Monday, 4 February 2013

NCR Millona - The Ultimate Ducati Pantah



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Last week I profiled one of the ultimate bevel-head Ducatis, the Vee Two Alchemy SV-1. This week, it’s time for the Pantah’s revenge.
In the modern age of higher and higher horsepower outputs and electro-trickery keeping us out of the ditch and on the good side of the EPA, there are certain riders who pine for a simpler formula for performance. These folks are a special kind of luddite, purists who wants a raw and uncompromised sport machine. It isn’t that they desire a return to a prior (maybe inferior) era – it’s that they want their thrills in pure, undistilled format. They want minimal weight and a broad spread of power in a perfectly tuned chassis.



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They don’t want vintage. They want something elemental, brutal, and visceral. They want it to be modern but unfettered by regulations or cost-cutting. And most of all, they want it to be fast.

What they want is a NCR.
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Nepoti Caracchi Rizzi, named for the three founders of the company, began in 1967 in Borgo Panigale, Italy - near Bologna and close to their perennial source of engines from the Ducati factory. When Rizzi left the company, the company became Nepoti Caracchi Racing. NCR became the de-facto Ducati works team when the factory pulled out of racing in the 1970s. Due to financial issues, Ducati was under Italian government ownership from 1967 to 1978; under the supervision of government inspectors participation in racing was frowned upon as a uselessly expensive sideline. So, during this period NCR stepped in and filled the role of the unofficial-official factory race team, modifying factory-supplied engines, frames and bikes. Their most famous contribution during this period was the preparation of the bevel twin 900 SS that Mike Hailwood used for his surprise win at the 1978 Isle of Man TT.
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While their best-known bike was a bevel head twin, and NCR remains one of the best bevel-single and twin tuners in the world, they were also quite adept at tuning the Pantah platform in the 1980s for TT1 and TT2 classes and have remained loyal to the Pantah engine as a source of motive power. So it is no surprise that, despite more modern and powerful options, the Pantah mill remains the powerplant of choice in their stunning in-house design – the Millona.

The Pantah engine was introduced in 1979 as a more modern and easier-to-manufacture alternative to the ageing bevel-driven camshaft twins developed in early 70s. Famed Ducati engineer Fabio Taglioni developed the Pantah mill starting in 1977 as a 500cc replacement for the horrendous GTS 350-500cc parallel twins - a diversion into unfamiliar territory that proved disastrous for Ducati. The Pantah prototype was unveiled at the Milan show in 1979 and hit the market in 1980 as the Pantah 500SL. The motor was light, simple and efficient. Automotive style toothed rubber timing belts replaced the complex and difficult to adjust bevel tower driven camshafts of previous L-twins. The design remained air cooled with single overhead cam and two valves per cylinder, antiquated but favoured by Taglioni over a more complex four-valve head. The Pantah engine retained the 90-degree layout, as well as the single-pin crankshaft and narrow crankcase that allowed the twin to be scarcely wider than a single cylinder. And he refined his famed desmodromic valvetrain design and made it a standard feature (previous singles and twins had been available with conventional valve springs, with desmo reserved for the top models). The resulting motor made a respectable 50hp and had a free-revving character that earned it high praise from the motorcycling press – aided by a capable chassis (the genesis of the famous Ducati steel trellis frame) that made the SL a sweet riding machine.

The Pantah was designed from a clean slate and would prove to be one of the most enduring motorcycle engines of all time – if we count 1980 as the production introduction, the Pantah and its direct descendants has been in production for 33 years and counting. Any belt-driven overheard cam Ducati, whether they have a single cam or two, air or liquid cooling, 2 valves per cylinder or 4, owes its existence to that humble 499cc twin that Taglioni penned in the late 70s. Even the later Desmoquattro design developed by Taglioni’s successor, Massimo Bordi, is directly related to the Pantah architecture and shares many components (the 916 of the mid 90s retained a kickstart boss in the crankcase casting!). You can still buy a new Pantah today – the air-cooled “2V” or "Desmodue" motors found in the Monster and Hypermotard series are the same basic design, refined, updated, and punched out to 1100cc with a (claimed) 100hp. 

Antiquated though they may be, they are torquey motors that have a usable spread of power and respond well to tuning. Think of them as the small-block of the Italian motorcycle world. Simple, effective, in production forever, and infinitely upgradable. Unfortunately it looks like the air cooled mills are on their way out, as Ducati is phasing out production in favour of more efficient liquid cooled four-valve per cylinder designs. Tightening emissions regulations are making it difficult to continue building powerful air cooled motors. The current generation EVO motors are on the absolute edge of maximum output for the design, which is limited by a steep valve angle and the flow dynamics of a two valve head, not to the mention the poor thermal efficiency inherent in an air cooled design.  
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Ducati 1100EVO engine, the most recent and possibly the last evolution of the venerable Pantah design. The company will be phasing out production of air cooled motors due to tightening emissions regulations.
Which brings us back to NCR and their mouth-watering Millona. I haven’t prattled on about the Pantah engine just to fill space. There is good reason to share the history – the Pantah series of air-cooled twins is one of the most popular and prolific Italian made motorcycle engines of all time and is the mill of choice for independent producers who want a lightweight, reliable, easy to tune twin with a broad spread of power. Bimota has been using them since the 1980s, ditto Vyrus, and Vee Two in their Squalo series, Radical Ducati makes custom frame kits, so does Pierobon… Anyone who has ridden an air-cooled Duc will see the appeal. It’s a smooth, tractable motor that produces the majority of its power in the midrange, right where you need it 95% of the time. It is reliable and easy to maintain, especially for an Italian engine.
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There is a problem though. Since the 750 F1 was discontinued Ducati has never put the 2V Pantah engine into a proper sport chassis. Sure you could get the (1988 onward) SuperSport but they were always more of a relaxed grand-touring machine rather than a focussed sport bike, and lacked top-shelf suspension options (without resorting to some serious modifications). Plus the SS has been discontinued since 2006. 

For years die-hard Ducatisti have been clamouring for a 2V-powered Superbike. No excuses, no compromises, no concessions to comfort or everyday use. The NCR is, essentially, that bike.  
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The NCR Millona takes that punchy, useable Pantah power and then shaves about a third of the weight off the bike that houses it. They do this by building a custom frame and chassis with the best suspension and brakes bits at either end, and the lightest titanium, magnesium and alloy components possible in between. What you end up with is a trackday missile that will make anyone a believer in the primacy of an incredible power to weight ratio over a triple-digit dyno printout.
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NCR was taken over by the Poggipolini manufacturing group in 2001, which opened the door to the production of cutting edge components. Poggipolini is well known as a producer of titanium components for industrial and automotive applications, and NCR soon became their motorcycle division. In 2002 NCR entered a new realm of the industry by introducing the Millona 100ONE prototype, featuring a chassis developed in-house around a Ducati 2V motor. 
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The 100ONE was the first complete motorcycle built by the venerable scuderia and offered tantalizing specifications. In typical Italian fashion, those specs vary wildly depending on whom you ask and what day of the week it is. If we use the most pessimistic numbers, wet weight was around 290 lbs, and the engine was producing at least 85hp. A Racing model was slated to weigh as little as 255 lbs and have as much as 105 hp. Confusingly the prototype name was not consistent either - it was called the NCR Millona, the Poggipolini 100ONE, or any possible combination of those two titles. It was also appropriated by Bimota, who slapped their logo on it and called it the 666, but their version never reached production as the V-Due disaster killed the company shortly after the 666 was unveiled.
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The 100ONE set the template for later developments of the Millona. The engine was a Ducati 1000DS unit lifted out of the contemporary Multistrada. What you got was a 992cc, fuel injected, dual-spark plug head evolution of the Pantah family knocking out about 85 genuine rear-wheel horsepower (95hp claimed). The “standard” Millona motor was kept stock internally but NCR offered a litany of go-faster goodies if you wished to pump up the volume a bit. The frame was a chrome moly trellis design developed in-house by Poggipolini and NCR, suspended by Ohlins bits at each end. A massive custom aluminium swingarm was used at the rear, and the bike rode on magnesium Marchesini wheels with Brembo radial mount brakes. A titanium exhaust system uncorked the glorious Italian thunder. Subframe and gas tank were made of carbon fibre. Bodywork was loosely modelled after the half-faired Ducati SS of the time, but somehow managed to be so much more attractive draped around this elemental and purposeful package. The whole bike was littered with trick (read: expensive) parts from the NCR and Poggipolini catalogues. Street legal it was not - no provisions were made for legality of any sort, nor was there an electric start, as the bike was intended as a no-compromise trackday toy for well-heeled enthusiasts - and a (successful) platform for Battle of the Twins racing. 
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The 100ONE entered very limited production around 2004, built to order and entirely according to customer specification. The basic, stock 1000DS model was quoted to be around 35000$ USD but the price could easily get kicked into the stratosphere if you got liberal with the NCR parts catalogue, or if you opted for some hot-rod work on the motor, or you checked the boxes for racing Superbike spec suspension and brakes...

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In 2006 an updated model was unveiled. Now simply called the Millona, the “new” machine was clearly an evolution of the earlier 100ONE and shared many details. The frame was revised slightly and more options were available for suspension and engine parts. The bike was refined on the track, where it competed successfully in Battle of the Twins series around the world from 2003 onward. NCR worked with Pierfrancesco Chili to develop the suspension, and it was based on his input that the company offered a new rear lightweight suspension unit produced by Mupo instead of the more obvious Ohlins unit. Oddly some press releases reported the use of a new aluminium alloy frame, while others said it was still chrome-moly steel.
By 2009 the final evolution of the Millona was available in three option packages, depending on how much you wanted to spend and how fast you wanted to go. 39,149$ USD got you the base S model with a stock 1000DS motor and a 320 lb weight. Move up to 51,597$ and you got the Millona R, still with a stock motor but upgraded suspension, brakes and some more lightweight components to bring the weight down another 11 lbs. The real treat was the stunning 71,500$ Millona One Shot, which ticked all the option boxes. You got an 1100cc motor with a claimed 116hp, additional titanium and billet parts, a 275lb claimed weight, and carbon fibre BST wheels. Of course additional options were still available, mainly for the engine - like a 1200cc kit, hotter cams, magnesium engine covers, and about 126 hp for a staggering one-to-one (125kg : 126hp) power to weight ratio.
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Those of you raised on 150hp plus Superbikes might scoff at the notion of over 70 grand for a bike that barely breaks into the triples digits on a dyno… But trust me, you cannot comprehend the grin-inducing midrange thrust of a highly tuned Ducati aircooled engine until you’ve ridden one. Given unlimited funding you can build a 2V into a ridiculous engine that will produce the most awe inspiring, stump-yanking torque this side of a Confederate. I’ve ridden a moderately tuned 966cc 2V that was built as a hot street motor making about 95hp at the wheel (using stock cams and bottom end) and the wheel-lifting midrange punch it had was utterly absurd. Any revs, any gear - it would take off like a scalded cat. It was one of the most memorable rides of my life, and made me a believer in the charm of an air-cooled Pantah. That much torque in a bike that weighs less than 300lbs would be utterly, gobstonkingly ridiculous and would make for an absolute trackday weapon. Which is precisely what the Millona is.
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Reviews of the 100ONE and the Millona are universal in their awestruck praise of the capabilities of the machine, as you would hope given the specifications and the price tag. In any form the Millona makes for an impressive corner carver owing to the featherweight chassis and top shelf suspension. It is scarcely believable – you have a 1000cc plus four-stroke twin that weighs the same as a two-stroke 250, and has handling to match. Reviewers praised the precise response and insane manoeuvrability, as well as the impressive power-to-weight ratio. While a standard 1000DS powered Millona will lose out on the straights to more powerful machines, it has no trouble punching out of corners with the broad spread of midrange power and can carry far more speed through the tight sections than a 1000cc motorcycle has any right to. It applies a simple formula that works well on the track – minimal weight, good suspension, good frame, and usable power.
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Shame it isn’t street legal… But apparently NCR thought of that and unveiled the M4 in 2011, a naked street bruiser that applies the NCR principles to a streetable machine. Featuring a titanium trellis frame and the latest generation Ducati 1100EVO engine, the M4 has full street equipment - though how you would go about registering one, particularly with an open megaphone exhaust, is questionable. While not the first "street legal" NCR (that was the Leggera, a modified Hypermotard with a titanium frame) the M4 is certainly the most impressive and the closest to the Millona in terms of performance and specification. In fact, it should perform better than a Millona. The “base” M4 has 107hp and weighs 286lbs semi-wet, and is yours for 49,900$ USD. If you want the ultimate street fighter step up to the 69.900$ M4 One Shot, which has 132hp, 105 lb/ft of torque, and weighs 278lbs. Heady stuff, but if that isn’t enough you can get the price-upon-request M16 – a highly modified and lightened Desmosedici RR that puts out 200 hp at the wheel and weighs 319lbs. They also offer highly tuned versions of the Hypermotard, Sportclassic, and 848 Superbike. A visit to their website is enough to raise the heart rate of any red-blooded Ducati fan.
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NCR remains one of the finest Ducati tuning and racing shops around. Since their takeover by Poggipolini NCR has become a supplier of some of the finest aftermarket parts for Ducatis, and have built some of the finest aftermarket specials built around Ducati motors. Only Bimota rivals NCR for jaw-dropping limited production Italian motorcycles, and NCRs are far more exclusive. The Millona is a perfect example of the NCR philosophy of minimal weight combined with usable power with the absolute finest components throughout. An NCR motorcycle is an absolutely focussed sports machine that appeals to the purist who wants an undiluted experience – no compromises, no electro nannies, and no bean counting getting in the way of performance. 

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