Updated: Jun 1
By Bruce Cox and Alan Cathcart
Location machine photographs by Kyoichi Nakamura
Studio photographs by Phil Aynsley
Fabio Taglioni, who died twenty years ago at the age of 80, was for thirty years the Technical Director of Ducati and will be forever remembered and revered as ‘Dr.Desmo’ in recognition of his trademark engine design that set the Italian company apart from the rest of the motorcycle world. The desmodromic system of valve operation did away with conventional valve springs and closed the valves mechanically. By doing so it made the combustion chamber function far more efficiently as it positively seated the valves and permitted higher rpm. It eliminated the ‘valve float’ common in the days when metallurgy was not so advanced and valve springs effectively weakened under the demands of high engine speeds. It was not a new system as it had been used in aircraft engines and, famously, by Mercedes Benz for its all-conquering Grand Prix car engines of the mid-1950s. Taglioni, however, was the first to apply it to motorcycle use and make it work in small capacity engines.
He designed his first motorcycle engine as a project while studying at Bologna University – a course from which he graduated in 1948 and earned him the title of a Doctor of Mechanical Engineering or Dottore Ingegnere Meccanica in his own language. Dr.Desmo, as we know him, had arrived. The degree project which helped him earn his engineering doctorate had been a 250cc 90° V4 design with desmodromic valve-gear but it only a drawing exercise and never reached the stage of being constructed – though it did serve as the genesis of his future design portfolio. On graduation, Taglioni spent four years as a lecturer at the Instituto Alberghetti, a technical college in Imola at which, together with successive groups of pupils, he created a 75cc race engine with shaft and bevel gears drive to its single overhead camshaft – a format which would later become his design signature after he joined Ducati.
In 1953 he sold this design to the small Ceccato company in Vicenza, having previously offered it to the much larger Mondial concern, which declined it. Nevertheless, Mondial offered him a job working under chief designer Alfredo Drusiani at its technical HQ in Milan, supervising a fifteen-man design team working on Mondial’s 125 and175cc racebikes. But Drusiani left Mondial that same year, whereupon Taglioni supervised development of the company’s race engines for the 1954 season as well as updating its girder-forked and plunger-sprung chassis with a telescopic front fork and swinging arm rear suspension.
Mondials had previously won a hat-trick of 125cc World Championships in 1949-51 and Taglioni’s updated bikes were immediately extremely successful in Italy’s avidly-followed long-distance road races. Tarquinio Provini won the 1954 Motogiro d’Italia for small capacity machines on a 175cc Mondial and Remo Venturi scored a giant-killing outright victory in the Milano to Taranto single-stage marathon on a similar bike, beating all other motorcycles including the five-hundreds. However, Taglioni didn’t like Milan and had a poor relationship with the aristocratic Boselli family which owned the company. So, when he was overlooked for an invitation to attend Mondial’s celebration dinner for Provini’s Motogiro victory (on a bike that he had designed!) he decided to quit.
Two weeks later, in May 1954 he began work at the Ducati factory in Bologna, then considered to be at the lower end of the plethora of Italian manufacturers competing to meet the need for personal transportation in postwar Italy, with a prosaic range comprising the Cucciolo clip-on moped engine, the Cruiser scooter and various 100cc pushrod-engined models. Thankfully, Ducati’s President/CEO since 1952, Dr. Giuseppe Montano, was a convivial and dynamic leader, whose far-sightedness was largely responsible for the success it enjoyed in future years. Montano was a keen motorcyclist, who recognized that the sport-mad Italian public bought in the shops what won on the racetrack. Before hiring Taglioni, he’d publicly stated Ducati had to go racing successfully to acquire the sporting prestige that other long-established companies such as Guzzi and Gilera, let alone more recently arrived marques like MV and Mondial, already possessed through their competition victories.
Unlike them, Montano insisted that Ducati’s competition bikes should be based on its road range, instead of exotic racers quite unlike what it sold to the public. For Taglioni, by now equally passionate for racing, working under such a man was hugely inspiring, and rewarding. Thanks to Montano’s imaginative approach, and Taglioni’s creative talent, Ducati became famous for creating sports-orientated production models with the same high quality as those its factory riders raced with. Hence Taglioni’s first task at Ducati was to establish the seed corn of a range of sporting singles, and in November 1954 the Gran Sport 100 appeared. It was universally nicknamed the ‘Marianna’ in Italy because this was a year designated by the Pope as being dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The Marianna’s 98cc engine with bevel-drive single overhead camshaft established the format for successive Ducati models that progressively grew to 436cc in actual capacity over the next two decades. At a time when all its 100cc class rivals, especially the Laverdas which dominated that class in Italian long-distance events, were overhead valve pushrod-operated designs, the Marianna stood out for its technical intricacy, its engine inspired by the 500cc Manx Norton. There was soon a two-month waiting list for it, even with Ducati’s overall production lifted to 130 bikes a day.
That demand arose because Ducati blitzed Italian road racing in 1955, the Marianna dominating its class in both the 3,438km Motogiro, with a Ducati rider winning each of the nine stages, and the 1,283km single-stage Milano-Taranto, filling the first four places in the 100cc class. By then Taglioni had begun moving up the capacity scale with a 125cc version, which duly won its class in its debut race in the 1955 Milano-Taranto in the hands of Giuliano Maoggi, who then won the Motogiro outright in 1956, defeating all its larger 175cc rivals. Still using the same bottom end, Taglioni next produced Ducati's first 125cc Grand Prix double overhead camshaft (bialbero) customer racer, which appeared in 1956, with comparable success.
Soon afterwards came Taglioni’s new desmo single which used a third cam to operate on the inlet and exhaust camshafts to open and close the combustion chamber’s valves. It debuted in the 125cc Swedish GP at Hedemora in July 1956 and ridden by Gianni degli Antoni, it lapped the entire field in scoring a fairytale victory.
The next season saw Taglioni’s latest racebike design, the 125cc desmo parallel twin, revving safely to 15,000 rpm as a demonstration of how correct his belief in desmodromics was.
Despite its early promise, however, the 125 twin was not a success and had no more than two more third places to its credit when further development was stopped.
No more successful were the 250 and 350 parallel twins that had been funded by Stan Hailwood, wealthy importer of Ducatis to the UK who saw the linked possibilities of winning machines for his son Mike to rider and the valuable publicity resulting from those wins.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out like that. Mike did give the 250 a lap record-breaking debut win in an important international race at Silverstone but two more wins in relatively minor UK nationals were all that followed. Mike generally preferred to use his 250 Mondial and either AJS or British singles in the 350 class.
So, in the 1960s it seemed as though Taglioni’s star had waned. He refused to become involved with either the two-stroke enduro models or the 350 and 500cc parallel twins that Ducati management hoped would revive their fortunes in the road bike market. And he was right. Neither concept gained any credence with the purchasing public and Ducati faced the real possibility of going out of existence. Only government funding was keeping Ducati in business when Taglioni pulled a life-saving rabbit out of his hat at the start of the 1970s.
He had been working upon the concept of linking two of his single cylinder units together as a V-twin – or as he always preferred it to be called – an L-twin because of the 90-degree angle between the cylinders. That 90-degree angle meant a vibration-free motor with lots of torque and the motorcycling public warmed to that concept when Taglioni’s 750GT was launched in 1971. A racing programme with a 500cc version had kept their interest alive when riders like Bruno Spaggiari and Phil Read showed that the simple V-twin was capable of at least giving Giacomo Agostini and the all-conquering MV Agusta a hard time.
In 1972, Taglioni’s star suddenly shone with brilliance again when Paul Smart and Bruno Spaggiari (above) recorded their historic 1-2 victory in the Imola 200 on their desmo V-twin F750 racers, thus firmly stamping Ducati as a brand that had reached the top table.
This put in motion the conversion of Ducati’s entire range to desmo V-twin models and was accelerated by the 900SS which enjoyed a race-winning debut in the 1973 Barcelona 24-Hours ridden by Salvador Canellas and Benjamin Grau. The worth of this 860cc version of the desmo V-twin motor was later underlined by Mike Hailwood’s legendary defeat of the Japanese fours on his V-twin 900SS Ducati in his 1978 Isle of Man TT comeback.
With his dedication to the desmodromic system well accepted, Taglioni next turned his attention to refining the principle and he came up with a version that used a simple toothed rubber belt to drive the overhead camshafts, Launched as it Pantah, the new variation on the desmo theme was a success on both road and racetrack, where it was the most successful of a new breed of racer in what were labelled TT Formula One (for 750cc machines) and TT Formula Two for six-hundreds.
Marco Luchinelli won both of the important races in the American Pro Twins class at Daytona and Laguna Seca on the F1 750 while Tony Rutter took the 600cc F2 variant to four Isle of Man TT F2 wins in five years - 1981, 1982, 1982 and 1985.
The Castiglioni takeover in 1985 coincided with Taglioni reaching the retirement age of 65, so he was able to hand over control of the company’s technical direction to his youthful understudy Massimo Bordi secure in the knowledge that the company he had built his life’s work around would survive and prosper – as it indeed has.
Taglioni was able to retire to his home outside Imola where he cultivated orchids and painted landscapes in the company of his wife, Narina, and daughter Piera and his grandson, Luca. He passed away aged 80 on July 18, 2001, from heart failure, after a battle with cancer.
DUCATI - THE TAGLIONI YEARS
by Alan Cathcart
A new book by BRG Multimedia Ltd due for publication in Summer 2021