Visiting Ducati in Bologna, Italy

This month Motorcycle Consumer News published my article on visiting the Ducati factory in this month’s issue. I loved this very large poster hanging between two areas of the factory. The literal translation is: “You are in doubt? Ask”

MCN – August 2012 – Ducati

Birthplace of Dreams: Ducati Factory and Museum Tour and Ride

Story and pictures by Steve Larsen

If you own a Ducati … no, if you have ever meaningfully ridden or even looked lustfully at a Ducati and haven’t yet found a way to the Ducati factory and museum just outside of Bologna, Italy … you don’t really understand Ducati. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but it is what it is. Catholics go to Rome; Muslims to Mecca; Lotus aficionados to Norwich and Ducati lovers go to Bologna. Until then you have only a fractional appreciation of Ducati – especially when you see Ducati’s efforts to welcome you.

snow-covered parking lot at Ducati factory

The weather in northern Italy is unpredictable in the winter – although gorgeous the other three seasons.

A trip to a motorcycle factory – even one with a museum — may not be viewed by your friends and family with the same “essentialness” as do you. Fortunately, northern Italy offers many excellent opportunities for subterfuge. It is easy to explain and justify to family and friends trips to Venice, Florence or Milan – all stunning travel destinations. Once you get into the area ,spending several hours at the Ducati factory and museum becomes an easy-to-justify side trip.

Bologna is located in northern Italy’s Po valley. It lies just 100 miles south (and slightly west) of the Venice airport, a mere 85 miles south of Florence or 130 miles southeast of Milan. Point out to your fellow travelers that Bologna is the city of towers and home to one of the world’s oldest universities, founded in 1088. Of course, to the rest of us, it’s the home of Ducati, the place where every single Ducati motorcycle begins life.

Reserve your factory tour at least 7 days in advance and two weeks is better. Tours run just twice a day and are limited to ten people each tour during the week, although up to 40 people per tour are allowed on Saturdays, when they run continuously beginning at 9:30 A.M. Call +39 051 6413343 or email for reservations. You can request factory tours with an English guide if your Italian is a bit rusty and it’s an exciting visit, even for those who may not share your passion for Ducati.

Visits to the museum require no reservations and, unlike the factory where photos are strictly forbidden, photography is acceptable in the museum.

In the museum, early exhibits explain how Ducati began as a manufacturer of radio components, vacuum tubes and condensers in the 1920’s and 30’s. It survived repeated Allied bombings during World War II. But it was not until the 1950’s that Ducati turned its attention to motorcycles. In 1944 on the other side of town, Aldo Fairinelli had developed and began selling a small gasoline engine, which could be mounted to a bicycle. These “Cucciolo” engines (Italian for “puppy”) were named for their sound and sold alone – mounting the engine to a bicycle was left to the buyer. Then companies begin putting bicycles and motors together and selling the result as a completed product – and so did Ducati. One of the Cucciolo motors and an early Ducati Cucciolo-based motorcycle is in the first alcove of the Ducati museum.

Thus begins the Ducati motorcycle story. The 60-cc bike weighed just 98 pounds and could reach a top speed of 40 miles per hour. It delivered nearly 200 miles per gallon. It was not long before Ducati dropped the Cucciolo name and branded its bike the 55M and 65TL, and before you knew it, they were racing them. The rest is history.

While the museum covers early Ducati history and exhibits of some iconic bikes, it is Ducati’s racing success that occupies the prime locations. From Mike Hailwood’s Isle of Man winner to the superbikes ridden to victory by Doug Polen, Troy Corser, Neil Hodgson, Troy Bayliss and Raymond Roche along with a wall of winning MotoGP bikes, this space is pure Nirvana for a racing enthusiast. Luckily, there’s, a gift shop.

Ducati’s 200,000 square-foot factory is where all Ducatis are built, including Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP racing bike. Gabriele Del Torchio, CEO and President of Ducati says, “We don’t just make vehicles here, we make dreams. We make motorcycles that fulfill the dreams of our customers.” The company has a long record of gambling on innovative technology and embracing risk, never more so than in the past few years.

The global economic downturn in ‘04 and ‘05 dramatically reduced worldwide demand for Ducati motorcycles. Pressure was exerted on CEO Torchio and Ducati’s board to scale back and downsize. Instead, they looked for ways to expand with a new motorcycle for a new market when the sensible thing seemed to be to cut spending, lower projections and reduce R&D expense until the recession ended. Ducati did the opposite. They selected a new path; one to enter a new market with a brand new product. Innovate out of the recession was the plan. But with only enough resources to enter just one new market, which one — cruisers, off-road or long-distance touring?

In the end, they conceived of a combination – not one bike for one market, but a single bike that would do well in multiple markets: the Multistrada. Ducati envisioned a bike which could transform itself to perform in a variety of different terrains and circumstances. But would it work?

Over 1,000 employees occupy the two floors of the factory . Designers and engineers are on the top floor and the massive factory housing hundreds of workers is on the cavernous ground floor, breathing life into every Ducati. The factory is a series of circular assembly lines, surrounded by large parts “super markets” and testing areas.

The bike building process begins with workers leading trolleys loaded with components from the parts super market. Everything needed to assemble an engine for a bike – cylinders, gears, valves, clutches and pistons all go on the cart.

Given the engine is such a critical part of any Ducati, it is no surprise that each engine is hand-assembled by a single person – well, two people actually. One individual on the first line assembles the bottom before a second person takes over on the second line and does the top. Unlike factories where workers (or machines) attach a single part to an engine as it moves along an assembly line, Ducati workers walk alongside and assemble the engine as it moves along the line.

The two circular lines produce over 35,000 engines per year. The first line puts in the crankshaft and assembles the gearbox. Once complete, the assemblage is tested to make sure everything turns freely and smoothly. The two halves of the engine are then cemented together. A robot-like machine smoothly deposits a thin bead of silicone cement to one half of the lower part of the engine. Once complete, the side with the glue is moved and fitted to the other side. The worker taps the two halves together with a hard rubber hammer and inserts long bolts that hold the two sides together. After verifying all of the gears and pistons move correctly, the engine is staged before moving to the second line.

Ducati workers on the second line take over and assemble the top end, including pistons, cylinders, heads and clutches. This is where the world famous desmo valves join the bottom part of the engine. Besides its “L” shaped engine configuration, an exclusive Ducati trademark has been its desmodromic valve design. This original approach eliminates conventional valve springs. Instead, Ducati engine valves are opened and closed with a separate, dedicated cam lobe and lifter. Ducati claims this allows the cams to have a more radical profile and results in valves which open and close more quickly without the risk of valve float and the resultant loss in power.

In the museum upstairs, you will see the drawing table of Fabio Taglioni, the Italian engineer who first created the desmodromic valve design, the heart of all Ducati engines for over 50 years.

The heads are assembled, again by one person, and then installed in the engine. This critical 3-stage process must be completed perfectly to ensure precisely the right torque on all gaskets and components. Once assembly is completed, the engine is placed into a small room, more like a large box with Plexiglas windows. Here the engine is filled with oil and put through its paces — a “cold” run to check for any leaks or other issues without the engine actually being fired up. Any engine not passing this step is disassembled to determine the cause of the problem. A single piece of paper referred to as the “bible,” follows each engine everywhere. Every person who touches the engine records precisely what he/she did and when.

Several hours after it was just a cart full of parts, the engine passes its inspection and is covered and placed on a new cart where it awaits a move to the main assembly line and its ultimate home, inside the frame of a brand new motorcycle.

The main assembly line brings together the completed engines with their tubular space frames and the motorcycle’s characteristic trellis construction. This 250- foot long line is where all the thousands of individual pieces converge into just one bike. First to be attached is the engine, followed by the rear swing arm assembly, followed by the shock absorber.. Next comes the top part of the frame, handlebars, computer and all other electronics, followed by the gas tank, tires and wheels. Four and a half hours from the beginning, the bike is finally able to be wheeled off for testing.

Testing is a significant effort at Ducati. First, exhaust and emission settings are verified, ensuring they match requirements for various regions around the world. Next, the bike is rolled into a room with large rollers on the floor where the bike is started and an actual road ride is simulated. It is run through all the gears and then, just over 8 hours from the parts bin, the bike is complete and moved to the packing area where it is detailed, polished and prepared for shipment to dealers around the world.

red path along winding roadsMore than anything else, Ducati bikes are made to ride. One of the favorite rides of Ducati factory testers and employees begins just a few miles west of Bologna. We begin the ride in Zola Predoa, less than 15 minutes from the front door of the Ducati factory.

Given the small and frequently changing road names, we recommend you either enter this route into your GPS or cut out the map and attach it to the top of your tank. Failing that, following signs to the various cities on the route will get you around this figure eight-shaped route in a few hours, depending on how often you stop to take in the incredible scenery and pose for pictures.

Zola Predosa is just south of the A1, 7 kilometers west from Ducati headquarters. Head northwest from Zola Predosa towards Crespellano on SP596/Via Provinciale. From Crespellano, turn south toward Monteveglio. Ride through Monteveglio and continue south to Bersagliera, continuing south to Zappolino and Ponzano. These are all very small towns. You are now going east toward Mongiorgio. This is an excellent area to stop and take some photos before coming to a “T” in the road just before arriving at Badia. Here you want to go right (south) on SP26 to il Pilastrino, continuing south and then east toward Ronca. You will now be heading back around south on extraordinary, beautiful twisting roads, finally turning west to go through Montepastore before heading north again to Croce d. Pradole and Merano. This is another superb spot for photos. Stay on Via Boves at Merlano, then turn right on Via Cimaleda, another right on Via Gavignaro to Pilatero to the “T” in the road where you will go left (north) back to Badia. At Badia go north toward Monte S. Giovanni, on to Calderino and continue north through Cavedagna and Fornace, back to Zola Predosa and you’ve completed the loop. You’ve just completed an incredible jaunt that you now share with countless Ducati riders and testers.

So, did Ducati’s gamble on the Multistrada pay off? In its first year they sold over 10,000, of the brand new bike, exceeding their internal projections. It continues a strong seller today with the factory cranking out over 70 new Multistradas each day. Not only that, Ducati’s entry may have invigorated the entire category of “adventurer touring bikes,” into which the Multistrada somewhat fits. Following Ducati into this class with more powerful engines, ABS brakes, computer-assisted controls, heated grips, larger fuel tanks and built-in luggage are Yamaha’s Super Tenere and Honda’s VFR1200, all of which join the longer-term competitors in this class, the BMW 1200GS, Triumph Tiger 1050 and KTM 990 Adventurer. All have enjoyed stronger sales of late as if Ducati made riding an adventure touring bike cool.

Whether you are able to make the ride or not, don’t miss an opportunity to visit Ducati’s museum and factory. Even if you’ve never owned a Ducati, it is nearly impossible not to fall under the spell of this amazing company and the passion of the people who dedicate themselves everyday to turning dreams into reality for their customers.

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