The Ducati 916 is arguably one of the most iconic motorcycles ever built. From its launch at the end of 1993 the 916 took the Italian company from niche brand to manufacturer of the world’s most desirable motorbikes. Dominating World Superbikes between 1994 and 2002 (and making Carl Fogarty a household name before ‘I’m a Celebrity’), the 916 also set the standard for road-going sportsbikes.
But if you find a Ducati 916 for sale, how do you choose the best one? Is it true that they’re full of problems waiting to catch out all but the seasoned expert? Will the electrics fail in a fireball of melted plastic? Is the elaborate Desmodromic valvetrain going to require a remortgage to maintain, assuming the terrifying cam belts don’t snap first?
We spoke to Ducati experts and race engineers Mark Brewin and Andy Cartledge at BSD to find out how you buy a piece of biking history for less than most new bikes on the market. For now at least…
How to get the best deal on a Ducati 916
The first step to buying a classic motorcycle like the Ducati 916 is to decide what you want to own… are you after a mint-condition, all-original concours bike, or do you want a project – a‘doer-upper’? You’re likely to pay handsomely for the former, so if you’re buying something with the intention of working on it, be realistic about what you can do yourself, and what it’ll cost you in professional labour (not to mention parts).
A project with cosmetic issues will be cheaper than one with mechanical woes, and how far you go with the intricate details will be decided by you and your budget. But you’ll still be able to enjoy riding it. The chances are that a bike that’s around 25 years old will have had a fair few owners, many of whom will have put their own ‘special’ touches on it.
Over time, scuffs and marks will have been repaired, and different owners could have had their favourite version of the Ducati logos and graphics applied; the purist will frown, but get the bike for the right price and you can change the graphics as and when you want.
The main thing is to buy a good book about the bike that gives you the full history – Ian Falloon’s Ducati 916 book, published by Veloce, is well worth the investment (and a fascinating read too).
How to buy the best Ducati 916: Before you travel
As with buying any bike, the first thing to do is study the pictures of it, keeping in mind all you’ve learned about how it should look. If any pictures online aren’t very clear, don’t be afraid to ask for more – you’re not only looking to see that it’s what you expect, but also if any marks, dents or scuffs are visible.
Glean as much information as you can from any advert, then phone the seller to ask the right questions, before you go chasing around the country…
- What’s the service history like? At this age, a main-dealer history isn’t that important, but make sure it’s been maintained by a specialist in Ducatis – someone who understands the things that do (and don’t) need to be worried about.
- When were the belts last replaced? They should be changed every two years / 12,000 miles, even if the bike’s not been moved.
- How many owners has it had? If it’s a one or two-owner bike that’s 25 years or so old, it’s most likely been cherished, but if it’s been passed around a lot – especially later in its life – question how much it’s been loved.
- What are the tyres, brakes and chain and sprockets like? Consumable parts will all cost you money to replace, and they’re also a good indicator of how well the bike’s been cared for.
- Question everything. If something doesn’t look right – like the graphics for the year, or aftermarket parts – ask the seller why it’s like that. Has it been crashed and repaired? If so, who did the work? Keep in mind how perfect you want your bike to be (and how much you’re willing to spend).
Buying tip: Use the DVLA’s MoT history check to see if a vehicle has failed its MoT at any point, or if there were any advisories on it. If it was getting advisories for the same thing every year, the owner likely didn’t care that much about it. Equally, if it failed on something, then passed shortly afterwards, the owner was probably happy to spend the money on getting repairs done (though if they really loved the bike, it’d never have been in a position to fail).
How important is a service history on a Ducati 916?
Routine maintenance is the most important thing on any motorcycle – not just a Ducati. Just because a bike’s been sat doing nothing for several years, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need looking after; as Andy says, “You should expect to spend a couple of hundred pounds on the bike each year to look after it. If you leave it for ten years, you’ll still end up paying about as much in the end.” Tyres have a lifespan, stale fuel will cause problems, plastic and rubber parts can crack and perish…
Ducatis are infamous for their cam belts, but they just need routine maintenance.
Are the cam belts on a Ducati a problem?
Ducati used to use standard belts, but soon shifted to ones with Kevlar reinforcement. They’re the same design as used on a Renault Clio, but any specialist will always strongly recommend the proper reinforced Ducati belts. As long as they’re changed regularly and fitted to the correct tension, there’s no reason they’d be any problem.
The bearings in the belt tensioner pulleys need to be checked every time the belt’s replaced – if they’re showing signs of wear they should be changed.
How to buy the best Ducati 916: First impressions
Assuming you’re happy after the phone call, the next step is to go and look at the bike. Always aim to do it in daylight, or if not make sure there’s a well-lit garage. From the moment you arrive, as with any motorcycle, look for tells:
- Where is the bike stored? Is it lovingly kept in a clean garage (or even the lounge), or is it dumped under a cover in the garden?
- How obsessed are they? Are there photos of the bike in the house? How important are motorcycles to the seller – is their riding kit looked after and proudly hung up?
- Is the garage well equipped? What kind of tools does the seller have? If someone claims to do a lot of their own maintenance, check they have more than an adjustable spanner.
- Is the bike cold? During the phone call, ask for the bike to be cold when you see it; if the engine’s warm when you get there, the seller might be trying to hide a cold-starting issue.
How to buy the best Ducati 916: Close inspection
The things to check on a Ducati 916 are pretty much the same as on any motorcycle…
- Paperwork. Check that the V5 is in the seller’s name, and that the frame and engine numbers match the paperwork. Ducati uses a dot-matrix-style identification number on the right of the headstock and the left of the engine near the bottom; be sure it doesn’t look tampered with.
- Forks. Check the sliders have no pitting or creases, and that the seals aren’t leaking (bounce the front a few times to be sure they haven’t just been wiped).
The suspension on this 916 is all original and in good condition.
- Bearings. Feel for any play in the wheel, swingarm and headstock bearings.
- Tyres. Are they in good condition? Check the age using the four-digit number after the DOT code; the first two digits are the week the tyres were made, the last two are the year. Anything more than five years old should really be replaced.
- Brakes. Check the discs aren’t heavily scored or worn thin, and look into the calipers for plenty of meat on the pads.
- Chain and sprockets. Check the chain is the correct tension and that there are no tight spots. Look for worn teeth on the sprocket too.
Distorted rubber grommets mean the part’s been taken off, but it’s not as obvious a tell as the incorrect bolt.
- Bolt condition. Look over bolts that might be regularly removed – are they rounded and do they look original? Check for holes in them too… if they’ve been lock-wired, the bike’s probably been raced. Also look for corrosion on the fasteners.
- Mirror bolts. The 916 mirrors are held in place by two spring-retained pins and a special bolt in the middle that’s designed to snap easily, allowing the mirror to pop off in a drop.
The bolt in between the two spring-retained pins on the back of this mirror isn’t the original, indicating that they have at some point been sheared off, or at least replaced.
- Engine paint. Ducatis were prone to the paint flaking off the engine. Repairing it properly requires the engine to be stripped down, but also make sure it hasn’t been badly touched in to make a sale.
- Bodywork condition. Keep an eye out for any cracks or signs of repair. Look at the decals – besides being right for the age, are they straight and original? If not, ask why.
- Crash damage. If a respray or unusual graphics are making you fear the bike’s been crashed, look for signs on the frame for bends or repairs. The 916 uses quick-release Dzus fasteners, so ask the owner to remove the panels so you can see behind them. Are the brackets straight, is there any sign of paint flaking on the frame where it’s been bent and straightened. Does everything line up, are any parts rubbing or touching that shouldn’t be?
These are the original levers, so it looks less likely that this bike has been crashed (which is confirmed by looking over the bare frame).
- Levers and indicators. Check if they’re original and that they haven’t been replaced. If they have, ask why.
- Mileage. Does the state of the bike match what you’d expect of the mileage on the clocks. Use the DVLA MoT history checker to confirm the recorded mileages from the past years.
- Exhaust. Is it the original exhaust (or a Termignoni that came from Ducati)? Check the ECU too – has the bike been chipped? If the exhaust logos are from a newer model, the cans have been changed either to replace a Termignoni (which would sell for a good price so could be a legitimate swap), or because the originals were damaged in a crash.
The ‘void’ text on the top of this ECU means it’s been opened up, likely for chipping. This is really common as the Termignonis that Ducati sold came with a new chip to drop in. It’s a sign that this bike has had a different exhaust at some point. The chip inside is the original, so the fuelling is back to normal.
- Is the original tool kit included? Like most bikes, it won’t be of much use, but those after a mint original will likely be looking for it.
- Starting. Fire the bike up – does it start easily (it won’t spin up like a four-cylinder Japanese bike), with no unusual sounds? Check for dark smoke from the exhaust when it’s started from cold, which could be a sign it’s burning oil.
- Running. Does it sound like a skeleton shaking a bag of spanners? That’s normal on older Ducatis with a dry clutch (especially if there’s an open clutch cover fitted). The rattle should stop when you pull the clutch lever in. Listen for a smooth tick-over and nothing strange besides the even rhythm of the clattering clutch.
- Oil leaks. Check for oil on the engine; if you find any, run you finger around the areas around and above the oil (beware of hot parts) to see if you can find where it’s coming from.
If you find oil, spend some time tracing it back to the source.
How bad are the electrics on Ducatis?
Ducatis aren’t the electrical nightmare that you might think, and if something does go wrong, it’s generally pretty easy to find as motorcycles of this age don’t have the horribly complex CANbus of modern machines.
Most of the main components are Japanese, and failures aren’t that common. More likely to be an issue is years of owners tweaking and adding extras, or poor installations of old alarms.
Check if the regulator / rectifier has been replaced as they used to be an issue – if it’s on a plain aluminium bracket it likely has.
These connecters from the regulator/rectifier can get burned through heavy use – these are pretty clean, adding credibility to the mileage on the clocks. The unit itself is the upgraded replacement.
What are the other common problems / issues on a Ducati 916?
Maintaining a Ducati really isn’t much harder than any other bike, but there are a few things to be aware of…
- Clutch slave cylinder. Don’t be surprised to find a replacement part here; hydraulic slave cylinders do fail on all bikes, and the original seals are no longer available to buy.
- Gaskets. The older engines used fibre gaskets, rather than steel, so oil or coolant could be leaking from the cylinder head. The heads can be removed with the engine in the frame, but the parts are costly and it’s about 10 hours labour. The replacement steel gaskets also must have new spacers fitted, as they’re thinner than the original fibre ones. If you find oil near the bottom of the cylinders, check that it’s not just dripping down from the rocker cover gaskets (a much easier fix).
- Fuel leaks. The plastic nut on the bottom of the fuel tank sender is prone to cracking, letting fuel run down the rear cylinder head. BSD makes an aluminium replacement that solves the problem. Old plastic quick-release connectors might have cracked (the ‘E’ models didn’t have the QR connectors), or other seals might have perished, though this is less likely. Replacement metal QR connectors are easily available. While there, the fuel filter inside the tank should be replaced – about an hour’s labour.
The plastic nut on the bottom of the fuel tank can crack – replacing it with an aluminium one solves the problem, though the connector on the wire needs taking to pieces to get the old one off and the new one on.
- Desmodromic valves. Ducatis have a special valve lifter that opens and closes the valves, instead of using springs. It’s a little more involved to check and adjust, but it’s a reliable system if looked after.
- Air filters. The original air filters sit in the black plastic intakes on either side; these can rot, then just blow into the engine, leaving no filter. Most 916s will now have an aftermarket foam filter fitted over the throttle body trumpets under the tank.
It’s not unusual to find an aftermarket filter like this Pipercross.
- Flywheel bolt. Early in the bike’s life, the alternator cover should have been removed and the bolt on the end of the flywheel checked for tightness. If it’s not done, the engine can be wrecked when it comes loose.
- Sprag clutch. A lack of oil changes or repeated starting with a weak battery can damage the starter motor’s sprag clutch – a costly repair.
- Temperature gauge. Early 916s sometimes suffered a failed temperature gauge – replacement was the only real option.
- Coolant tank. The coolant expansion tank nestled in front of the fuel tank can split, causing leaks.
If the expansion tank cracks it can leak coolant.
- Weird noises. Older Ducatis had a dry clutch that rattled, but other than that there’s nothing that stands out; “It’s when they stop rattling you need to worry,” says Andy.
- Clutch baskets. Because they rattle, the clutch baskets get worn. Later models used aluminium plates that didn’t wear the basket as much, but replace the plates before the basket is damage to save a lot of money. Routine maintenance.
- Battery. A good battery is important for easy starting; a quality branded gel-type is your best bet.
- Eccentric chain adjuster. On the brake caliper bracket are two O-rings and shims, which can dry out. If the large eccentric adjuster seizes, owners can round off the bolts trying to adjust the chain. This is unusual though as the 916 isn’t normally ridden every day, so doesn’t tend to get exposed to much rain and road filth.
The Ducati 916 is actually relatively easy to work on; “The 888 was a nightmare,” says Mark, “but the 916 was a revelation – it’s so easy to work on everything, from removing the tank to getting to the belts.”
There is some specialist knowledge required in setting up the belts or adjusting the valve clearances, but if routine maintenance is carried out when and how it should be, there’s little to worry about.
“I work on 916s with over 50,000 miles on them,” says Mark. “When they came out there were a lot being bought in as imports by non-Ducati dealers who rushed what should have been a time-consuming PDR. Those machines sometimes had issues that the inexperienced dealers wouldn’t help with, so ended up having to go back to the official importers (then Moto Cinelli).
“If you service it properly, a 916 is no more bother than anything else. It needs loving, but if you don’t love it, it falls out with you…”
What’s the best motorcycle insurance for a Ducati 916?
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