"I hate Valentino Rossi:" a trip to the Ducati factory

Two of motorcycling's greatest heroes, in one room.
Any petrolhead worth his salt will gladly inform you that Ducati is the two-wheeled equivalent to Ferrari—the two go hand-in-hand like Federico Fellini movies and pretentious film school dropouts. Both brands are steeped in racing history, exclusivity, and exalted performance. Both brands carry the air of exotic Latin passion that, rest assured, is still a myth. And on my recent trip to Italy I couldn’t possibly pass up a chance to visit the museum and factory in Bologna, Italy, where Ducati has resided since its founding in 1926. Sorry, no photos allowed at the Ducati brain trust, in case we may pass them off to the Soviets. But there’s plenty of shots from the museum! For the only Ducati factory in the world, it is surprisingly small—only about 500 people work there, 300 of them on the assembly line. From one end of the factory you can make out warning signs on the opposite wall. There are two assembly lines that parallel each other, where some of the 300 were assembling the Monster alongside the Hypermotard. Two more assembly lines work on desdromonic motors of different sizes, from the new midrange Monster 848 to the even newer Multistrada 1200. The factory can pump out at least 100 bikes per day, 200 during the busy season, which was right now. Our tour group—comprising an Australian and five Brits, three of whom had ridden their 999Rs from Yorkshire—walked past racks of expensive Marchesini wheels and shiny red trellis frames, manufactured by Verlicchi. They were located just down the street in Bologna and had been supplying frames since 1979. Ducati only manufactures two parts in-house, the crank- and camshafts. Everything else comes from suppliers, 90% of which are from Italy, with the exception being Showa and Olins shocks among others. At the end of the assembly line comes the vehicle testing phase, where spiky-haired youths handle one of the finest jobs in the world: coaxing a newborn 1198 or Streetfighter into life. In different roller-equipped booths we witnessed these professionals test the braking and ABS systems, eyes gazed at computer readouts; in the booth next door they wound the speedometer up to 80km/hr, searching for discrepancies in the instruments. The factory was a cheery place, where Italian rock blared from boomboxes and young workers—some of whom probably couldn’t rent cars—joked with each other as they leaped from their sticker-adorned workstations, installing a taillight assembly or rear wiring harness before waiting for the next incomplete bike to roll down the agonizingly slow conveyor belt. Since they’re hand-assembled by a relatively small workforce, each employee is responsible for their errors on the line. The threat seemed rather ominous: were poor employees banished to Harley-Davidson? (Ducati was nearly bought by the Milwaukee firm.) But our tour guide, Francesca, assured us that errors were few and far-between—despite the Casual Friday atmosphere, the workers took their jobs very seriously. One look at the employee parking lot outside drove the point home.
Employee parking. No, really.
We moved onto the shipping area, after the bikes had been given an equivalent shakedown run. Here the bikes would be shipped partially disassembled with their headlights and mounting brackets installed, but without fairings and bodywork, which gives the unfaired 1098 a sinister, animalistic look. Lucky Italians only have to wait 3-4 weeks to pick theirs up; worldwide, the wait is 3-4 months. Americans are Ducati’s biggest market, followed by Germany, France, Australia, and Japan. Rather unsurprisingly, we had been informed at the start of the tour that photos weren’t allowed. But, as our perky guide informed us, “there will be plenty of photos at the museum,” located directly upstairs of the factory.
This is what greets you when you enter the museum. I’ll take one of each.
Ducati was founded by three brothers Adriano, Marcello and Bruno, who initially set about building radios (Guglielmo Marconi, who invented radio, was born in Bologna), calculators, cameras, and movie projectors. They produced electronic components for the war effort—the remnants of their old factory lies right next door, an eerie, abandoned shell next to Ducati’s current gleaming icon of modernity. “This was bombed by the Americans during World War II,” Francesca informed us, staring at me the entire time as if I had personally launched the operation. After the war the company started building bicycles for a war-torn, mobility-hungry Italy.
The Cucciolo, Ducati’s first two-wheeled product, 1948.
Naturally, they mounted an engine to its spindly frame. And naturally, they raced it. And so on and so forth through the 20th century, including Paul Smart’s legendary 750 Imola, a Paris-Dakar winner from the Cagiva days (“a difficult time,” mentions Francesca),  the Ducati 900 that Mike Hailwood rode to an Isle of Man TT championship after 11 years of retirement, all the way up to the last 7 or 8 MotoGP and SBK championship-winning superbikes.
Gather 'round, kids, for the legend of Mike the Bike…
“Who watches MotoGP?” our tour guide, Francesca, had asked us at the front gates. The three Brits’ eyes lit up. The Australian man had met Casey Stoner and was on his way to Monza the week after. “I don’t care if he’s Italian,” she joked. “I still hate Valentino Rossi!” For inquiring minds that want to make an equivalent pilgrimage to the temple of Ducati, the automotive tourism industry in Bologna is so important that if you walk into a tourism office and ask in your best grown-up voice, they will hand you a sheet with directions to all the manufacturers in the area. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati, even Pagani and De Tomaso—the sheet covers directions by bus, car, and train as well as opening hours and how to schedule a visit. No longer do you have to know a guy who knows a guy who has an uncle who once bought Ferrucio a pack of Sigaro Toscanos. And unlike its cross-town four-wheeled rival Ferrari, Ducati will never (let’s hope!) produce its own branded Segway.

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