First-ever road test of Ducati’s mystery bike
Mysterious and monolithic, Ducati’s abortive V4 Apollo has always had one big question hanging over it: what’s it really like to ride? Because of safety concerns thanks to the tyre problems of 40 years ago, no journalist was ever allowed to test it back then – and until the generosity of Hiroaki Iwashita brought the sole surviving example back into the public domain via his considerate decision to loan it to the factory museum on an extended basis, Ducati’s dinosaur was a two-wheeled fossil, set in stone. Now, thanks to the hard work of the late former Ducati Corse race mechanic Giuliano Pedretti and his colleagues, who carefully restored the sole surviving as-found example into running condition, I can supply the answer.
Iwashita-san acquired the Daytona showbike, second of the two Apollos built (the whereabouts of the original metallic gold example are unknown, if indeed it still survives) in 1986 from Cincinnati-based DomiRacer Inc., then America’s largest vintage parts specialist whose owner Bob Schanz had acquired the contents of the Berliner warehouse when the company finally closed down two years earlier. Among the many Ducati artefacts was the Apollo prototype, “somewhat neglected and shop worn, but missing only the original [fuel] tank”, according to Schanz in a letter he wrote to me in April 1984 enclosing the documentation for the 1959 Ducati 125cc desmo twin-cylinder GP racer I’d just bought from him. “I’ll let you know if I get it running, unless you want to buy it from me as is?” Ouch! Talk about a tough choice – but, hardened racer as I was (Schanz generously sponsored me in Historic GPs for three full seasons) and unable to afford to buy them both, the idea of restoring and riding a unique piece of Ducati’s racing history, came ahead of owning a dead-end dinosaur – and not even a desmo one, at that. What a missed opportunity, passing up on what is today most assuredly a million-dollar motorcycle!
So instead it was Iwashita-san who bought the bike from DomiRacer a couple of years later for $17,000 – big money, back then – and secreted for the next decade in his private collection in Japan until 1995, when he displayed it at a vintage bike show in Tokyo. This alerted Ducati to the bike’s existence, and when the factory museum was established in the wake of the TPG takeover at the end of ‘96, in due course it became a centrepiece exhibit on extended loan, after Pedretti & Co. brought it back to original, running condition. But, still – it had never been ridden in public, so when Ducati decided to bring the Apollo to Britain to run it at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in front of 120,000 spectators, they did me the honour of asking if I’d ride it for them there. Sadly, family commitments made that impossible – so instead they asked me to come to Bologna a month or so earlier to make sure it was running OK for whoever took my place. Happy to oblige, amici – provided you have some modern tyres fitted, to make sure I don’t emulate Fuzzi Librenti 40 years ago, and have the rear tread wrap itself round my neck…!
Actually, while the pair of white-walled 16-inch Goodyears the Apollo wears today are the same type as those on the bike when it appeared at Daytona 40 years back, at least they’re freshly-fitted new-old stock, so quite adequate for a gentle cruise in which the headlamp- mounted Jaeger speedo’s needle didn’t once pass the 70 mph mark – yes, miles not kilometres, inevitably reflecting the American market it was built for. At just 760mm/29.5 in. high the relatively plush seat (its originality is underlined by the mark of a ‘60s coffee cup imprinted in the cream vinyl upholstery!) is low enough to throw a leg over easily, and once astride the Apollo you’re immediately surprised how low-slung and slim it feels – it isn’t as wide as it looks once you’re sitting on it, and indeed seems hardly any bulkier than a bevel-drive desmo V-twin. The high, pulled-back handlebar is very ‘60s, very US of A, though not as exaggerated as on some later Harleys, and combined with the well-placed footrests which aren’t nearly as far forward as on many modern cruisers, delivers a surprisingly comfy riding stance which isn’t a problem at speed, in spite of the high ‘bars – you don’t feel you have to hang on too tight, and there’s no instability at speed as a result. Just chill out and cruise.
OK – time to do just that, by scorning the kickstart and twisting the ignition key in its slot in the headlamp shell, to turn the engine over via the Fiat car self-starter, until it chugs into life. The four Dell’Orto racing carbs which the Apollo currently wears (and which presumably therefore indicate that this bike has the most powerful state of tune, not the restricted twin-carb spec) scorn the use of a choke, but on a warm Italian June day the motor catches quite quickly, then settles down to a quite fast idle – no revcounter fitted, of course, but it sounds around 1,500 rpm – with an unmistakable lilt more like an American V8, than an Italian four-cylinder minicar. The Apollo’s exhaust note is absolutely unique, quite unlike any V4 Honda, and quite loud, too – the slender twin Silentium silencers don’t have a lot of packing in them, and the result has the same trademark lilt as a later desmo V-twin, only busier-sounding and higher-pitched, even at lower rpm. Very distinctive.
Time to motor, and lifting my right toe to engage bottom gear on the one-up/four-down right- foot gearchange with its extremely long lever throw, I was impressed how smoothly the Apollo took off from rest, even if the clutch started slipping at first, until I adjusted it up on the lever. After that it was fine, and without abusing it unduly I could make a reasonably spirited traffic-light launch – until the time came to change gear from the long first, up into second. That’s when the age and nature of Ducati’s V4 cruiser comes to your attention, because even swapping gears in the higher ratios without having to go through neutral is a very slow, measured process, which you must steel yourself not to rush. Do so, and for sure you’ll get a false neutral – so respect the slow change, practically count to three before notching the next gear home, and you’ll be OK. Mostly.
However, once the next gear higher does go in, the Apollo drives forward eagerly with a very long-legged feel, especially in the intermediate gears – there’s great response from the light-action throttle, and frankly there’s no way this engine feels like a child of the ‘60s, more like 20 years later. However, although top gear (fifth, remember, at a time when practically all other bikes, and especially big ones, only had four-speed gearboxes) feels like an overdrive, so would have been ideal for cruising the freeways then starting to proliferate throughout mid-’60s America as part of the Interstate Freeway Expansion Program, there’s enough midrange pickup from the meaty 1256cc engine to use the bottom four ratios just as a means of getting into top, and then leaving it there, surfing the rich waves of torque available at almost any revs. There’s no record from the ‘60s of how much torque the Apollo ever produced, which is a shame, but if they ever get it on a dyno again to find out, I’ll guarantee the figure will be a stump-pulling one that will shame most modern hardware of the V-twin persuasion.
Yet the Apollo’s undoubtedly impressive engine stats are delivered with a smooth panache completely at odds with its ‘60s genesis. Compared to a British twin of the pre-Isolastic era, or any Harley ever made, it’s like setting a sewing machine against a concrete mixer in terms of vibration and riding comfort, only a BMW Boxer of the era delivering anything like the same smoothness at any revs as the Apollo. Out of respect for the bike’s rarity (and the lack of any spares!) I didn’t rev it right out, but even at higher rpm the same unruffled, lazy-feeling response we came to take for granted a decade later on any V-twin bearing the Ducati badge, is evident on the Apollo. At a time when there were no four-cylinder motorcycles of any type on the market, not even MV Agusta’s plug-ugly 600 which began production in 1966, the Apollo would have set a standard of performance and rider comfort that even a decade later would set the benchmark for the Japanese to aim at. This was truly a bike ahead of its time, loaded with avantgarde engineering.
Well, engine-wise, that is – for the Apollo’s handling is frankly adequate rather than exceptional, even by the standards of the era, and the culprits are the US police department regulations which imposed the use of those 16-inch tyres on a bike crying out for the 18-inch sports rubber then being introduced in the mid-’60s. Even without the safety considerations which led to the Apollo project’s demise, the dynamic limitations of the car-type four-ply Goodyear covers handicap the Apollo’s handling potential irredeemably. They look and feel completely unsuitable for anything more than about 15 degrees of lean, and although it’s possible to deck the footrests very easily without too much of a sense of insecurity, you can feel the tread start to move about under you if you start asking too much of the tyres in corners. The long wheelbase certainly makes it handle like a truck in tight corners (copyright: Franco Farne!), but the payoff is good stability round fast sweepers, where the surprisingly effective Ceriani suspension – on the plush side of compliant, but helped to settle over bumps by the bike’s 271kg dry weight – felt pretty good by the standards of 40 years ago. And the very springy seat helped soak up any shocks that got past the twin rear shocks.
Really, the only thing on the Apollo, apart from the heavy steering and those ludicrous tyres, which gave serious cause from concern were the brakes. While the matched pair of 220mm single leading-shoe drums front and rear are adequate at slow speeds carrying a rider some way on from his last steak dinner with baked potato and all the trimmings, they fade badly after a couple of hard stops, sending the lever back to the ‘bar and making the rear brake pedal all loose and floppy. OK, by the standards of the era they were probably the industry average – but with the performance delivered by that fantastic engine, the tyres weren’t the only thing that needed attention, just the one that brought an end to the project, full stop.
And that was literally a two-wheeled tragedy, because the inability of the tyre companies to come up with a product capable of harnessing the performance delivered by such a big-engined, heavy bike, deprived ‘60s bikers of the thrills and satisfaction of riding the first of the next generation of four-cylinder sportbikes. For although Joe Berliner had the right idea in commissioning the Apollo from Ducati back in 1961, it was for what turned out to be the wrong reasons. If he hadn’t quite understandably focused on the US police market with its insistence on 16-inch rubber, but had conceived the Apollo as the world’s first four-cylinder sportbike with tyres and handling to match, even (especially?) at the higher price that the Italian V4 would have dictated compared to the Triumph Bonneville that later became the benchmark sportbike of the 1960s, the US market – and those of us in Europe – wouldn’t have had to wait another ten years for Kawasaki to do the job properly with the arrival of the Z-1, in the wake of the CB750 Honda. After riding it I’m convinced that the Ducati Apollo was one of the great missed opportunities of global motorcycling. What a pity.