~ Fabio Taglioni 1920 - 2000 ~

Dr Fabio Taglioni aboard one of the first 750SS Racers
Photo: Seth Dorfler Collection

Fabio Taglioni died in Bologna in late July at the age of 80. Taglioni was the father of the modern desmodromic valve actuation system, and worked for Ducati for most of his career.

Born in 1920, Taglioni graduated as an engineer in 1948. He worked at Mondial in the early 50�s, and when he had a falling out with management, offers were soon on the table from Ford and Ducati. Certainly Ford�s was the more lucrative offer, but Ducati offered something Ford could never offer; Autonomy and the chance to form a race team. Taglioni went to work for Ducati as technical director in 1954, the first of a series of decisions which ignored money in favor of doing what he wanted to do.

He soon developed the 100cc Marianna engine, which won several important races for small machines. But the big breakthrough for Ducati and Taglioni came in 1957, when he designed Ducati�s first desmodromic engine, a 125cc single that powered the Trailbero. It was not the first ever desmodromic engine � others had built them dating back to 1910, and Mercedes Benz had built a successful race cars in the mid-50s with desmo valve action (in which the valves are not only opened by a cam, but closed by them also, instead of leaving the closing to the spring). But it began Ducati�s association with desmos, which continues to this day.

By the late 60s, it was clear that the world market for singles was limited. The big manufacturers were working on what would soon be called Superbikes. What would little Ducati do? How could they compete? Taglioni again had the answer. He combined a pair of singles on a common crankcase, producing Ducati�s first V-twin. It showed up a couple of years into the super bike era, in 1972. It was a winner from the beginning, startling the racing world with a win at the Imola 200, when Paul Smart and Bruno Spaggiari trounced the other factory riders.

Paul Smart and Dr T at Imola 1972

Dr Taglioni checks the ergonomics on the 750cc endurance race bike..

The proud papa...

Taglioni had complete control of the race team in those days, an arrangement which suited him perfectly - he was willing to take the responsibility and to spend the time, if only he could be free of office politics. This love of autonomy probably accounted for his refusing an offer from Ferrari � he could have made a fortune, but would have been a cog in a big machine, which went against his nature. Taglioni always wanted to be involved with the entire machine - if that meant sleeping at the factory, that was a small price to pay. His enthusiasm and passion affected all who worked with him, and when nasty strikes the Ducati works, Taglioni could float right through the picket lines. Taglioni remained with Ducati, until he retired in 1989, and his last complete design was the Pantah - based 750F1.

In 1972 Phil Schilling wrote of Taglioni in cycle magazine: "He is a reflective, soft spoken person whose far-ranging interests mark him as modern-day Renaissance man. He has done many things successfully, but never embellishes his achievements with the rococo of braggadocio. He is one of those people who can wield a cigarette holder with absolute ease and not a trace of affection. He offers thoughtful answers, makes cautious understatements, and gives studied responses. Those around Taglioni pay him the ultimate compliment: when he says something, they listen, carefully."

Carlo Di Biagio, Ducati Chief Executive Officer said, "Without Taglioni�s ingenuity and invaluable contribution to Ducati, it would be a very different company today. We will remember him with great affection."

So will all of us

Reprinted with permission from:
CityBike Magazine
September 2001 issue
News, Clues & Rumors
Volume XVIII, Issue XII



Dr. T and Michael Berliner standing behind the most famous Ducati Twin.   Photo: Seth Dorfler Collection

In praise and memory of Fabio Taglioni........

Engineers seldom reach fame. To do it, normally they must build gravity-defying skyscrapers or cut canals that join two oceans. Fabio Taglioni designed motorbikes, fine motorbikes, but hardly something that gives one lasting fame, even in the restricted world of motorcyclists.

Actually, in a lifetime devoted to motorcycle design, Fabio Taglioni designed three engines and five frames - all the rest being "variations on the theme" - plus an unknown number of stationary motors, industrial diesels, outboard motors and other mechanical contraptions. Hardly the best path towards fame.

After a short period as a young engineer at Mondial, He remained faithful until retirement to one brand, Ducati, with which, for more than thirty years, he shared highs and lows, joy and sorrow and the stress of being an employee of a State-owned company, which was not allowed to surf on the waves of market economy but had to swim in the direction that the politician of the moment pointed.

Fabio Taglioni never became rich. He was paid the wage of an employee of the Italian State. He was often denied the money to follow his bikes, pilots and mechanics at the races. Sometime he was denied the money to send bikes, pilots and mechanics to the races at all.

Dr T sitting on Bruno Spaggiari's 1973 Imola 750 race bike. Taken at Dr T's 80th birthday celebrations. Bruno is standing behind Dr T.

Phil Aynsley

Dr T at his 80th birthday celebration in Lugo di Romagna on 19/9/00.

I guess he could have gone any day to Japan, or Germany, or even somewhere else in Italy, maybe not far from his native Bologna, and do his work for ten times the money he got at Ducati, but for some reason he never did it.

Clearly money was not his main aim, and neither was fame, which he always escaped as best as he could. After retirement he devoted himself to his beloved wife Norina and to his orchids but he never refused to participate to events organized by Ducati or simply by the fans of the marque, who always greeted and cheered him heartily.

Taglioni was not an easy character to work with. He did not accept discussion easily. His decisions were decisions, not opinions. He was a heavy smoker and a very temperamental man and, according to those who heard him, his fits of anger were something to remember. But he was also a man with a passion. Devoted to his work and his creations and he liked racing.

He lead a team of men, few, faithful and chosen, which was called "racing team" although Ducati did not have an official racing policy, except for a few lucky moments when the State appointed chairman was looking the other side. Fabio Taglioni lead this small team and its few bikes in the paddocks, always in jacket and tie and with a cigarette in his mouth, while Franco Farne' greased his hands and overalls. Things changed a lot when Ducati was sold by the Italian State to the Castiglioni brothers, who liked racing as much as him. But by then, Fabio Taglioni was near retirement and was "handing the club" to his younger successor, Massimo Bordi.

Lt to Rt:  DUCATI export manager, Dr Taglioni, Seth Dorfler

Dr Fabio Taglioni [middle] & Seth Dorfler [Rt] at the factory
Photo: Seth Dorfler Collection

Fabio Taglioni, and Ducati motorcycles with him, always stuck to a very distinctive philosophy. Even when the whole motorcycle world was going in the direction of bigger-heavier-wider-more cylinders-more power, following the economical boom of the 70s, his bikes remained light, thin, simple, efficient. They had one or two cylinders and did not produce an overwhelming power, but they were able to exploit evey fraction of their horsepower to the best. This philosophy was deemed "outdated" and "obsolete" by many observers and analyzing it in a rational way, we must admit that it probably was. But take a look at what happened later, and what is still happening now.

In the 50s, Fabio Taglioni designed a peculiar system to bring the valves back to their seats without using springs. This system was rather complicated and difficult to set up properly but it promised to solve radically the problem that afflicted all sport and racing engines of the time: valve springs that broke when the engine was over-revved. The problem was solved and, fifteen years later, Taglioni's "desmo" valve actuation was applied to a production engine. After fifteen more years, the Desmo system was still a trademark and distinctive trait of Ducati motorcycles but by then, everybody agreed that valve springs breaking under stress was not a problem anymore and the Desmo system was just a "mechanical wonder" good only to attract a certain kind of mech-nut customer and to give Ducati a distinctive trait which allowed the marque to carve a niche in a market dominated by bikes that produced 50% more horsepower per cubic centimeter.

Four small valves had taken the place of two big ones, except in Ducati motors. Valve springs had an easier job now, they were made of better material and using a complicated mechanical device to do without springs was like making mechanical watches to do without batteries. But that system survived Taglioni himself and now, the Ducati motoGP of the 21st century, the second best GP bike in the world, has it. In a motoGP the designer has little room for useless devices and "brand traits": either it makes more horspower, or it cannot be there. this means that the grand-son of that original design of fifty years ago by engineer Fabio Taglioni, still has a right to be in a top-performance engine. Can you still call it obsolete?

When Fabio Taglioni wanted to design a big capacity engine, he knew he could not make it single cylinder. But he decided to design a twin that was as similar to a single as possible. The crankshaft had to be like that of a single, it just had room for two rods placed side-by-side. All the bottom end was not distinguishable from that of a single except for the two holes for the cylinders. The cylinders were arranged in a "V" but, to allow the best air flow to both cylinders, one was placed horizontally and the other vertically. The angle of the "V" was chosen to be 90�, not only to keep the cylinders apart, but to guarantee the best balance to the engine: in fact, while one piston is nearing a dead centre (and must stop to start in the opposite direction) the other is nearing its maximum speed along the bore, and therefore its maximum kinetic energy. This energy will be exploited to "help" the other piston through the dead centre, allowing for an outstanding smoothness of movement.

The resulting bike, with one cylinder poking behind the front wheel and the other dangerously pointing at the rider's crotch, was deemed "funny", "unruly", "long", "un-elegant", "impossible to dress", definitely apart from the Italian design of the time, so careful to the looks and the elegance of design. But it was beautiful. Something in it showed a perfect balance of elements, of voids and fulls, of angles and lines. 

The "L" engine design (as this peculiar "V" was called) lasted to our days. In fact the same design (along with the desmo valve actuation) was kept for the engine of the most successful superbikes of all times. To cope with Ducati domination in WSB races, the other contendants had to design... a better Ducati! And after over 20 years during which "L" twins were a brand-trait of Ducati, just like flat twins were of BMW, brands that had made a living on in-line fours, started making, and racing, their own "L" twin. Is it still unruly?

In fact, the modern WSB Ducati shares so much with Taglioni's original design of the Pantah of 1977, that it can be called an evolution of that bike. Until the 90s the crankshaft was virtually the same as was drawn by Fabio Taglioni for the Pantah, only that the new engine had more than twice the horsepower of the original design. And Taglioni's Pantah was all but oversized: it was well designed. And the Pantah was an evolution of the bevelhead "L" twin (with a few breakthroughs like the crankshaft in one piece and the rubber belts to actuate the camshafts), which, in turn, was an evolution of the bevelhead single.

Fabio Taglioni's work was just that: refining a good design so it becomes better. Revolutions can wait. Or be done by others. I guess that his passion for orchids has had a part in shaping his way of thinking: you can't make a "revolutionary" new orchid: you must cross breed and improve the genes until it is just perfect. Taglioni's bikes are the orchids in the forest of motorcyle design.


Luca Guala [email protected] 
Sent to The Bevelheads List ~ Mon 7/21/03

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