It’s impossible to pick “the” favorite bike out of my fifty-plus year checkered past on two wheels, but “a” favorite was my 1966 Ducati Scrambler 250. It was the first brand-new machine I purchased with my own earnings and it set a tone for riding that still exists with me today.
My first bikes were whatever I stumbled on in tiny Ashland, Kentucky in the early 60’s, starting with a Puch 50cc moped in 1963. But from magazines I became enamored of the Ducati singles (there were no twins then) that seemed to have more panache than the offerings at the local Harley shop (though I would have taken any of those, if I could have afforded one back then). I lucked into a used Ducati Monza in my junior year in high school and it became my central focus for two years. Then in 1966, after graduating from school, I applied my earnings from a year on the night shift at McDonalds (65 cents per hour back then) and wages from the bottle-sorting line at the Pepsi Cola warehouse and traded in my Monza for a fresh-off-the-boat 1966 Scrambler. The dealer in Huntington West VA had become a sort of a friend, after my many trips there for parts and advice on the Monza and he sold me the new one for, if I recall, $700. I believe he was a better motorcyclist and friend than businessman, for the shop didn’t last all that long after.
The Scrambler was marketed as a “do anything” bike and came with several assorted rear sprockets, a set of solid struts that could replace the rear shocks, a megaphone pipe and some other bits and bobs in boxes. With these additions, the theory went, you could convert the bike into a true off-road only scrambler (motocross hadn’t yet made it big in the US, but there were “scrambles” tracks in every little burg, including one near me), a flat tracker (hence the struts, since rear suspension was frowned on in flat track then), a road racer or a touring bike ready for any terrain.
Its frame was little different from the Monza or any of the street-going Ducatis of the era and the engine was the same high-revving single, more known for upper range power than low down grunt. The main difference between it and its road-only brethren was the wheels, with wider rims to accommodate slightly bigger tires, and the tiny tin can headlight that made it look lighter and more sporty. It did come with the iconic large white-faced tachometer, borrowed from the Diana road racers, and that single feature still identifies the bike for me.
The gas tank was similar in shape to the Diana’s but shrunk from 4 gallons to about 2. The seat had a curious dip in the middle, perhaps to provide a better grip for pitching it sideways on a flat track, but not really practical for much else. Being not quite 18 years old when I bought it, I could conform my body then to anything and didn’t notice the unusual contour of the seat.
That summer I worked five days per week on the bottle sorting line, from early in the morning until about 3 pm, trying to save up some cash for community college in the fall. But the rest of the day and the weekends mostly were spent on the Scrambler in gloriously unscheduled exploration of both the countryside and the “me” I was now going to become.
I would take it on any trail that I saw branching off the rural roads, blundering my way through as far as I could get. Utility pipelines would take an explorer across counties, always eventually crossing a road that would take you home or farther afield, as the time allowed. I learned that every road goes somewhere and you’re never lost if you eventually find your way home. On the pavement, it handled wonderfully, allowing me to drag pegs in the corners (admittedly they were low mounted and rather long) and experiment with lines in the multiple bends of poorly surfaced backroads.
I tried my hand at scrambles racing, since I had a bike that said it could do it. The local track was at Wurtland Ky, about 12 miles or so from home way out in the country. Calling it a “track” conjures up in these modern times a facility built for racing with amenities for spectators and safety considerations for the competitors. This place had none of those. It was a dirt course, bulldozed haphazardly years ago into a piece of scrubland and then polished by the tires of countless motorcycles into a slippery, potholed track about 20 feet across at the widest point and half that at others around its length. The start was a short little space off to one side and the field then made it about 100 feet before plunging down into a dip, which launched some into a jump, while others just wobbled, before the dreaded left hand drop-turn that seemed like falling off a cliff while making a turn. If one survived that, the track meandered around for a bit before making a hard left and a short sort-of-straight leading back to the start. Spectators dotted the hillsides, with spaces by the drop-turn being considered prime.
I showed up with my Scrambler, fitted with the larger of the back sprockets, the megaphone and wide low bars for leverage. I had my lineman’s boots from the Army-Navy store and my helmet, jeans, a pair of gloves and a decent t-shirt, all the regulation safety equipment for the day. To say that I didn’t set any track records would be the kindest account of my performance. I did have one moment of glory….of a sort. I came around the last turn by the start, got a good drive off the dirt berm and shot toward the dip. Perhaps a bit too good a drive as it turns out. I went down in the dip, bottomed the suspension and came out in a jump that carried me past the lip of the drop turn and off into the weeds in a spectacular slide-bump-highside-roll sequence that I don’t really recall except for the accounts I was given later. I picked up the bike, pushed it back to the “pits” (just another dirt area by the track) in that fog of adrenaline and concussion known to teenage motorcyclists everywhere. As I was attempting the bang the now flattened megaphone back into some semblance of shape, I felt a hand on my shoulder. One of the track veterans was there, looking down at me. “Nice jump, son”, he said. As my bruised ego began to resurrect, he added, “But that landing needs work.”
Later that summer (after a bit of repair work) a girl I knew invited me to visit with her family as they camped at Jenny Wiley State Park, about 75 miles from my home. I rode the bike there, reveling in the destination on that warm summer day….but when I arrived, it soon became clear that she had neglected to mention to her family that I would be coming, much less that I would be staying. When the sun went down, her father offered me a lawn chair a respectable distance away from the family quarters. I slept in the chair that night and the next morning, got up early, said my goodbyes and was on the road not long after daylight. It was the beginning of a pattern that I still prefer today. I recall the twisting road, with the sun rising behind me, enjoying the cool damp air and the perfect joy of being on a motorcycle, far from home (well, relatively far for a 17 year old) with breakfast and my own bed still a good ways off. The Ducati’s large tachometer face still comes to my mind, needle rising and falling, with the background noise of the little single telling me and the world that it was stronger than it looked.
I rode that bike everywhere, to school, to work and on seemingly endless explorations around the three-state area radiating out from Ashland for two years. I rode it in the winter, with a handkerchief across my face in those days before full-face helmets, to keep my face from frostbite, in freezing cold and on icy brick streets (with more than one fall for my efforts), in rain with no rain gear, and in the heat of summer. It endured my ham-handed attempts at repair when it needed it and taught me a lot about what did and didn’t work. It was as faithful and useful a companion as any movie cowboy’s horse ever could claim.
Then came the end of summer in 1968, when I was going to be leaving Ashland and emigrating to The Big City to finish up college at UK. I had been working, and “saving” as best a teenager understands that concept, but I needed some cash for college expenses and there was only one immediate source. I recall standing there watching the new owner riding away on the Scrambler and knowing in a very deep way that I’d just made a motorcycle mistake, however necessary it may have been.
It would be three months before I could get another motorcycle, a basket-case Montesa Scorpion (literally a basket-case…I took the pieces back to my second floor apartment in laundry baskets) that would become my transport for the rest of my college years. I haven’t been without at least one in the garage since then. But those are other stories for another time.