Riding the train from Rome to Bologna, I am constantly reminded as to how much nicer the train experience is in Italy. The seat feels nicer, the cabin feels bigger and the scenery blows away anything I would see between Newark and Philadelphia. Staring at the two suit-wearing gentlemen next to me, I have to feel a little bit sorry for them because chances are their journey isn’t going to end at the Ducati factory. Ever since the US press officer, John Canton, confirmed the tour, my wife has met all my outbursts of jubilance with a monotone, “that’s great, honey.” It’s not that she doesn’t share my affinity for Ducati, she’s just tired of hearing my nonstop yapping about it.
Once on the property, our tour guide, Natasha, leaves us in the cafeteria momentarily and gives us very strict instructions to stay out of the service corridor. “You will get run over by a fork lift” is something we easily make out through her Italian accent. While awaiting her return, I have an epiphany – Journalists take this tour all the time, what fact could I possibly present that hasn’t been shown to the world a hundred times over?
While pondering a fresh angle on an over told story, a factory worker walks past the glass doors rolling a Desmosedici RR down the very corridor I’ve just been forbidden to enter. By the time I’ve got my head to the edge of the doorframe and peeked around, the man and the bike are gone. At that moment, it dawns on me – to a true sport bike lover, a Ducati isn’t about statistical data, it’s about the experience I just had. It’s an elusive taste of something just beyond our reach. The entire brand identity is cloaked in the idea that by owning one of these hand built Italian machines, you are or part of something that is, for lack of a more complicated word, special. Some would have you believe that the difference strictly comes down to money, but as we enter the assembly floor and are told to put away our cameras, I would have to disagree. My vote is that it has more to do with the experience of the ride and having a connection to the machine.
For those of you that have to have numbers, let me get that out of the way. The sole Ducati assembly plant in Bologna produces around 100 bikes a day in the slow season, 200 a day in the spring and summer. Our guide proudly informs me that in 2006, (the year control of the company was taken back from investment group Texas Pacific) the rate of errors on parts was six percent, but since that time they have squashed that number down to one percent. They now machine their own parts in house and can assemble a two-valve engine in 50 minutes, a four-valve in 75. The average assembly time on a complete bike is three hours.
The assembly floor is plenty loud and it’s all I can do to hear our guide and digest the stream of info as we walk though a sea of crankshafts and engine cases. We follow a painted yellow line on the floor and move past the areas where workers both male and female sit at stations and cobble together bottom ends. Next come cylinder heads. Metal rolling racks look like Christmas trees covered with four valve heads as they sit waiting to be matched up to a 1098. As Natasha moves us to the next station, I almost have to laugh just thinking about how much just one of those heads would cost at a dealership if purchased as a replacement.
“Do you know what this is?” she asks. “It’s a camshaft.” I blurt out. I think I’m feeling a little inadequate because I don’t have a garage full of Ducatis at my house in Los Angeles. I figure I can partially make up for my lack of prowess by being able to identify every internal part that my tour guide might hold up.
Next up is the engine testing station. It’s a clear booth manned by one employee. We stand and watch him roll what looks like a Sport Classic engine into the box, then hook up some sensors and let the automated procedure begin. The device takes it up to about a thousand RPM to check for oil pressure, strange noises and vibrations. There is no fuel or spark at this point, just a testing of the rotating assembly. After passing, updated documents are put back in their vinyl sleeve and sit with their completed engine until it finds its new home in the cro-moly tube chassis of a finished bike. On the way to the assembly lines – which are really mobile stations positioned in a linear fashion – we pass a wall of engine racks. Each stand carries assembled engines individually tagged: 848 USA, 848 Europa, 1098 USA, etc. Between that and the overall cleanliness of everything, and this place is starting to feel like Santa’s workshop, only Santa doesn’t have 40 superbike frames hanging from hooks in unison in the same way a candy machine displays bags of M&Ms.
“Are these painted or powder-coated?” It’s a question I ask to seem smart and make Natasha feel good about giving me this tour. They’re painted in case you were wondering, but I’m writing information so quickly that I don’t have time to ask why.
The assembly line is exactly what I would expect as we watch a small team put a tank and seat on a Monster. The crew is so content that I ponder the thought of getting a job here so that I could apply my 30 percent employee discount towards an RR, but I let it go because my Italian is so sloppy. Completed bikes sit in a holding pen before being pulled up to a stand for cleaning and emissions testing. Again, a clean-cut guy in bright red coveralls attaches hoses to the ends of the mufflers and fires the engine for the first time. I stand to take it all in before we make our way to the end of the station and take a sharp left turn.
At this point, I see what amounts to the Legend of Bigfoot. Nearing the end of its own assembly line is a Desmosedici RR. There’s no mistaking its identity, as it stands by itself in aggressive red glory with nothing around it but a single worker. There is another on a lone stand finishing its final inspection. I envision cracking the guy over the head and making a break for it, although I don’t think there is enough gas in the tank to get me to the front gate and being a single mount, I would have to leave my wife behind, which, after explaining myself to John, would make for an awkward flight back to the states with Nichole. I’m not allowed to bother the guy handling the finishing touches, but Natasha informs us that an RR engine takes about 3.5 hours to complete and three workers finish a bike in six. Between six to eight make their way out of this building every day. The last of the 1500 RRs will move through this very spot in December, but even if you just won the lottery, they were all spoken for a long time ago. So what will happen on this assembly line after the RR is done? That’s anybody’s guess, because Natasha isn’t talking. It’s a pretty big deal to stand in the place where they make the fastest production bike in the world. The RR holds the top spot in a group of tag-able race bikes that can be counted on one hand. As Natasha puts it, “It’s a Ferrari on two wheels.”
While passing an inconspicuous door with a high round window, our guide informs us that behind it lies the “racing” department. You would laugh if you could see me standing on my tippy toes with my nose pressed against the glass. You have to wonder how many other grown men have assumed the same position trying to get a mere glimpse of anything they could later brag about to their friends. That’s the reason we are not allowed inside, and also the reason for the procession of “dummy” engines that line the hallway behind the door, so that nosey journalists have something to look at. John Canton later informs me that the racing department is really run from the paddocks of racetracks on their respective tours, and that even when here in the off season, there isn’t much to look at but computers and graphs. I politely take his word for it, but I’m not sure I entirely believe him.
After completing the tour and taking a stroll through the museum, John walks the two of us over to the abandoned utility buildings that were bombed during World War II. On our stroll, we talk about our own bikes and the roles they play in our lives. I reluctantly admit to him that I have a restored 1990 GSXR 1100 as it was the bike I couldn’t afford when I was a kid. He doesn’t miss a beat and tells me that restoring eighties sport bikes is a trendy thing to do right now. He asks if I have a Ducati and I answer “Not yet.” The main reason is because I wanted to do a little more homework before looking for a bike.
I think my search will ultimately bring me to a 916. It’s an iconic example of the brand’s history and its breakthroughs paved the way for so many great things. One might call foul if I were to toss out the word “classic” while describing a fourteen year old bike, but in a way, almost every Ducati is a classic. Which brings me back to the reason I took this tour in the first place. Owning a Ducati isn’t about statistics, although theirs are impressive. It’s about that elusive taste of something just beyond my reach and the hope that at some point, if I’m lucky, I just might be able to grab it. Because doing so would mean owning a piece of history and being part of something that is, for lack of a more complicated word, special.