How the 999 Nearly Killed Ducati

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.”

link: Visordown

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.”

link: Soup :: Interview: Ducati’s Michael Lock :: 08-08-2007

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.”

link: Visordown

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.

Want More? Read More Posts like this in our Opinion category Read More about the Ducati 999 Read More about the Ducati 1098 Read More about the Ducati 1198

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14 Responses to “How the 999 Nearly Killed Ducati”

  1. To blame the low sales #’s on 999 styling alone seams simplistic.
    The market in 2003 was packed with good bikes.
    The Japanies finaly had many light weight, good handling 1000cc 4-cyl sport bikes with 30% more power @ 30% lower price.
    Those wanting something more exclusive, Aprilia’s second generation RSV was worth a look, and you had the MV AUGUSTA.

    You could argue that if DUCATI had symply given the 999, a 1098 motor and sold it for $14,000 base that much of DUCATI’s recovery would still have happened.

  2. From the side, I really kind of dig the 999. But that head on view is really terrible. I’ve often thought one could do well by making a replacement headlight and fairing that was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Then again, you know my preference is always 80’s and 90’s superbikes, so the 999 didn’t have a chance with me from the start I guess 😀

    Good article, enjoyed the read.


  3. I liked it when it was new, and still do. Not to take anything away from the 916 and 1098. I like them all.

  4. @tea Thanks for your comment. I think it is fair to argue that the quality of Japanese sportbikes is even higher now than in 2003 so I’m not sure I buy your argument. MV Augusta and Apriia are bit players especially in the large US market.

  5. Great article! I think time will be kind to the 999/749 for the sake of its unique design. Interesting to find out it was inspired by early 20th C locomotives! But I wonder what other marques/models also featured the vertical light
    array and beak like nose – didn’t Bimota have a similar nose at the time? Did anyone else at the time? The GSX-Rs seem pretty beak/bird like too, but don’t really compare. Would be interesting to see how the 999 compared to other bike designs outside of the Ducati line up. Was it a radical design departure for Ducati exclusively, or for superbikes in general?

  6. A great article. Tea, not sure that I agree with you. I’d argue that there was a whole raft of people out there who WANTED to buy a Ducati, but couldn’t stomach the look. I’d include myself in that category.

    When the 1098 and then the 848 were released, a bunch of buyers who’d held back ran to the dealers. The turnaround was instantaneous. Dealers went from having excess stock, to having waiting lists. I think in Australia, Ducati sales DOUBLED (of course, Bayliss & Stoner may have had something to do with that as well).

    I do suspect, though, that with time, these bikes will become collectable. If a 999R came along at the right price…. yep, I’d happily park it in my garage!

  7. @Mike Bimota still has the same vertical light treatment. Checkout the DB7 which most people think looks fine.

  8. @Chris Yes I recall seeing the 1098 in the top ten best selling bikes in Australia at one point, a list the 999 was never on

  9. I think the article is acurate, but the title is way off.. I think it would be more accurate to say that TPG nearly killed Ducati as they got it all wrong, marketing, market research, budget and giving PT autonomy and then forcing changes on him by finance and by Ducati Corse.. R&D was way over budget and counsumer confidence rocked by new owners and new owner attitude and unhappy employees. The 999 was priced out the market before it hit the showroom. Ducati needed to much profit from the bike to meet greed and past debt through poor management and performance.

  10. @stuart. Good additions to the story although at least in the USA the 999 had a similar price to outgoing 998. Sales fell hardest when the 998FE was discontinued. I should be clear I have nothing against Terblanche, he has designed some of the most beautiful bikes including the Supermono

  11. As I am an owner of a ’06 999R I can hardly be described as impartial, but,… I remember seeing the new series bikes for the first time and thinking that here was a bike that was designed to sell at a lower price point and if you looked past the bright red paint you saw a bike that no longer has the (very expensive to produce)hand built detail that the 999 series has. I might go so far as to say that the xx9 was the last of a truly hand-built high-end low-production bikes.
    As to styling, the “shock of the new” design back then was predictably controversial.
    If given a opportunity, take a long look at a xx9 and you will see small touches of design and an overall emphasis on function/aerodynamics that were not noticed by the public…even now. How many Ducatisti have noticed that the top headlight bucket is actually the Duc logo?
    I am glad that Duc is now a success but sad to see what that cost the company in the shape of cheaper build quality and conformist styling.

  12. @Bruce Some good points although even the 1098 is still hand built by 2 people at the factory.

  13. I just bought a 05’999r and I could have bought a new 1098/1198. I feel the xx9 was ahead of its time design wise (im a designer, not that it matters). The bike was different; it was a high design bike, truly Italian, progressive, forward thinking, cutting edge. The masses don’t typically gravitate to something avant-garde,to progressive, it scares them to look to different, look at Harley that’s as basic as it gets and they sell a million ugly low design bikes. The 1098’s are safer, sure there cool but they needed to tone the bike down to please the masses, more Asian, lower the price so maybe kids might consider them. Put the two bikes side by side there’s no comparison in design, quality, and attention to detail, the xx9 wins every time.

  14. @todd I think it is fair to say the 1098 is a safe design. I would also argue that the reason why it’s safe is due to the commercial failure of the 999. Risk is everything in business and Ducati couldn’t afford to misfire twice