riding uncomfortable, but also created disruptive steering forces that even the Ducati’s basically sound chassis could not completely control.
That did not prevent contemporary testers giving the 860 GT an enthusiastic welcome, and concluding that a redesigned riding position was the only thing it needed to become a superb machine. This is not to imply that everyone liked the angular shape: They didn’t, but Ducati’s first big-bore sports-tourer was certainly distinctive, as well as being the largest-capacity bike the firm had ever put into production. And if it didn’t match the glamour or sheer speed of the 900SS that followed it into showrooms in the same year, the GT promised plenty of performance along with more practicality and a lower price.
Derived from the 748cc twin used in the 750GT, the air-cooled 860 GT’s 864cc V-twin engine got its extra displacement from a 6mm increase in bore. Cylinder angle was 90 degrees, drive to the single overhead camshafts was by bevel gear, and the GT used conventional valve operation rather than the desmodromic system that would be employed for the SS.
The engine was different in outward appearance compared to the earlier 750GT, with squared cases designed to complement Giugiaro’s avant-garde sheet metal. Inside, the engine benefitted from a revised bevel-drive that was easier to set up and an improved oil pump giving higher flow. Ducati revealed that peak power was produced at 6,900rpm. No figure was given for the output, but the tuned SS produced a claimed 79 horsepower, so the GT’s figure would certainly have been less than 70 horsepower at the crankshaft (Ian Falloon’s Standard Catalog of Ducati Motorcycles says 57 horsepower).
This softly-tuned engine might not have had the desmo valve gear or higher-revving horsepower of the SS, but by mid-1970s standards it was still an impressive power plant. “As anyone who has done so will tell you, the only thing that beats riding a good 450 MkIII single is riding two,” one tester gushed. “The 860 engine has all the single’s virtues of endless torque, mechanical refinement and sheer force of character — squared. The 860 is undoubtedly one of the world’s finest motorcycle engines.”
Beneath its bold blue bodywork, the Ducati’s chassis is a typical Bolognese blend of tubular steel frame and firm, Italian-made forks and shocks, supplied by Ceriani and Marzocchi, respectively. This well-preserved example is in good condition, especially considering Ducati’s reputation for poor finish. It is standard apart from its separate instruments (1975 instruments were housed in a common dash) and seat, which are from the following year’s Ducati 860 GTS.
The later seat is slightly thinner (and was in fact available on some late production 1975 860s), and reduces the GT’s excessive seat height just slightly. Still, the bike feels tall when I climb aboard. Settling in, I quickly become conscious not just of the pulled-back bars but also the forward-set footrests. The right footpeg makes itself felt almost immediately, because as this early 860GT has no electric starter (electric start versions weren’t produced until January 1975) I’m forced to kickstart it — and the footrest is perfectly placed to come into contact with a kickstarting leg’s shin — ouch!
Such inconveniences are forgiven as the big V-twin lump bursts into life with a fairly restrained rumble and proceeds to show just why it was such a good device for a sports-tourer. Thanks partly to its low state of tune, the engine is superbly responsive through the midrange. This bike’s pair of conventionally filtered 32mm Dell’Ortos looked ordinary compared to the gaping 40mm units of the SS, but when tugged open they send the bike surging forward with plenty of urgency.
Like more modern big Ducatis, the V-twin is snatchy below about 3,000rpm, but smooths out from there on. Vibration isn’t a problem even up near the 7,000rpm redline, although the big lump feels best between 3,500rpm and about 6,000rpm. The engine’s midrange torque means there is little incentive to use all the revs; it’s generally much better to change up early through the five-speed box, which shifts smoothly enough to make me forgive the neutral light’s traditional hopelessness.
Given the slightest opportunity, the Ducati accelerates pretty rapidly up to an indicated 90mph, beginning to feel slightly unsteady by that speed even in a straight line, and would have gone on to a top speed of about 110mph. Those high bars mean you’d have to be both brave and strong-necked to hold 100mph-plus speeds for long, though, and even my steady 80mph cruising speed becomes tiring after a few miles.
That slight high-speed weave gave Ducati’s reputation for unbeatable stability a knock, but never threatened to get bad enough to do any damage of a more physical nature, and the bike regained some points with its handling in slower bends. The GT’s rigid chassis and high-quality suspension gave cornering power that few bikes could match in 1975. Chassis geometry was chosen for stability, and the good thing about the wide bars was that their leverage made for easy steering, a decided plus when touring.
Once into a turn the Ducati sails through in style, its firm suspension letting the rider know just what is going on. Only the strange, almost scandalous tire choice on this particular bike — Cheng Shins on a classic Ducati! — prevents me from doing the footrests more damage in the corners. At least I don’t have to worry about the front tire’s lack of grip when using the front brake, as the single 280mm Brembo disc lacks bite and gives a very wooden feel at the lever. A second disc was available as an optional extra, and would have been well worth having, along with stickier rubber.
Ducati did at least demonstrate a willingness to listen to criticism, as the following year the 860 GTS was launched not just with the GT’s optional second front disc and electric starter as standard, but with flatter handlebars, too. For European riders the GTS was basically the Gran Turismo machine that the GT should have been all along. Its high-speed stability was impeccable, proving that the original model’s problem was due to the bars, as suspected. And it was well braked and started effortlessly, thanks to the aforementioned updates.
Being a Ducati, of course, it still had a few annoying faults, particularly the corrosion-prone paint finish and truly awful switchgear that made it all too easy to plunge yourself into darkness when trying to operate the headlight’s high beam switch. With a sportier riding position the bike’s performance would be more easily used, but the essential quality of the original GT model’s design still shows through. Ducati’s first 864cc V-twin had a few flaws, but the 860GT deserves a place in the Bologna hall of fame, nevertheless. And while somewhat ignored for years, today it’s perhaps the last affordable classic Ducati available. MC
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