Dream Factories - Tours of Aprilia and Ducati

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Submitted by jon96 on Fri, 14/03/2008 - 10:12


Ducati Aprilia Factory - TWO Feature

Italian bikes are like Italian people - they are driven by passion. Whether it be a passion for racing, a passion for design or just the passion for the pure enjoyment of riding on two wheels, it doesn't really matter as there's always a passion underpinning what they do. But why is this? Is it the Latin temperament and upbringing of the people involved in making the bikes? What is it that sets Italian bikes aside from their Japanese counterparts? And why the hell do you want passion in a bike anyway? Is passion really all it's cracked up to be?

In an effort to find answers, not to mention spending a few nights in Italy, Niall and I arranged a visit to two of the best known Italian manufacturers: Aprilia and Ducati. And once there we couldn't resist sampling some of the goods, so we booked a ride on two of the firms' most recognisable models, the RSV Mille and 999, and took them along the Futa Pass, one of the most famous roads in Italy and Ducati's unofficial road test track.

While there are plenty of other brands - Moto Morini, Bimota, MV Agusta, Piaggio and Benelli to name a few - we chose Aprilia and Ducati because of what the factories have to offer over and above the manufacturing of bikes. And also because you can visit them too, and share in that passion. And it's very easy to do. We'll even show you how.

Ducati is a world famous brand, partly due to the success of its racing department but also due to it being seen as a universally 'cool' brand. Pop stars, movie stars and various B-list celebs attempt to boost their appeal by posing on the bikes while Ducati's range of clothing crosses the borders between fashion and function.

The Ducati legend was born from racing success, but now the media spotlight, as well as racetrack success, helps keep it strong. But Ducati also has another ace up its sleeve. Such is the pride in the Ducati factory that it has an on-site museum full of bikes, artefacts and information on why and how the legendary brand developed. It is, quite simply, a must for any Ducati fan, or 'Ducatisti' as they like to be called.

Aprilia, on the other hand, is relatively new in most bikers' minds. Despite actually starting bike production back in 1968, it wasn't really until the RS250 was launched in 1995, followed by the RSV-R in 1998, that Aprilia started to win British fans. And it has won loads. The RSV-R has firmly established itself in British biking culture and is now a fairly common sight on our roads.

So that was the plan: fly out to Italy, poke our noses around the Aprilia factory, pick up a new RSV-R to ride to Ducati's Bologna HQ, explore the Ducati museum then round it all off by riding the famous Futa Pass.

Okay, the timing was a bit optimistic to say the least - riding an Italian mountain pass in winter was probably asking for trouble - but we were pretty sure that, with a bit of effort and ingenuity, we could fit snow chains to a 180-section rear...

Aprilia: Inside the lion's mouth

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Ducati Aprilia Factory - TWO Feature

Getting the wrong Aprilia factory is a fairly easy mistake to make. Aprilia actually have two factories near Noale, one where the bikes are made, hence the huge rack of frames sitting outside in the sun, and another housing the racing department, R&D and offices.I say it's an easy mistake because Niall and I spent 20 minutes at the wrong door. But get inside and you are instantly welcomed to the Aprilia family.

Aprilia's financial standings have been a bit shaky to say the least since the scooter bubble burst, but with its recent takeover by Piaggio things are looking a lot better. But, if the facilities are anything to go by, at least Aprilia invested wisely when the money was there. The R&D, testing and general facilities are very impressive and our tour of the factory really did show what goes into making, testing and getting any new bike through the various and ever more stringent EU laws. Check out the technical storyopposite to see what goes on - it really is amazing how much a bike has to go through.

Moving from the road bike testing area we entered the racing and R&D department. Despite Piaggio's decision to pull out of MotoGP, Aprilia still takes its racing very seriously. The Aprilia Racing division employs 80 people who design, test, order and store every component in-house for all classes of racing. The storeroom alone holds over £3,500,000-worth of spares, all kept in labelled compartments - it's the ultimate pick and mix shop! Next year there will be around 20 privateer 125cc Aprilias in GPs plus the factory bikes, and 12 or so 250cc privateers, again plus the factory bikes. Fancy running a team? A factory 125cc costs £50,000 and a 250 is £70,000. And you'll be needing spares on top of that, plus a decent-sized transporter and a few grid girls.

Walking around the factory the thing that was really noticeable at Aprilia was the family atmosphere. The last year has been tough; the financial problems stopped production for two weeks in mid-summer last year and the employees really didn't know if they were going to get their marching orders or not - the factory was on the brink of closing for some time.

While Aprilia tried to put a brave face on things, a few of the employees we spoke to described the time as 'a nightmare', and it seems to have brought the whole of Aprilia closer. But all's well that ends well and, for now at least, Aprilia's future looks secure. Buoyed by the factory's restored spirit of optimism, Niall and I drew straws for who got the RSV-R's keys for the 100-mile journey to Bologna, the home of Ducati.

Ducati: The Bologna legend


Ducati Aprilia Factory - TWO Feature

If you ever visit the Ducati factory then an overnight stay in the Amadeus Hotel is a must. As hotels go it's not particularly special, but being the closest stopover to the Ducati factory means that everyone from WSB, BSB and MotoGP racers to Ducati staff and wide-eyed tourists and hangers-on stay in the Amadeus. It even sells Ducati merchandise and boasts a Ruben Xaus-signed shirt next to a Roberto Baggio football shirt (you know, the Italian with the dodgy rat-tail haircut who missed a penalty during the 1994 World Cup) in reception.

Finding the Ducati factory wasn't that hard. If the street it's in, Via Ducati, isn't a big enough clue, then there are always the school buses shipping in kids for guided factory tours to help you find the place. Ducati isn't just a motorcycle manufacturer, it's a brand, a way of life and, in Italy, an institution. Every day school parties visit the factory to look around the museum, eat in the Ducati restaurant and drink coffee in the Ducati cafe out of Ducati-branded cups.

It's completely different to Aprilia, who is doubtless just as proud of its history but can't yet afford to promote it so well or push the brand in such a way. The Ducati museum is slick, well designed, full of amazing bikes and run by a curator who is probably the most passionate Ducatisti I have ever met. (The Aprilia museum, on the other hand, is still being built. They'll get there in the end.)

Like Aprilia, Ducati has also had its fair share of financial woes in the past, but a takeover by financial investors Texas Pacific Group in 1996 brought the company some much needed cash and steadied it on its feet.

Having an American backer paying close attention to the company has turned Ducati into a much more professional outfit. Where in the past its bikes had a terrible reputation for reliability the new breed of Dukes are far better with much more care taken over their manufacture. Especially the 999 engines which, rumour has it, are made by women as they are more dexterous then men.

While all this care and attention to detail has certainly benefited Ducati you can't help but feel that something has been taken out of the company. The workers and all involved are massively enthusiastic but there is a feeling of a bit too much polish about it all, almost commercialised. Is this a bad thing? Not really, Ducati is a hugely successful brand, almost as well known as Harley-Davidson, but could a diluting of that passion be a problem in future years?

Not if the museum curator has anything to do with it. He takes personal control of educating the next generation of Italians about Ducati history when they visit the museum.

So with the weather still fine we picked up a 999 and I followed Niall on the Aprilia through Bologna towards the Futa Pass.

The Futa Pass: Ride the test of time

Once you've escaped the sprawling mass of Bologna the busy urban sprawl is replaced by an ever-more snaking road dotted with numerous villages. The Futa Pass begins. Legend has it that every new Ducati made is tested on the Futa Pass as part of its development process, and the Multistrada was actually built to be the ultimate bike along this very stretch of road. Which is a story I can believe. The road is simply brilliant, even in the cold of a sub-Alpine Italian winter. The surface is in suspiciously good condition too. It's as if someone at Ducati has bunged the local council a few Euros to make sure that this particular 150-kilometre piece of road is always in perfect condition.

It might have been Ducati territory, but the Aprilia was in its element too. All that was needed were the first three gears tocatapult either bike effortlessly from one 90 bend to the next as the road zig-zags its way towards Firenze (Florence).

With the temperature hovering around 7°, neither Niall or myself was really willing to push the bikes that hard. That said, even at slowish speeds it was surprising how different the two bikes felt.

They are both V-twins but the engines are completely different. The Aprilia's 60° V-twin lump has a very revvy feel to it, while the Ducati comes with its traditional 90° lump. Compared to the Ducati's Desmo design, developed over nearly 50 years, the Aprilia's motor is virtually still in its nappies at less than 10 years old.

And it's not just the motors that make the two bikes feel so different to ride. Ducati has a large stable of bikes ranging from the naked Monsters through sports tourers to the full-on superbikes, so it can afford to make the race-replicas more extreme - if a rider wants a softer machine they can buy another Ducati model.

The RSV-R, on the other hand, was designed as a sports bike, but not a hugely radical one. It had to be practical as well. Although other models did join the RSV-R in Aprilia's range, most notably the sports-touring Futura and all-round Falco, they have faded into obscurity while the RSV-R keeps on getting stronger.

Not having such a strong brand perception as Ducati does hamper Aprilia slightly. Some, perhaps many, customers will decide to buy a Ducati simply because that's what it is - they want in on the Ducati image. But Aprilia doesn't enjoy this advantage. At least not yet, anyway. And that's a shame because the RSV-R is a really good bike, with a great big friendly family behind it.

But with the Ducati you get yourself a bike, a bit of history and entrance to the club, all inclusive. And that's where the extra money goes, I suppose. Can you put a price on history?

INSIDE APRILIA: THE TECHNICAL SIDE


Ducati Aprilia Factory - TWO Feature


You know how old gits harp on about the good old days? About how bikes had character, and used to break down every other day? Well, the reason those days are no more is due to the huge amount of rigorous testing every new bike goes through years before it ever makes it into production. Aprilia has some of the most advanced testing facilities outside Japan. Here is just a flavour of what every bike is subjected to before it is even considered for production.

Noise
In a dedicated sound room every noise the bike makes is tested, recorded and evaluated. Even the sound of the bike from the riding position is recorded and adjusted for optimum on-board aural pleasure! In the early stages of development the RSV-R's frame was found to resonate at certain rpm; this was cured by adding rubber bungs to eliminate it. The whole room is sound-proofed and has a rolling-road so the bike's engine can be run and tested.

Endurance
The frame is squashed by a few millimetres, then released, then squashed again, and again, and... in fact it's done 500,000 times to make sure the welds are strong enough to last the bike's life. For scooters, Aprilia reckon this is eight to nine years, superbikes twice this. This whole test is repeated vertically, horizontally and torsionally.

Road simulation
The bike is run on a dyno to simulate road riding. A computer controls the throttle and gears, and the dyno adds resistance to simulate hills. A bit like an exercise bike in the gym. Aprilia also has 19 engine dynos.

Vibration test
The whole bike is put on a giant vibrator and shaken senseless for 400 hours to test components for strength.

Road test
The bikes are ridden on the roads around Noale. Test devices can only tell you so much; what is important, say Aprilia, is what the bike feels like to ride. We interviewed Aprilia's test rider, Claudio Pellizzon, last month in TWO.

Production
In the high season, during the summer months, the Aprilia factory's 11 production lines (seven for scooters, four for big bikes) produce 2500 bikes a day. The components aren't actually madein-house, instead whole assemblies - engines, front suspension, etc - are delivered to the factory and the bikes bolted together. The workers, 60 per line, stay in one place all day and repeat the same job over and over again. It takes around two hours to make an RSV-R from start to finish, and when the bike is completed a friendly Italian chap sticks the brand new bike on a dyno at the end of the line and runs the motor to the red-line through the gears. But it's okay, he does it in a 'kindly Italian way'. Good job you spent those 1000 miles carefully running it in, eh? And if you're looking for a job at Noale you may be interested to know that 60% of the workers are women. Come on the girls.

APRILIA: A POTTED HISTORY

1968 Alberto's son, Ivano, takes over the company and produces its first motorcycle. It's 50cc and uses a lot of bicycle components
1970 The Scarabeo, a motocross bike, is first made. It continued in 50 to 125cc versions through the '70s
1975 Aprilia produce a motocross racing engine
1977 Aprilia win the 125 and 250 Italian Motocross Championships and are sixth in the World Championship
1982 The first proper Aprilia road bike, the ST 125, is made
1985 Loris Reggiani races a Rotax-engined Aprilia in 250 GPs
1987 Aprilia's first 250 GP win, at Misano.
1990 The Pegaso 600 is launched, an off-road big trailie-type bike that is still in production today
1992 Aprilia win the 125cc World Championship
1995 Aprilia rock the world (albeit very gently) with the Philippe Starck-designed Moto6.5 and set rider's pulses racing with the RS250 road bike
1997 Valentino Rossi wins his first World Championship riding a 125cc Aprilia
1998 The RSV1000, Aprilia's first big bike, is launched, and soon followed by the Falco, Futura and Caponord, all using the sameV-twin engine
2000 Aprilia buy Moto Guzzi and Laverda. The factory also enters the World Superbike championship with Troy Corser. He finishes third overall
2003 Aprilia enter the MotoGP fray with their fearsome RS3 Cube. Colin Edwards toughs it out and finishes the year 13th overall
2005 Aprilia is bought out by scooter giant Piaggio. A new beginning?

THE DUCATI MUSEUM

A visit to the Ducati Museum is a must for anyone with an interest in motorcycles, not just Ducati fans. First opened in 1998, the museum is free to enter and open Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings.
It contains the most stunning display of machinery you will ever see, all kept in perfect running order. Although most of the bikes are race bikes - Ducati consider their racing history to be most important - there is also a selection of road bikes and loads of information available through very knowledgeable tour guides, who all speak English.
Tours take place at 11am and 4pm Monday to Friday and 9.30am Saturday.
The museum can be contacted by e-mailing infotour@ducati.com or by calling +39 051 6413343.
Also check out the Ducati website, www.ducati.com for info.

DUCATI: A POTTED HISTORY

1926 Adriano, Marchello and Bruno Ducati start an electrical business in Bologna
1942 The factory is enlarged
1944 12 October, a bomb destroys the new factory. The museum still has the photos
1946 The first Ducati motorcycle is made. The 49cc Cucciolo ('Puppy') is the perfect post-war transport: cheap, reliable and it does 100km to a litre of fuel!
1949 The Ducati 60 moped is launched
1954 The first automatic scooter is made, its design inspired by American cruiser cars. It proves too expensive. Ducati is split into two companies: electrical and motorcycles. The first racing motorcycle is made, the 100cc Marianna. More importantly, an engineer called Fabio Taglioni joins Ducati
1956 Ducati's first Desmodromic valve system, designed by Taglioni, is used on a 125cc race bike
1963 Ducati produce the V-four Apollo. Designed as an American police bike it was monstrously powerful and too much for the tyres of the day. Only two were ever made
1971-1972 The first Ducati V-twin is made. It's a Desmo, and is raced by British legend Paul Smart. He wins the Imola 200 on it
1978 Mike Hailwood returns to the TT after 11 years. He wins the F1 TT on a 900cc Ducati
1980 Ducati use belt-driven cams for the first time
1985 Ducati bought by the Cagiva/MV Group
1986 Ducati's first four-valve head is used on the 851 Ducati
1991 A Ducati-engined Cagiva Elephant wins the Dakar Rally
1993 Miguel Galluzzi designes the Monster
1994 The 916 is launched
1994 - 2004 Ducati win eight World Superbike titles. Carl Fogarty takes four and Troy Corser, Troy Bayliss, Neil Hodgson and James Toesland nab one apiece

HOW YOU CAN DO IT
Aprilia is based in Noale, just outside Venice. The easiest way to get to the factory is to fly to Venice Treviso airport, which is on the budget airline routes. Or you could ride your Mille there, of course. Aprilia owners club Club Aprilia is organising a trip in September: www.clubaprilia.net

Italian bikes are like Italian people - they are driven by passion. Whether it be a passion for racing, a passion for design or just the passion for the pure enjoyment of riding on two wheels, it doesn't really matter as there's always a passion underpinning what they do. But why is this? Is it the Latin temperament and upbringing of the people involved in making the bikes? What is it that sets Italian bikes aside from their Japanese counterparts? And why the hell do you want passion in a bike anyway? Is passion really all it's cracked up to be?

In an effort to find answers, not to mention spending a few nights in Italy, Niall and I arranged a visit to two of the best known Italian manufacturers: Aprilia and Ducati. And once there we couldn't resist sampling some of the goods, so we booked a ride on two of the firms' most recognisable models, the RSV Mille and 999, and took them along the Futa Pass, one of the most famous roads in Italy and Ducati's unofficial road test track.

While there are plenty of other brands - Moto Morini, Bimota, MV Agusta, Piaggio and  Benelli to name a few - we chose Aprilia and Ducati because of what the factories have to offer over and above the manufacturing of bikes. And also because you can visit them too, and share in that passion. And it's very easy to do. We'll even show you how.

Ducati is a world famous brand, partly due to the success of its racing department but also due to it being seen as a universally 'cool' brand. Pop stars, movie stars and various  B-list celebs attempt to boost their appeal by posing on the bikes while Ducati's range of clothing crosses the borders between fashion and function.

The Ducati legend was born from racing success, but now the media spotlight, as well as racetrack success, helps keep it strong. But Ducati also has another ace up its sleeve. Such is the pride in the Ducati
factory that it has an on-site museum full of bikes, artefacts and information on why and how the legendary brand developed. It is, quite simply, a must for any Ducati fan, or 'Ducatisti' as they like to be called.

Aprilia, on the other hand, is relatively new in most bikers' minds. Despite actually starting bike production back in 1968, it wasn't really until the RS250 was launched in 1995, followed by the RSV-R in 1998, that Aprilia started to win British fans. And it has won loads. The RSV-R has firmly established itself in British biking culture and is now a fairly common sight on our roads.

So that was the plan: fly out to Italy, poke our noses around the Aprilia factory, pick up a new RSV-R to ride to Ducati's Bologna HQ, explore the Ducati museum then round it all off by riding the famous Futa Pass.
Okay, the timing was a bit optimistic to say the least - riding an Italian mountain pass in winter was probably asking for trouble - but we were pretty sure that, with a bit of effort and ingenuity, we could fit snow chains to a 180-section rear...

Start the tour of the Aprilia and Ducati factories

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