Ducati is a raging success story combining an iconic brand, a rich competition history and accessible V-twin performance draped in gorgeous Italian design. But not so long ago, Ducati was in trouble. In 2006, the company was saddled with debt and faced flagging sales as a result of it’s first Superbike commercial failure, the controversial Ducati 999 first introduced in 2003.
A New Direction In 2003 Ducati introduced it’s self titled ‘revolutionary’ 999. It combined the testastretta (‘narrow head’) 998c engine from the 998 in a much more streetable package featuring adjustable seat and peg position aimed at criticism that Ducati Superbikes were too uncomfortable to ride on the street. So far, so good. In a departure for the company the 999 replaced utilized a double-sided swingarm and an ugly automotive style exhaust canister under the seat. However the subject of an outcry from the Ducatisti was the styling. Penned by Pierre Terblanche, the lean styling was reportedly modeled after a 1920′s locomotive. In any event it was a radical departure from the curves of the Tamburini designed 916 series that was so adored. Although most reviews argued the bike was superior as a motorcycle to it’s evocative predecessor, most agreed the styling was definitely an acquired taste at best, downright ugly at worst. The punters agreed and sales of the 999 reflected a bike that was very good but simply didn’t incite the passion of owners. Looking back Ducati’s Claudio Domenicali agrees:
“You should open your garage and always be taken aback at the sight of your Ducati. We can’t afford to make a badly designed bike. Other manufacturers might be able to get away with it but we can’t.”
Terbalnche was panned by all manner of armchair critics although ironically he had also styled perhaps the most beautiful of modern Ducatis, the Supermono. Nevertheless whilst the 916 through 998 range was the most attractive sportsbike on the market at the time, the arrival of the 999 passed the mantle of most beautiful to the very stylish Yamaha R1. Sacrilege!!
A Company in Trouble Not surprisingly the company’s results suffered. After reaching sales of 413 million Euros in 2002, sales fell 6% in 2003 with the Superbike range down 26%, the new Multistrada the only bright light. The following year the already poor 999 sales were flat. With sales falling in 2005 by 36%, a reduction at least in part attributable to the discontinuation of the 998 Final Edition, the company suffering a 41 million Euro loss. Clearly a substantial upgrade of the bike for the 2005 year had not been able to sway the opinion of potential customers. Management put into place a recovery plan for 2006 through 2010 designed to reposition the company towards higher end motorcycles that enjoyed better margins.
Ducati USA CEO, Michael Lock speaking about Pierre Terblanche and the lack o f success with the 999 range:-
“Well, the Superbike is not traditionally our largest volume seller, but it’s certainly our biggest earner. So if you wobble on the Superbike family, not for a year or two, you wobble for four years on sales, it disproportionately hits the earnings of the company. Monsters sell fantastically every year, but they’re relatively low-margin bikes for us. The Superbikes should be high-margin bikes. So yeah, I think you’re correct in saying that the management environment that brought that bike to market affected other things in the company as well, which all contributed towards a lack of confidence on the stock market, and our parent company at the time, our controlling stock interest TPG, very driven by the numbers, and if the Superbike’s not delivering the numbers, that creates a tension and anxiety in the company.”
By 2006, sales had flattened overall but the Superbike family dropped another 22%. Luckily Ducati had shown a new bike at the EICMA Milan show in November, a bike that received wide public acclaim according to the factory. That bike was a new flagship Superbike that would bring the company back towards it’s 916 roots with a return of some signature styling elements, most notably the single sided swing-arm and dual underseat exhausts. That bike was of course the Ducati 1098.
A Step Forward that Harks to the Past
Although the styling was clearly derivative and even, dare I say it, more than a little oriental in places, reviewers and customers loved it. In the USA the price was reduced compared with the 999 and the fact that the 1,099cc, 160 bhp engine comfortably out powered the exotic $30,000 999R for just half the price made the bike very compelling for the Ducatisti and many Japanese Sportbike owners too. There was an immediate impact on the company’s fortunes. In 2007, the first year the Ducati 1098 was on sale, sales rose 30% and the company rebounded from a loss of 8.5 million Euros to a profit of 13.3 million. The new design was a mjoar driver of the turn around. Domenicali again:
“Since the 1098 we’ve completely changed the way we design bikes. In 2005 ago we opened a design studio at the factory with all the equipment that you need including clay modelling facilities. In the past all Ducatis were designed outside of the factory, which can present certain problems as engineers and designers have different requirements.”
Success Renewed The rest is history and we now have the little brother, Ducati 848 and the homologation special, the 180bhp 1098R. This year the range was upgraded to include a 170bhp, 1198cc powerplant. With the benefit of time, the styling of the 999 series has grown on many riders, this author included. In fact I am a little partial to a black 999S monoposto!
Revisionists that we are, many riders on forums now proclaim a love for the 999 that overshadows the more modern machines arguing that the bike was simply ahead of it’s time, but facts are facts. When the 999 was new, where were these fans? They certainly weren’t buying. So despite the 1098/1198 being a little too derivative yes, a little Japanese, maybe, and a little lower in quality, quite possibly – we should all give a little thumbs up to the bike that pulled Ducati out of it’s tailspin.
Have your say. Has time been kind to the 999 or was it just ahead of its time? Chime in with your thoughts in the comments below.