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Bike Profile - Posted 16th August 2010

Ducati Pantah
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This ground-breaking 500 twin established the pattern which Ducati would follow for the next 20 years and on. But the best version of the Pantah isn't a 500 at all...

Ducati's foray into the world of vertical parallel twins in the mid-1970s proved to be a horrid experience, so designer Fabio Taglioni called a halt to those 350 and 500s and went back to the drawing board. The result was the Pantah 500 SL which first appeared in Milan in 1979 and went on to spawn entire subsequent generations of belt-driven, OHC, 90-degree V (or L) Ducati twins.

Ugly duckling, anyone?... Ducati 500 Pantah Prototype

At the time, a belt drive to the camshaft was a controversial innovation. Taglioni admitted that the belt system was 'no more precise' than the bevel-gear and shaft method but 'it lowers mechanical noise' which made the Pantah more appealing compared to its oriental competition. The Ducati belt drive 'cut assembly costs' which would further enhance the appeal of the new 500. Taglioni explained that the big, bevel drive V-twins were 'expensive to build because of the materials and they have to be built with great care because of shimming and setting up clearances. With the belt drive we get the same accuracy without the complexity.'

Owners were advised to check the tension of the rubber belts every 5000 miles and replace them at 12,500 miles - on top of the time-consuming business of adjusting the desmo head -- so this arrangement wasn't quite so cost effective for the purchaser, even if it made perfect sense for the production engineers…

In any case, the era of the bevel drive Ducatis was almost over, although the Pantah retained the desmodromic valvegear of its predecessors and incorporated the valve angles of the 1970s racers. The Pantah broke new ground for the marque with many features which today define a 'classic Ducati', like its trellis frame which uses the engine as a stressed member; that toothed belt drive to the overhead camshaft; a swinging arm mounted onto the rear of the crankcase; short wheelbase, light weight, stable steering and free-revving power delivery. 'The engine revs as freely as any Jap multi' said Superbike magazine in 1980; 'and is a damn sight quicker at picking up the power.'

I *so* wanted one of these in 1980... Ducati 500 SL Pantah

The first Pantah used the engine dimensions from the Grand Prix racer of 1973 at 74mm by 58mm to give 499cc. Apart from the bore and stroke dimensions, this was an entirely new design of air-cooled engine although the five-speed gearbox was a development from earlier machines. Running 9.5:1 compression, the Pantah output 50bhp at 8500rpm, which was measured as an impressive 46bhp at the rear wheel and equated to a top speed of around 115mph. Weighing just 180kg, the Pantah was nimble and peppy and it impressed the test riders of the time. 'The handling and roadholding are quite exceptional,' said Bike magazine. 'There's nothing like a thoroughbred Italian for finding out how a motorcycle should really handle.'

However, the Pantah attracted criticism from traditional Ducati enthusiasts who found to the contrary that the handling was not quite as precise as previous models. The Pantah's suspension was less stiff - the front end came in for some criticism - although these changes may have made the 500s more acceptable to riders who were used to the softly sprung Japanese sportbikes of the era. Said Bike: 'Popular myth says that Italian bikes are plank-hard at the rear end but it's a stigma that newer Latin street-racers like the Pantah are shaking off. The five-position Marzocchis ride the bumps well without degenerating into sogginess… with almost none of the whack-on-the-backside punishment meted out so liberally by the old 450 Ducati singles.'

The Pantah had remarkably tall gearing (it wouldn't rev out in top), and not much in the way of low down power or mid-range torque. Riders needed to slip the clutch to achieve a rapid getaway, and keep revving to get the best from the engine.

However, it could cover a standing quarter mile in 14.1 seconds - or better, with tweaks to the standard Conti exhaust system and air intake arrangements. In standard trim the Pantah was quicker than the Moto Guzzi Monza and Honda's CX500. It matched the Laverda Montjuic and Yamaha XJ550 on top speed.

Ducati Pantahs on Right Now......

Only the Kawasaki 550 four was significantly faster of its contemporary rivals - and the Guzzi and Kwacker both cost 30% less than the Ducati. Only the Laverda matched the Pantah on price, which led Motor Cycling to describe the Ducati as 'the most desirable 500 lotsa money can buy.'

For the price, the Pantah was far from perfect. Both tacho and speedo were noted for over-reading. The clutch made heavy weather of heavy traffic and would slip at low revs. The battery tended to discharge if it was left standing for any length of time, but overall the engine proved to be reliable and oil tight. The triple 260mm Brembo disc brakes provided more than adequate stopping power for the Pantah's performance, and the twin 36mm Dell'Orto carbs were retained throughout the model's six year evolution.

The 500 Pantah returned around 50mpg, and was good for 230 miles on a tankful of fuel - although the rider would appreciate covering those miles on rural A-roads. The Pantah's riding position and power delivery were not best suited to urban conditions. 'The Pantah's sporting position gives us pain' said Cycle magazine, complaining of aching wrists, a nagging back and numb bum. They thought that the Pantah was 'perfect for the individualist who believes that the Japanese are much too sensible to build anything like the Pantah.'

I *so* wanted one of these in 1981... Ducati 600 SL Pantah

There were more than enough individualists around in the early 1980s to make the Pantah a commercial success. The 500 was swiftly followed by a 600 SL which arrived in 1981, using an 80mm by 58mm motor to give 583cc. The 600 Pantah was the first Ducati to use an hydraulic clutch (curing some of the earlier problems), and it also came with a fairing, stronger gearbox, Bosch ignition, Japanese switchgear and instruments. Paoli 35mm forks with stronger springs were fitted to combat some of the criticism about the weak front end, and later bikes used Paoli or Marzocchi items for rear damping, too.

The weight of the 600 rose to 187kg but with its compression ratio boosted to 10.4:1 the Pantah output 58bhp at 8500rpm and 37ft/lb of torque at 7500rpm; good for 120mph or so. The bigger bike retained the high gearing of the 500 so could still be faster in fourth than in top… but an American test bike was timed through the standing quarter mile at 13.94 seconds.

I didn't want one of these in 1982... Ducati 600 TL Pantah

An oddity, the 600 TL arrived in 1982 but stayed in production for just one year. The strangely-styled tourer suited no one, it seemed.

Then in 1983 Ducati created the 650SL, increasing the engine to 82mm by 61.5mm which finally produced the missing mid-range torque and raised maximum power to 63bhp at 8500rpm. This 649cc machine shared engine dimensions with the contemporary 750 racer and allowed Ducati to pass homologation, but it also created the pride of the Pantah pack - the most sought-after model of the SL range. The 650 looked very much like its 600 sibling as they shared the red and yellow livery of the F2 factory racers. It also shared the unfortunate fuel cap which allowed water into the petrol tank. Apart from that, the 650 is recognised by the cognoscenti as 'the one to have' among the SL models - if you can ever find one for sale, that is.

I'd have settled for one of these in 1983... Ducati 650 SL Pantah

When finally the 750F1 appeared in 1985, the 650SL was overshadowed and although it remained in production for another year, very few 650s now appear on the market. The 650 engine, however, found its way into all manner of other motorcycles including some with Cagiva badges on them. There was even a turbo version of the SL, although it never progressed beyond prototype stage.

'The 500cc class of street bikes available today is the most exciting' said Superbike in 1980, and 'the best of them, the Montjuic and Pantah share the same sort of good things like fabulous power, immaculate roadholding and rugged individualism. The Pantah stands alone as the modern wonderful expression of the fast V-twin engine, integrally and intelligently built into a revolutionary frame, coupled with a short wheelbase, low weight and quick steering. The bits that go together to make up the motorcycle are enough to guarantee a fine ride - so ride one, and believe in magic.'

The main problem with the Pantah when it was new was how much it cost. Back in 1980 the 500 Pantah was only £100 cheaper than a Suzuki GSX1100: 'it's horrendously expensive for a 500' said Bike magazine. 'Try not to ride one' said Julian Ryder 'if you can't afford the payments. Otherwise you'll just break your heart.' No need for heartache any more. These days, prices for Pantahs start at £2000 (for a 500, needing some work), while a low mileage example in top notch trim could set you back £5000 from a dealer.

This 500 which sold recently in the USA reached $4000...

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Pantah Particulars
There's heaps of useful technical advice for owners at www.desmo.org.uk


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