Ducati Mark 3 250

Ducati Desmo 250When I was at university, Ducatis evoked a certain awe. They do today, and they did then. In 1971 I had a friend who had a friend who had a Ducati 350 with clip-ons and a megaphone, and he rode it around the hills behind Perth (in West Australia). If it looked anything like the yellow 250 Mark 3 Desmo in the picture(right) then he was a lucky man.

I never met this friend of a friend with his mythical bike, but he always evoked in my mind the image of a motorcycling equivalent of the Vitruvian man - an impossibly perfect harmony of impeccable handling, an ear-shattering roar, and a big grin. I saw a Ducati single at a race meeting (they were a popular race bike) and it stood out from all the howling two-strokes with the basso-profundo thunder of its exhaust. For no logical reason I wanted one.

I found one in a bike shop in Cambridge in 1974. If I hadn't been overcome with lust I would have shopped around rationally and gone for the model in the picture above. I have never been rational as far as bikes are concerned. The only difference was the colour (mine was/is a metal-flake electric blue with gold detailing), minor cosmetics (like no clip-ons), and an 8000 rpm red line instead of the 8,500 red line on the Desmo. The valve spring engine is often preferred because the Desmo is a nightmare to work on.

Myself and Ducati c.1975. The front of the horrible little Yamaha 125 twin is visible in the background. It has 'L' plates because I was trying to persuade Jan that riding is even more fun than sitting on a pillion.

The strange object above the rev counter is my leg resting on the kickstart. A kickstart was an intermediate step in motorcycle design which came between energetic pushing and electric starters. In the case of the Ducati, the slightest problem with ignition timing would break your leg (the spark goes off, the piston hasn't enough inertia to pass TDC, the crank rotates in the wrong direction, the kickstart rachet is going the wrong way, and your leg can't move upwards fast enough. A well-reported occupational hazard.)

Apart from the handling, the Ducati's reputation comes from the engine. In the 50's and 60's when mediocre build quality and poor production line tolerances were routine in British bikes, each moving shaft in a Ducati engine is individually shimmed to an exact fit. This makes assembly and disassembly something of a Chinese puzzle for the ham-fisted - the shims have to go back in exactly as they came out - but it produces a tight engine. The overhead cam is bevel-gear driven. The weight is 128 kgs. In the early '60s Ducati issued a simple tuning kit which could be fitted to the standard bike which lifted its top speed to over 100 mph - a Ducati 250 was independently tested at 104.1 mph. These little bikes could out-handle and out-perform most large capacity bikes on the market at that time. Mick Walker records turning up at the 1970 Thruxton 500 on his standard road-going Mark 3 250 and coming seventh against factory-prepared 1/4-litre Japanese machines. The later Ducati V-twins were two 450 cc single engines bolted onto a single crankcase.

I rode the Ducati a lot. In 1976 I moved from Cambridge to London but I continued to ride back on a Friday night and spend most weekends with Jan in Cambridge. We went up to Yorkshire many times, and I went up to Newcastle a couple of times.

This picture showcases early '70s motorcycle clothing. Note the naff PVC jacket (courtesy of a jumble sale), the clashing orange bib, the open-face helmet painted gloss black and banged against a rock a few times, the elegant fur jacket (courtesy of a jumble sale), and the coordinated plastic overtrousers.

Picture c. 1977.

When I was in London looking at house numbers, trying to find an advertised bedsit, I made the classic mistake of riding into a stationary car and gave my wedding tackle an extraordinary wallop on the petrol tank. I didn't drop the bike. I can recall a passer-by inquiring whether I was "all right". I have no idea how long I stood there with a fixed and inexplicable expression on my face. When the bruising appeared a few days later, and I could walk down the street without the same inexplicable expression, I went to the doctor. He was unimpressed.

The end came in the summer of 1977. Jan and I went drinking at the Water Rat pub near World's End on the Kings Road. It was a biker's pub, and it was the night of the Chelsea cruise, so the place was packed. I drank three pints of best, pulled out quickly across the road to avoid a cruiser coming around the corner, locked the front wheel, and dropped the bike in front of the assembled multitude. Moral: never drink so little beer that you can still start your bike. The accident wrecked the speedo, the front mudguard, the headlight, and didn't do Jan's foot a lot of good.

I never rode the bike much after that, because I bought an XS 750 shortly afterwards. The cat pee'd all over the wheels and I had them rebuilt by Alf Hagen in the mid-80's. The seals went on the rear Marzocchi shocks and I searched high and low for new seals. In the end I fitted Alf Hagen replacements, which are firmer. I had some parts re-chromed. The front mudguard is still warped following the Kings Road incident. I suspect the front forks are ever so slightly bent following the ball-bashing incident (the steering feels lighter, and this may explained why it locked so easily). I tried starting it recently and concluded the carb is gummed up and will have to be stripped. I guess the front fork seals will also need to be replaced.

I ought to sell the bike, but part of me wants to renovate it. I don't know why. I have never been rational about bikes.

Pictures taken by Jan while travelling on the Ducati at 60 mph.


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Copyright Colin Low 1997