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Ducati 851 – First Modern Ducati Superbike

The Ducati 851 is no exception when it comes to following Ducati’s rule of pushing innovation, going against the odds, surviving and then thriving. 

Financial crisis was looming and yet Ducati entered the realm of the World Superbike Series with the 851, took on the might of Japan and won.

The ground breaking 851 made Ducati a dominant force in the WBS and with the release of the production 851 Strada Desmoquattro, Ducati well and truly announced itself into the modern era of motorcycling. The bike that began it all would lay the foundation for future legendary production models such as the Ducati 916 and ensured the survival of the small Bologna company with the big heart.

Ducati 851 History

The Ducati 851 was the brainchild of Chief Engineer Massimo Bordi and the very concept was something that his predecessor Fabio Tagliorti had historically resisted. Cagiva owned Ducati at the time and they were willing to invest in a new V-twin engine. 

Bordi insisted the Desmodromic system was used, which closed the valves with cams instead of the conventional springs, the 851 was significantly a more powerful and modern unit than other designs that had previously used the Desmo system. 

The engine was based on the Ducati Pantah with the key difference being the electronic fuel injection, liquid cooling and desmodromic four valve heads. 

A prototype model that went un-named using the 750cc Pantah engine, raced in the 1986 Bol d’Or endurance race. It was Ducati’s first four-valve-per-cylinder, fuel injection “Desmoquattro” machine. In 1987 and still just a prototype it would go on to win the Battle of Twins race at Daytona with Marco Lucchinelli in the saddle. 

Bordi knew he was on to something and so the new bike with a new bigger engine went into production. The 851 had a top speed of 160mph which came out of an 851 cc liquid-cooled, 8 Valve, L-twin. The twin delivered 102bhp at 8,250rpm and 52lb-ft at 7,000rpm. It was a six speed, with a chain final drive and it’s wet weight was 210kg. 

That all equated to the 1987 release of an absolute beast of a machine and soon to be competitive Superbike. Well, kind of, the original 1987-88 Ducati 851 Strada Tricolore and the homologated SP model for the WBS wasn’t without it’s flaws but the company were quick to address these.

The original 851 used the steel trellis frame, Marvic wheels, Brembo Brakes and Marzocchi suspension.

Ducati 851 Tricolore Strada
Ducati 851 Tricolore Strada

The 1988 Ducati 851 Strada was updated a year later, so much so it was almost a new motorcycle. The engine had been a huge hit with the press and public, but the chassis was hit with supply problems which meant many of the planned components had to to be swapped for lower quality options.

Ducati were struggling financially and could only deal with suppliers who were willing to offer credit. Regardless they pushed on as best they could. 

Early complaints for the 1988 Ducati 851 Strada were about the handling so for the 1989 model the front wheel was changed from a 16 inch to 17 inch to match the track version (which was what it should have been to start with) and better suspension components were also added. The original red, white and green tricolore Italian flag paint scheme was changed to the now instantly recognisable Ducati red and there was a minor adjustment to the steering head. 

The Marzocchi suspension was top of the line and the bike was fitted with a longer rear shock which had a compression-damping adjuster in the seat hump. For 1989 the Ducati 851 SP model, the engine was also improved from its predecessor with a higher compression ratio, reshaped camshafts, and new exhaust mufflers. 

The Ducati 851 Strada was now the road bike it was intended to be. The handling issues had been addressed and the engine was beyond impressive. The 851 was the fastest roadster the Italian’s had designed so far. The motorcycle would remain in production in its various forms until 1993.

1990 saw the release of the homologated Ducati 851 SP2 model which had a bored out 851 cc engine from 92mm to 94mm and the resulting 888 cc would form the basis of several race replicas. The Ducati 851 Strada meanwhile gained a duel seat.

By 1992 three Superbike options were available all based around the Original Ducati 851 Strada. These included the SP3 (distinguishable from the SP2 by the higher silencers and black wheels) and the Strada Biposta. By September 1993 all the 851 models were to be outclassed by the release of the Ducati 916.

Ducati 851 Performance

I would be a fool to imply that even the later Ducati 851 Strada or SP models were flawless, it just wasn’t the case and actually Ducati’s reputation for dubious reliability was not exactly helped by the 851 or its subsequent later versions. 

The clutch was heavy, the throttle was heavy, and steering lock was incredibly small, and fork seals had a tendency to leak. 

The main issue was consistency in the production process, one bike would be perfect and could still be ridden issue free today and the other might not even make it home from the dealer. 

With all that said, there is no denying the race winning performance that the Ducati 851 was capable of, and many of you will still remember seeing the blood red Italian machine racing against the Japanese Superbikes of the late 80’s and winning. It was a thrill, a surprise and it was exciting.

Ducati 851 Wins:

  • 1987 Winner of Battle of the Twins, Daytona with Marco Lucchinelli
  • 1988, the inaugural round World Superbike Championship, it was the first to be held at Britain’s Donington Park. Marco Luccinelli rode the factory 851 to overall victory – the only twin in the race. 
  • 1990 Winner of World Superbike Championship with Raymond Roche
  • 1991 Winner of World Superbike Championship with Doug Polen
  • 1992 Winner of World Superbike Championship with Doug Polen
  • 1993 Winner of Superbike Manufacturers World Champion award

Carl Fogarty joined the race team in 1993 but wouldn’t reach success until 1994 on the new 916. However, that is most certainly a bike that wouldn’t have existed if not for Ducati’s original Superbike in the form of the 851. 

Ducati states that “Fogarty won four world titles in 1994, 1995, 1998 and 1999, setting his own personal racing record of 55 victories, most of them on the 916 and its derivatives.”

Buying an Original Ducati 851

There should be caution exercised when looking to purchase an original Ducati 851. Good ones are hard to find, original ones even harder. Over the years and variants Ducati would struggle with supply and therefore some parts were replaced with other brands and so there is some inconsistency within the models. 

For example, as Bennetts points out, some bikes may have Marchesini wheels whereas others have Brembo. Some bikes have Marzocchi suspension, while other bikes have upside down forks or Öhlins. 

This hasn’t been helped over the years by owners doing their own modifications and swapping parts from later models and confusing things even more. 

As with all sought after classic bikes, the earlier the model the more expensive and rarer they are to find. If you have your heart set on one of the only 300 first Tricolor 851 models then you can expect to pay in excess of £15,000 ($20,500). 

Car and Classic for UK based buyers has several later models advertised right now with prices varying from £8,000-£18,500. They do also have one very good condition first edition model for sale for £15,500. 

Another key point to take note of is, be aware of owners selling the 851 for prices that are very much over estimated. One such example is advertised on Rare Sportsbikes For Sale by a private German owner. The 1990 model bike has an asking price of $45,000. 

Now in all fairness everything is worth what somebody is willing to pay for it, but the 851 isn’t such a rare bike right now, and there will always be another one that comes up for sale at a later date, so my best advice is take your time to find the right one for you. 

Hemmings has a 1992 851 for sale for $12,995 and it is in very good condition with a lot of work having been put into it to keep it immaculate.  

Restoring a Ducati 851

To put it simply, restoring a Ducati 851 is going to be part and parcel of owning one. It is almost guranteed that one part or another will need to be replaced and upgraded, it is also highly likely that your donor bike will not be made up of original spec parts. 

The only time this may not be the case is if you have purchased from 1 owner who has kept it mint or from a museum. In either case it wouldn’t need restoring anyway. 

The good news is there are a few models and subsequently parts to choose from. Ducati Parts Online is a good source for the bits that you would need although based in Italy they ship Worldwide and offer free shipping over €75. 

The downside is a full restoration may be quite pricey. If it is a project of love for Ducati and the 851 then that won’t be off putting, but if you are thinking of restoring an old Superbike to take to the track on Sunday and maybe the odd show, there are less costly options out there. 

Is the 851 a Good Investment?

The Ducati 851 is now a coveted piece of Superbike history and will continue to be so as it is the bike that started it all for Ducati’s Superbike success story. If you can pick one up for around £8,000 ($10,000) and hold on to it, I would suggest that you will see a decent return in a few years time. 

Spending more than that for one of the first models especially will likely see your money secure in the bike for years to come and over time an increase in value is likely to occur. 

As previously mentioned though be careful not to pay over the odds, unless of course it’s your absolute dream bike, then get one and do your worst. 


As with the Ducati Monster which I wrote about here, I am a fan of the 851 because it came about at a time that Ducati was facing extinction and instead of bowing out, they doubled down on being innovative and pushing out a bike that would change Motorcycle history. 

Any company who is that brave, I think deserves to be applauded and even forgiven for their sometimes dubious reliability issues.

The featured image at the top of page is a 1988 Ducati 851 photographed by Cédric JANODET and is kindly licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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