Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Adventure Report: Museo Ducati, Bologna, Italy, March, 2013

I love me some Italian motorcycles. So much, that on my recent visit to Italy, I dragged a non-motorcycling friend with me from Rome all the way up to Bologna, to take the Ducati museum and factory tour. 

The Museum

The most important thing to know about taking the Ducati factory tour is that there is no free Ducati at the end of it. Instead, you'll receive a 5 Euro coupon towards purchases of 25 Euro or more in the company store, the location of which they do not tell you. (Note: the factory store is NOT the gift shop in the museum.) It's a whole 'nother building, about a quarter of a mile away from the museum and factory compound. We missed it because we had no idea it existed, but based solely on the size of the building as we passed it in the taxi on the way back to the train station, I would recommend you stop and spend some money there.

Overall, the company doesn't seem very interested in giving anyone a tour of anything. But that's cool, they're making
 Ducatis. I get it. To get the reservation, I sent an email to Ducati's "Visit Us" section three times, with there separate tour time and day requests, and each time, I received a form email back saying "Your reservation is not booked until someone emails you to confirm." Three weeks to Italy...two weeks to Italy...one week to Italy. Nothing. When I got to Rome, I had my expat friend who speaks Italian call the factory. The woman on the other end of the line said she never received any of my emails sent from the Ducati site. She even checked the spam folder, but as luck would have it, there's a tour in English at 3:30pm tomorrow.

We bought our high-speed train tickets, and the next day, headed to Bologna. A few hours, pastries and espressos later, we stood outside Ducati's security gate with 10 other Ducati enthusiasts waiting for a glimpse behind the curtain. We all looked like shivering junkies with cameras, withering outside in the gray-blue, blustery day. 

The tour of the museum itself is guided, fast, and you must stay with your guide, who doesn't care that you want to read the placards or information on the walls explaining the history of Ducati and the bikes. My solution was to take as many pictures of the bikes (and the placards) to take a slower tour via iPhoto later.


As any good museum would, Museo Ducati covers its humble beginnings, from two guys manufacturing razors and radios, to fitting a motor on a bicycle, to starting a factory to mass produce the idea, to the factory being bombed to the ground in WWII, its resurrection and entree into racing. In the 1990s, history hurtles forward into the present-day mechanics. Judging from the real estate in the museum, Ducati is most proud of their work from the 1980's forward, and the penultimate time period is the oughts. Every single Ducati that has won a race is lined up at the end of the tour. 

I am not a mechanic. That fact, plus the fact that I am seduced by exquisite machinery equals why I bought a Ducati. However, even to the mechanical idiot, a few things stuck out on the tour. 

The invention of the desmodromic engine.
Ducati's first attempt at a more powerful demodromic engine - a four-cylinder desmo that proved too heavy for Ducati frames. They vertically sliced the engine in half, to the two cylinder desmodromic engine that made Ducati famous.
The first Ducati to enter the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race. (In the 70's?) Our guide is pointing to a tennis ball, hollowed out and stuffed with a sponge racers would wet before the start. He would then use it during the race to wipe his visor clean. To whomever invented removable visor sheets, you have probably saved lives.

The first 916 is a machine of utter beauty, and looks like a massive leap in the mechanics in Ducati history. After this point, Ducati started winning all sorts of awards.
The Factory

Right now, the most popular bike in production is the Panigale 1199. By the looks of the factory floor, the Diavel is close behind. We watched the birth of a Panigale 1199 in our brief moments on the floor.

Factory Tour. An idea goes in one end, a product comes out the other. Beer. Candy. Motorcycles. Photos are okay in the museum. Photos are most definitely not okay in the factory across the grounds. Neither are walking outside the yellow lines painted on the floor, or dilly dallying. They may be Italians, but it gets all German once you're inside the factory. That feels like homecoming, if you're German. The Brits, however, couldn't handle the rigor and got barked at a few times.

I didn't have to jump yellow lines for a closer look to believe our guide when she said the factory has less than a 1% error rate. This exacting assembly work is based on the Toyota model of factory assembly; anyone on the line can raise a concern, suggest an improvement, et cetera. The proof of quality is in the checklist, by the time each bike comes off the line, there's a 12+ page document that everyone who has touched the bike signs, verifying that their part of the work was completed to the Ducati standard. This document is attached to the bike and shows up at the dealer's door, like a mini-phone book for each bike, in case something goes wrong.

The bikes are all built to order, and during my tour in the "slow" season, about 225 bikes a day come off the line. In the summer and part of fall, over 350 a day will be built. Here's how the sausage is made. An order comes in, someone assembles a cart containing all the parts the mechanics need to put the engine together.
 Our tour guide made a point to stop at the end of the engine line, the only part of the bike builds that are not advanced by hand. It's a dry engine test. The engine is put into a sound-proof box, and run without liquids, or hands, to make sure the thing runs. She could not think of a time when an engine did not.

The working dry engine then goes to the frame assembly line, where its bike is built around it. At the end of this line, and two days after the cart with parts was wheeled to the top of the engine line, each bike gets wet for the first time, and is Dyno tested for about five minutes. A mechanic puts the bike onto the machine, sends it up and down through the gears, tests the battery, the electrical features, the brakes. His signature means a Ducati is born and ready for its crate. On the wall in front of the Dyno, there were hand-drawn lines in different colors on the wall labeled "Panigale", "Diavel", "Monster 696/796", "848", and on. Headlight lines. They looked like high-water marks.

The racing division is behind a blue door inside the factory. It has a porthole, presumably to prevent someone from opening the door into a forklift in the yellow-lined lane. It is definitely not made for peeking through for fun. We were each treated to a peek into the super-secret world of the racing division, which employes over a hundred of the factory's 1000 workers. I saw prototype engines on pillars and a bunch of guys standing around talking. Everyone seemed so serious. As each of our heads popped up into the porthole, I imagined that to them, we looked like squirrels who hadn't eaten all winter and the nuts and berries were on their side of the door. Here, we squirrels were reminded that we could not take pictures, were re-instructed to leave our cell phones in our pockets, and, by the way, not even regular employees of Ducati are allowed behind the blue door. Only about a hundred are, and they are all inside, doing really important work.

My favorite era: '70s Paul Smart Ducati. The yellow stripe down the center of the tank is a window which allowed mechanics to see how much fuel needed to be added at pit stops.
My tips for visiting: 
  • The tour (as of March, 2013) costs 10 Euro and gains you access to both the museum and the factory. 
  • Book the tour by calling to reach a live person. Don't use the Ducati website. My impression was that there is usually someone who speaks English in the Ducati office, but our situation improved dramatically when my friend, who speaks Italian, called. 
  • Book the tour as early as you can so you can arrange your travel to Bologna. The high speed train from Rome the day of costs around 80 Euro ($110). We managed 56 ($75) Euro tickets. If you're driving, even better, although you'd be crazy to drive in Italy. It's like driving in Los Angeles but everyone's wired on coffee. No, wait. It's exactly like that.
  • Overall: This is one of those "nice to check the box" things to do in life. As a Ducati owner, I've now seen where the babies are born, but the tour wasn't mind blowing by any definition. However, if you are in the area, it's definitely worth the trip.


  1. We're headed that way in a few weeks, and really appreciate the insights. Excellent write-up - - now it won't kill me if we miss the tour, but we'll certainly give it a good try.

  2. Definitely on our to do list; thank you for the insight for sure. Definitely good to have the proper perspective: keeps disappointments to a minimum and aids in really appreciating the moment!


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