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March 30, 2010

Ducati and the Art of the Bike

Massimo Tamburini, creator of the world's most gorgeous motorcycles

When the conversation turns to great Italian sculptors (as, sooner or later, any good conversation should), the usual geniuses are inevitably mentioned, along with a catalogue of famous works seen during visits to the world's great art troves: St. John the Baptist by Donatello, Canova's poignant Daedalus and Icarus in Venice, Michelangelo's David in Florence, and the haunting, emaciated figures by Giacometti just about everywhere. One extraordinary Italian sculptor is never mentioned, except perhaps by very particular cognoscenti: Massimo Tamburini. Tamburini's relative anonymity is, to say the least, a major cultural injustice, since far more people see his work every day than that of his legendary fellow Italians. For what this particular sculptor creates are the world's most gorgeous motorcycles.

If you went to the exhibition called The Art of the Motorcycle at the Guggenheim Museum in New York—and as many art connoisseurs as bike buffs were there, making it the most popular show in the museum's history at the time—you saw Tamburini masterpieces as bookends at the beginning and the end of the show. Starting from the top and walking down Frank Lloyd Wright's famous spiral, as the architect intended, the finale of the show was Tamburini's most recent design, the sleek and expensive ($39,995) MV Agusta serie oro manufactured by Cagiva. At the top stood the Ducati 916, introduced in 1994, one of the most sublime motorcycles ever to roar around a racetrack or stand seductively in front of a Milanese caffè.

In terms of design, there really isn't much to a motorcycle. Since the earliest models, with few exceptions, the basic layout has been the same: two wheels, with an engine in between and a gas tank on top. Unlike cars, which evolved from covered carriages and have lots of bodywork to shape into recognizable styles, motorcycles began as bicycles with a boost, making visual individuality harder to achieve. Look at a Triumph or Honda from the 1960s and you won't see much difference. There's always been a distinction between the sleeker European sport style and the heavier American cruiser style, but not much variation within those categories. Motorcycles had plenty of grit but not much glamour.

Massimo Tamburini added sculptural lines to the basic bike, paving the way for manufacturers to create the trademark looks that today separate Hondas, Triumphs, Yamahas, and other high-performance motorcycles. To the bike's standard collection of disparate parts he brought the fundamental design idea of an organizing principle. He did this first in 1985 with the Ducati Paso, named after Renzo Pasolini, a friend and racer who had been killed in a crash. In the street-ready Paso, Tamburini adapted the streamlined bodywork used on some racing bikes, covering it completely with a smooth plastic fairing. Its sweeping lines guide the eye from front to back, giving the machine as potent a personality as any Ferrari. The Paso's sculptural approach was revolutionary in the motorcycle world, but entirely in keeping with the Italian artistic tradition. After all, in 1909 Futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti issued a manifesto declaring that a speeding car is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Tamburini has been designing motorcycles since 1973 and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he has never designed anything else. In 1985 he joined the Cagiva Company, at the time a minor player in Italian motorcycle manufacture that was in the process of buying Ducati, a major maker down on its luck. Ducati gave the designer a chance to create breathtaking art that just happened to be powered by some of the fastest and most innovative motors in the business (V-twins famous for the "desmodromic" system that eliminates valve springs).

Part of Ducati's magic during the Tamburini years was a seamless melding of performance and sex appeal: form and function elegantly joined. Like a Renaissance artist or a modern fashion visionary such as Giorgio Armani or Miuccia Prada, Tamburini established a memorable look with each bike he designed. But motorcycles, unlike art or fashion, are purpose-built machines—speed is the central idea, not looks—so changes have to make technological sense. With that in mind, Tamburini designs from the inside out, not the other way around. The style of his bikes always reflects their engineering. "When the designer doesn't have a good understanding of the mechanical side of things," he says, "he can never design a good product."

Tamburini's magnum opus rolled onto the road in 1994 and sped instantly into the hearts of the world's Ducatisti. First designated the 916 (for the cubic centimeter displacement of the engine), the machine was a marvel of innovation and a masterpiece in the aesthetics of speed. The exhaust pipes were placed under the seat, giving the bike greater ground clearance on the acute lean angles of road racing and at the same time making a Ducati instantly recognizable as it roared past. The forward-leaning riding position was even more radical than in other sport motorcycles. The narrow headlights lowered the front fairing and increased streamlining. Even standing still the bike seems to exude speed. Despite the fact that this classic had (and still has) a price tag thousands more than equivalent Japanese sport bikes, the awe the machine inspired made it an instant success. Like most owners of the bike, I never walk away from my sleek red 996 without an admiring backward glance.

In its current incarnation, as both the 998 and the smaller-bore, higher-revving 748, Tamburini's eight-year-old design is almost unchanged from the original, a highly unusual continuum in an industry where the styles change every two or three years. It hasn't hurt that since its introduction, the racing version of the motorcycle has won five world superbike championships, as well as hundreds of races on European and U.S. national and regional circuits. Or that Ducati engines produce an exhaust sound that is the internal combustion equivalent of a great Italian basso profundo. But in the end, the success of the motorcycle can be credited to the ability of Massimo Tamburini to shape metal, plastic, and carbon fiber into extraordinary Italian art.

Ironically, Tamburini's success presents a problem for Ducati. The company was bought in the late nineties by the Texas-Pacific Group, an American investment company, but Tamburini opted to stay with Cagiva. So when the time comes to create a successor to the 998/748—certainly in the next year or two—Ducati will have to do the job without the maestro's magic.

In the meantime, the Bologna-based builder has introduced the most beautiful version of the motorcycle yet, a 748S with a smoother fairing, red magnesium wheels, and a matte dark-gray paint job that's reminiscent of a stealth fighter. In a word, bellissima.

The MSRP for the Ducati 748S is $14,795. For more information, see www.ducati.com. For the MV Agusta F4S, the MSRP is $18,895; www.mvagusta.com.