I discovered it in the May 1959 issue of Cycle, and called it the Ducati with the funny front brake. In two months I had nearly worn out Page Ten, eyeballing the photograph of that motorcycle. And now it was June 1959, the middle of final exam week at Northwestern. I was holed up in my sterile dormitory room with its beige walls, beige bunks and blonde woodwork, resolutely entrenched behind stacks of textbooks, piles of notebooks, and a forty-pound heap of dirty laundry. My head throbbed and bulged with more German declensions, more themes of Western Civilization, more geologic formations, and more notions about American poets than anyone should ever care to know. My head was packed with 270 facts-per-square-centimeter; the addition of just one more detail would have broken my jaw or fractured my skull. Except for one thing. At its innermost vital center, my mind was cheating; it kept focusing on the Ducati with the funny front brake.
Right there on Page Ten sat that bike with Franco Farne, an Italian racing champion. Farne had won the Class 4 lightweight race at Daytona with his 175cc Ducati: a low, lean, hard little machine with an enormous double-scoop front brake. The motorcycle was so purposeful, so elegant, so perfect. Raw, green lust streaked my desire for a machine like that.
Pavement racing, I decided at the time, was the ultimate form of motorcycle competition. I reached this conclusion, not because I knew anything about motorcycle competition, but because I had had vast experience with a Ford tractor and all the dirt-work that people do with such devices—plowing, disking, harrowing, cultivating and planting. My early years spent aboard a factory-Ford four-cylinder colored for some time my view of any off-road activity and my judgment of engine technology: aluminum alloy I loved because cast iron I hated; overhead camshafts I applauded because flatheads were an anathema to me; I worshipped beautiful forks and shocks because that Ford tractor lurched and jumped like a hiccup-crazed drunkard as it yanked a plow through rock-infested fields. The Ducati with the funny front brake shared nothing with that damn Ford tractor save the theory of internal combustion.
Reality kept intruding. In June 1959 the magic little Ducati lay almost half a continent away from me, and the doorless, windowless, hatchless omnipresence of Northwestern’s final week surrounded me. My summer was likewise sealed; it held neither time nor money to go chasing after some funny little motorcycle. I was reduced to all that I could be: 1959’s World Champion Magazine Racer.
Back in those dim days, it took real talent to be a magazine racer. In the first place, you needed a good magnifying glass for close inspection of magazine photographs which were with—frustrating consistency—small, fuzzy, underexposed, overexposed, poorly cropped, and frequently miscaptioned. Furthermore, any magazine racer worth the price of a year’s subscription had to have an uncommonly creative imagination. Lightweight roadracing reports were either brief or non-existent; at times only the finishing orders found their way into magazines. Depending upon how thin or thick the shreds of information might be, you could divine your own race reports. But lots of ordinary gruntwork and big rolls of postage stamps were still necessary for a proper magazine racer. You wrote for literature, for “additional information,” and sometimes you turned joiner.
I wanted to follow the exploits of the funny little racers, so I joined the Worldwide Cycle Club, which was yet another promotion of wheeling-and-dealing, dodging-and-darting Floyd Clymer, who during that era published Cycle. I did not join the WCC (Fastest Growing Cycle Club In The World!) for my “serial numbered membership certificate suitable for framing for your room, office or den,” nor for the “beautiful 20K gold two-color pin with screw-on post lock for lapel or cap,” nor for the “pocket secretary with notebook, ballpoint pen, calendar and card holder with attractive club emblem on the front cover.” No sir, Floyd. I joined because you said that local papers would be mailed to members the day after race events, and those events included Daytona, Laconia, Dodge City and, as an extra attraction, the Isle of Man. And Floyd, though you passed on some years back now, I’d just like to say that one P. Schilling, WCC Member #2347, never got his papers. So I never found out anything through the WCC about the little Ducati racers. Floyd, it was a bummer.
I scoured each new issue of Cycle for more and better photos of the machines with the funny front brakes, and was always disappointed. I wrote for free literature from Berliner Motor Corporation, the Ducati importer, and asked about the 175s with the special brakes; in the mail, five days later, came a four-page brochure on the new Ducati street motorcycles which I added to my collection of identical four-page brochures. So I wrote again, and asked about the funny-braked bikes again, and into my dorm mailbox five days later there dropped three goodies. The first piece was yet another four-page brochure; the second, a newsletter which had a picture of the 175 OHC bike with the funny brakes; third, a note which said the bikes with the funny brakes were basically just Ducatis with a few special light touches here and there.
I zeroed in on the evidence at hand with all the zeal and energy of a Methodist missionary. I calculated, guesstimated, cross-checked, double-checked, and almost burned out my left eyeball. But in the end I congratulated myself on my sleuthery: the 175s with the funny brakes had been lightly touched all right, touched again and again and all over; though similar to the street machines, they were real racers, genuine single-purpose machines. I confess that much time could have been saved either by going to a race (an impossible feat at the time), or simply by calling the distributor and asking point-blank about the racing machines. But in 1959 I shunned long-distance telephone calls; dormitory pay-phones gulped down nickels, dimes and quarters with much eager clattering and greedy dinging. Besides, a five-minute call would have deprived me of two months of intriguing diversion and daydreaming. Long-distance directness seemed far too businesslike for a World Champion Magazine Racer.