DUCATI 900 IMOLA

DUCATI 900 IMOLA

by Bauer Xcel |

WHEN YOU’VE JUST MADE A ROLLS-ROYCE AEROPLANE ENGINE FOR A SPITFIRE, MODIFYING A DUCATI 900SS BY REBUILDING THE REAR HALF OF ITS FRAME AND MAKING A BRAND NEW FUEL TANK IS OBVIOUSLY A BREEZE. JUST ASK ROD MERRILL…

DUCATI 900 IMOLA

They do bike fettling a bit differently in deepest Cambridgeshire. Take Rod Merrill: he doesn’t just choose any old RD350-engine-into-an-RGV250- frame type of project – he’s made a carboncopy of a race bike of which only 38 ever existed. He’s made half a frame and welded it to his original Ducati 900SS one, just so he could have the bike to his own specifications.

He’s even made his own fuel tank, testing its range by riding around with a gallon of petrol in his backpack in case he conks out. It’s a project that has involved ingenuity, a protractor, a tape measure, patience, and even advice from our very own Ducati 900SS tinkerer-in-chief, Alan Seeley. “Do you do this kind of project pretty often then?” I ask him. “Well, the last thing I built was a Rolls- Royce Merlin engine,” he shrugs. You know, the thing that’s used to power planes like the Hurricane and the Spitfire. Once you’ve done that, making a bespoke motorbike is a bit like asking Mary Berry to knock up a gateau.

First up, to understand how and why Rod undertook a project of such brilliant randomness, a history lesson. “Do you know what a Baines Imola is?” he asks. Feeling like a dim-witted buffoon wearing a dunce’s cap, I sheepishly admit that I do not. “Well, in 2002 the Baines Brothers, who own Baines Racing, had the idea to put a belt-drive engine in a lightweight frame so that it resembled the old bevel-drive Ducati 900SS but was more reliable, seeing as the old bevels weren’t – I had one back in the day so I can vouch for that. So they contacted Roger and Gary Cotterill, who owned Denver Motorcycles, and Roger made 38 frames out of T45 Reynolds tubing. Sadly when Denver shut down, the jig that he made the frames on got chucked away.” This piece of reckless jig disposal was not the start Rod was looking for with his 900SS project given that he was going to make his own frame, but when you’re a 56-year-old master engineer and welder who wielded his first spanner at the age of 10, it was nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

“I didn’t rebuild all the frame – just the bit I needed to be a different shape”

FRAME

The frame proved a big challenge, given that the Baines Imola that Rod based his bike on had a shorter wheelbase than a standard 900SS. “Even so, the Baines frames were very similar to the 900SS ones – the only difference was that they used 1.5mm tubing and Ducati used 2mm. That meant there was no point rebuilding all of the frame – just the bit I needed to be a different shape. “Once I’d cut the rear half of the frame after the tank, I put a 22mm tube inside a 25mm one, bent the loop back and slid it in. The shock mountings are all new where the footrest hangers and triangles are, too.” Rod didn’t use a jig, just a pipe bender. The frame took three months.

CLOCKS

“These are the original clocks off a beltdrive SS but I’ve moved them so they’re more spaced out like the ones on the bevel,” says Rod. “I’ve got all the little idiot lights between the clocks like they were on the original Bevel too, and I’ve also put LEDs in there for oil, generator, high beam, lights-on and turn.”

STAMP OF APPROVAL For added authenticity, Rod got this badge from Baines Racing. "It was only fitting mine had one," he says. "Baines sold the kit for 026 but the bike was never built."

DUCATI 900 IMOLA

STAMP OF APPROVAL

For added authenticity, Rod got this badge from Baines Racing. "It was only fitting mine had one," he says. "Baines sold the kit for 026 but the bike was never built."

ENGINE

“The engine was in a state when I got the bike,” laughs Rod. “I took it to pieces and rebuilt it. I’ve kept the standard pistons but I’ve fitted Keihin FCR41 carbs which really make it go – they bolted straight on. I’ve smoothed out all the ports as well –you don’t take loads out of them as that messes them up. “The engine was black to start with but the paint falls off them anyway, so I glass-blasted it and polished everything to get this finish. I got new bearings for everything from Anglia Bearings in Peterborough. Alan Seeley told me about them – they got me every single bearing I needed, even the ones Alan couldn’t find for inside his gearbox.”

DUCATI 900 IMOLA

“Because I had a bevel-drive 900SS, I’ve got a proper workshop manual with the dimensions of the original frame. I’ve also got a workshop manual for the belt-drive 900SS which has the frame spec in. Through the Ducati forum I found a guy near me called Keith Bartlett who owns number six of the 38 Baines Imolas – one of only two left in England. I got in touch with him, and he let me go and photograph his bike and measure it. I wanted to take the monoshock off the back of mine and fit twin-shocks, so I needed to get all the angles for the footrest hangers and rear shocks. I just took my protractor, tape measure and straight-edge round and then I could start.” Having taken apart the slightly shonky 1994 900SS he’d bought as the donor bike, Rod got to work. “I used the front of the standard frame, and cut it off just after the tank. Then I made a new frame for the back, which I changed the dimensions for because I wanted a dual seat rather than a single one. It wasn’t that difficult because you know what the radius is for the back of the seat – you just measure across the frame. Then I slid it inside the standard frame and welded it up.”

The fuel tank has even more of a homemade vibe, being built completely from scratch by Rod. This wasn’t done in a look-how-clever-I-am-because-I-can-make-a-fuel- tank kind of way, but out of necessity given that the Baines Imola’s tank basically had the capacity of a can of Coke. “The Imola could only do 70 miles before it ran out of fuel, which was pretty useless,” says Rod. “So I made my own. I made a former, got some aircraft-grade aluminium and bashed it around a bit. I had a picture of Keith’s bike’s tank and I knew some of the dimensions of it, because obviously it had to cover the frame rail.

I also had the original tank because I had to copy that quite closely underneath – it fits over the airbox, so that bit had to be the same. The new tank has a capacity of exactly 15 litres and so far I’ve done 130 miles without breaking down, so I’ve roughly doubled the size of it from what the original Imola had.” For the swingarm, Rod used one from a Ducati 750SS but with the shock mounting removed. “Because it pivots in the back of the engine it’s dimensionally right – all I had to do was cut out the shock absorber mounting near the crankcase, and then put my rear shock mountings on the back end of it. I just got my protractor out to get the angles right – it wasn’t that hard.” Having rebuilt the standard engine, fitted Keihin FCR41 carbs and got a whole new set of bearings made at Anglia Bearings in Peterborough (courtesy of a recommendation from our very own Alan Seeley, who lives down the road from Rod), the bike was nearly finished.

DUCATI 900 IMOLA

All Rod had to do was… design and make the triangular side panels from nothing. “The Baines Imola didn’t have them so I had nothing to go on – but even if you could buy them I’d still have had to make them myself because all the angles on my bike are bespoke,” says Rod. “I made wooden formers for the side panels, put aluminium mesh over them, bent it to the correct shape, pushed it against the frame rails until it was right and then trimmed it up. Then I put some really fine fibreglass on and smoothed it down.” The pristine paintwork was done by Simon at Flying Tiger – another recommendation from Alan. With finishing touches like the Keihan exhaust, an original 1980 900SS double seat,genuine belt-drive SS clocks spaced-out as per the old bevel bike’s formation, and a front mudguard off a new Ducati Monster, Rod’s masterpiece was complete – and it has a major benefit over the standard bike. “The 1994 900SS weighed 186kg, but with the lighter bit of frame and other weight-saving parts mine is 168kg,” smiles Rod. “All I can tell you is that it’s bloody fast.” We told you they did things a bit differently in deepest Cambridgeshire, didn’t we?

A REAL MONSTER

“The forks are from the standard bike I bought – I just stripped them down and rebuilt them. I had to make a little plate with a 12mm slot in it, which holds the compression down on the spring while you undo the nut underneath. As for the Hagon shocks at the back, they were one of the first things I got for the bike as I needed them to build the swingarm.” “These wheels were from a ’94 Monster – the 900SS and Monster have the same wheels. They were still a bit tricky to fit, though, because the spindle and wheel bearings changed; Ducati increased the front spindle diameter from 14 to 17mm, so I needed different bearings. The speedo drive pick-up has a different sized hole as well.”

DUCATI 900 IMOLA

SITTING COMFORTABLY

“I had to get the fuel tank positioned right as I needed to make all the brackets to get the seat in the correct place. The seat is an original 1980 900SS one which I got on eBay. I was lucky because I’ve never seen another one for sale; if I hadn’t been able to get it then I would’ve had to revert to a single seat. It only cost £99 and I’ve just had it reupholstered. “The swingarms on the 750SS and 900SS are the same – it’s just that the US-spec bike got a steel swingarm and us Brits ended up getting an aluminium one. Modifying mine to fit twin-shocks was quite simple – it’s all about the angle of the shocks as you don’t want them facing straight down. I used a protractor to measure everything.”

SPECIFICATION

1994 DUCATI 900SS IMOLA

DUCATI 900 IMOLA

ENGINE 1994 Ducati 900SS, air-cooled 904cc L-twin, Keihin FCR41 carbs, smoothed ports, new bearings, glass-blasted and polished engine parts, handmade 15-litre fuel tank, Silmoto 45mm downpipes, Keihan stainless steel exhaust system

CHASSIS Frame made using front half of the standard 900SS frame with a bespoke rear half designed and handmade by Rod, Ducati 750SS swingarm with shock mountings removed in order to accept twin-shocks, rebuilt standard forks, Mead Speed 900SS-copy race fairing, homemade fairings, Hagon rear shocks, reupholstered 1980 900SS double-seat, original beltdrive 900SS clocks, 1994 Ducati Monster wheels with new bearings to help fitment, 2015 Ducati Monster front mudguard, homemade rearsets

THANKS John and Geoff Baines for all the help, Keith Bartlett, Simon at Flying Tiger Paintwork

WORDS HANS SEEBERG PHOTOGRAPHY JASON CRITCHELL

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