Motorcycle History: Mistakes Of The 1990s and 2000s

Motorcycle History -


Ducati 999

Each week RideApart looks back to highlight key milestones in motorcycle history from innovations to significant model introductions to racing successes and, of course, some of the disastrous things we’d rather forget. This week it’s a look at three motorcycles that should never have made it to the drawing board, let alone production.

There have been some pretty awful bikes in the past but there have been a few that have stretched things just a bit too far and make you wonder, even today, what exactly the manufacturers were thinking.

Norton Nemesis
Norton Nemesis

The late 1990s early 2000s were a murky time for Norton Motorcycles. It wasn’t exactly clear who was in charge of the company and who was making the decisions. For the sake of legal issues, we’ll keep this short and sweet and focus on a bike launched in 2000 that best reflected the troubled times Norton was facing.

At an international press launch held in London that year, Norton pulled the wraps off a motorcycle called the Nemesis. It was the work of legendary British designer Al Melling. At this point it would be kind to say the Nemesis looked, err…somewhat unusual.

It was even harder for the assembled media to accept Norton’s performance claims. They told the motorcycle journalists that the 1,497 cc V8 developed 235 bhp and the bike had a top speed of 225 mph. There was also a push button semi-automatic gearbox and rim-mounted brakes. “Unconventional,” would be the best way to sum up the Norton Nemesis. As it turned out, it never went into production. There was a legal issue in using the Norton name and Melling left the company to build the bike as the “Melling Nemesis.” We’ve never seen one but we were told that eight were sold, maybe more, at $75,000 each.

Ducati 999
Ducati 999

The Italians are always praised for getting styling right and making beautiful motorcycles and cars too. But once in a while they screw up and, when they do, they do it big time. Ducati had a fantastic run with the 916. It was a great performing bike and looked fabulous. Its replacement was due in the fall of 2002 and the motorcycle world held its collective breath waiting for news and to see the Ducati 999 for the first time.

When it arrived it wasn’t what Ducat’s customers were expecting at all. Very futuristic looking and just a bit too radical. The 999 was even described by some hard-nosed critics as being plain ugly. Ducati tried a few tweaks to make the 999 look better but to no avail and, for the first year of production, existing 998 models outsold the then newly-launched 999.

Just five years later, the 999 was replaced by the Ducati 1098, which had a more conventional design and looked a lot more like an evolved 916. That decision probably saved Ducati, as dropping the 999 and launching the 1098 helped turn the company around.

Bimota V-Due
Bimota V-Due

Ducati wasn’t the only Italian manufacturer to miss the target with a bike. Do you remember the Bimota V-Due 500 in 1997? Chances are that you don’t, as no sooner had it been launched than it was recalled. Only 300 were ever produced and it was pitched as the nearest thing you could buy at the time to a Grand Prix bike.

The problem was, it didn’t work. It looked terrific, but had an awfully narrow power band thanks to a badly designed fuel-injection system and poor reliability combined with questionable build quality. It was also very expensive, with a price tag over $20,000 (in 1990s money). In the end Bimota had no option and was forced to take back every single V-Due and offer owners a replacement SB6R. Some owners refused to accept this bike and simply demanded their money back.

The V-Due had been launched to get Bimota back on the rails again. But, as it turned out, it sounded the death knell of the company and Bimota went bust (again) in 1999.

The motorcycle world has its fair share of disasters. This trio were just a few that we remember, do you have any memories of particularly bad motorcycles?

Related Links:
33 Years of Motorcycle Fuel Injection
50 Years Of Full-Face Crash Helmets
26 Years Of Radial Motorcycle Tires

  • the antagonist

    The 999 is a gorgeous bike that won multiple WSB championships and still looks modern over a decade later. Not many bikes can say that. Unfortunately, it had the unenviable task of following one of the most lust worthy bikes of all time. it was destined to fail, but I think it will become a collector’s item in the future.

    • Justin Turner

      I agree. One of my favorite faired bike designs.

    • Afonso Mata

      I’ll correct that for you: “The 916 is a gorgeous bike that won multiple WSB championships and still looks modern over a decade later. Not many bikes can say that.”

      • 80-watt Hamster

        Maybe my perspective is off since I didn’t get into bikes until long after the 916 was introduced, but I’ve never been able to wrap my head around how much that bike’s styling gets verbally slobbered over. Is it that much more attractive in person? Because it’s always looked rather “blah” to me.

        • Afonso Mata

          The thing with the 916, from my point of view, is that before it, superbikes were all bulky and fat. The Kawasaki ZX7R, the Honda RVF, the Yamaha FZR 1000 and even Ducati’s 888 all had bulky front fairings and a backseat/backsection that looked like Cee Lo Green’s sofa.
          Then came the 916 with that slick look, that “less is more” design. Modern bikes have more to do with the 916 than with any of their own predecessors. You look at a 2013 Panigale and you can still see the design cues of the 916. You can’t say that about 1994′s ZX7R and 2013′s ZX10R.

          A few days ago Tim Watson posted here in Ride Apart about “what give a bike it’s character”. The 916 is the very definition of a bike with character: not only it ruled the race track, it singlehandedly changed the way motorcycles were designed from then on.

          • Piglet2010

            And for the worse, too. Not only does a proper tail improve aerodynamics, but allows enough storage space for registration papers, tool-kit, and waterproofs. And best of all, it allows for proper mounting of the lights and plates, rather than the hideous appendages on most current sport-bikes.

            And the 1199 Panigale looks like half the side panels are missing. Ugh.

      • the antagonist

        No need for correction. Both statements are true.

    • Geert Willem van der Horst

      Agreed! That said I must confess that I didn’t like it that much at the time. I think the design aged very well in time. Best thing might be that it’s a Duc-superbike that’s actually ergonomically friendly. Want one!

    • Marc

      If the 999 was destined to fail, it wan’t because of the design, as much as that is easy to focus on (BTW, I agree that it is a beautiful, timeless bike). It was because of unreasonable expectations and ill-timed pricing strategy. It launched into a recession, and at a significantly higher price than its 998 predecessor. The fact that it sold AS WELL as the 998 and better than the 916 when they launched is actually a success, even if not up to market expectations.

  • Robert Horn

    Whatever happened to the Hunwick-Hallam?

  • Jacob D

    I think the 999 was and still is one of the most beautiful bikes out there, Especially considering its age. It is the bike that made peaked my interest in Ducatis. Maybe it’s because I’m only young, but that was the Ducati I lusted after, not the older 916. I also think it’s prettier than the 1098, *gasp*

  • Larry

    I always feel like the 916 is the most overrated designs in Ducati history and the 999 the most underrated. The 999 is not anywhere near as hideous as everyone says, nor is the 916 a timeless masterpiece…that would be the current 1199.

    • Jonathan Berndt

      the 999 certainly didnt set any sales records, that alone should tell you it wasnt, well i wouldnt call it hideous, but it certainly is no 916! there is a reason the 916 is iconic.

      • the antagonist

        Sales records do not mean good design. If sales alone were an indication of quality, Justin Bieber would be Mozart.

        But just or the record, the 999 outsold both the 916 and the 998 it directly replaced.

    • Brian

      I will agree that the 999 was very underrated, but because it took too long for people to warm up to the improvements of the machine in use in comparison to the predecessor. With the way you sit into the 999 as apposed to on top of the 916/996/998. The chassis improvements of more stability and less flex were a long way in terms of making the machine more tractable too.

  • Ducky

    As someone with no vested interest in Ducati’s history, I’m not sure what was wrong with the 999. It looks fine… maybe a bit like a Sports Tourer (hefty turn signal mirrors, tall upright “face” fairing, smooth body fairings), there are random pits in the bodywork for whatever reason, and the rear cowl is maybe a bit too wide and fussy… but overall the design looks modern and clean. I never thought the 916 looked good with the narrow headlights, so I’m a bit surprised by what I’m reading. Were there other issues with the bike?

    • Jonathan Berndt

      its not too hard to figure out…. people didnt buy it, they did buy the 916. whatever magic (good design??) the 916 had, the 999 did not. i personally was excited to see what Ducati would do when it came out. i remember buying every magazine and just not gelling with the looks. i went to the dealers, looked at them, walked away. it just didnt make me want to sell stuff to buy one. when the 916 came out it just hit all the right sensors, i had to have one! i even test rode the 999 eventually, but just could not see spending money on something that didnt turn me on, it was a great handing machine, but in the end, it didnt set me one fire. good design is good design, great design is better.

      • the antagonist

        “people didnt buy it, they did buy the 916″

        The 999 outsold the 916 by more than two to one it’s first year and outsold the 998 it replaced. And it did so in a recession. More importantly, Ducati gained market share during the 999 era.

        The 999 wasn’t a “flop”; it just wasn’t a home run. It was guilty of merely doing well when people had unrealistic expectations of grandeur.

        Performance-wise, it was a resounding success. Dominating World Superbike 3 out the 4 years it was in production. And most street riders found it to be more comfortable and reliable than the finicky bikes it replaced.

        But a bunch of Ducati loyalist were afraid of change and made a big fuss about it’s looks and motor-journalist blew it out of (and continue to blow it out of) proportion, giving the bike a an unfair reputation not founded in fact.

        • Racetrack Style

          “Mistakes of the 90s & 2000s”. It’s a mistake the 999 was part of this article from several perspectives, one of which is the EBR 1190RS. The latter takes direct styling cues from the former but a decade later. (It’s worth pointing out the praise the 1190 gets from this publication).

          If your sales claims are accurate, then that is another clear perspective this article is wrong when it comes to the 999. Instead, the article should have included another Bimota… The Bimota Mantra

    • Brian

      Physically and technologically, there really wasn’t anything wrong with the 999. When Pierre Terblanche penned the design of that machine, he did so with a lot of forward thinking in terms of technology, rider feel, and advancement of Ducati’s racing platform. The problem was emotion. Motorcycles are an emotional thing for the most part, and when you become a fan of an icon, marque, or design style, you stick with that aesthetic and criticize change. The 916 struck the hearts with design like no one was ready for, and did so at a much more affordable price point than most expected in comparo to other motorcycles that had similar looking design cues. Italian exotica at the extreme that dripped “must have” to those that were looking for something in the marketplace that was different. The only bikes that came close in comparison ( IMHO ) were the Honda NR750 and the Honda RC30, then as you step down the ladder, you had the Honda VFR750. Those machines were at the extreme ends of the 916 when side by side. When the proof was there that the 916 was a stunning performer too, it solidified its contrast to those other machines. So along comes the 999 which was such a polarizing difference, it down right angered the loyalists who spoke very loudly as to how much they disapproved of the replacement. It would be like replacing a Harley UltraGlide with a Goldwing, or an old XR650 with a KTM 690 Enduro in comparison as to how different the technology and design is. So in the end, it isn’t about the technology, but the predecessor it is/was compared to.

  • CruisingTroll

    What, no “love” for Excelsior-Henderson? None for Indian? What of the inumerable rolling art projects from the V-Twin chopper craze?
    Then there’s the dreadful DN-01 from Honda, and the questionable Valkyrie Rune.
    I don’t recall any big misteps by Yamaha, Kawasaki, or Suzuki, although the Gladius comes closest. I’m not sure where to slot the R1200C from BMW. I doubt if they lost any money on it, but the experience has left them mighty gunshy of the cruiser market.

    • Justin McClintock

      Gladius and Valkyrie-Rune! Both VERY good points! The Rune was just ridiculous and the Gladius was a slap in the face to anybody who’d ever ridden an SV650.

      • Ryan Deckard

        I rode a Gladius at the AIMExpo. Big bowl of meh. Everything about it was mediocre at best

  • Ceol Mor

    The 999 is only hideous to those who haven’t ridden one. You’ll be a believer after sitting on the saddle for a bit and you’ll forget about it’s profile. In other words – it has a great personality!

  • Piglet2010

    Every new motorcycle that had “Chopper” in the company or model name.

    Can there be anything more stupid than paying premium prices for the combination of no rear suspension, upright body with “birthing stirrups” foot peg positioning, ape hangers, 40+ degrees of fork rake, and an engine that lacks both primary and secondary balance rigidly mounted?

  • KGr

    You forgot to mention, that V-Due was a TWO STROKE. It was a very, VERY ambitious project for such a small company to redesign a concept of an engine. An while they managed to get rid of all 2-stroke disadvantages, they have also built in a lot of new ones…

    PS. I’ve seen one in person :)

  • clasqm

    BMW R1200CL. Not a bad idea, when you think about it, and the last BMW that didn’t come from the Angular Mutant Insect school of design. But it had to push that huge fairing through the air with the underpowered R1200C engine …

    • Mykola

      yeeesh… I know about it from one that languished on Craigslist for a long time. It comes from the Organic Mutant Insect school of design, which I don’t think worked out any better.
      Here’s for anyone that’s blissfully unaware of this motorcycle:

  • Guzzi

    What about Moto Morini, made some pretty neat bikes but were totally ignored by the customers. Benelli springs to mind too, when was the last time you saw one of those, dealers in my country are practiclly giving them away to get rid of them. Then there is the Yamaha MT 01, have a soft spot for it myself but was just to bizzare and off centre for most. Bmw G range, brought in to replace the trusty and popular F 650 lasted a few years and then replaced with nearly the same bike it was supposed to replace. Ducati sport classic range, love them myself, but the hit the market probably to early for the new trend in retro modern bikes. Harley Davidson XR 1200, Harley tried to make a bike that handled, lasted a few years and then left out of the line up due to lack of interest

    • Sean Tempère

      I’ve owned one of the last Corsaro Veloce sold in france (before the recent brand reboot) it then got stolen a year and a half later (probably not for part, seeing the rarity, most likely an order).
      That bike was awesome, the engine was quite something.

  • Justin McClintock

    The only real issue with the 999 was that it was ahead of its time. As time has moved on, most enthusiasts have come to the realization that it was actually pretty darn good looking and was a phenomenal bike to ride. It just went edgy just a wee bit too early, at least for the Ducati crowd. Had Kawasaki built a bike that looked that good, they’d have sold every last single one they could hope to crank out.

    • Jonathan Berndt

      most enthusiasts?… where did you come up with that? its not like they have gone up in value or anything. Kawasaki just built the Z1000 thing, also controversal design, lets see how that does shall we…

      • Justin McClintock

        The difference is, the Kawi is undeniably hideous. Meanwhile, the 999 has held its value better than just about anything built around the same time.

  • Harve Mil

    “In fact, the 999 righted a four-year sport
    bike marketshare tailspin for the Bologna Brand…and yes, Terblanche’s
    999 out-sold Tamburini’s original 916 by over two-to-one in first-year
    unit sales worldwide (continuing the trend from the 996 & 998). Not
    bad for a Superbike with a double-sided swingarm and stacked

  • grindz145

    These spots are absolutely fantastic. Keep it up thanks!

  • appliance5000

    I thought it was the Monster that rescued the company. I also think the 999 looks good – certainly compared some of the baroque extrusions ducati is excreting today – maybe it was the afterglow from the original multistradas that a lot of people really hated.