In 1926 Antonio Cavalieri Ducati and his three sons, Adriano, Marcello, and Bruno Cavalieri Ducati; founded Società Scientifica Radio Brevetti Ducati in Bologna to produce vacuum tubes, condensers and other radio components. In 1935 they had become successful enough to enable construction of a new factory in the Borgo Panigale area of the city. Production was maintained during World War II, despite the Ducati factory being a repeated target of Allied bombing.
Meanwhile, at the small Turinese firm SIATA (Societa Italiana per Applicazioni Tecniche Auto-Aviatorie), Aldo Farinelli began developing a small pushrod engine for mounting on bicycles. Barely a month after the official liberation of Italy in 1944, SIATA announced its intention to sell this engine, called the "Cucciolo" (Italian for "puppy," in reference to the distinctive exhaust sound) to the public. The first Cucciolos were available alone, to be mounted on standard bicycles, by the buyer; however, businessmen soon bought the little engines in quantity, and offered complete motorized-bicycle units for sale.
In 1950, after more than 200,000 Cucciolos had been sold, in collaboration with SIATA, the Ducati firm finally offered its own Cucciolo-based motorcycle. This first Ducati motorcycle was a 48 cc bike weighing 98 pounds (44 kg), with a top speed of 40 mph (64 km/h), and had a 15 mm carburetor (0.59-inch) giving just under 200 mpg‑US (1.2 L/100 km; 240 mpg‑imp). Ducati soon dropped the Cucciolo name in favor of "55M" and "65TL".
When the market moved toward larger motorcycles, Ducati management decided to respond, making an impression at an early-1952 Milan show, introducing their 65TS cycle and Cruiser (a four-stroke motor scooter). Despite being described as the most interesting new machine at the 1952 show, the Cruiser was not a great success, and only a few thousand were made over a two-year period before the model ceased production.
In 1953, management split the company into two separate entities, Ducati Meccanica SpA and Ducati Elettronica, in acknowledgment of its diverging motorcycle and electronics product lines. Ducati Elettronica became Ducati Energia SpA in the eighties. Dr. Giuseppe Montano took over as head of Ducati Meccanica SpA and the Borgo Panigale factory was modernized with government assistance. By 1954, Ducati Meccanica SpA had increased production to 120 bikes a day.
In the 1960s, Ducati earned its place in motorcycling history by producing the fastest 250 cc road bike then available, the Mach 1. In the 1970s Ducati began producing large-displacement V-twin motorcycles and in 1973, released a V-twin with the trademarked desmodromic valve design. In 1985, Cagiva bought Ducati and planned to rebadge Ducati motorcycles with the "Cagiva" name. By the time the purchase was completed, Cagiva kept the "Ducati" name on its motorcycles. Eleven years later, in 1996, Cagiva accepted the offer from Texas Pacific Group and sold a 51% stake in the company for US$325 million; then, in 1998, Texas Pacific Group bought most of the remaining 49% to become the sole owner of Ducati. In 1999, TPG issued an initial public offering of Ducati stock and renamed the company "Ducati Motor Holding SpA". TPG sold over 65% of its shares in Ducati, leaving TPG the majority shareholder. In December 2005, Ducati returned to Italian ownership with the sale of Texas Pacific's stake (minus one share) to Investindustrial Holdings, the investment fund of Carlo and Andrea Bonomi.
In April 2012, Volkswagen Group's Audi subsidiary announced its intention to buy Ducati for €860 million (US$1.2 billion). Volkswagen chairman Ferdinand Piëch,
a motorcycle enthusiast, had long coveted Ducati, and had regretted
that he passed up an opportunity to buy the company from the Italian
government in 1984. Analysts doubted a tiny motorcycle maker would have a
meaningful effect on a company the size of Volkswagen, commenting that
the acquisition has "a trophy feel to it," and, "is driven by VW's
passion for nameplates rather than industrial or financial logic".
Italian luxury car brand Lamborghini was strengthened under VW ownership.
AUDI AG's Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A. subsidiary acquired 100 percent
of the shares of Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A. on 19 July 2012 for
€747 million (US$909 million).
Ducati is best known for high-performance motorcycles characterized by large-capacity four-stroke, 90° V-twin engines, with a desmodromic valve design. Ducati refers to this configuration as L-twin because one cylinder is vertical while the other is horizontal, making it look like a letter "L". Modern Ducatis remain among the dominant performance motorcycles available today partly because of the desmodromic valve design, which is nearing its 50th year of use. Desmodromic valves are closed with a separate, dedicated cam lobe and lifter instead of the conventional valve springs used in most internal combustion engines in consumer vehicles. This allows the cams to have a more radical profile, thus opening and closing the valves more quickly without the risk of valve-float, which causes a loss of power that is likely when using a "passive" closing mechanism under the same conditions.
While most other manufacturers use wet clutches (with the spinning parts bathed in oil) Ducati previously used multiplate dry clutches in many of their motorcycles. The dry clutch eliminates the power loss from oil viscosity drag on the engine, even though the engagement may not be as smooth as the oil-bath versions, but the clutch plates can wear more rapidly. Ducati has converted to wet clutches across their current product lines.
Ducati also extensively uses a trellis frame, although Ducati's MotoGP project broke with this tradition by introducing a revolutionary carbon fibre frame for the Ducati Desmosedici GP9.
The chief designer of most Ducati motorcycles in the 1950s was Fabio Taglioni
(1920–2001). His designs ranged from the small single-cylinder machines
that were successful in the Italian 'street races' to the
large-capacity twins of the 1980s. Ducati introduced the Pantah in 1979; its engine was updated in the 1990s in the Ducati SuperSport
(SS) series. All modern Ducati engines are derivatives of the Pantah,
which uses a toothed belt to actuate the engine's valves. Taglioni used
the Cavallino Rampante (identified with the Ferrari brand) on his Ducati motorbikes, Taglioni chose this emblem of courage and daring as a sign of respect and admiration for Francesco Baracca, a heroic World War I fighter pilot who died during an air raid in 1918.
Ducati has produced several styles of motorcycle engines, including varying the number of cylinders, type of valve actuation and fuel delivery. Ducati is best known for its V-twin engine, called a L-twin by the company, which is the powerplant in the majority of Ducati-marqued motorcycles. Ducati has also manufactured engines with one, two, three or four cylinders; operated by pull rod valves and push rod valves; single, double and triple overhead camshafts; two-stroke and even at one stage manufactured small diesel engines, many of which were used to power boats, generators, garden machinery and emergency pumps (for example, for fire fighting). The engines were the IS series from 7 to 22 hp (5.2 to 16.4 kW) air-cooled and the larger twin DM series water- and air-cooled. The engines have been found in all parts of the globe. Wisconsin Diesel even assembled and "badge engineered" the engines in the USA. They have also produced outboard motors for marine use. Currently, Ducati makes no other engines except for its motorcycles.
On current Ducati motors, except for the Desmosedici and 1199 Panigale, the valves are actuated by a standard valve cam shaft which is rotated by a timing belt driven by the motor directly. The teeth on the belt keep the camshaft drive pulleys indexed. On older Ducati motors, prior to 1986, drive was by solid shaft that transferred to the camshaft through bevel-cut gears. This method of valve actuation was used on many of Ducati's older single-cylinder motorcycles — the shaft tube is visible on the outside of the cylinder.
Ducati is also famous for using the desmodromic valve system championed by engineer and designer Fabio Taglioni, though the firm has also used engines that use valve springs to close their valves. In the early days, Ducati reserved the desmodromic valve heads for its higher performance bikes and its race bikes. These valves do not suffer from valve float at high engine speeds, thus a desmodromic engine is capable of far higher revolutions than a similarly configured engine with traditional spring-valve heads.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Ducati produced a wide range of small two-stroke bikes, mainly sub-100 cc capacities. Large quantities of some models were exported to the United States.
Ducati has produced the following motorcycle engine types: