Italian motorcycle maker Ducati has always pushed the boundaries of street-legal performance motorcycles, but a new era began in the 1980s with the introduction of the 851, what many consider to be the start of the “modern era” of road legal Ducati superbikes based on actual racing machines.
While Ducati had been making well-received (if somewhat temperamental) air-cooled performance bikes such as the 750 F1, the revolution in motorcycle design and engineering in the early 1980s, led by groundbreaking machines like Honda’s liquid-cooled V4 Interceptor machines, Suzuki’s track-focused GSX-R models and Kawasaki’s iconic Ninja inline-four sport bikes, were making once-exotic Ducati models look both old and slow. But Ducati was then brought under Piaggio’s large corporate umbrella and the R&D capital began to flow, and Ducati’s designers crafted an Italian answer in the form of the infamous ducati-851/” data-ga-track=”ExternalLink:https://timeless2wheels.com/33996/ducati-851/” aria-label=”851 Superbike”851 Superbike (below).
The fearsome and exotic 851 was a new-look, street legal 102-horsepower sporting mount and I had a chance to sample one in the early 1990s thanks to a generous (and trusting) friend. The 851 I rode had been lightly massaged with an aftermarket exhaust and some other tweaks, but it was basically still in factory form. For this 6-foot-1 rider, the 851 was a cramped, uncomfortable mount with a hair-trigger throttle, bone-tight suspension and a too-loud exhaust abetted by a rather unsymphonic dry clutch rattle when in neutral. In an urban environment, it was nearly untenable to ride.
Then I got on the freeway and it was as if Dorothy had