A Hunt for the Origins of a Little-Known Ducati

Santa Pazienza. It’s what Italians say at times when extra patience is needed. One of those times is when buying a vintage Italian motorcycle, especially one that does not fall under the “highly sought after” category. If you’re lucky enough to be picking up a Ducati 916, for example, there’s plenty of information available. There are detailed images and descriptions of this classic beauty in books, on the Internet, and in private collections. You can easily learn its history and compare what is original and what is not. Limited resources, however, accompany what was Ducati’s first “real” motorcycle, the 98. It falls in between the first motorized Ducati, the Cucciolo, and the Marianna, the first bike with bevel gear drive that put Ducati on the path to numerous racing victories. Both of those models are familiar to Ducatisti and vintage motorbike enthusiasts. So when one of the little-known 98 singles from the 1950s popped up for sale recently on Long Island, my husband and I began what became a search for origins. Our research has involved several motorcyclist friends, limited publications, and good old Italian bureaucracy.


As seen: missing a seat cover, but mostly complete: a 1955 Ducati 98. Provenance? [Wendy Pojmann]
In 2021, I rode in the Motogiro d’Italia on a modern Benelli and have since considered buying an old Italian motorcycle to ride in the version that takes place on the East Coast of the US. There have been a few contenders but this little bike caught my attention, not just because it’s so cute, but because I had never heard of it. “A what?” was my first question when my husband showed me the ad. The next question was whether or not we wanted to drive 200 miles each way with a trailer attached to our SUV through New York City traffic if we were not sure we wanted the motorcycle. The owner told us he had a friend ship it to him from Italy several years ago. His friend, sadly an early victim of Covid, told him the bike had done a Motogiro. I was intrigued, but I wanted to know if he meant this exact motorcycle had raced across Italian roads in the golden age of the 1950s, if it had perhaps competed in the more recent rally version, or simply that this model was a model used in the Motogiro. The friend was no longer around to tell us.

The ever-helpful Italian motoring press, covering every obscure model produced at some point or another. This article is from Legend Bike. [Wendy Pojmann]
I sent a few pictures to a couple of my Italian Motogiro friends, Massimo Mansueti, one of the organizers of the official Motogiro d’Italia, and Andrea Angiolini, who competes in the Motogiro and Milano-Taranto rallies every chance he gets. Mansueti forwarded the photos to a vintage Ducati expert who pointed out a few features of the motorcycle that he wasn’t sure were original. He had the 98 SS, the last model of the 98 (though we found out it is not officially called the SS by Ducati), which was gray and black with a fairing and a differently shaped tank. “Our” red 98 seemed to him to have some characteristics of the Turismo model but with the S engine recognizable by its oil radiator fins. This tank/motor combination seemed odd to him unless the bike had been in a race or an accident.

A scan of the Ducati catalogs from the 1950s: useful for comparison – what have we got? [Wendy Pojmann]
Angiolini meanwhile sent me scans of an issue of the classic Italian motorcycle magazine Legend Bike with an article dedicated to the 98. The feature offered more information about subtle differences among models. My husband then pointed out that in the 1950s manufacturers also sometimes ran out of parts or had to improvise. Since the 98S was a sales success for Ducati with approximately 5800 sold in Italy and 9000 in other countries, it seemed plausible that this was a 1954 Sport version that perhaps shared a few pieces with another model. In any case, we were not discouraged and our curiosity grew stronger.

Italian Automobile Club records of this very machine. [Wendy Pojmann]
When the owner in Long Island, who explained he could no longer ride because of a bad back, sent the additional pictures we requested, we saw the motorcycle had a license plate from Modena, Italy that appeared to be original. My Italian husband asked a friend in Rome to run the plate through an online database accessible through the Automobile Club d’Italia but it turned out to be too old to locate in a simple search. Angiolini then offered to run to the offices of the Pubblico Registro Automobilistico and consult the historical archives the next morning, right before we planned to drive to Long Island. This search was a success! Before I even got out of bed in the morning, he had sent me the names and birthdates of the all motorcycle’s owners from 1955, when it was first titled, to 1977, when it was sold to an owner who no longer paid the registration fee, which means it was removed from the registry of circulating vehicles. The sales prices even appeared on the hand-written document!

The Ducati 98 was produced from 1952-58, and was the factory’s first sports motorcycle. The engine is a 98cc pushrod OHV single, with integral 4-speed gearbox, suspended from a pressed-steel frame, with stylish bodywork. It was designed by Ducati’s chief engineer, Giovanni Fiorio. Note the cast alloy oil cooler at the front of the crankcase [Wendy Pojmann]
Based on the ages of the original owners, it seemed unlikely to me the motorcycle had competed in the road races of the 1950s. The first owner was 42, a little too old, and the second 22, a little too young, to have piloted the 100cc bike in such important events. I still intend to find out for certain, but this detail could no longer be my main motivation to buy it. Knowing the 98’s history did make me care about it more, but I needed to confirm my sentiments by seeing it in person. There’s always a visceral, emotional component to buying a motorcycle after all.

Despite the difficulty finding information about this bike, the new owner looks like a happy camper. [Wendy Pojmann]
My husband and I both liked the little Ducati right away. The owner started it on the first kick and then proudly zipped around his driveway. It looked great and even had a nice, full sound for such a small motorcycle. My husband then had a go, telling himself to remember that the shifter was on the wrong side and upside down. I decided to avoid potential disaster and settled for watching it in action until it was ours. The owner explained the bike was registered but he had left the original plate on it because, well, it was cool! He was fascinated to learn what we had found out about the bike and was surprised it was even possible to locate so much information from the old plate. He also said he mostly rode the bike to meet up for coffee with some other local vintage Italian motorcycle riders and rarely went out with it alone. He was a retired member of the NYPD now focused on restoring a few old cars.

Wendy Pojmann, Motogiro d’Italia veteran, on what she hopes is another veteran – of the original race in the 1950s. [Wendy Pojmann]
We loaded up the bike and headed into Friday rush hour on the Cross Bronx Expressway. The stop-and-go traffic meant nearby drivers had a chance to roll down their windows and ask about the little red Ducati. Five and half hours later, of what should have been a 3-hour drive, we unloaded our latest find, christened Santa Pazienza during our journey, and tucked her into the garage. Patience will also be needed as we decide what to do with her next. We want to find out what Ducati red shades looked like in the mid-1950s, which pieces are original, and what is available to someone who wants to restore and ride a 1954 Ducati 98 S. A trip to the Ducati Museum in Bologna is in order soon. I will also be checking the road racing archives to see if I am wrong about one of the original owners competing with it. The Milano-Taranto puts the 1954 Ducati 4-stroke in “le gloriose” (the glorious) class since it was a model that competed between 1950 and 1956. More on our discoveries later…in the meantime, Santa Pazienza.

License plate from Modena is a keeper, NYPD be damned. [Wendy Pojmann]


Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy will be published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann’s current project explores the social and cultural history of motorcycle coffee culture. She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.
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