Wheel alignment

Sunday 16 May 2010

What might have been... Tricati

In the mid-late 60's, there was an article in the UK magazine, Motorcycle Mechanics, about a guy who shoehorned a 500cc Triumph twin unit construction motor into a 250cc Ducati rolling chassis, calling it a Tricati.  That article was subconsciously filed away in the back of the brain for future reference.

After giving up competitive drag racing in the early 70's (a combination of building a career and being financially strapped at the same time!), there was a hankering for building an exotic road bike based around my 350 cc Triumph drag motor (Drag Bike) and that article on the Tricati was remembered. 

You may not have heard of the Ducati 200cc Elite as there weren't many about but in my humble opinion, it's still one of the most beautiful bikes ever made and the fuel tank shape is pure sex!  Here's a pristine example:

As it happened, a local bike repair shop had a Ducati Elite tucked away in the back of their workshop.  The motor had a cracked crankcase and heaven knows what state the internals were in.  I'm sure they thought I was insane for even enquiring about it but my interest was in the cycle parts and got the whole thing for next to nothing.

The first job was to see how difficult it was going to be to squeeze the 350cc Triumph twin into what was a pretty small chassis.  There was no intention to transfer the supercharger too, so there was adequate room for replacing it with twin carbs.  Clearance under the tank didn't look like an issue as the short-stroke motor was already lower than standard and it also looked shorter overall  than the original Ducati motor.  Some very crude engine plates and spacers were made and the motor pretty much went in first time. This photo is of the motor although the head was reversed back to standard configuration and the supercharger removed before the transfer.

But aha, I hear the knowledgeable ones say, "The Ducati final drive is on the right and the Triumph is on the left".  Well spotted!  This wasn't much of an issue actually.  Inverting the swingarm and re-welding the suspension lugs on the other side was all that was required and the bonus was that the front and rear chain sprockets were almost perfectly in line.  Precision alignment could be achieved by carefully machined engine spacers.  With all that sorted, some engine plate patterns were sent to top drag racer Alf Hagon and back came some fantastic alloy plates with an engine-turned circular finish; simply magnificent.  Spacers were machined from stainless steel and the engine slotted in perfectly. 

Next step was to sort out some of the cycle parts.  A half-fairing identical in style to the original Ducati 900ss was fitted and a single racing seat not unlike that on Cal Rayborn's racing XR TT Harley was made from polystyrene and glass fibre.  The intention was to manufacture high level pipes and mufflers like the factory 500cc Triumph Daytona racer shown in the last photo of this post: Nostalgia.  However, events were taking an unexpected turn.

Because of other commitments (including the minor issue of getting married and buying a house!) progress was slower than originally anticipated and construction activity virtually stalled.  At best guess, detailed finishing including a new wiring loom and painting would have taken perhaps 18 months working most weekends.  A further complication was that a good job offer working on the other side of the world in New Zealand was made - too good to turn down in fact.

It would be fair to say that the focus at that time wasn't on motorcycles, more on the upcoming new life and when an offer for the rolling chassis was made, it was accepted.  The drag engine was given to a friend I've lost touch with and for all I know, it might still be sitting in the back of his shed.  It was some 12 years after emigrating that an active interest in bikes was re-kindled: Getting back into it and memories of the Tricati also surfaced again.  Not one to have regrets about the past but I'll admit that with the benefit of hindsight, I was a complete plonker to sell as it wouldn't have taken up a lot of space in the container when we moved to NZ.  Also wish I'd had the foresight to take to take photos at different stages of construction just for the memories.

Ahhhh... what might have been! (But there is a happier sequel to special-building which will be the subject of the next post).

Update: For an amazing sequel, go to THIS post.


  1. Geoff:

    see, what did I tell you ! Full sized working models. Displace the Miata and move in the models cause you need a garage to work in.

    Where are you going to find a Ducati in NZ ? Perhaps you could find your friend again and buy the motor back. Actually, I would forget that old motor and go for something like the Yamaha SR500, or SRX600 motor

    Wet Coast Scootin

  2. There's always a way Bob - wait for my next post later today! Too little time for extensive restorations now, I'd sooner be out actually riding, fishing or travelling rather than being stuck in a shed :-)

    Funnily enough, I saw a ratty old Ducati Elite at a classic bike race meeting in January but wasn't able to talk to the owner.

  3. Geoff:

    the organizers of the race would have contact info for the participants. Perhaps you could just buy the Elite, as well as a pile of old tarps to park the MX5 under.

    Always glad to be of service

    Wet Coast Scootin

  4. Keep up the good work! I invite you to see my post, I hope you will find interesting too.

  5. Nice article, I'm thinking of putting an old school Triumph motor into an Yamaha XZ 550 frame. That frame was a dead copy of the Pantah frame and is a lovely handler and plenty of them here in NZ. The XZ is a shaft but other Yams of the era were chain so a bit of mix and match will be needed. Anyone wants to natter about similar projects I'm on pickteam@xnet.co.nz Cheers Glyn.

  6. Thanks Glyn,
    I actually saw a Ducati Elite in the pits at the Pukekohe Classic Race Meeting in January and it started the itch to buil another special. Thank god I'm too busy with other stuff or my wife would kill me :-)

    PS There ought to be plenty of XZ550 frames about as most of the motors self-destructed!

  7. Hi Geoff
    I was the guy that built the first Tricati that was featured in Motorcycle Mechanic,( July 1967 from memory). I’ve still got a copy somewhere.
    I did the same as you and inverted the swinging arm to swop the drive over. As I was serving an apprenticeship in a power station at the time I was able to make nearly all my own bits to fit and adapt the Triumph engine which I also tuned to beyond T100 spec. The rear sprocket was the only custom bought part, I made all the rest from raw material, mostly aluminium alloys. I drilled holes in all the plates/ brackets as a lightening measure as this would reduce the weight and hence increase performance. The original bike had a purpose built oil tank in the saddle made from fibreglass kits. This used to get warm which was nice in winter. I built a MK11 with the engine oil in the frame after boxing in the top and front tubes join area to increase the volume.
    I actually raced one at Cadwell Park in an open road bike class and did quite well, the performance was pretty good by 1967 standards as it would do over 120mph with terrific acceleration due to the low weight. The handling was typical Ducati again pretty good in 67.
    Mick Snaith

  8. Mick!!!!

    What an thrill for me and serendipity all at once!! I can't be totally senile as I now remember your name in association with the article. Well, well, after all these years! If you ever come across your article, I'd love to have a digital scan if possible. You don't happen to have a photo do you? I'd love to be able to make a new post about this chance encounter!

    I was only talking with an ummm... "mature" friend recently about the lack of innovation these days due to the younger generation going out and buying bolt-on goodies. In fact, if you type INNOVATION in the blog search box, you'll find a rant on the subject together with a heap of old innovative bike photos. My drag race engine which was going to be the powerplant for the Tricati was a 500 with a short stroke crank which I machined and a cut down barrel to make it a grossly over-square 350. I think I know where the engine is still residing!

    I still regret not bringing the bike to NZ and finishing it off - one of my few genuine regrets in life. Are you still riding? After many years on Japanese bikes, I love having gone full circle back to Triumph.

    Thanks so much for the memories - simply fantastic!!!!

  9. Try again, glad you liked it, not very good at this blogging stuff. I was actually guided to yours by a lifetime friend who had idly typed Tricati into google and stumbled across yours.
    It seems my memory has faired worse than yours, the (hopefully) attached article is from Feb66 MM not July67, still relatively close. I had also forgotten that the very first version I built had a modified triumph oil tank complete with added head shield in place of the tiny Ducati tool box. The Ducati had its’ own sump of course. I was constantly trying to improve it and built the saddle oil tank a little later, if I can find my own pictures I will send you one but it did look good.
    I agree with you about innovation, everything today comes in a shiny packet with a part no. The local shops that used to sell odd bits of aluminium and rod are long gone.
    Sadly I gave up bikes when I got married and now the level of traffic (southern England) is so bad I would not want to start again.
    Mick Snaith

  10. Hello again Mick!

    Seems like destiny to meet up this way, doesn't it?

    Sadly, nothing has arrived from you by email. My address is geoff.james74@gmail.com if I could ask you to try again. I've had the odd thing go missing in the ether before!

    I remember those tiny toolboxes. Ironic given the Ducati propensity for breaking down! Yes, when I built my drag race engine, I even found a company which sold me about one foot of titanium tube for my pushrods!

    I haven't been back to the UK since 2003 but agree that the traffic is pretty horrendous, certainly compared with NZ which has a similar area to the UK but only 4.5 million people!

    Look forward to hearing more!

    kind regards,


  11. Hi Just came across this article. I too built a Tricati which I bought a a box of bits from a friend at college.reversed the swing arm too but used cable operation on the rear brake and it was never very powerful but otherwise fine . Made a GRP oil tank out of foam and bonded in the fittings but it seeped a bit. and fitted the ignition switch into the toolbox tother side. Mine was a 5TA unit which had been re bored and gas flowed with higher lift cams and hi comp pistons. stayed with a large bore single carby.
    great bike went well especially off the line. I think the frame was an ex racing frame I recall it had a very limited lock and I stupidly sold the fairing which would be worth a few$ now. I built it in 1973/4 and had higher rise clip ons. It originally had the slender Ducati seat but after I dropped it I replaced the seat with a Rickman style one which actually looked good.
    Havent ridden a bike for years and years but working for a while now in India so out for my first ride on an Enfield...Happy days and dirty fingernails.

  12. Hi Anon,

    Great to hear from you - so cool to "meet" with another Tricati builder. I also bitterly regret selling off my bits and pieces - should have brought them to NZ when we emigrated in 1975.

    Hope all is going well in India. A UK woman who I'm shortly due to take out for an IAM assessment ride has just arrived in NZ from Nepal where she's been working for a tour company riding Enfields in the Himalayas!

    Best wishes and safe travels!

  13. Hi so 2013 is a long time to reply back however I visited home the other day in Aus (yeah like you I am an ex Pom) and found a couple of old B&W photos of my Tricati. I am not sure how to upload them here but can send them on to you if you are interested.
    I actually have got into biking again with a 535 cc Royal enfield Cafe racer which they are selling here in India, It sure reminds me of the Tricati in so much as it is red and pretty but heavier,slower and less nimble but the Brembos sure help stop it.
    Yes riding in Northern India is very popular especially Ladakh but a bit cold I would think...so did she pass??

    1. Hi Marcus,
      Great to hear from another Tricati enthusiast! Thanks too for the emailed photos and will reply separately. I won't upload them to the blog as I don't maintain it any more. Good to hear you're back on two wheels and a nice choice of machine. In my teens, I always envied riders with the original Enfield Continental and GT which the current cafe racer is modelled on.

      Best wishes and safe riding!

  14. Hi all. I remember the Tricati article, it prompted me to think about converting my Elite, but I never did get round to it. I bought my 1959 Elite from a local guy in 1964, used it for a couple of years until I graduated to cars, since when it has sat at the back of the garage, but now resurected to rebuild. I used to buy my Ducati spares at Vic Camp's shop in Walthamstow, now buying my parts from various specialists in the UK and Italy. I need a new tank, mine has some rust which prevents it from being re-chromed, but replacement Elite tanks are very expensive! I agree with your comment on the look of the Elite, except I can't get my head around the double silencer set up. Peter.

  15. Hello Peter!
    I agree with you re: the silencer but it was a trend-setter as other makes (notably Kawasaki) and Ducati themselves have copied it since then. I think that the Elite is still one of the prettiest bikes ever made. Not bringing the Tricati to NZ when we emigrated in 1975 is a source of major regret!

    Thanks for taking the time to write in!

  16. Hi Geoff I to read the article in motor cycle mechanics about mike snaiths tricati and was inspired to build one And have just finished it
    As I live in the reading area and I know that Mick also lived in tilehurst I would to try to make contact as a friend of mine Brian silver would also like to contact him I’m wondering if you still have a contact email for Mick and would possibly forward my request. Many thanks
    Greg knowlson

  17. Hi Greg,
    Fantastic to hear that there are still Tricati enthusiasts about - I still regret not shipping mine to NZ when we emigrated. I take it that you clicked on the link on this page to Mick's original article on the blog? I do have Mick's email but don't know if it's current. This is it and best wishes from a sunny NZ: micksnaith@tiscali.co.uk

  18. I have owned a Tricati for the last thirty years,It was made by a friend of mine who sadly no longer with us.It is a Ducati elite with a 500 cc speed twin unit in it My grandson and I are currently restoring it.

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for taking the time to write in. Wonderful to know that there are still some Tricati out there. Every good wish for the restoration.


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