~ Ducati Dundee ~
(notes on importing the bike of your dreams….)
By: Jim Migas   [email protected] 


Waaay back in the mid seventies when they were new and I was fast, I lusted after a 900SS. Exigencies being what they were ($$$), I made do with a host of Jap bikes, the sportiest being a (tastefully!!) ‘caféd’ 550F. During my frequent commutes on this bike in Chicago, I DREAMED of the Duc. (foolish youth---the 550 WAS much more suitable for the actuality of my riding. Even Hailwood woulda been stuck in traffic.)

Decades later, I’m living in the Eternal Summer of Southern California. Better bike weather (‘fer SURE!’). Even though a ‘business-suit-and-laptop’ sorta job, AND innumerable arthritic joints/old mended breaks that remind me I never WAS a fast as I thought combine to curtail bike commuting, riding has never been better. Nearly every weekend morning’s ritual has me firing up one of a brace of restored (actually, ‘restoring’ is more appropriate. The ‘-ed’ seems only true fleetingly…) Commandos for a trip to an actual café, followed by a ride on a route chosen for it’s own sake, as opposed to a way to get to point B. IDEAL bevel parameters!! It’s not like I’d ever really given up the dream. Looking for decades, bevel 900SSs (like E-Types!) always seemed to escalate just above my available ‘mad money’.

Something like a year ago, I saw the ‘bike of my dreams’ on e-bay. Nice shape, though not strictly concourse (wrong windscreen, ‘Stay-in-tune’ exhaust system, polished fork sliders)---AND LESS THAN FIVE DIGIT PRICE!!! So what if it is currently in Sydney, Australia—it’s a small world, ain’t it?? Short part of the story: I bought it. (The seller was Daniel Bretag, whose ‘nom du commerce’ is [email protected]. As will be indicated, Mr. Bretag was both honest and extremely helpful in my getting this bike. ALSO: he sometimes has some GREAT machines for sale!! Consider his name as ‘seller’ a real PLUS!!)

I did a ‘bank transfer’ of the funds (a surprisingly easy operation, although it requires an actual trip to the INSIDE of a bank!!), and waited. And waited. And waited.

Two months or so pass, and the desk phone rings with a mysterious caller informing me that "The 'Direct Kea' is arriving from Aukland".  I asked if I should care, and the caller said "yeah--it's got a shipment for you, according to these papers".  I asked if I should rent a truck, meet the boat, throw flowers, etc.  The voice said "Not a bad idea----crew of Aussies, 28 days at sea....might appreciate it...".  Later, after faxing much paper twixt Australia (by the way, Daniel Bretag's picture IS ON THE OFFICIAL ITALIAN DUC WEBSITE!!  long story....), Hermosa Beach and Long Beach, the voice tells me the routine is that I go to Long Beach (THE "Port of the U.S."!!) and sign papers, THEN to Customs, THEN to the DMV, THEN HIRE a "Longshoreman's approved" shipping company to pick up the bike and transport it to the parking lot at the Queen Mary, where they'll dump it.  THEN I can pick it up!!    O.K., I guess I'm game....Luckily, D. Bretag has some guy in L.B. call me and suggest he can help, if I give him power of attorney.  A week later, this guy calls and tells me he's cleared customs AND got me a temp. Longshoreman's OK. (total cost?? I dunno---two hundred?)  The next day, I got my dinky renta-truck at "Door Number 5" of a warehouse, and I'm in line with the "other drivers" to talk to the "girl in the dispatch office". She charges me $65 for ‘storage and fees’.  After a coupla hours, a fork truck arrives with a fer-real "Ducati" shipping crate, and loads it on!!  I show the 'Gateman' my papers, and I'm off!!  Shortly, I've pulled into the driveway of my house, and I've jimmied up some planks for a ramp (NO DROPGATE!!  DUMMY!!! but it wouldn't have mattered.).  I COULD NOT BUDGE THE ^%$#& CRATE!!  415# of Ducati, 200# of crate!!  BRACING my back to the truck wall, both feet on the crate---NOTHING!!  Long story (2.4 hours...)short, I've dismantled the crate (built like a SAFE!!), and "Evil Knieval'd" the Duc down the ramp. 

Am I ecstatic??  Well, it IS pretty.  Add battery, change oil, kick it for a coupla hours---NO manual, no clue.  Read an old road test, and they happen to mention "THE only way to start a Duc...." (NOT like a Norton!!  Can stick my fist down the unfiltered carb throats---but NO CHOKE!!  Amal-like "ticklers" I can handle—but does that squoooshing sound indicate accelerator pumps?? DO figure out a way to get enough gas (est. 1.3 gallons) into the throats, and wail away at the kick start. (REALLY different than Norton!!  Ridiculously over-geared starter, REALLY easy to kick----rotates, maybe, ONE cylinder a quarter stroke.........)  Roars to life----won't idle at all!!  Try a half-block "ride"---STRANGE!!  NO steering lock, LOOOOONG motorcycle (I'm 6'1" and can barely reach the clip-ons! They ARE adjustable, but only ONE setting doesn't smash knuckles into fairing..), raised rear-sets puts knees into chest----definitely, er, "sporty"?).  BIG cough, dies, push back.  Same thing next day, although I can get it started within 45 minutes of hard work!!  Progress! (ALSO: "Ign. Light" stays on----I'll trouble shoot, if it ever runs.  Still, it IS pretty....)  A Ducati dealer 1/2 mile from home---WON'T TOUCH IT!!  CAN'T GET ANY MANUALS!!.  DO manage to find an oooold "Bevel Drive Tuning Manual"---sez "synchronizing the carbs IS A MUST!!"  even points out the adjustments (NOT, by the way, the one's I tried!!.  I have NO IDEA what I adjusted, I just know it didn't help...

Lest you Ducatisti bemoan this machine falling into the ham fisted grip of an infidel, I WILL point out that I did finally get some manuals, got everything adjusted, and it is now a one kick starter (though the ‘priming kicks’ don’t count!!) (I still require a lantern-toting minion to announce my way as I try to wend down the tight turns from my garage to the narrow and crowded street….).

Big Mistake #1: (o.k.—maybe #2, if you count ‘no drop gate’) I THEN got an appointment with the DMV. Here in So. Cal. You can call the DMV and get an appointment in a month or so. By the time I got the info., the bike running, and the DMV appointment maybe three months passed. Gotta admit, I was a bit nervous. 1) I had no title. Australia apparently has an efficient, up-to-date system wherein vehicle ownership is documented on a web site!! 2) A nifty plate on the frame confirmed that "This Vehicle Conforms To All The Applicable Laws of Australia"—I doubted I could convince the DMV folks that this was a small California town ‘just the other side of Santee..’ 3) Being an early 900SS, this bike had no directionals and no fairing cut-outs for them. Cal. Vehicle Code required directionals for all vehicles manufactured after 1973 or so. 4) The speedometer was in km/hr, though a search of the vehicle code doesn’t even address that issue. Even though the MANAGER of the DMV office was a bike nut and came out to admire the Duc., I essentially got nowhere. Because I had no paper/U.S. title, I had to go to the California Highway Patrol, and then to a BONDSMAN!! Oh, and I had to immediately pay something like $900, primarily BECAUSE I WAITED SO LONG TO TRY TO REGISTER IT!! (I do have the paperwork/breakdown on file if anybody wants to know. I’ve forgotten the exact costs as a defensive mechanism. Big chunks were for Cal. Sales tax, but the penalties hurt the most.)

Another website-another appointment. Another short month and a 7 AM meeting with the CHP.  In the interim, a friend of mine who restores old BMW motorcycles lent me a pair of those nifty bar-end directionals used on 60’s BMWs and NSUs to assuage at least that legality fear. Real little gems--- each has a single bulb, with lenses fore and aft!  What a GREAT idea!!  "Occam" simplicity, unobstructed visibility, and optimum separation!!  WHAT anti-Darwin perturbation prevented ALL motorcycles from using this design today??  Sure seems to be The Right Answer!! Unfortunately, I didn’t actually install them. Seems that, while the English and Italians agree that 0.750"/19mm is a FINE I.D. for handlebars, the Chermans apparently will accept no less than 0.800". I didn’t wanna modify on-loan gear, so I carefully wrapped and stowed them in the 'cubby' aft of the solo seat.  My PLAN was, if challenged, I would PRODUCE the parts and claim I was just waiting for some adapter from Bologna.  Besides, I really LIKED having a mirror.

Anyway--I needn't have bothered. The CHP didn't know why I was there, or what the DMV wanted.  Our Gummint at Work!!  The patrolman was an ex motorcycle cop and acted like I had just bought in Heather Locklear!!  About all I had to do to pass 'inspection' was allow him to call over some buddies and let him gush about desmodromic valves. In fact, I believe that this inspection IS NOT meant to look for code compliance---but I could be wrong. I didn’t ask.

Next stop----‘getting a bond’. Seems if you have a vehicle whose value is claimed to be $5000 or more, and you don’t have a ‘Merican Honest to Gawd Title, you have to ‘get a bond’. I found some guy in Santa Monica who supposedly did such things. Just like a cheap detective novel---dingy office, messy desk, only one occupant--a short, balding, pouchy guy. He explained that my $100 made him promise the State that HE would hunt me down and exact revenge if a counterclaim was ever filed. I tried hard not to quake. Anyway, while he's (two-fingeredly) typing the paperwork, and he looks up and sez: "WOW!! This is the SECOND bond I’ve written for a Ducati 900SS THIS MORNING!! LOOK:" He hands me some paperwork still on his desk indicating a bond for the same bike (a ’76) was purchased this morning by "Nick Cuppolla". "Yeah---Nicholas Cage-the actor. He was in here not an hour ago---bought the thing at some auction in Italy…Aint THAT something?" I said "Not really---Nick has long been a ‘Migas wanna-be’" I DID notice that my ‘humor’ fails to impress bondsmen…….I guess he was too hard-bitten.

From there on it was pretty routine. Another DMV appointment, when I gave them the bond and the completed form WITH CHP signature, and I got California plates!! I even got a Cal. Title in the mail. Somewhere along the line I added Conti’s, a brake-light switch, and ‘authentic’ grips from Phil Hitchcock at Road and Race (www.RoadandRace.com.au), and a ‘correct’ windscreen—available both from Phil and from Gustaffsen’s in Florida ([email protected]). If I find the correct ‘electric blue’ paint I might paint over the black of the fairing inner surface, and maybe even ‘matte black’ the fork sliders. (Any suggested sources??) And, yeah---I DID drop the needle in the front carb 1 notch…..

SO: would I do it again?? Yeah. I intend to keep the bike forever. It IS a reliable and fund Every Weekend Warrior. Was It Worth It Financially?? Heck, I dunno. As it stands, it is as near ‘concourse’ as a RIDDEN bike is likely to be. Valuing my time at $0.00/hr., I’d guess I have just over $11K in it, with a grand of that paid to The State of California. So, yeah, I’m happy. I ‘spect if Nick can sleep with the possibility of that gumshoe on his tail, so can I.

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