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Bike Profile - Posted 18th October 2010

1980 Ducati Pantah
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Simon Doncaster's Ducati 500 twin has clocked up over 70,000 miles from new but has spent a while being laid-up. A restoration might have brought it back to life, but in fact had the opposite effect...

I blame it on my then girlfriend, Josephine. We'd been to the 1979 bike show and seen the red and silver Pantah on the Ducati stand. It was a nice looking bike. I wanted a Ducati to replace my 350 MkIII, so the Pantah seemed to fit the bill, or at least it would do when they were launched in the spring of 1980.

So it was with some surprise when Josephine, reading MCN shortly after New Year, 1980, came across a Sports Motorcycles advertisement listing a Pantah. A trip to Manchester followed. Expecting the Pantah to be for display and demonstration rather than sale, and not planning to buy a bike that day, it was with further surprise that I heard the salesmen say; 'actually, you can have that one'. One week later, on February 1st and 2300 lighter, I was the proud owner of a red and silver 500cc SL Pantah.

Josephine and the Pantah. In the BBC quarry, by the looks of it. Dr Who not shown... 1980 Ducati Pantah

My first ride on a big bike was on my brother's 450 Desmo. It was great. Loud, easy to ride and looked the part. The fact that I had to push it home from that first ride says either a lot about Ducatis or my idiocy. Having then owned a 350 MkIII for a year, the Pantah, being bigger, half faired and a left foot gear change, took a bit of getting used to, especially running it in on cold, late winter evenings. When the wind caught the fairing and me unawares and the bike veered across the road, I wondered if I'd bought the right bike. Time would tell. I devised a 'circuit' of local roads near home in Derbyshire which I used to run the bike in. By the time my friends knew I had a new bike, it was run in, just in time for spring.

For the next ten years and 75,000 miles, the Pantah was used, abused and occasionally crashed. Always intending to modify it and mildly tune it, I never did. Aside from a two-into-one exhaust, air filters and quicker action throttle (following an unscheduled tarmac-bike interface), the Pantah remained standard. It was used for commuting, touring, B-road scratching and even dispatch riding. The most useful accessories I bought for it were a pair of throw-over panniers and a tank bag.

I think I was there the weekend before, with the Sheffield Uni bike club. RM... At the Ducati Owners Club Rally, the Holly Bush Inn, 1981

In all the time I've owned the Pantah, I've only ever seen one other like it aside from at the 1979 bike show (which in any case may be the Pantah I bought); that was at Le Mans in 1982. The Ducati dealer in Edmonton, Canada, had a photo of himself racing the same model of Pantah in the early 1980s. Other than him, I've never met anyone who owned the same model of Pantah. It was only on comparison with later 1980 Pantahs that I noticed slight differences from mine; most obviously the paint scheme, but also the fuel tank (slightly larger on my Pantah) and filler cap.

The single/dual seat set-up is two different seats, not a seat cowl like later versions. The engine mounts in the frame slightly differently, and the front sprocket is different. Minor differences occur internally as well. When buying an internal engine oil seal, a one-time UK Ducati importer insisted that machining work had been done inside the engine, because there was no seal where I wanted to put one. My factory parts book said otherwise. Needless to say I got a seal elsewhere.

Reliability wise, and considering the use it got, the Pantah was pretty good although not without troubles. I have vague memories of Sports Motorcycles doing warranty work on the lubrication system and scored barrels early in the bike's life. The clutch always slipped until solved with tough springs and an extra plate. Oil consumption was low. The swinging arm pin wore out at 4000 miles. The replacement lasted until 75,000 miles, only to be nearly cut in half by a chaffing swinging arm end-float shim.

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A gearbox bearing cage split at around 35,000 miles. This was identified by a loud clunk as I changed down going into a 90 degree corner over a bridge. On limping home and draining the oil, the drain plug magnet was festooned with bearing cage. All that need replacing was the bearing and plate that covered the bearing. The clutch thrust bearing failed, and the clutch basket cracked. Being able to buy just the alloy basket and new rivets, replacing the split basket was simple; a hammer and drill being the most high tech tools needed, although I now wince at the memory of doing it.

Weekends away camping demonstrated that the best bike for touring is the one you have. True, I couldn't carry much with me, but regular trips to Le Mans and the Bol d'Or, two-up with camping gear, showed just how little luggage you really need for a three week holiday. After my first, overloaded trip, I refined my packing to minimalist levels. I put my waterproofs and shoes in the fairing, and everything else wherever it would fit. If it didn't fit, I didn't need it. One girlfriend decided the pillion seat was so uncomfortable that she resorted to using a cushion. To me, the seat was fine.

At the Le Mans 24 Hour campsite, April 1982...

Cables snapped, chains got worn beyond their useful life, oil pressure switches failed, idiot lights played up, engine mounts cracked, but oddly, unlike other early Pantahs there was never any trouble in selecting gears. It was only at 60,000 miles that selecting gears became difficult. Riding to Italy and the Bol d'Or in the late 1980s, second gear started to play up. On taking the engine apart back at home, a bush had split. Replacing the bush, the gearbox lasted around another 10,000 miles before gear selection became beyond redemption. By this time, the rest of the bike was sadly looking worse for wear.

I learned a lot about riding motorcycles with the Pantah. Any excuse for a ride would do, and I spent my weekends travelling the country, adding miles and learning how to ride as I went. Smooth riding and local road knowledge made up for its comparative lack of power; weekend rides with friends on their Japanese 750 and 1000cc bikes revealed the Pantah's ability to keep up with and ahead of much bigger bikes. Whilst I might have had problems passing these bikes, once ahead, I could readily pull away on the twisty roads I knew so well. My favourite trick was to steal a lead at a junction, and then see how long it would take my friends to catch up.

The effects of clip-on crouch (a sore neck), would appear after about 300 miles. I could ride the bike all day in most weathers with no complaints, the fairing keeping much of the weather off me. 200 miles between fill ups meant a lot of non-stop fun could be had.

I learned that motorways were dull and many A-roads a little less so. My favourite roads were B- and smaller, unclassified roads. Stone walls, hedges and jumps in the road all added to the fun. Exceptions to A-roads included the Snake Pass. Regular trips via the Snake Pass to Sports Motorcycles for servicing meant I could keep the throttle open where others slowed, their knowledge of the Snake Pass being less than mine. Similarly, Wildboarclough over the moors near Buxton was a much more fun road to ride than the more popular, smoother and wider Cat and Fiddle, both now heavily policed and so both less fun to ride.

Ferry to Le Mans, mid-1980s ...

Trips to Europe involved studying the Michelin maps for the 'green' routes; once out of the ferry in France, motorways were avoided. Days were spent riding through the high passes in the Alps, just for fun. Being caught out in mid-summer snow was all part of the ride. The Bol d'Or at Paul Ricard-Le Castellet was a perfect excuse for a late summer holiday in Italy and southern France. Cheering on Ducatis added to the fun. Seeing the factory Hondas storming down the Mistral Straight was awe inspiring. As often occurs with motorcycling, what started out as a solitary trip to Le Mans in 1982 resulted in a group of like-minded friends making regular trips to Le Mans and the Bol d'Or throughout the 1980s, with Ducati ownership being central to this group.

As the 1980s passed, the Pantah obtained a well used look. Crashed, battered and scratched, it nonetheless kept on running. Servicing was simple, although I used to get the valve clearances set professionally. The obligatory two-into-one exhaust made the bike noisy and fun to ride, if a bit antisocial. People began to ask when I was going to clean the bike, repaint it even. But it ran, so why fix it?

For two and a half years of the 1980s, it had sat in a garage whilst I was in Australia and Canada. Upon returning from these trips, an oil change, cam belts and battery saw the bike running again. Life carried on as before. Tyres went from Avon Road Runners to Pirelli Phantoms to Metzelers. Oil remained Castrol GTX. Front sprockets came from Suzuki GT380s, chains became O-ring. Brake pads from whatever was available. Eventually and following gearbox problems, a 1980 R80/7 BMW became my transport, and the Pantah was retired.

The decision to rebuild the Pantah in 1990 was a quick one. Within an hour or two of deciding to rebuild it, the engine was out of the frame. Stripped, it became apparent that much of the engine required replacement; gearbox, cams, bearings, pistons and barrels spring to mind. Engine parts were sourced and the engine rebuilt with the help of Roy Armstrong of Ital Sport, although a spare pare of barrels I had bought years previously needed machining before they would fit in the crankcases. Hairline cracks in the engine mounts also needed welding. The frame and wheels were epoxy coated. Having access to polishing equipment, I polished the alloy, although surprisingly under the years of accumulated dirt, the engine cases were remarkably good.

Restored in 1991... 1980 Ducati Pantah

The seat was recovered and the bike repainted. The painting was not an entire success. In spite of providing photos and wanting the bike painted in its original colour scheme, this was seemingly difficult for the painters to achieve. Overall and to little avail, the tank was painted twice, the fairing three times, and if I remember correctly, the seat unit twice. The only parts painted right first time were the mudguards and side panels. Furthermore, all the photos I provided were lost. Eventually, I gave up and took the parts back. A repeat customer I wasn't.

Following this and wanting to get the bike on the road, hard-to-find components were replaced by later Pantah parts. The final result is not quite as the factory intended.

Running the bike in highlighted an ill-fitted front disc and shaky head bearings. Worse, as the miles and revs increased selecting gears became a problem. Adjusting the selector mechanism and gear pedal failed to fix it. At this point economic constraints set in. Made redundant from my work in 1991, the Pantah was retired again. The gearbox would have to wait.

And as it was originally...

It still waits.

Rebuilding the Pantah not only failed to fix the gearbox, it also removed all the history and miles the bike had covered. It now looks like any other restored bike; no usage, no history, no story to tell. A few dents, scratches and road grime attest to a bike's history and use. Regretfully, the patina of age collected over so many miles was wiped clean by misplaced enthusiasm. I knew where all the marks and dents had come from, where the bike had been to get them, because I'd been there too.

Repainting and polishing the Pantah was not one of my better ideas. Still, this does present the opportunity to replace the marks of age and use. To get the bike back to its much loved, used condition, I need to ride it. And where better to go than the Classic Bol d'Or? All I need now is a gearbox...


Thanks to the Ducati Owners' Club GB who originally published this article and kindly allowed us to re-use it.

Ducati Owners ClubThe DOC caters for owners of all Ducati motorcycles, from early singles through bevel-drive desmos, belt-drive superbikes to modern machines. Members receive regular copies of the club magazine (featuring articles like this one) plus you can join track days, rallies or model-specific online groups, or access machine dating, technical info and factory special tools. Annual membership currently costs 25.

More info about the Ducati Club is here:

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