The Ducati 175 F3, the bike with the funny front brake, inspired a man who inspired us all.
This is a story about a bike that inspired a man who inspired us all. It begins with an article written for Cycle magazine that opened on page 62 of the July 1972 issue. Normally, it would have ended there, as well. But not this story. So, where? Well, that part of the story was unforeseeable, and somehow simply perfect.
“Satisfied Mind” was a story by future Cycle editor-in-chief and AMA Hall of Famer Phil Schilling about an exotic little Ducati 175 F3 he called the “Ducati With the Funny Front Brake.” It was beautifully written, even for Phil, a beautiful writer. But something about this story was different. Deeply personal, the story line seemed straight from the popular 1970 movie Love Story. Boy is smitten from afar, the object of his affection well beyond him. Then destiny intercedes and they meet and fall in love. It looks like happily-ever-after is in sight, but they lose each other to unforeseeable and tragic circumstances. In the movie, Ali MacGraw dies. In Phil’s case, a major fire in the Cycle magazine shop destroys the F3.
But this time there is a happy ending. Against all odds (and good sense) Phil shuns the advice of friends, turns his back on insurance money, resists the siren call of faster, more modern machinery, and rebuilds the F3, a Herculean task because of the damage the F3 suffered and the sheer rareness of the parts and pieces involved. It was great storytelling, and to this day the story moves all who read it. If you loved motorcycles beyond reason (in 1972 that would have made you a subscriber to Cycle magazine), it was inspirational, expressing the pure joy of knowing what you want and following the road through hell to make it happen. But before Phil could inspire our lives, Cycle magazine had to change his.
It’s the summer of 1959, in a college dorm at Northwestern University, Chicago, final exams week. Phil Schilling is fighting to concentrate on the academic matters at hand, but he keeps losing his mental grip to the “Ducati With the Funny Front Brake” that had captured him when he first saw it on page 10 of the May 1959 issue of Cycle magazine. It is now two months later, and he’s still smitten with the little Ducati racer. He is unaware his destiny is already sealed. Page 10 was an offramp from his life’s highway, and he has unknowingly taken it.
In Phil’s words, when it came to motorcycles, he was “1959’s World Champion Magazine Racer.” In those dark, pre-iPad, pre-Google, pre-glossy magazine days, you had to work hard to be in the know. A good magnifying glass was essential since most photographs were small, fuzzy and poorly exposed. It helped to have a creative imagination to compensate for mis-captioned photos and sparse descriptions. And most important, you had to be willing to really, really dig for more information. So add a #2 pencil, a roll of stamps and some envelopes for the chase to the podium.
In 1959 he was “magazine racing” the jewel-like Ducati 175 F3. He wrote to the Ducati importer, Berliner Motor Corporation, for free literature — over and over, each time gleaning a new piece of data essential to the chase. He “calculated, guesstimated, cross-checked, double-checked and almost burned out my left eyeball” trying to determine the differences between the 175cc street Ducati and the Ducati 175 F3, which came in race trim with street parts in the crate. As details emerged it became clear the F3s were Real Racers, the highest-possible forms of life, genuine single-purpose machines, worthy of Phil’s sort of devotion. He had given his heart to the right bike. Schilling had fallen hard. It was to be a lifelong commitment.
In 1959, Ducati was about as obscure a brand in American motorcycling as there was. But not in Europe. In 1958, Ducati had just missed being World Champion. Fabio Taglioni, aka “Dr. T,” had already introduced the desmodromic valve train Ducati uses today, and would soon be regarded as a genius.
Berliner knew Ducati’s success in the U.S. would be based on proving the bikes to be fast, nimble and reliable, and that’s why they imported the 175 F3. But Ducati only built a handful, and just a few were sent to America.
One of them was sold to a privateer racer named Tom Compton, and its destiny was on a collision course with Phil’s. Tom raced his F3 for three years before selling it to Chuck Beer, who took the now tired bike apart in hopes of rebuilding it. Chuck took the engine with him when he moved to Pennsylvania, but the bike stayed in Detroit, tucked in the basement of his father’s house. Chuck never got the engine and the bike back together.
Phil saw Tom’s Ducati 175 F3 for the first time in 1969. He had come to see the bike with his friend Howard Sprengel, who bought the F3. But when Howard’s plans to race the bike didn’t work out, Phil managed to horse-trade enough bits with Howard to call the 175 F3 his own. Shortly thereafter, he received the original engine, in pieces. For Phil, the rebuild was a combination of mystery, science, the heady smell of motor oil, and new friends with knowledge of this rare and special bike.
The 175cc powerplant wasn’t just a little different; it shared not one single internal component with a standard 175, so expert help (from privateer Ducati racer Ron Dahler, and possibly others) was essential. An F3 wasn’t just metal and rubber. It was someone’s lifework, and Phil believed it deserved to be honored as such. It’s not uncommon to hear “Ducatis have soul.” That may have all started with the F3.
Eleven years after he first laid eyes on the 1959 Cycle photograph, Phil Schilling and his friends found themselves standing in the fading Midwestern afternoon light looking at the completed 175. Firing up the angry little single was the highlight of the gathering, the sound alone worthy of a party. It was a standout moment in a life that would be full of them.
In 1971, Phil took a job at Cycle magazine, and when he moved to Manhattan, the 175 moved, as well. A space had been offered in the Cycle garage, perhaps the best home an exotic little racer could aspire to, with air conditioning and lots of machine tools. What could go wrong?
Then came June 24, 1971. Sometime during the night the Cycle garage caught fire. Among the dead was the 175. Eleven years of crisscrossed destiny was now a blackened husk. But this wasn’t Love Story, where Ali MacGraw breathes her last and the next scene is a snowy funeral. Here, the next scene was a determined Phil Schilling, after work, climbing the stairs over and over to then-Cycle editor Cook Neilson’s New York City loft, where Phil spent the next seven months methodically teasing the bike back to life. In the process, he and Cook forged a friendship that would last a lifetime, documented in the “Racer Road” series in Cycle, which told the story of their campaign to race a Ducati 750SS, culminating on the top step of the Daytona AMA Superbike podium in 1977 — in the process putting Ducati on the map in the U.S., a pretty big payback for that pile of free brochures.
The magical prose fostered by Cook and Phil was a high-water mark for motorcycle journalism. Even now, the mention of Cycle “back in the day” is enough to start an entire evening’s conversation about how it changed lives, finances, even relationships, so powerful was its song to those who loved life on two wheels.
But after a decade as editor, Phil’s connection to Cycle came to an end (and Cycle itself was done shortly thereafter), and Phil took the once-again perfect little 175 F3 to Santa Barbara, where he and his wife, Allyn, as Phil puts it, “assumed a low profile.”
This time he wasn’t letting the F3 out of his sight. With Allyn’s blessing the bike was parked in their bedroom, where it lived for more than two decades. But the time inevitably came, Phil said, “to send it back out in the world” and give it a chance to charm others the way it had charmed him. It was sold to a California collector, who seemed to understand why the bike was special.
But then the stock market cratered and the F3, now known as “The Satisfied Mind Bike,” its rarity more sharply appreciated, had become increasingly valuable. Once again, and with Phil’s advice, it changed hands, sold to a trio of Ducati lovers. This time it found a home willing to share it, the Vintage Motos museum in Denver.
Created by Jim Dillard’s lifelong passion for interesting motorcycles, Vintage Motos museum, is a world-class collection of incredibly rare and technically important Italian motorcycles, street bikes every one. The F3 would be Vintage Motos’ first factory racer. The other two partners in the deal were well-known Ducati restoration expert Rich Lambrechts and long-time Ducatista Vicki Smith (that’s me). Phil, on how he was sure it had found the right home: “How many people could I trust to be captivated by something that captivated me?” Apparently the answer to that question was three. We felt, and feel, incredibly honored to own it. Everything about this bike is special.
The men who built it now included Hall of Famer Phil Schilling, and we wanted to honor the men, both Italian and American, who put their hearts and souls into this bike. But how? Where? We aimed for the stars — we entered it in the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. That’s right, the show for automobiles.
In 2009, the Pebble Beach Concours, the most prestigious vintage car gathering in the world, had for the first time ever invited a handful of motorcycles. They proved popular, and 2011 would be the third year for the bike class, and the first time Italian bikes were invited to the 18th green. Pebble only takes a few entries, roughly a dozen, and thanks to that magazine story (which it turns out had inspired one member of the judging team back in the day), the F3 made the cut. We were going to Pebble Beach. Naturally, we couldn’t go without Phil.
So that’s how we — Jim Dillard, Rich Lambrechts and myself — ended up in a Pacific Grove, Calif., hotel parking lot watching Phil run his hands down the tank of his still-perfect restoration from four decades earlier, his first reunion with his Ducati in years. It will always be Phil’s Ducati, it doesn’t matter who owns it. Sometimes you look back and think, “That was as good as it got.” Other times, the truly best times, you know it when it’s happening. That weekend, we all knew.
We were planning to run the “Tour,” a 50 mile (or so) day ride on 17-Mile Drive up into the hills around Pebble Beach, which serves as some kind of tie-breaker for the Concours. The engine, which was re-restored by Schilling when he rebuilt the bike after the 1971 fire, had been un-pickled and fired to life back in Denver. So willing was this machine to run that once warmed up I, as designated rider, could start it with just a small push and a flick of its crystal-smooth gearbox.
Rich moved it from Jim’s trailer to the tour start and we waited our turn. Phil never took his eyes off the bike, re-memorizing forgotten details and generally looking proud of his superb work. A quick push and flick and I was off to scare seagulls and golfers, the F3’s exhaust note at once deafening and exhilarating. Riding it on 17-Mile Drive with sea spray on my face shield and the glorious noise from the F3’s exhaust bouncing off the sand dunes is an experience I will never forget. Seeing Phil watching me ride off on it, a wide smile on his face while walking beside Allyn, his “other” lifelong love, is another.
Sunday morning, while on the green at Pebble Beach with the F3 and the other Italian bikes all around us, I asked Phil what he thought about his F3 ending up in such esteemed company, literally billions of dollars of wheeled exotica surrounding it on the Pebble Beach 18th green, no rarer air to be found anywhere on the planet. “It’s like watching your child, who plays the guitar, all grown up and suddenly able to command a stadium full of people,” he told me. “You wonder how it happened.”
Sitting there with Phil and Allyn, looking at Phil’s 39-year-old restoration sparkling in the California sun, I wasn’t really sure how it happened either. But I sure knew why it happened. It happened because of a love story published on page 62 of Cycle magazine, July 1972.
To see Phil’s 1959 Ducati F3, visit the Vintage Motos museum in Denver. MC