The Long Haul Duck
Keith Hale’s Long-Haul Ducati 750SS Greenframe
by Brian Day
The words roll across your tongue like a sip of ’95 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva: 1974 Ducati 750SS. If the bare numbers are magic, the actual bike is known as the Holy Grail of Ducati-dom. It is an elegantly engineered and designed motorcycle, but originally so shabby in appearance it was described as “absolute perfection dressed in tatters” by one period moto-journalist. The name greenframe refers to the spidery collection of metalflake robin’s-egg green tubes that connect the 748cc bevel-drive V-twin engine, bodywork and suspension together in one glorious package. An Italian fly forever entombed in the fiberglass fairing only adds mystique and a perfectly human touch to this piece of rolling two-wheeled art. It was the very first desmo engined Ducati V-twin ever to be sold.
Greenframes were limited run production racers. The Guggenheim Museum says about 410 were made, but Ducati’s official figure is 200, of which perhaps 180 are still in existence mostly entombed in private collections and museums. There were also 10 pre-production factory race bikes. One of these was ridden, untried, to a stunning victory in the 1972 Imola 200-mile race by Brit Paul Smart and thence directly into the record books. Smart was on a one-week loan from a Kawasaki team at the time, but his unexpected win achieved mythical status amongst Italian motorcycle fanatics everywhere and jump-started the V-twin desmo legend. Powered by an all-alloy 90-degree roundcase engine with a bore and stroke of 80 x 74.4 mm, output is 65 bhp from 748 cc’s of displacement. Valves are two per cylinder, actuated by Ducati’s desmodronic cam-and-finger gear. Rev ceiling is a stratospheric (for V-twins of the era) 9200 rpm. Maximum power occurs at 8000 but the tachometer fitted was intended for the lower-spec GT models and redlined at a lowly 7000. The engine breathes deeply through a pair of fat 40mm Dell’Ortos with gaping ram tubes and not an air cleaner in sight. Top speed is a claimed 135 mph, although the legendary and highly tweaked California Hot Rod of Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling hit 149 mph at Daytona back in 1977. The pair gave Ducati its’ one and only Daytona win.
Greenframes are mostly rich boys’ toys these days. Bruno Spaggieri’s original second-place Imola 750SS was recently auctioned off by Sotheby’s for a heady $US105, 000 plus auction house commission. Another mint example with 750 original miles made $US37, 000 online at eBay. Add a few thousand more for complete disassembly/reassembly to renew perished rubbers, shrunken seals, brittle wires and syrupy fluids and it’s a $US40, 000+ investment, rarified territory for what was originally conceived as a bare-bones racer-with-lights. The new owner may soon discover that riding an original low-mileage investment quality machine is like throwing money to the wind: every additional mile makes it worth less on the marketplace. If you love it you will lust to ride it, but if you ride it your wallet throbs. Love and financial pain are congenial bedfellows, leading to the ultimate Catch-22 for some motorcycle collectors.
Fortunately greenframes are not always hidden away in vaults like rare and costly jewels. Just ask Keith Hale, a San Francisco fine artist and Ducati 750SS owner who has logged more than 100,000 miles on his example since buying it new. That’s not a misprint: one owner, one hundred thousand miles on the quintessentially rough and randy ’70’s Ducati production racer. How many times has Keith cursed the clip-ons, the tall first gear, the recalcitrant kickstarter, and the skanky “Bongiorno Guido” mid-70’s Italian build quality? I caught up with Hale at DRA, the first-time national gathering of US Ducati owners and enthusiasts in Las Vegas, Nevada USA.
Hale bought his greenframe in 1975 after an intensive 3-month search. He was 22 years old, inexperienced by his own admission, absolutely not rich and certainly not the kind of seasoned rider who could push the potent SS to the limits of its considerable capabilities. At the time, Keith was living in Selma, California, a small Central Valley agricultural town. His first new motorcycle ever was a Norton 850 Mark II, but the Norton spent more time in the shop being wrenched than ridden. One fateful night Hale had a horrific crash that resulted in his “shortening the Norton,” totaling the bike and landing him in a cast for almost a year. Searching for a two-wheeled replacement, he saw the owner of a local Ducati dealership warming up a brand new 750SS in front of the shop one morning. Hale was immediately hooked on the Ducati’s look and sound, and from that moment owning one became his main obsession.
For the next few months in late ’74 and early ’75, he searched high and low for his dream bike with no success, then heard through the grapevine that Jack’s Motorcycles in Fresno had one squirreled away. Disappointed to find the bike in question was really a next-generation squarecase 900SS, Hale was about to leave when he spied a glint of iridescent green paint in the back of the shop. Sure enough, Jack himself owned a prized greenframe but wasn’t about to turn it over to some obsessive, wild-eyed Valley kid from Selma. But Jack hadn’t reckoned with Keith Hale’s determination, and Hale pressured him mercilessly to sell the bike. In April 1975, after months of alternately badgering and sweet talking Jack, Hale signed the loan papers and paid $US3600 for his brand-new 1974 Ducati 750SS with 17 miles on the speedometer.
Little did Keith know that the bike would carry him over 100,000 miles in the next quarter-century and outlast everything else on wheels he ever owned. Hale’s other bikes have included a 305 Honda, the crunched 850 Norton, a Yamaha RD350, a Triumph Trident, 2 Suzukis, a Kawasaki, and a BMW R100RS. Hale admits the blue-blooded and pedigreed Ducati intimidated him for the first few years and he didn’t ride it very far nor very well. Adjusting the finicky desmo valves, and learning to use the bike’s abundant power and race-bred handling required that he push the limits of his own abilities.
Darrell Nealon, a childhood friend, taught Hale how to adjust the desmo valves and complete the required maintenance to keep the bike in top form. Another lucky break was meeting Chris Quinn of Wheelworks, a San Leandro, California motorcycle shop. Quinn introduced Hale to the racing scene, first as a monkey on a BSA twin sidecar and then solo on a 250 Ducati single. This was circa 1978, and in 1979 Hale took the 750SS to the track for the first time. He came in “second to last” in the 750 Twins class at Sears Point in Northern California. The bike was essentially stock, but Hale replaced the low Contis with high pipes wanting to avoid the kind of nasty crash that Neilson and Schilling had suffered with their own stock low-pipe 750SS before it evolved into the California Hot Rod.
Hale’s best racing finish was a 3rd in class at Laguna Seca in 1981. “The fast guys were all out at a National meet somewhere else,” he recalls, “so us slow guys got to race each other, and I made the podium.” Problem was the organizers hadn’t bothered to bring any actual trophies, so Hale had to be content with a paper certificate commemorating his big competition triumph. “The bike was faster than I was,” he admits. Hale kept running the SS on various tracks until 1982 when its’ escalating value and rarity made him rethink the whole racing thing. “Back then you could still get parts, so I could always fix it. But I was more and more aware of how special it was, so I decided to just ride on the street.”
Hale frequently commuted from the central Valley to the San Francisco Bay area on the Duck. His best time from Oakland to Selma was 2 hours and 10 minutes, with the Smiths speedo often touching 130 mph along the two-lane backroads. Hale recalls putting “lots and lots” of miles on the bike on these commutes, and has some great anecdotes about his years with the sleek green machine. “One time I was doing the ton when I was dive-bombed by a small bird. It glanced off the fairing and slid down into my sleeve, then the wind pressure jammed the bird way down inside and around into my coat. I was sure it had died, so I simply kept riding for another 45 minutes or so until stopping in Los Banos.” Finally pulling down the zipper on his leathers at a gas station, Hale was stunned to see the tiny bird flutter free and dart off into the sky, apparently none the worse for wear.
Hale used the bike as his only means of transportation “come rain or shine” for about 4 years at one point. The bike has also seen ample touring duty too, taking him to Yosemite & Sequoia parks, the Nevada desert, and Oregon. Hale’s compact physique means the older 750SS is actually more comfortable to ride than his 1995 Ducati 900SS. He’s only dropped the 750SS once, in the Oakland hills, resulting in a cracked fairing, damaged pipes and a slightly bruised ego. ” I had this route from San Leandro to Berkeley through the East Bay hills, and every time I rode it I’d drag the Contis. Hearing the pipes scrape got to be familiar, but one day I was leading Darrell and ran too hot into a turn.” The bike went on yearly treks to Laguna Seca and other California racetracks, plus countless fun rides and motorcycling events with Hale aboard.
The odometer quit working in 1987 at 71,000 kilometers and Hale is sure he’s ridden well over 100,000 miles total. In all that time it’s used 3 or 4 sets of piston rings (the original rings cracked only 2000 miles from new. He blames brittle factory parts installed on the Ducati assembly line) Valve guides have been replaced several times as well. As the years and miles built up, the fabled Italian indifference to quality control began to show. “The fiberglass tank got really rough and I had to patch the bottom over and over again. Finally it just stopped holding gas.” In 1996, first and fifth gears were worn out, and shifting got sketchy. “It would do 120 in fourth, so speed wasn’t the issue,” claims Hale, but it was becoming clear that a major overhaul was needed soon. By now the machine had a fine patina of age, hard use and loving care, but paint on the frame had been eaten away in places by acid from a split battery casing.
Lacking the funds needed for an overhaul, Hale disassembled the SS in 1997 not knowing when it would ever be streetworthy again. But fate had a whimsical answer to his monetary dilemma. Hale is a talented and highly disciplined artist, and he conceived of a series of fine art paintings using the Ducati’s lyrically designed mechanical bits as creative inspiration. His 1998 exhibition at the Bradford Smock gallery in San Francisco was entitled “Steel Life,” and ended up an unqualified success artistically and financially. “Basically the motorcycle paid for it’s own restoration costs,” says Hale. “And one of the Steel Life pieces even went to an executive of TPG which currently owns Ducati.”
Hale did all the restoration work himself except for painting, which was farmed out to master Ducati painter Rand Dobleman. Hale also credits the gang at Munroe Motors, a well-known San Francisco shop, with assisting him during the rebuild. Top Munroe mechanic Matt Prentiss was especially generous, lending his expertise and advice freely to help Hale deal with the potential pitfalls of renewing the complex bevel engine. Total rebuild costs came to about $5000. Hale has always changed the oil religiously every 1000 miles, preferring straight 50 weight to protect those lovely webbed billet-steel conrods and big-end bearings. Incredibly enough, the engine’s complete crank assembly, something that often caused trouble in later Ducati bevel-drive engines, was found to be perfectly serviceable after 100,000 miles of hard running. Hale re-installed the crank and rods and the bike still uses these original factory parts today. Also replaced were the gearbox main bearings, 1st gear, 1st gear layshaft, gear selector forks and 5th gear itself. A complete cosmetic makeover was also in order, with virtually every single piece repainted, polished, chromed or redone.
Returned to the road in August 2001, the 750SS is essentially stock save for a few savvy modifications. Hale comments “I haven’t made any internal changes, except to round file the breakage prone helper springs. When I was racing, I had visions of flowed heads, bigger valves and Imola cams but lacked the funds to make it happen. By the time I quit racing, I had so much respect for the bikes’ reliability I wanted to leave well enough alone. In racing trim I used the infamous K-Mart high output coils, but later switched to a Rita electronic ignition with Lucas coils for ease of maintenance.” Hale also rewired the alternator and regulator for better output and replaced the leaky stock Scarab front brakes with a modern Brembo master cylinder and Grimeca calipers. He installed a wider D.I.D. rim on the rear in order to run racing slicks. Stainless spokes were fitted front and rear, plus the rims gold anodized. The bike’s rear Marzocchis were replaced with custom made dual rate Performance Works shocks but the front forks are stock except for progressive springs.
The quality of Hale’s restoration work is exemplary, with paint, polishing, chrome and attention to detail far exceeding the original shoddy 70’s Ducati finish. It has a shimmering, intense physical presence that literally stops traffic at times. Its’ classic lines and hypnotic appeal once saved him from getting an expensive speeding ticket. “I was riding to work early one morning on a part of the East Bay freeway known as The Maze,’ he recalls, “And I was doing close to 120 mph. A CHP (California Highway Patrol) cruiser pulled me over, and I was sure I would get arrested or at least slapped with a huge fine. But the officer turned out to be a rabid motorcycle enthusiast and we spent a good twenty minutes parked by the side of the road jawboning about old Ducatis and bikes and racing. He let me go with a warning not to do it again.”
Keith Hale’s long-haul 1974 Ducati 750SS greenframe is a tribute to the basic soundness and engineering brilliance of the original design. In contrast to hearsay about the inherent fragility of bevel drive Ducatis, he’s kept it running reliably year after year with very little trouble. Other than frequent oil changes, keeping the valves properly adjusted and using common sense about things like worn chains, brake pads, tire pressure and the like, there is nothing special about how Hale treats his exceptionally rare and valuable Ducati 750SS. Come rain or shine he’s in the saddle and piling on the miles.
And in spite of spending so much time living with this one particular machine, Keith Hale would never consent to sell it. “Guys have asked, but they can tell after talking with me for about three minutes that it won’t happen,” he says with a smile. Some people are sure that money can buy happiness but it will never tempt Keth Hale part with his beloved SS. Resplendant in new paint, polished alloy and with smartly freshened mechanicals, the bike looks set to carry Hale for another 100,000 miles or more.