1989 Ducati 851

I wrote the article below for the Used Motorcycle Guide, who published it in the Jan/Feb 1993 issue. And as they never paid me for it, I have no qualms about reprinting it here...

I'd been biking for 15 years on machines ranging from a Bantam and a CB400/4 to a Laverda Mirage that I wrote off in six months. Riding around on a 750 Bonnie that needed a rest, I decided to treat myself. Being an apparently mature, fully employed homeowner, it wasn't too hard to arrange a large loan, so in June 1990 1 bought a G reg Mk 2 Ducati 851. Just under a year old with 1600km on the clock offering cash reduced the price by 300, but at 7700 it was far and away the most expensive bike I've owned.

The Mk2 is the one with 17 inch wheels, all in red and it's got a single seat (much to the annoyance of the girlfriend). My first impression was of how light and how fast it was - the 851 seemed to combine the flickability of the Triumph with the high speed stability of the Laverda. The brakes are like nothing I've tried before - the first time I used the front brake, from about 10mph, I stopped dead about five feet before I expected to.

As I grew used to it, minor niggles became apparent. The first was the steering lock, or lack of. I'd had the bike for three days and was riding through the back streets trying to find a friend's new house. At one junction I started to go left, changed my mind and tried to go right. There wasn't enough lock, my right hand was trapped between the handlebar and the fairing's frame, and I thought the bike was going over. I kicked down with my right foot, and to my surprise saved it - all due to an alleged dry weight of under 400lbs, I guess. The lightness is down to the motor: it may be watercooled, fuel injected with Desmo four valve heads, but it's still only a vee twin.

Fuel consumption was a pleasant surprise. On four star she'll manage about 50mpg, on unleaded about 45mpg. To get this you need to cruise between 80 and 110mph - go consistently faster or slower than that and you'll lose 5 - 10mpg. The petrol tank's supposed to have a capacity of about 25 litres, but I ran it dry once (just outside a petrol station) and it took only 18.

Effective range is 150 - 180 miles per tank. The fuel warning light is a pain - it comes on permanently when the tank's only half empty. It's bright red and bloody distracting when it first starts flashing (invariably under hard braking). This is in stark contrast to the green indicator warning lamp, which is invisible in sunlight. There's a fuel pump in the tank, and no reserve tap so it's not a good idea to disconnect the warning lamp.

I've had to buy a few bits for it, and had some for free. There's a free factory mod they do to the fuel regulator - it involves moving it from between the pots because on warm days it becomes too hot and the fuel vaporises. The other mod is to the clutch, to stop it making a sickening crunch whenever it's engaged. On mine the mod stopped it for about 500 miles, then it came back, then it disappeared of its own accord. Bits I've had to buy include a mph speedo for about 60 (I got fed up doing frantic mental arithmetic every time I saw a jam sandwich), speedo cable for a tenner and a clutch master cylinder rebuild kit (22). This last was annoying - after about 2500 miles the clutch suddenly became more and more reluctant to disengage, and within 20 miles it stopped working. Down to the Brembo master cylinder seals failing. Apparently, there was a bad batch of them and I had some problems locating a rebuild kit - they were all sold out. I'm waiting for the front brake to go next.

I also bought an official workshop manual for £30, as there was no handbook with it when I bought it, and you can only get one with the bike. The manual is written in five languages, one of which is almost English... The 'refuellings' technical data informs me that the fuel tank holds 0.706 cubic feet, but it does include useful info as well, such as tyre pressures, service intervals, and the location of the fuse box.

Most servicing, apart from 1500 mile oil changes (must use synthetic), I leave to the local Ducati specialist - after years of doing all my own I don't mind forking out for this, and the 851 is rather more complicated than anything else I've owned I had it serviced after I bought it, and have had two since. The cheapest was 117, for plugs, oil and a general look over.

Open face helmet?

The suspension I've mostly left alone - it's incredibly adjustable, and doesn't come with any guidance on the settings. The front's not too bad - just an anti dive knob to twiddle, (position two seems the best) and air forks that I've never touched. The rear has infinite spring preload adjustment, plus compression and rebound damping dials. The only bit I've played with is the compression damping, softening it a bit stopped me being catapulted out of the seat every time I hit a bump at high speed.

I've no complaints about the handling, but I've never managed to get near the limits. There's a right hander on a dual carriageway I take most days, where the road surface is a bit dodgy, but the Triumph could manage it at seventy. The Ducati can take it at eighty, and probably more - my bottle's the biggest limiting factor in the handling, it seems.

The bike's at its best on short journeys on A roads. It's fine on motorways too, but the boredom gets to you unless you cruise at licence losing speeds. There're too many police on the motorways these days. Fast, twisty A roads are loads of fun. It's completely stable on the fast bends - I was overtaken on the straight once by an FZR750 but caught him easily as he braked for the bend while I didn't. Sharp corners are fun, too, you can brake hard and deep, nothing ever decks, and as you come out of the corner you've got loads of power unless you're three gears too high. Peak torque is around 6500rpm but just open the throttle anywhere between 4000 and 8500 for instant stomp.

The engine's redlined at 10,000 revs but at 9000 it's feeling busy and the power's dropping off. It'll pull from 2000 but the vee twin lumpiness doesn't smooth out until 3000rpm. I've heard the bottom end doesn't like low revs, so around town I'm in the bottom three gears, around 3000rpm, and though the motor becomes quite hot I've only had the automatic fan come on a couple of times on really scorching days.

For journeys of more than 100 miles it's not so good. I'm over six foot, and that's really a bit big for this bike, as I discovered when I took it to the Lake District, via Wales. After 150 miles I had to get off and walk around for 10 minutes - my legs and bum were seizing up, although arms and shoulders were fine. Then I managed another 100 miles, before getting off and walking around for 15 minutes. The furthest I've gone on it in a day is about 350 miles with three stops - my arse and legs couldn't have taken much more. Still, it's not supposed to be a tourer, and I reckon that no discomfort for 100 fast miles is pretty good for a sports bike.

Switches are good - all on the left apart from engine start and stop but lights could be better. The 65/55 watt headlamp is only bright enough on full beam for marginally illegal speeds, but the dip has a very sudden cut-off; if you're travelling fast and have to dip most of the road ahead goes black and you either rely on your memory or slow right down. The lamp's easy enough to adjust, but I can't get a reasonable dip without a full beam that dazzles passing air traffic. Mind you, the contrast between the beams makes flashing the tin box in front very effective - it's like a flare going off on the back seat, and they swerve out of the way almost immediately.

So, is it worth the expense? Well, I reckon it is, but then I'm biased, and can just about afford it. Sure I'd like the lights to work better and the tyres to last longer, but I can live with those faults for the otherwise all round fun I get out of it. The girlfriend wants me to buy a dual seat conversion (about 800 last time I asked), but I reckon I'll resist that - the dual seat is completely impractical and spoils the lines of the bike. More tempting is the 888 conversion, but that's a couple of thousand at least - and there's no way I can afford that while keeping the bike in tyres and the girlfriend happy. Maybe in a year or so, unless I'm seduced by a new Triumph - but for the moment I'm still besotted with the 851.

Nick Vale, 1992

The most expensive, so far, was the 3000 mile service - 289, which also included labour for removing both wheels and fitting new tyres (which I provided), and various other bibs and bobs like stopping the side-stand from raising itself automatically. The really expensive service is the one where they discover the valves on the rear pot need reshimming - the easiest way to do this, apparently, is to lift the frame off the engine - in situ the rear shock gets in the way. Don't expect much change from 500! The chain is a 1/4x5/8 inch O-ring endless job and is holding up remarkably well - with about 6000 miles done it's a tad over half worn. Adjustment requires a paddock stand and someone to help put the bike on it. You've got to buy a paddock stand if you want to do tyre changes, my main expense so far. A rear lasts about 2000 miles, a front about 3500. At 110 and 90, respectively, this is expensive. What makes it worse is that every rear I've fitted has picked up a puncture within 1000 miles - I blame it on the width (180/55) - it covers a lot of road, so there's more chance of finding a nail. And everyone who looks at the bike, from bikers to biddies, comments on the size of that tyre.

Artistic kip...

They're worth the money, though. I've stuck with Michelin radials and had my first experience of how good they are when I'd had the bike for about a month. I'd just left some friends at about 9.45pm in the dark. The road goes straight for about 200 yards then sharp left. So, showing off, I accelerated hard, then slammed on the anchors for the left-hander. As the front dipped I saw a great stream of water across the road, so I lifted off the brakes and prepared to take a wide line. At this point a car came around the corner and my wide line suddenly became much less appealing. On with the brakes again, lean hard to the left and not unexpectedly I'm sliding towards the car... thinking that a side-on collision is better than a head-on one. And hey, the bike's sliding but going forwards as well, still completely stable, and it's a shame it's about to be written off. Then it got off the wet, stopped going sideways and continued going where it was pointed, with no hint of high siding, wobbling or any untoward behaviour. I missed the car by about a foot, and realised that I'd never ridden anything like this before.