1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...
1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

I wangled a ride down the California coast from San Francisco a couple months ago on a brand-new 2021 Ducati SuperSport 950 S. Happily, my old friend Jimbo lives halfway home toward my digs 425 miles southward – 212.5 miles being the ideal amount per day on a sporty Ducati SS. Not only has he become a tri-tip gourmand who cooks by feel and needs no meat thermometer, Jimbo’s excellent partner, Cristina, set me up in the lavishly appointed octagonal Jefferson Suite.

My excuse for the layover was that Jim also owns a 1996 Ducati Supersport. In fact, who can remember 25 years ago – but that motorcycle may have been the genesis of our friendship. While I was slaving away in stately Petersen towers in LA for Motorcyclist magazine, Jimmy was being an artsy person as the now famous Petersen Automotive Museum was opening a block east on Wilshire Boulevard. Maybe he came to me wanting to know if he should buy a new 900SS? If he had, I probably would’ve advised against it. 

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

Nurse Ratched wasn’t around when I stopped in a fogged-in Lucia on my way down Highway 1.

It’s interesting now that there are quite a few well-preserved Ducati 900 Supersports out there, but you never see a like-new Honda CBR600F3 or ZX-9R Kawasaki – which probably would’ve been my choices in 1996. Maybe that’s when Jim first learned to use me as a barometer of how not to proceed?

Town and country

It’s all horses for courses anyway. When Jimmy decamped Los Angeles, he went north to Santa Barbara, and he’s been retreating northward ever since, one step ahead of civilization but now surrounded by wineries. All that time, his garages have never been more than a few minutes from a tasty California backroad or three. Commuting is not a thing he does. I don’t commute anymore either, but I do wind up hacking through plenty of urban jungle anyway since I live in the epicenter of Orange County. Someday I shall be free, but for now I require a certain amount of comfortable utility in a motorcycle.

JB: Jim, why did you buy that 900 SS anyway? You coulda had a 916 in 1996? 

Jim: Interesting question. I was in love with the 916 and thought it was beautiful, but I couldn’t justify the price at the time because they were really expensive and had a waiting list. When I went to see Earl at Pro-Italia in Glendale, and saw the SP with all the special carbon bits and number plaque, I was hooked. I had always had a soft spot for the Superlight and older air-cooled Ducatis, so that helped soften the blow on not leaving with a 916. I’d say my bike has aged well as a great example of a bygone era. It is chock full of upgrades and parts that I tried to do correctly, like the rare Termignoni spaghetti full exhaust system, Ohlins shock and ultra rare Karbacher rear tail. 

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

JB: Looking back on it, everybody was crazy in love with the 916. But it was a pretty dedicated sportbike and not really the right motorcycle for major metropolitan areas – even though it was a spectacular high-speed freeway lane-splitter. There wasn’t any steering lock, it put out quite a bit of heat from the underseat pipes in slow going, and you really did have to assume the position. Also, my 916s, 996s, and 998s were all on loan from Ducati, so maintenance was never a thing I had to concern myself with. 

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

Tepusquet Canyon is right around the corner.

All to say, the 900SS made a lot more sense for most people who actually bought Ducatis. Even though “Superbikes” hadn’t reached the ridiculous horsepower levels they have today, the 916 was almost overkill for everyday use, or so it seemed. The torquey old air-cooled 900SS motor made better power for street use 90% of the time, except maybe on really fast roads like Angeles Crest. And you wouldn’t mistake it for a touring bike, but the SS ergos are quite a bit kinder than 916 ones.

Jim: While not the fastest bike, I have never wanted more motor. It is still big fun every time I get on it. I had my Angeles Crest era, too, going up every weekend with burned crumply tire edges, glad I made it.  

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

Blake Nimmons photo, circa 1997

Not that long ago

JB: 1996 seems like a long time ago, I guess because it was. A fourth of a century. So, you were still living in LA. How’d you keep it from getting stolen? I bet you kept it in your living room am I right?  

Jim: I kept it in the vault of the Petersen Museum parked next to one of the first MV Agusta F4s ever made, and drove my truck to work most days. I used to park it in the lobby but I got yelled at for messing up the newly waxed floor.  

JB: Has water touched it yet?  

Jim: Once I left it outside during one of the terrible Santa Barbara fires and it was covered in ash. I had no choice but to hose it down then.

JB: How do you like my new SuperSport 950 with 937 Testastretta motor? Compare and contrast. Are you dying to ride it?

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

Jim: The new bike is interesting but seems fussy for the sake of progress.  I really do like the nose, it’s so aggressive and compact. Not sure how it will age or will be looked back on as fitting into a certain era of styling. We all get to a certain age where aspects of culture leave us behind. We may be approaching that in life. I think my bike is near perfection in function, simplicity and styling from many angles except of course for the crazy parts-bin headlight. One minute you are in your 20s buying a new exciting Ducati and the next you are talking about an antique. Also, when I shared the photos of the two bikes, not a single person said to me they would take the newer bike, I wonder why? Maybe they are just being nice.

JB: Probably because they haven’t ridden them back to back. Like we’ve figured out, engineers have to engineer, that’s how they get paid. Once they learned to bend plastic into all those compound curves, how were they not gonna do it? I appreciate the simple slab sides of your old fairing, but the 2021 is pretty swoopy in its own way, and it really does conform much better to the human form. 

And the headlights and all, with the DRLs, whether you like the look or not, tell you we have reached a level of technical ability way beyond plucking a headlight from whatever Fiat shelf yours came from. It makes you wonder which came first at the Duc factory, the headlight or the hole? 

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

Then again I love the Veglia instruments, like inheriting a fine old watch from your granddad.

Jim: You’ll note the SP came with a temp gauge too, even though we have no coolant.  

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

But you can’t control your ride modes and lean-sensitive ABS and TC with an old watch.

JB: Well I’ll be. I have almost no old magazines, but I did manage to hang onto a binder of all the 1996 Motorcyclist issues. We tested your very 900 SS against a Moto Guzzi Sport 1100 that September. Yours is the SP version, with carbon-fiber fenders, floating discs, and one-inch wider rear wheel on an aluminum swingarm – $10,440! 

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

The ’90s…

And in that same issue, the cover story is “World’s Best Sportbike!” Wasn’t I going on earlier about ZX-9Rs and CBR600s? The Suzuki GSX-R750 won, it was $8,999. And my pick in that contest, the Ducati 916 (3rd place), was $15,700 (2nd: Honda CBR900RR, $9,799, 4th: Kawasaki ZX-9R, $9,999, 5th: ZX-6R, $7,899, 6th: Honda CBR600 F3, $7,699). 

Where’d you get that kind of money in ’96?   

Jim: The 1990s were pretty good to us weren’t they? Everybody was feeling pretty confident about the future in that pre-911, pre-internet era. I was just out of college and tasked with helping design the Petersen Museum from scratch. I had a giant budget, a wall-of-glass office facing Wilshire Blvd. Life was good so why not call up the credit union? It seemed like simpler times – and then I got my first computer. I wondered if I could draw on it? 25 years later, I am still here attached to the Mac… 

JB: I too had the sweet 14th floor office, in which I was about 1/4 as productive as I am today on the home patio. I bought a condo, a new Ranger truck, and had a child. I’m still driving it and him.

Jim: Yes, you’re keeping it up nicely (sarcasm). My first new car was also a Ranger 4í—4. It’s nice your boy is doing so much more with his life than you did with yours. It’s been great watching Ryan grow up from a shy little kid afraid of rocks on his mini-bike to an impressive adult kicking butt on all fronts. 

JB: Yes, I am proud of the kid, but I don’t think it’s right he makes more money than I do. Then again, my $800k hovel was probably $100k when I was 27. Is there any kind of reverse inheritance financial product?

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

Anyway, according to that old Motorcyclist, your old SS made 72.8 horses at 7000 rpm; my new SS makes 102.4 at 9200, and 65.2 lb-ft torque at 7700 rpm to your old bikes 57.2 at 5200 rpm – all rear-wheel Dynojet numbers. But your old bike weighs 25 pounds less than the new one, too – 445 wet to 469. 

Jim: My bike came really plugged up and geared to the moon. After the mondo jet kit, Termi system and airbox mods it ran like a different bike and still does. Not sure how much HP that added but a few, and a couple more teeth on the rear sprocket really woke things up too. Forks by the famous Stig Petersen and a few adjustable ride height clicks on the rear Ohlins really dialed in the handling. Getting those kinds of gains out of your 2021 bike, I don’t even know where you’d begin – and all of it would probably upset your onboard computers and make you a felon. 

JB: It’s more the torquey midrange of course. Your two-valve motor is probably right there with the new one at 5 or 6000 rpm, where we ride most of the time. Beyond, there, the new bike’s four-valve heads let it keep building big power for another 2000 rpm and 30 horsepower past where yours is all done. 

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

Everybody including the great Peter Egan loved your SS when it was new (actually in 1992), and it’s still a lot of fun to ride in a way I somehow think a 916 wouldn’t be if I got on one today. But I have to say the new 2021 SuperSport, riding down Highway 1 along the ocean, was just about the perfect vehicle for that road, so smooth and well-behaved yet with that same V-twin rhythm and midrange power as your SS. I didn’t realize they’d given me the “S” until it occurred to me after a while how sweet it rode over what looked like pretty big bumps where California is attempting to erode into the Pacific.

We couldn’t go on this way

The thing the engineers had no choice but to change was the engine. The biggest thing I noticed immediately when we set off together was the smell of internal combustion, which is a thing I never noticed at all 25 years ago. When I fire up my 2000 carbureted Yamaha R1, it’s the same deal with the exhaust fumes. I bet I could fumigate my house with it. Are you thinking of stepping up to the odorless new Euro 5 SuperSport, or will you wait for the electric Ducati? 

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

Jim: I will not grace that ridiculous question with a response. My bike does stink and it is hard to keep the carbs clean in this ethanol era; that is the biggest challenge owning this bike. The float drains are hard to reach so you have to ride it as much as possible. I recently rebuilt the carbs and it was just a mess in there, replete with green mold. My next new bike will be an adventure bike and after that, there’s no plan.

JB: Will you retire it at some point and just ride your VFR and KTM? Most guys your age park their vintage Ducati in the den. I can’t find the picture of the one I saw converted into an excellent bar with a big piece of custom Lexan on top of it. Now it’s got 21,000 miles on it and all that metal fatigue from hauling you around for 25 years, what do you figure will fail spectacularly first, and how will you deal with it?

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

Cagiva owned Ducati from 1985 to 1996.

Jim: This is what I get for helping you? I see. Ducati had a frame recall that was performed years ago, so it’s all good. I still ship the old girl to Pro Italia for maintenance and all is in order. I was recently down there and everyone came out to look at it. It’s older than some of the kids working there. I will ride it as long as humanly possible. All these years later it’s still a thrill. There is a lot happening to ride it quickly, a beast underneath you. With a bike this old you do wonder if it will start and then if it does, will it shoot oil out of any orifices? If not, then good to go.

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

JB: Sometimes I watch the dream cars of my youth hammer off at the Mecum Auctions for a few hundred thou, and I wonder if, after the Boomers with all the money are gone, will anybody even want those cars anymore? I mean, their heirs will have the money, but will they want LS6 Chevelles? Will the outsized carbon footprint be the social equivalent of the mink stole? I can appreciate Crockers and Vincent Black Shadows, but I’m really not dying to own or ride one. Maybe those vehicles all become like art now, a static store of wealth?

Jim: I have been watching the values on these Supersports, and after many years of being stagnant they are starting to pick up a bit. They deserve to be collected. I don’t think the really valuable gas vehicles will ever be abandoned. More like, old Corvette club Bob behind the poor farmer still in his `82 Toyota pickup going to work in a gasoline dystopia. The rich and the poor in the petroleum lane, everybody else in their shiny Volvo EV…  

A 916 for the modern world

JB: What was really interesting was when I flipped back in that old Motorcyclist to the “World’s Best Sportbike” cover story. That original 916 made exactly 1 hp more than this new Testastretta SS, 2.6 fewer lb-ft of torque, and weighed 1 pound more than the new SS. What we’re looking at here, then, is a modern, comfortable 916 for $95 more than the original 916 sold for, that’s also Euro 5 clean and comes with a quickshifter, Ohlins suspension and an IMU to keep you from hurting yourself. A pretty good quarter-century of progress, really. And the base, non-S model is only $13,495.

The other kids wouldn’t share the new V4 Streetfighter or Panigale, but if they’re like the first-year Panigale I rode around Laguna Seca a session or two, upon which I was exhausted after about two laps, I just don’t think I’d enjoy an all-day ride on the street as much as I do cruising on the SuperSport. An 11,500-rpm torque peak seems too much like work, and I don’t need 208 horsepower very often. 

But it’s nice to know Ducati offers them as an option: 25 years ago, the 916 was as fast as Italian bikes got, and your Supersport wasn’t too far off the pace. Now, the new SS’s 916-level performance seems relatively sedate. Have my skills really gotten that much better in these last 25 years? I feel like I should ask my doctor if it’s safe for me to ride the new Ducati Streetfighter? You?

Jim: I got to ride a 1099 a while back and I am not sure I need a Superbike for the type of riding I do. My street skills are not progressing as much as my dirt skills. My future is more dirt adventure-oriented when I’m not headed up the coast on my other old jewel – my VFR800, with the lady on the back. 

1996 Ducati 900 Supersport SP Meets 2021 Ducati SuperSport...

Taco time in Santa Ynez

JB: You’re a prime Multistrada candidate, really. At the end of the day, it’s nice that you still have the old SS. We both appeared as innocent babes in the woods in California, we’ve both been through a lot of upheaval over the last 25 years, and it doesn’t appear to be easing up anytime soon. Well, actually life has stabilized a bit lately – but now that things are looking up, the whole state’s about to dry up and burn to the ground around us. Typical. But I’m glad you still have your Ducati. And here’s to hoping we’re still around 25 more years from now to see what makes the Panigale V4 look as archaic as your Ducati does now.

Jim: Ahem, let me top up your Zinfandel.

Still drawing and riding motos after all these years, check out Jim’s work here. 

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