Fabio Taglioni may not be the first name that jumps into your mind when you’re thinking about famous motorsport engineers, but I bet if we said ‘the creator of the Desmo’ your ears may prick up a little? Fabio Taglioni was one of the world’s greatest motorcycle engineers and boy, did he leave a legacy! Read on to find out more about Fabio’s championship winning designs and how his designs became artworks within the field of mechanical engineering.
Born to Ride
In 1920, in Lugo, Italy, Fabio Taglioni was born into an engineering family. He frequently spent time in his father’s mechanical workshop as a child which led to a passion for racing as well as the mechanics behind motorised vehicles. He went on to study engineering at the University of Bologna and in 1949 became Chair of Mechanics & Design at the Alberghetti Technical Institute in Imola, a town which would later become home to one of the world’s most legendary racing circuits.
Teaching didn’t suit Fabio Taglioni and he soon left to work for bike manufacturer Mondial and later, engine manufacturer Ceccato. This was the best possible start for an inventive engineer like Taglioni. Innovation was encouraged among the ranks and soon Ceccato built the first of Taglioni’s designs – a 75cc OHC single (or SOHC). This changed the course of Taglioni’s career forever, which in turn shaped the future of motorcycle design, because as we all know by now, Taglioni then left Ceccato to take up a position at Ducati. This was 1954.
Società Scientifica Radio Brevetti Ducati started out in 1926 as a manufacturer of vacuum tubes and condensers and later radio components. The factory became a target for Allied bombers and was completely destroyed during World War II. The Ducati family business was then taken over by the Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale – a public holding company set up by Mussolini to ‘rescue’ struggling businesses after the war. Eventually they assumed control and the Ducati brothers lost their stake in the business.
In the late 1940’s, Ducati collaborated with disruptive innovator SIATA who had created an engine which could be mounted on a standard man-powered bike. The new Ducati owners had grander plans for this lightweight engine and introduced a complete motorised bike diversifying their core business. This was known originally by the name given by SIATA to the engine – the ‘Cucciolo’, but later became the known as the Ducati 60. Although this came some 65 years after the first true production motorbike, Ducati realised there was a niche in the Italian market for a lightweight commuter bikes. A far cry from the powerful sportsbikes which they are now so well known for.
An Italian Passion
So as Fabio Taglioni was honing his craft, other Italians were hell bent on dominating the world of motorcycle racing. This was their sport! In 1950, Only British and Italian riders won rounds in the challenging Grand Prix series which included the Isle of Man, Spa-Francorchamps, Assen and Monza. Gilera and MV Augusta were fighting for supremacy against Norton, AJS and Triumph.
Ducati started using the Cucciolo as a racing bike in 1951. During this time Taglioni joined Mondial with his time there culminating in Mondial winning the most prestigious Italian street race – the Motogiro. Despite this success, Taglioni was shunned from the celebration dinner and left. Possibly the best career move he could make. Many manufactures vied for Fabio’s attention and Ford offered him a blank cheque for development but his passion lied in racing, not road bikes.
By the time he joined Ducati in 1954, their government owners had already made the move towards bigger motorcycles and launched the world’s first four-stroke scooter – the Cruiser. Despite a huge launch and good press, the Cruiser was a flop. Rather than fighting the tide, Ducati decided to embrace the trend for racing bikes. They had already identified that winning races was a sure-fire way to establish itself in the motorcycle world. Now they just needed the best engineer in the business.
A New Dawn for Ducati
It didn’t take long for Fabio to get settled. Within 40 days of joining Ducati, he’d already created his first masterpiece – the Gran Sport 100. The bike was a huge success, with victories in the Milano-Taranto and Motogiro in 1955. Italian fans fell in love with ‘Marianna’ and the bike became the most desired in Italy. In less than a year, Fabio Taglioni had helped Ducati to achieve their goals.
In 1956, Taglioni was focussing purely on developing the fastest racing bike. He wanted to succeed where others had failed – by developing a bike using desmodromic distribution. Desmodromic systems weren’t new, they had been mentioned in patents as early as 1896, but they had never been successfully applied to motorcycle engineering before. Ducati had always worked on the premise that the smaller the engine, the lighter the bike, but the high RPMs need to be competitive created valve float. Taglioni looked to desmodromic systems as a way to bypass this issue.
Taglioni was quoted as saying
““The specific purpose of the desmodromic system is to force the valves to comply with the timing diagram as consistently as possible. In this way, any lost energy is negligible, the performance curves are more uniform and dependability is better.”
To understand desmodromic timing, it’s easier to watch this great video from Motorcyclist Magazine.
The 125 GP Desmo was born. The original 125 GP could produce 16hp at 11,500 rpm. The new desmo version could achieve 19hp at 12,500 rpm with a top end potential of up to 15,000. New crankshaft bearings were put in for every race as big end life was short at these much higher rev levels. In its first race, the 125 Desmo not only won, but lapped all other competitors. Tragically, its rider, Gianni Degli Antoni, died during the practice for the next race – the Italian GP in Monza. This was a huge blow for the Ducati racing team and it would be two years before they were ready to challenge the dominance of MV Augusta. But the record still stood – the 125 GP Desmo was the fastest 125 in the world.
Bikes for the Masses
During this time off the track, Fabio Taglioni focussed all of his efforts on creating the fastest, lightest and most functional motorcycle designs, this time for the masses.
The 175 Turismo, or the 175 T was the first Ducati to travel around the world. It crossed 5 continents and over 30 countries and gave Ducati a foothold in the endurance market. Another of Taglioni’s famous single-cylinder SOHC designs, the 175 T proved that Ducati could make desirable and reliable road bikes.
Between 1956 and 1961, Taglioni successfully and steadily increased the engine capacity of his lightweight designs from the 80mph capable 175cc roadsters up to 204cc for the Elite and 200DD models, culminating in the first ever road ready 250cc bike. One of Ducati’s and most famous designs was the sports version of the 250cc – the Diana. Launched as the Daytona in the UK, the Diana was capable over a top speed of over 100mph with the tuning kit installed. This caught the attention of an American importer called Joe Berliner who then asked Ducati to create a bike specifically for the US dirt track and open road market. The Scrambler made its debut in 1962. This iconic model has featured in movies and became one of the most desired bikes of a generation. Production ceased in 1974 but Ducati, in its wisdom, revived it in 2015.
Back to the Track
After spending most of the 1960 developing road going bikes, Ducati realised that they were at risk of being superseded on the track by the influx of Japanese superbikes. In 1970, Fabio Taglioni took it upon himself, “against everyone’s wishes” to design a new bike capable of the long term domination they had hoped for with the 125 GP Desmo.
The first 200 Miglia at Imola was the aim and the vehicle was to be the 750 GT, the first longitudinal 90° L-twin engine bike which would revolutionise motorcycle design forever. This engine design is now more commonly known at the v-twin, describing the 90° angle between the cylinders. At this time, ten time champion Giacomo Agostini was dominating on track with MV Augusta, the HONDA CB750 and Norton Commando were all serious contenders. The 750 GT blew even the greatest away and a new star of the track was born.
In 1974, the 750 Supersport Desmo refined any rough edges from the now legendary original 750 GT. The 750’s L-twin was fitted with two-valve desmodromic heads with cams powered by a bevel gear drive. But as always, Fabio Taglioni’s design prized aesthetics as well as engineering precision. The curved engine cases made the 750 GT difficult to produce for the masses. Despite a redesign, the production was limited.
The Legacy of Fabio Taglioni
Ducati decided to abandon GP racing for the rest of the 70’s as the 500cc class favoured 2-stroke manufacturers. It would be much later, in 2002 when the rules would change to finally favour the designs which had given Fabio Taglioni so much success throughout his career. The 500cc class was reinvented with the launch of the MotoGP series which gave priority to four-stroke engines. Development of the illustrious Desmosedici engine started in 2001, the year Fabio Taglioni passed away aged, 80. Had he survived another two years, he would have witnessed his ground-breaking technology being converted into a double L-twin desmodromic engine with 16 valves – the rough translater of ‘Desmosedici’. Has he survived another 6, he’d have seen Australian rider Casey Stoner gain 10 race wins and 14 podiums to secure the 2007 MotoGP Championship.
What Fabio Taglioni did get to see was Mike Hailwood taking victory on his return to motorcycle racing in the 1978 Isle of Man TT. He also got to witness the rising star of Carl Fogarty, coming through the ranks to become one of the most successful WSB riders of all time. Fogarty won 4 World Championships and came second in two others thanks to the engineering genius of Taglioni.
The Desmodromic engine remains at the heart of the Ducati brand and although the push towards e-bikes may eventually see Taglioni’s designs become obsolete, his legacy will always be remembered.