As with any great creation, Tamburini had a very clear idea for the 916 and was focused on getting it spot-on the first time, a single-minded attitude that saw him take on the majority of the workload. “I feel I am a motorcycle projector, not a designer, but with the 916 I ended up designing the bike as no one did it right! Well, not as I wanted it. I wanted a classical Italian bike — little, compact and easy to ride fast,” he remembers.
Tamburini designed both the Ducati 916 and MV Agusta F4 under the direction of the late Claudio Castiglioni. The 916 saved Ducati from bankruptcy, while the original F4 was the first of the modern MV models and helped resurrect the company.
Tamburini still rides, although "I don't ride like the old days. When I get on a bike I feel twenty years old; however I know I won't heal like I did at that age! I own a 916, the second ever made, a 955 which is one of only three special ones in Europe, a Desmosedici which I think is like a beautiful painting, an MV Oro that is number 9 and an MV F41000 that I have to keep at the office as it won't fit in the garage."
“When I was a small child I use to live about 60 kilometers from Rimini. It was the 1940s and at that time there were very few motorcycles on the road so they would only come past my house maybe once or twice a week. I would listen out for them and when I heard them coming I would get so excited and rush out to watch them ride past. I remember there were two brothers who lived near us and owned a Moto Guzzi Falcone. Close to our house there was a series of curves and I could tell which brother was riding by the sound of the engine, the way they changed gear and rode the bends. My passion for bikes started then, they are my first memories and still very special to me.”
Massimo Tamburini is quite simply a living legend whose list of accomplishments within the motorcycle world extend far beyond what even the most ambitious would ever aspire to achieve. Best known for his work with Ducati, few realize that the genius behind the 916 started his rise to the top from very humble beginnings. “My family couldn’t afford to send me to university as the best engineering university was in Bologna, which was a big expense. I would have loved to have gone there but it wasn’t possible so I went to a technical school in Rimini instead.”
Tamburini formed a small company in 1966 specializing in air conditioning units alongside his friends Valerio Bianchi and Giuseppe Morri, with the first two letters of their surnames creating the company’s name — BiMoTa. “When I started working with air conditioning I still had a great passion for motorcycles, I used to go to as many races as possible in Italy. My life was on two different roads — air-conditioning was my work, motorcycles were my passion.”
With this passion burning in his heart, Tamburini put his technical knowledge to good use, developing the skills that would lead to a future outside the world of air-conditioning. “I owned a twin-cylinder Moto Guzzi 700 at the time and Guzzi had just launched a 750cc version. I started to work on my bike, converting it to a 750 using Guzzi parts then going a stage further, expanding the engine to 840cc. The Guzzi wasn’t very sporty and after a bit I saw a ‘for sale’ notice in a magazine advertising an MV 600. It wasn’t a sportsbike but I saw the picture and thought I could turn it into one so I bought it.”
Tamburini wasted no time in converting the MV from a touring bike to something considerably sportier. “I worked on that bike every evening after work, Saturdays, Sundays, all the time, it took over my life.” But not everyone else in Rimini appreciated his skill. “In 1971 in the whole population of Rimini there were only three big-capacity motorcycles. I owned one and there was a Honda and Laverda. The police knew exactly who was who and they knew that I liked to alter my bike. Every time they saw me they would stop me and send me to the test station to get the bike rectified and returned to stock! It was so frustrating, I sold the bike and bought a Honda CB750 instead!”
It was this bike that lead to both Tamburini and Bimota’s big break, quite literally in the case of Tamburini. “The first thing I did was take the Honda to Misano, which possibly wasn’t a good idea as I fell off and broke three ribs. After the accident my two associates at Bimota were not very happy. Valerio Bianchi left the company and Giuseppe Morri and myself were forced to relocate Bimota in a new area. At that time I said to Morri, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to open a company that would take the Japanese bikes — which had a good motor but very bad chassis — and make them good?’ He also had a passion for bikes and had seen what I had done to the MV and said, ‘OK, let’s try it.’” Bimota Meccanica was formed in late 1972.
Having initially started simply designing aftermarket items such as footpegs, fairing and suspension components for mainly Japanese motorcycles, Tamburini’s passion for racing soon led to the company creating chassis for race bikes. “The first chassis we made was for a Patton 500 but soon we made one for Harley-Davidson and its rider Walter Villa. He had seen how much better the Patton was with our chassis, but there was a problem. Harley didn’t want to use an Italian frame so Villa gave it to one of his friends who was also a very good racer. This guy ended up winning the Italian championship with our chassis! In 1975 he was riding fantastically and Villa was struggling to stay ahead of him on track and in 1976 at the Mugello GP, Villa was miles behind our chassis on the factory Harley. Our rider said, ‘Try my chassis, it works,’ and he returned it to Villa. Harley didn’t want this but the night before the race Villa decided to use it; he broke all the records and won the race. That was the same chassis we had designed for him two years previously. He continued to use a Bimota chassis for the next three years, something that convinced us to concentrate on making frames for private racers. In 1980 we were World 350 Champions with Jon Ekerold, beating Kawasaki.”
After this success, Bimota decided to concentrate on road bike development. The company quit racing at the end of 1981 and was soon developing and launching its own motorcycles. But despite the outward signs of success, all was not well within Bimota. In 1983 Tamburini left Bimota, a decision that at the time he cited was down to “personal reasons.” With all this water under the bridge, Tamburini is now willing to give the real reasons.
“I looked at the company in a certain way and Morri looked at it in another. The problem was the Japanese were developing bikes so fast that by the time we had developed our bike they would have updated the model, making our product seem old. This could have been solved as the Japanese were very happy with our work and had a great respect for what we were doing. We were going to have a pact that we would be advised if there was going to be an update so we could work towards it, but Morri didn’t see it this way, leaving me with no choice but to leave Bimota. It was a very hard decision, but I saw no future for Bimota without this pact.”
After a brief spell running his own company in Rimini, during which time he was involved with the Roberto Gallina 500cc Grand Prix team, in 1985 Tamburini was introduced to the man who would be pivotal in his future success — the late, great, Cagiva boss Claudio Castiglioni.
“Claudio requested that I design him a 125cc road bike. At the time the only bikes that would sell in Italy were enduros, but Claudio decided to create the first 125 road sports bike, the Cagiva Aletta Oro 125. It was a huge success, after the bike was launched in 1985 the sales were 50 percent enduro, 50 percent our bike. I then designed the Freccia 125 and finally the Mito 125, which was launched in 1989. It was an exact replica of the Cagiva 500cc GP bike that Randy Mamola was racing, which I also styled.”
Having purchased struggling Ducati in 1985, Castiglioni was soon looking for a way to resurrect the struggling company. He combined the genius of engineer Massimo Bordi and the creative flair of Tamburini. The result was the Ducati 916. “When we first started working with Ducati in 1985 the company was so poor. Castiglioni bought and invested in the company and I designed the 1986 Paso 750, which was the first of the new ‘Castiglioni Ducatis.’ It was the breakthrough bike, and then we made the 851 and 888 with Massimo Bordi, which showed Ducati’s potential and won many races. After this, Castiglioni asked for another breakthrough bike. He said, ‘I don’t want an old Ducati and I don’t want a Japanese bike.’ We designed the Ducati 916, which was presented at the Milan fair in 1993.”
Alongside the sculpted body, a lot of the 916’s beauty stems from its rear end and the combination of the single-sided swingarm and the underseat exhausts. While the swingarm was always in the design, it wasn’t until the unveiling of Honda’s hugely influential NR750 that the final position of the Ducati’s exhaust was decided upon. “When I saw the NR750 in Milan I thought it was going to be the future of motorcycling. I didn’t want to copy it with the 916 but I wanted the 916 to look like it with sharper lines. At that point we had been experimenting with other exhaust positions, to the side of the bike like the 888 and at different heights, but when I saw the NR I tried under the seat and it felt right. I didn’t want the back end of the bike to look refined, I wanted it to look aggressive but also classical. The two little exhaust ports exiting under the seat looked perfect, when I had done that I stepped back and knew the 916 was finished.”
The 916 went on to become a motorcycle style icon, a bike that is still regarded as one of the most beautiful ever created and the machine that put Ducati firmly on the map through not only salesroom success but also track domination. Yet despite all this success, not all was well within the Bologna company.
“When Ducati was sold to Texas Pacific Group in 1996 by Claudio Castiglioni there were big changes. Massimo Bordi left and I felt it was also time to go so I went to work with Claudio at Cagiva. After I designed the Cagiva Canyon, Claudio asked me to come up with a new MV Agusta sports bike. This time he said, ‘I don’t want anything Japanese, I don’t want a Ducati and certainly not a 916!’”
“As a complete project the F4 is my favorite,” says Tamburini of the original MV Agusta F4. “With the Ducati we already had a good base to work on, with the MV it was a blank piece of paper and we had to create everything, even the smallest of details such as the footpegs. But working on the Ducati was better as it is a cleaner bike when it comes to design; it is far easier to work on, to take apart.”
Faced with such a tough brief, Massimo gained inspiration for the F4 from an unlikely and in many ways unwelcome source. “I was taken ill and had to go into hospital. I hate hospitals and when I found out that I was going to have to have anesthetic for an operation I was very scared. I didn’t know if I was going to get out of the operating theater so I started drawing how the new MV should be. My son and wife thought I was crazy but I was so scared I would die without designing the bike. I filled books with diagrams, pictures and everything. I put notes ‘the exhaust should be one long, one shorter, to make a different sound’ everything about the bike. When I went to have the operation I handed the book to my son so I knew that if I died the bike would still be made as I had it in my mind.”
Thankfully Massimo Tamburini didn’t die and in 1997 lightning struck twice as the MV Agusta F4 750 was launched in Milan. Looking back on the two projects, did Tamburini have an inkling of the success that either bike would bring? “When you start a project you don’t think it could change the course of motorcycle design. I had a lot of luck with the 916, the motor was strong, the company had a good name and the race track success was sensational. But with the F4 it was harder. Right after the launch the company had a crisis, they were unsure if they could make the F4, then the motor had problems as it wasn’t powerful enough but in the end it turned out OK.”
OK is something of an understatement. The F4 drew huge amounts of praise and it, along with Tamburini’s next bike for MV, the Brutale, continues to form the design basis of the current crop of MV Agustas. Having handed over the reins at MV to British designer Adrian Morton, what is left now for the man who formed Bimota and created bikes that will be revered well after he has gone? Is he looking at hanging up his pen and retiring? “I have a binding contract with MV that meant I could not design a bike until December 31, 2011. On the 1st of January I will do what I have always done — project my images of motorcycles.” SR