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Ducati Cruiser

(by Ian Falloon, Apr 2022)

Ducati Cruiser



Despite some courageous engineering, Ducati's innovative first scooter bombed

When the MotoGP Desmosedici screams past at more than 350km/h, turning nearly 20,000rpm, it is difficult to believe that seventy years ago Ducati was basically only producing small motorcycles suitable for basic transportation.


Ducati’s initial foray into motorcycle manufacture was the Cucciolo, or little pup, a 50cc clip-on engine for a bicycle. After the Second World War the Ducati factory was a bombed out ruin, and out of a necessity for survival the company began to produce the Cucciolo, a design created by Aldo Farinelli of Turin in 1945.


Farinelli worked for Siata (Societa Italiana per Applicazione Techiche Auto-Aviatore) but the Cucciolo was to become a Ducati success story. It grew from 49 to 65cc, and eventually powered a line of lightweight motorcycles and mopeds through until 1956.

So successful was the Cucciolo, that in 1951, Ducati’s management decided it was time to produce a real motorcycle, and mount a challenge to the recently released two-stroke Vespa and Lambretta scooters.


In 1950 their designer Giovanni Fiorio designed a new engine, a 65cc four-stroke with pushrod operated valves. Introduced in March 1950, and called the 60 Sport, it was the first Ducati motorcycle, and this engine would form the basis of a complete range of pushrod singles lasting through until the 125 Cadet of 1967. Shortly afterwards he set to work on a scooter, known as the Cruiser.


By 1951 all production was concentrated at Borgo Panigale, with the company headquarters moving from Largo Augusto, 7, Milan. In October 1951, Dottore Giuseppe Montano was made director of Ducati, and the path that eventually saw Ducati as one of Italy’s premier motorcycle manufacturers, begun. Montano would control the company for nearly two decades, seeing it through some difficult times and near disasters, but he was instrumental in maintaining its survival through the turbulent 1960s.


There were some notable successes but one of the early disasters for Ducati was the Cruiser. Considering the size of the company, the Cruiser was an amazingly ambitious project. Unlike the Vespa and Lambretta, the Cruiser was powered by a four-stroke engine, and was envisaged as a luxury model in an effort to appeal to a new, and more prosperous, clientele.


Fiorio’s engine was a single cylinder, with a bore and stroke of 62 x 58 mm. Displacing 175cc, the air-cooled, the horizontal engine was transversely mounted under the seat. The two opposed overhead valves had an included valve angle of 80 degrees, and were operated by pushrods.


A single Dell’Orto carburettor was mounted directly on the cylinder heads, feeding downdraft into the cylinder. Initially the engine produced 12 horsepower, but was detuned to 8 horsepower at 6000 rpm through a lower compression ratio (7.5:1). This was due to a government imposed 80km/h speed limit for scooters. A first for a scooter was the standard electric starter, and at a time when just about all cars and motorcycles used a weak 6-volt the electrical system, the Cruiser had 12-volt electrics.


The 45-watt dynamo powered, a huge for the day, 32-amp hour battery, both positioned above the engine. As a result, the Cruiser’s lighting was exceptional, and far superior to other motorcycles and scooters.


Even more remarkable than the engine and electrical system was the gearbox. Running longitudinally under the seat, this was automatic, with a hydraulic torque-converter housed in an alloy casting that incorporated the swingarm pivot. Fitting a torque-converter was an unusual feature for 1951, and the system was essentially similar to that of the Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert more than two decades later.


Unfortunately, while commendable in endeavouring to make the Cruiser a user-friendly machine, the automatic gearbox was extremely complicated and the technology for such a vehicle was in its infancy. The gearbox also caused Ducati considerable concern, as there were numerous warranty claims.


Running lengthways under the rear bodywork, the gearbox drove the rear wheel via a short connecting shaft to a crown wheel and pinion. It was a clever design, and like the automatic gearbox was intended to provide ease of use with minimal maintenance.


The swingarm/transmission casting was supported by a single oil damped shock absorber on the opposite side of the wheel, while the front suspension also included a single shock absorber. Small scooter-size 10-inch wheels were shod with 3.50x10 Pirelli what wall tyres.


In the creation of the Cruiser Ducati spared no expense, engaging an outside design house to style the bodywork. Although they initially only admitted that the bodywork was designed “by a well-known car design company,” it eventually transpired that it was done by Ghia. Ghia was then, and now, better known for luxury cars, and the Cruiser’s styling was unremarkable.


Later Alessandro de Tomaso acquired Ghia, and Ford eventually bought the company. It was Ducati’s first example of involving an automotive styling concern and was a failure. Ducati later repeated this mistake with Giorgetto Giugiaro’s 860 GT of 1975.


Other features included a separate sprung seat for the rider, with a pillion seat behind, a single built-in headlight above a front grille, and hinged side panels to allow access to the engine. A spare tyre was located under the left-hand panel, but the Cruiser was substantially heavier than its two-stroke competition and considerable more difficult to manhandle and put on its stand.


Released at the Milan Show in January 1952, the Cruiser was hailed as a highlight because of its technical innovation. On paper it looked to have the goods. Automatic transmission, electric start, crown wheel and pinion final drive, and a 12-volt electrical system, but it wasn’t enough. Despite being the world’s first four-stroke scooter, and amazingly advanced for its day, the Cruiser was doomed from the start.


As a motorcycle manufacturer Ducati had no experience in building scooters, and no reputation. Against the established and successful Vespa and Lambretta, the Cruiser was seen as heavy and complicated, contravening the reasons that made scooters popular. The fuel consumption was comparable to that of the two-strokes, but when the engine was detuned acceleration suffered.


On top of the increased maintenance the four-stroke demanded (oil changes and valve adjustment) the Cruiser was also burdened with a high price. Although entering production during 1952, the Cruiser was a commercial failure. Production ended towards the end of 1953 with only 2000 produced.


Because they were unreliable and unpopular, very few have survived, but Primo Forasassi has recently restored this example for the Museo Ducati, in the original colours of blue and grey.


The Cruiser debacle showed that a motorcycle manufacturer like Ducati should concentrate on what they knew best, build motorcycles. Yet even Ducati didn’t learn from this mistake, and a decade after the Cruiser’s demise they released the Brio. The Brio was an equally unconvincing attempt at producing a scooter. This time powered by 50, and later 100cc, two-stroke engines, it lasted from 1964 to 1969.



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