Updated: May 6
Feature by Alan Cathcart
Photographs by Kel Edge
Few motorcycles ever built have enjoyed as mythical and fabled a reputation as Ducati’s legendary but abortive V4 Apollo project - the Italian marque’s failed attempt to produce a Harley-style cruiser aimed at the American market. As the largest motorcycle ever built by Ducati, this 1256cc behemoth is one which has remained something of an enigma because only two examples were ever built. The sole surviving known example of the two Apollo prototypes built back in 1963 is on display in the factory museum in Bologna. In addition to its rarity, it is a significant machine as it is the direct forerunner of all the 90-degree V-twins produced by Ducati during the past five decades, as well as of the current V-fours. Now it is on display for today’s generations of ducatisti to marvel at and to appreciate that Ducati’s dinosaur really does exist, other than in the pages of the history books. This is its story…
Back in the early ‘60s, Ducati was one of dozens of relatively small Italian motorcycle manufacturers, each struggling to overcome the savage attack on their crucial home market levelled after 1955 by the tiny Fiat 500 car which had sold in its hundreds of thousands and brought an end to the post-war boom in Italian biking initially brought about by the war-ravaged country’s need for basic transportation. This collapse in motorcycle sales not only forced first Gilera and next Moto Guzzi to withdraw from Grand Prix racing in 1957 but then a year later Ducati as well.
It was a sure sign of economic distress in such a sport-mad country, but it led Ducati to focus ever more closely on its export markets, especially on the USA which was at that time hungry for European products.
In Ducati’s case, production had declined to around 6000 bikes a year by 1960 and the company was only kept afloat thanks to state subsidies which were forthcoming mainly thanks to Bologna’s status as the bastion of Italy’s powerful Communist party. This meant an ever-greater dependence on the firm’s New Jersey-based US importer, the Berliner Motor Corporation. After its appointment in 1957 the Berliner company was selling no less than 85% of Ducati’s total production by the early 1960s. It meant that the brothers Joe and Mike Berliner effectively called the shots at the recession-hit Italian company.
Elder brother Joe Berliner was convinced of the potential of the US police market, especially since American anti-trust legislation required that police departments across the country at least consider alternative sources of supply to the prevailing Harley monopoly, In the wake of Indian’s demise, that now meant even the evaluation of foreign products. At the time, the Berliners were also importers for the German Zundapp marque, then primarily notable for a BMW-like 600cc flat-twin, the KS601. This was a shaft-drive tourer descended from Zundapp’s WW2 Wehrmacht machine and it was also available in a police version. Berliner had the bright idea of selling a batch of these to cities across the USA at a nominal price of one dollar each, for evaluation as possible future police equipment. But this potentially successful strategy proved abortive when Zundapp terminated production of the KS601 in 1958.
It was a decision made all the more unfortunate by the fact that several police forces to which Berliner had provided Zundapps had reported favourably on them and even been keen to place orders. There was also a second major problem that made American police sales difficult. Official US police department specifications were increasingly standardised across the country and naturally favoured the overweight, unsophisticated, large-capacity, home-grown product which Harley Davidson had been building since its earliest days. Specifically, the parameters for US police bikes required an engine capacity of at least 1200cc as well as a minimum 60-inch/1525mm wheelbase, and - worst of all - the use of 5.00 x 16 tyres: no other sizes were acceptable.
But Berliner was not easily daunted and, with Zundapp now a spent force, he contacted Ducati chief Dr.Giuseppe Montano to see if the firm was interested in producing a special machine for this significant market. This was despite the fact that the Italian company’s largest-capacity model in 1959, when Berliner first approached them, was the 200cc Elite! Montano and designer Fabio Taglioni readily agreed – especially after considering the design of the archaic 74 cu.in. Harley which was then effectively standard issue to US police departments. The Ducati management were certain that they could produce a more efficient and much more modern design which Berliner could sell at reasonable cost, even after payment of the quite steep US import duty.
Engineer Taglioni eagerly accepted the commission and relished it as a technical challenge – which was more than the board of Britain’s Associated Motor Cycles would do. That company also had a chance to make a bid for US police sales as its Norton, Matchless and AJS marques were distributed in the USA by Berliner from 1960 onwards. AMC would only consider building a parallel twin for the US police bike market to the same specification as they did in the UK and elsewhere. This effectively meant a maximum capacity of 800cc if vibration was to be kept within manageable levels. In other words, AMC were telling the customer what he ought to want, rather than what he has already decided you can try to sell him. It was an attitude so typical of the entire British motorcycle industry at that time and undoubtedly one of the factors in its demise.
Fortunately for Berliner, Ducati were much more flexible and obliging, though Montano encountered initial scepticism from the government bureaucrats in Rome who controlled the company’s finances, and this meant that negotiations with Berliner dragged on for a couple of years. Eventually a deal was finally struck in 1961 resulting in a joint venture, whereby Berliner would underwrite the development costs of the new model. The Apollo was the result - a name chosen by the Berliners to commemorate America’s manned space flights, which had recently begun. In return for their financial aid, Berliner Motor Corp. would be allowed to dictate its specifications but would be expected to make a further contribution towards tooling costs, if the prototype reached production. However, according to Calcagnile, apart from meeting the standardised US police regulations, the brothers’ only stipulation was that the bike should have an engine bigger than anything in Harley’s range, which was then topped by the 74 cu.in./1215cc FL-series Duo Glide models.
The remainder of the technical specification was left to Taglioni, who decided on a 90-degree V4 engine whose perfect primary balance meant that there was no need for a crankshaft counter-balancer to eliminate vibration. This was even the case with the 180-degree crank throws he opted for and which resulted in each pair of pistons rising and falling together.
Also, an integral part of the proposed engine layout was the use of separate, differentially finned, air-cooled cylinders. This was a design similar to the 250cc V4 that Taglioni had drawn up back in 1948 as his I.Mech.E degree project at Bologna University. The Apollo engine followed that design in utilising pushrod-operated overhead valve gear and a single gear-driven camshaft positioned centrally in the crankcase in the ‘vee’ between the cylinders. This was the same layout used on the big American V8 car engines and on the Harley vee-twins. Therefore, US police vehicle mechanics were well familiar with it and could work on that type of engine in their sleep.
The two valves per cylinder were operated via pushrods and rockers with screw-type adjusters, while the horizontally split wet sump engine featured a single crank running in a central support, with each pair of con-rods sharing a single caged roller-bearing big end. Ignition came via a 12v battery under the seat, with four sets of contact breakers, two running off each end of the camshaft, and four coils feeding the 14mm sparkplugs, one per cylinder. Taglioni had considered water-cooling the engine but rejected this on the grounds of complication and bulk, and likewise politely turned down Joe Berliner’s suggestion to incorporate shaft drive, which he mistrusted, in favour of a duplex chain final drive (the same as later adopted on the Benelli 900 Sei).
However, he did make space in the housing containing the Apollo’s five-speed gearbox and gear primary drive to accept a Sachs variable-speed automatic transmission. This option was never pursued by Ducati and, in fact, it would be Moto Guzzi which would finally bring it to the marketplace in its V1000 I-Convert, a decade later in 1975.
Even by today’s standards the ultra-short-stroke (84.5 bore x 56 mm stroke) Apollo V4 motor was by some way the most oversquare design that Taglioni ever produced for Ducati. The front cylinders of the mighty 1256cc engine were lifted 10 degrees from the horizontal to improve cooling to the rear pair when the engine was installed as a stressed member in a beefy-looking open-cradle duplex chassis with a central box-section downtube between the front two cylinders.
With specially developed Ceriani suspension, the Apollo’s handling was certain to easily outperform Harley (who had only recently discovered rear suspension in the early 1960s) though the full-width 220mm single-leading shoe brakes front and rear didn’t promise quite as much. A kickstart was provided for the brave to use, while for mere mortals a Marelli electric starter similar to the one used on a Fiat TV1100 car was also featured. A massive 200W generator was fitted on the right, opposite the seven-plate oil-bath clutch, in order to cope with the additional electrical load imposed by various police paraphernalia such as sirens, lights and radios.
At just 450mm wide, the all-alloy V4 engine was relatively compact in spite of its architecture and allowed the Italian bike to compare more than favourably with its Harley rival. The Apollo scaled 271kg. dry with a 1555mm wheelbase as against the American V-twin’s 1580mm stace and 291kg weight. So, even though Ducati test rider Franco Farne came back from an early test run aboard the Apollo complaining that it handled like a truck, this was accepted as being just ‘The American Way’.
And anyway the ‘Ducati Berliner 1260 Apollo’ (as the bike was officially known) more than made up for this with its straight-line performance. This came courtesy of a claimed 100 bhp at 7000 rpm as against 55 bhp for the Harley Wide Glide. Running on four 32mm Dell’Orto SS carbs and 10:1 compression, the Apollo was good for a top speed in excess of 200 kph – more than 120 mph – which was pretty impressive for the day. It was performance befitting what was in prototype form the largest capacity and most powerful motorcycle yet constructed in post-war Europe.
But ironically, that impressive factor was also a damning one. For its meaty performance was also the Apollo’s downfall - a fact confirmed by Ducati tester and former GP mechanic Giancarlo ‘Fuzzi’ Librenti, who was the first to suffer the heart-stopping experience of having the specially made 16-inch whitewall Pirelli rear tyre throw its tread at high speed on the Milan-Bologna autostrada, after ballooning under sustained 100 mph speeds and detaching from the rim.
The agreement with Berliner had called for Ducati to construct two complete prototypes and two spare engines, and the first of these, very evidently a Latin pastiche of an American motorcycle, was painted in a ritzy metallic gold paint job and complete with huge cowboy saddle fitted with a chrome grab handle.
All that was missing were the tassels and fringes when it was handed over to the Americans in a formal ceremony in March 1964! High-rise ‘ape hanger’ handlebars, deeply valanced mudguards, a semi-peanut fuel tank (seemingly hijacked from Ducati’s 175cc production line) and fat whitewall tyres specially built by Pirelli completed the Italo-American styling. The overall effect was so heavy (not improved by the fat, car-section tyres) that the Apollo looked much bigger and bulkier than it really was.
A second prototype built later, was displayed at the Daytona Show in Cycle Week in 1965 and looked more tasteful, with leaner mudguards, altered side covers, and painted in a more discreet black and silver - albeit still with the Wild West seat.
However, while initial tests proved the Apollo to have an abundance of power, it was soon discovered that the V4 engine was too potent for the 16-inch Pirelli tyres to cope with. Ducati and Berliner had always intended that the police Apollo should form the basis of a line of freeway cruisers, which would provide an additional means of recouping the outlay spent on development.
The prototype engines therefore had two specifications - the 100 bhp Sport version and a normale alternative employing a softer cam, 8:1 compression and a single smaller (24mm) Dell’Orto for each pair of cylinders, front and rear. This produced 80 bhp at 6000 rpm - but still the tyre problems persisted. The solution was to detune the engine yet further, making a twin-carb version, reducing the compression still more to 7:1 and installing even softer cams to switch the power delivery more to torque that outright speed. This lowered the power to 65 bhp, still adequate to meet police performance specifications, and still superior to the Harley, thanks to the V4 Ducati’s lighter weight. It also appeared to finally resolve the tyre problem.
Unfortunately, while still OK for police bike purchases, this reduction in power effectively ruled out the Apollo being sold as a luxury sports tourer since its power-to-weight ratio was now inferior to the BMW and British twins which would have been its ‘import’ rivals in the US market. Berliner had been so confident of the bike’s potential that he had already begun marketing the Apollo in the States and had printed a brochure quoting a price of $1500 for the touring version and $1800 for the Sport - substantially more than its European twin-cylinder competition and double the cost of the equivalent Harley. At that price level, the Ducati would have had to boast an additional edge in performance to justify the extra cost but in detuned form, it could not. With the V4 set up to deliver the right kind of power to meet the demands of the marketplace it would unfortunately be lethal until tyre technology caught up with it.
This situation provided the perfect opportunity for the Italian government bureaucrats controlling Ducati’s finances to kill off a project they’d never had much faith in. They were able to cite as an excuse the fact that, with the model now suitable only for the specialist police market, its sales would be insufficient to justify the immense tooling costs involved in gearing up the Ducati factory for its production. Berliner, who had already successfully demonstrated the Apollo to selected police chiefs, was appalled. He had promised that production of the reduced-power version would commence in 1965, yet now the whole project seemed in danger of collapse. And so it proved. Further funding for the Apollo was withdrawn, and Ducati was reluctantly forced to cancel the project early in 1965.
The second of the two prototypes constructed was shipped straight back from the Daytona Show into the Berliner warehouse at Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, where it remained for the next two decades in a corner of the storeroom - a sad reminder of a motorcycle killed off by a mixture of government infighting and its own advanced specification. The Apollo was just too much, too soon. As an indication of how proud he was of the design, however, the spare engine sat on display in Fabio Taglioni’s office for 20 years until his retirement, a silent testament to his versatility and farsightedness.
Read more about the Apollo V4 in the e-book that is one of the range of titles in The Motorcycle Files. Go to www.themotorcyclefiles.com, where you can click through to see all the available titles and then on to Amazon for a preview and ordering procedures.
Read more about the Ducati Apollo and the many other groundbreaking motorcycle designs by Fabio Taglioni in the print book by www.themotorcyclefiles.com,
Available from June, 2021