He Wore a Cape to Work, Had to be Peeled Off Bordi More Than Once & Saved Ducat Racing Numerous Times: Ducati's Dr. T Would Be 103 Today
by Dean Adams
Wednesday, September 20, 2023
If you own a Ducati motorcycle there is one fellow you should be glad was born on this day in 1920—Fabio Taglioni—the famed "Dr. T".
Taglioni was the absolute driving force behind Ducati's engineering department for 40 years, and his designs and perseverance certainly saved the company during its darkest days (which were not limited to any one time or decade, mind you). In addition, Dr. T was a devout racing enthusiast, he loved being at the track and seeing his machines in action. In fact, even when Ducati was shunning racing because of economic problems, they still went racing thanks to Dr. T.
Taglioni was born in northeast Italy in 1920—in Lugo, Italy. The first twenty years of his existence were those of a normal Italian childhood followed by a stint at a Bologna university. Then, he turned 20 in 1940 and was sucked into WWII, fighting against the Americans before the fall of Mussolini.
Like most of his generation, WWII was a seismic personal event for Taglioni; he was a natural mechanic, budding engineer and had some mechanical and engineering education, hence he was assigned to the Italian army's motor pool. Like future budding hot-rodders from California to Munich, it was in the war that he was first exposed to high-performance, piston-powered aircraft engines, an experience that would change his life. Taglioni's war experience wasn't all high-test fuel and screaming engines though, like many Italians of the era he barely escaped the war with his life and wasn't without bloodshed. Taglioni was shot in the left leg in Sicily; he wore scars from that incident for the rest of his life.
After the war, he finished his education in Italy, graduated from both the Bologna University and F. Alberghetti Instituto Magistrale in Imola.
There's a plethora of little-known details about Dr. T—starting with the fact that Ducati wasn't the first motorcycle company that he worked for after completing his education. Taglioni worked at scooter and motorcycle manufacturers Ceccato and Mondial in the 1950s—pre-Ducati. He left Ceccato in 1952 and then signed on to work at Mondial for a little over a year before joining with Ducati in 1954.
(Above: I think Bordi despised speaking English and did his best to butcher it. The body language between he and designer Pierre Terblanche (standing behind him) speaks volumes regarding the engineering drama and egos at Ducati in this period. Dr. T wept as the crowd cheered for him.)His first day of employment at Ducati was May 1, 1954 with Taglioni as chief designer. He oversaw Ducati's engineering for most of the next 40 years.
Taglioni's designs and engineering certainly saved Ducati more times than anyone would like to recount. He introduced a huge assortment of models, from road bikes to purpose-built racers and even some on/off-road machines (Ducati made a series of scramblers in the 1970s). From pushrod to Desmo valvetrains, Taglioni did it all; he even prototyped the ill-fated Apollo 1200cc V4 police bike in 1964. While most feel his heart was in the Desmo engines, he built non-Desmo modern engines that never saw production—including an in-line four 125 with conventional valves. There are "prototype" Ducati engines stashed in garages all over Bologna, engines that were brought to near production level development by Taglioni but were never produced. Ducati also made mopeds (calling them scooters would be fighting words to Vespa fans) and outboard boat engines, and Dr. T had his thin fingers in all of them.
Taglioni is generally and incorrectly given credit for inventing the Desmo-style valvetrain when, in fact, he was simply the first one to get it to work properly on a motorcycle engine. (Norton and others tested it unsuccessfully) What is Desmo? In a nutshell, an engineering technique to thwart valve float so period engines could rev higher. This design was amazing, and its use in race and street engines was super-significant back when two-valves-per-cylinder street engines littered the dealership floor.
Ducati's pre-1970 lineup was made of singles and wide-case parallel twins—it was Taglioni who engineered and built the first Ducati bevel-driven V-twin in 1970 (in reality, most Ducatis of this period, as well as today, are more accurately defined as L-twins). Likewise, he made the amazing TTF2 belt-drive twin in the early 1980s, a machine that is now viewed as a true classic.
Those who knew Taglioni when he was at his peak say he was an archetypical old-world Italian designer: aloof, aristocratic and dedicated to his own engineering ideals. Pictures exist of him at work at his drafting table at Ducati in the 1970s, with Dr. T wearing a short cape, which should give you more of an idea of what he was like than mere words can accomplish. And he was cut-throat competitive; stories are told from his final years at Ducati where he fought with younger designers over engineering principles or directions—and not just by simply arguing theory with them. Taglioni had few problems using his fists to get his point across.
Away from Ducati, he was not anything like his workaday persona: Taglioni's passions were art and his garden.
It may be hard for newer fans to comprehend this, but during the entire 40-odd years that Taglioni was at Ducati, the company nearly always faced an uncertain future; in fact, a "death-watch" on Ducati never really stopped from 1960 to 1975. After decades of near-scrapes, Ducati was taken over by Cagiva in 1983.
Which is quite ironic, as Ducati were then making their most popular bike in a decade--a machine somewhat related to the 999 in your local dealership—the 750F1 streetbike; and later, the TTF2 "race bike" that followed in 1985. These machines were the last that Dr. T would design for Ducati and stand out as landmark bikes in the long history of motorcycles. Also, to many enthusiasts, these two bikes were the "last of the true Ducatis." Because Ducatis produced after this period had Cagiva's elephant logos on their gas tanks and other features that the true Ducati fan from the 1970s didn't always appreciate.
Taglioni's dedication to Ducati was like an Italian's devotion to the church. He worked there for most of his adult life, never took a paycheck home larger than that of the Ducati employees working on the production floor, and refused to cash out when his accomplishments and reputation certainly brought some interesting job offers from European or Japan. He could have signed a two year contract with any number of companies and enjoyed an easy retirement but chose, instead, to stay with struggling Ducati until his final working day, May 30, 1989.
While Taglioni may have felt forgotten for a few years after he retired from Ducati, in 2000 it was decided that he was strong enough (he was a life-long smoker and then suffering from emphysema and other maladies) to leave the hospital and make a brief appearance outside the factory at the culmination of World Ducati Weekend. Introduced by Ducati CEO Federico Minoli, Taglioni looked out into the concert-like crowd of Ducati fans in complete surprise as a roar of emotional cheering blasted from Ducati fans to their "Dr. T" after the introduction was made. Seated in his wheelchair, with a light rain falling, the usually stoic and stone-faced Taglioni broke down, smiling through tears as his fans showed their appreciation and adoration for a man who worked so hard and sacrificed so much for Ducati motorcycles. When the pace of the rain quickened, Taglioni was whisked away, but he smiled and waved as he was powered away, his male attendant had the wheelchair kicked back on its rear wheels, wheelying him down the sidewalk. Standing there, I found that manner of exit wonderfully appropriate for such a great man with the heart of a racer inside his chest.
Taglioni was whisked away, but he smiled and waved as he was powered away, his male attendant had the wheelchair kicked back on its rear wheels, wheelying him down the sidewalk. Standing there, I found that manner of exit wonderfully appropriate for such a great man with the heart of a racer inside his chest.
A little over a year later Taglioni would be dead. He died on July 18, 2001 in Italy. (Note: Ducati's release on his death states Taglioni was born on September 10; he was actually born Sept 20.)
Taglioni built bikes in a period when one man could still engineer an entire motorcycle and enjoy near complete autocratic control over the project. No focus groups, no polling of current customers to better gauge what will sell, Ducati's line-up was many times just one man's vision. He was both famous as he was infamous, but consider the simple fact that he was well known then and is remembered now. Can you name the man who designed the Kawasaki Z-1 or the Honda 750-4?
While he certainly was quickly out-gunned in terms of design and engineering resources—and most certainly in scale—by the Japanese in the 1970s, many of the bikes that Dr. T built in response are considered classics today.
In 1986, Taglioni summed up his theology regarding motorcycles this way to then journalist Steve Anderson: "The Japanese motorcycle companies want to make an easy car. I want to make a difficult bicycle," he said.
Dr. Fabio Taglioni
Born Sept 20, 1920 in Lugo Italy (NE Italy)
Worked as a mechanic in the Italian army in WWII. First experience with high performance engines when repairing piston powered engines in planes. Injured in Sicily in July 1943.
Educated at Bologna university and F. Alberghetti Instituto Magistrale in Imola.
Worked at scooter and motorcycle manufacturers Ceccato and Mondial in the 1950s. He left Ceccato in 1952. He worked at Mondial for a little over a year before signing on with Ducati in 1954. (Ducati was all but leveled by the Allies in WWII)
First day of employment at Ducati May 1 1954 as their chief designer.
Oversaw Ducati engineering for most of the next 40 years. Introduced a huge assortment of models from road bikes to purpose built racers and even on-off road machines. From pushrod to Desmo valvetrain; he even prototyped the ill-fated Apollo 1200cc V4 police bike in 1964.
Generally and incorrectly given credit for inventing the Desmo style valve train when in fact he was simply the first one to get it to work on a motorcycle (Norton and others tested it unsuccessfully).
Engineered and built the first Ducati bevel-driven V-twin in 1970. Likewise the TTf2 belt drive L Twin in the early 1980s.
June 1983 Cagiva took over Ducati.
Last motorcycle designed was 750F1 streetbike. TTF2 in 1985. To many purists this bike is 'last of the true Ducatis'.
Last day at Bologna Ducati plant was May 30, 1989.
Taglioni died July 18, 2001 in Italy from emphysema and other health issues. He was a near life-long smoker.
1986: "The Japanese motorcycle companies want to make an easy car. I want to make a difficult bicycle."
Ducati PR obit on Dr T
Born on September 10, 1920 in Lugo di Romagna, Italy, Taglioni graduated as an engineer in 1943 and began his career as designer for the racing team of Mondial, an Italian motorcycle manufacturer. His career at Ducati began May 1, 1954 as Technical Director. In record time, he developed a single-cylinder 100cc engine, which drove the Ducati Gran Sport models. Affectionately known as the Marianna, this motorcycle won three victories in the Motogiro race and two in the Milan-Taranto race between 1955 and 1957. In 1957, Taglioni's stroke of genius was the creation of the Desmo 125 Trialbero in 1957. It was powered by the first Ducati desmodromic engine. The Desmo engine -- with its unique valve-operating system -- was a revolution both for the Company and for the entire motorcycle industry. This innovative engine design continues to help Ducati dominate the World Superbike Championships, and to date has brought the Company nine victories in the last eleven years. During the '50s and '60s, Taglioni increased the power of his single-cylinder engine, preparing the ground for countless new models, including many Gran Prix championship winners.
In the early '70s, Engineer Taglioni designed a 90 degree L-twin engine configuration still present in all Ducati motorcycles today. Among the many victories of this early Desmo Twin, perhaps the most memorable were Paul Smart's triumph at the 200 Miles of Imola race, and in 1978 the legendary return of Mike Hailwood at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. Fabio Taglioni's career, fuelled by his passion for motorcycle engines and racing, was fundamental in assuring Ducati's international renown for building some of the greatest racing and performance motorcycles in the world. Taglioni was single-mindedly dedicated to Ducati and continued to contribute to its successes until 1989.
"Dr. T, as Taglioni was known by Ducatisti, bestowed on our bikes the sophisticated mechanics and technology which distinguish them on an international stage, and which render them unbeatable on the racetrack," said Carlo Di Biagio, Ducati Chief Executive Officer. "Without Taglioni's ingenuity and invaluable contribution to Ducati, it would be a very different company today. We will remember him with great affection." Sincere condolences from all those who had the honor of knowing Fabio Taglioni and from all those who, thanks to his work, are proud to be part of the ever-growing World of Ducati.
The funeral ceremony will take place tomorrow at the Church of San Severino, Largo Lecaro, Bologna, Italy at 3:45 pm.
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