Ducati’s aren’t like other bikes. So say their fans, anyway, and we’ve no reason to doubt them. But what exactly makes them so special? Harley has its flat tracker bikes. Honda made the first ever superbike. What has Ducati ever done to inspire such devotion? What indeed. For a start, their bikes are fast. Like, really, really fast. They’re also more fun than a bag of tricks. Then there’s the fact celebs love them (and where celebs will go, us plebs are wont to follow). But none of those are the real reason. For that, you have to look beyond the eye-catching good looks, the whippet like top speeds, and the innovative tech. Look, in fact, to the beating heart of every Ducati bike – its engine. Because a Ducati engine isn’t like the engine on most bikes. Why? Because when the rest of the world gave up on on the desmodromic valve, Ducati persevered. And somewhere along the line, it managed to get past its complications, its unreliability and make it work. The result? An engine like no other and a line of bikes much the same.
The Lowdown on Desmodromic Valves
As Motor Biscuit rightly notes, most of the characteristic features of modern Ducati motorcycles developed through racing. The best-known example of this is Ducati’s desmodromic valves. But hold up. For those of us who skipped Motorcycle Terminology 101, what exactly is a desmodromic valve when it’s at home? To put you in the picture, Gear Patrol defines the Desmodromic as a “reciprocating engine poppet valve that is positively closed by a camshaft and leverage system, rather than a conventional spring.” So, we hope that’s all clear now. As Cnet explains, in almost all four stroke piston engines (actually in ALL four stroke piston engines bar the ones Ducati employs), the valves are opened through a camshaft and closed by spring pressure from a valve spring. Today, it’s the dominant system, and for good reason. It’s simple, it’s reliable, and most importantly, it works. Not something that could always be said of desmodromic valves…
Desmo to the Rescue
In 1896, a man called Gustav Mees began patenting something called desmodromic valves. Just over a decade later, we found out why when they began popping up in marine engines. 40 years after that, they made it into the car world when Mercedes – Benz began incorporating the desmo system into its straight-8-cylinder racing engines. Up until that point, engine reliability had been compromrised by the terrible tendency valve springs had of snapping when the car reached full power. As catastrophic engine failure was the inevitable result of this bad habit, car makers were understandably in the mood for something a little more reliable. And that’s exactly what they found with desmodromic valves. Unlike the valve springs around at the time, desmodromic valves drew on a second pair of rocker arms and cam lobes to close the valves; the possibility for valve float was thus eradicated. So, desmodromic valves had eliminated an age-old problem that had been hounding the motor world for years. They had helped Mercedes become a dominant force on the race track. They were efficient, they was reliable. But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses, as people would soon find out.
The Problem with Desmodromic Valves
When desmodromic valves were first introduced into the motoring world, people loved them. But the relationship quickly turned sour when the problems started to crawl out of the woodwork. Not only did the cost of the system’s matching and parts rack up pretty quicky, but the valve adjustment process proved so complicated, it left grown mechanics weeping for their mothers. Faced with mounting costs and a hacked-off workforce, manufactures soon started to turn away from desmodromic valves in their droves. All except for one. One Italian motorcycle company had decided the technology was worth a second shot. That company was Ducati, and all these years later, it’s still standing firmly by the Desmo.
Ducati and the Desmo
When designer Fabio Taglioni requested the Desmo be used on the 125cc grand prix motorcycle, Ducati obliged. The technology fitted the bike so well, they soon started expanding it across their entire collection. These days, you won’t find a single Ducati engine that doesn’t employ it. But why? Back in the era of the 125cc grand pix, the Desmo was at the cutting edge of innovation. It gave Ducati’s reliability, speed, an advantage over every other bike still using the (at that point) temperamental valve spring system. But since then, metallurgy has evolved. Nowadays, it’s simple enough to manufacturer cheap, traditional spring-actuated valve systems that won’t cause engine failure… which is why every car, bike, and boat maker has embraced them with open arms. Everyone except Ducati. So, why have the Italians decided to be lone wolves? Why has it become so attached to the Desmo it’s now as much a part of its DNA as muscle cruisers and racing? Simple. It’s cool. Although it probably also helps that they’ve found a way to make it work, as well…
What Makes a Ducati Engine Different from Other Motorcycle Engines
Back in the day, the Desmo was a pain to fit. Worse still, it cost a bomb to maintain. And if there’s one thing bike manufacturers (and their customers) don’t like, it’s expensive technology – especially if there’s a cheaper alternative available. But just as the advancements in metallurgy have reduced the problems previously associated with traditional spring actuated valve systems, so have the advancements in precision machined components reduced the servicing intervals required of the desmodromic system. And less servicing equals less costs and less chance of mechanics getting into a tizzy over complicated designs.
But the good news doesn’t end there. While car drivers may have found the Desmo a noisy companion, Ducati riders are probably too deafened by the wind and exhaust noise to notice. And as Wiki notes, even if they weren’t, the traditional complaint that the Desmo’s racket is “uncomfortably loud in engines with four or more cylinders” is only really applicable to the likes of the MotoGP, MotoGP Race Replica bikes, and the 2018 Ducati Panigale V4 (in other words, the only current production desmodromic engines to feature four cylinders). In Ducati’s hands, the finicky design and expensive servicing problems of the Desmo have been overcome. As Jalopnik notes, by refusing to jump ship when everyone else did, they’ve managed to find what everyone failed to: a way of perfecting the Desmo to be as reliable and cost effective as sprung valves.