Ducati 996 ‘Project X’ by VR Customs

Time is relative, so said Einstein, its only value is given by what we do as it passes.

Looking at the pictures of this Ducati this morning, and thinking about my Triskell project, I wondered how long it took to make it. The answer magically came to you in the mail: 6 years. In fact, VR Customs asked me if I was interested in telling a story about our latest build, a Ducati 996 café with a handmade alloy body?

VR Customs is an offshoot of Vendetta Racing UAE, a race team originating in Dubai with various accolades—both on track and off-road—from the Manx GP on the Isle of Man and, more recently, the Dakar in Saudi, along with various national and international events in between. 

Building race bikes for more than 13 years certainly hones fabrication skills, but these bikes, be it off-road or track, are built with two main objectives in mind: reliability and the ability to win. VR Customs, run by Vendetta Racing’s founder, Alan Boyter, came to be as a ‘creative’ outlet but with the same build mentality. Everything built has to perform as good as it looks.

The inspiration for ‘Project X’ came shortly after building a Café Triumph Speed Triple (affectionately known as ‘Project Trumpet’) in 2014. It was one of Alan’s first proper builds away from race bikes, nothing too wild: a Norton-style single seat, an old school 60’s fairing, with an offset headlight. It was a fun build and left him wanting a bigger challenge.

Alan had just started the restoration of his 1997 Ducati 916 SPS, and it was agreed that it would be a great, and very unlikely, base for a track-focused café project.  After a brief search online, it was found that 916/996 café projects are pretty rare. In true VR fashion, not one for following trends or taking the easy route, the decision was made there and then.

It was pondered: what else would set the project apart other than the unlikely base bike? Alloy body work? If it’s going to look old school, why not go all out? A source was found in the UK that could make what was wanted (forming sheet metal is an art and not learned over a couple of weeks!). They had stock design fairings and seat units that could be altered to suit, but the custom tank would have to be a one-off. With the 916 SPS in bits, an old tank was modified with expanding foam and body filler to form a mold for a newly designed tank to be made from alloy. Once that was shipped off to the UK, it was time to source everything else…including a bike!

A clean-looking 996 was purchased online in the UK along with 1198S Ohlins forks, Brembo calipers, 998R lower triple (56mm), Braketech full floating discs, Brembo brake and clutch master, and the sexiest wheels on the market by Kineo. All were thrown in a container (along with several other bikes and bits for other projects) and shipped to Dubai.

The bike arrived in early 2015 and was stripped of all the unneeded parts, including the front end and tank, both of which found their way onto other project bikes. The exhaust was started first, as there was inspiration from South Garage in Italy, and we had a new tig welding plant that was begging to be played with, along with the wiring which was examined in detail. Prior to this project, a great deal of research was conducted on café conversions using a 996/916 base. It’s surprising how few there are out there. Once we got into the wiring, we soon figured out why! There is so much to relocate, and with Ducati’s late 90’s wiring—a mix of analog and digital—it makes for a lot of wiring and very few places to put it all.

Bodywork delays out of the UK meant the project stalled and was soon pushed to the side as other projects were built (Project Bob, Project Husky, the world’s fastest Indian made, to name a few), and the race team took priority (www.vendettaracinguae.com). There have been various growth spurts here and there since 2015, but the bulk of the work really took place in the second half of 2019 and again in the last four months.

It also allows time to live with a fabrication decision. Both the exhaust and seat subframe were heavily reworked before they were called finished. Simply looking at things for two years changes your view, either by design or simply considering that it can be done better.

There were obviously parts that were a must for a build like this, one of which being a FRAM race radiator, modified to sit farther back and to accept twin Spal fans along with the matching oil cooler. The result meant added alloy to polish but, more importantly, it kept the looks balanced as the original radiator is puny in comparison. Like most modifications on this bike, its aesthetics also serve performance purposes.

Another visual change was the choice to not use belt covers. Backing covers were removed, along with machining the cam mounts, prior to powder-coat so the cam pulleys ‘float’ round the heads. Pulleys were chromed to ensure they catch the eye. Detail work has been a significant part of this build: every single nut and bolt has been either polished or nickel plated. This includes the return springs on the throttle bodies, the coil outer housings, right down to M5 screws that hold the butterflies in the throttle bodies.

Paint choice was relatively simple. The alloy body work was clear-coated for protection, and engine parts were either kept natural alloy, powder-coated in textured black (including the Ohlins fork lowers), or anodised red (to match the candy apple red frame). The mix of finishes were a nod to the late 50’s Ducati Elite.

Needless to say, anything that was not modified was refurbished or renewed—swing arm bearings, piston rings, chain sliders, etc.

The final shakedown was performed where the bike was always destined to be, at the race track. Looking over the wide-tinted screen and classic-style tank, the bike has a visual sense of being heavy, but this is soon forgotten as soon as you lean into the first corner. It has the familiar, agile handling of a 996 but with far superior braking ability and suspension that was never this good out of the factory in the late 90’s.

Parts list:
Ohlins 1198R forks
Re-valves Showa shock, polished
998R Lower triple
Scotts upper triple with Scotts damper
Kineo spoked wheels
Braketech full floating discs front and rear
Brembo calipers
Brembo 19/16RCS master cylinders
Custom front headlight subframe
Over and under twin projection lights 
Custom Speedhut clock set
Motogadget keyless ignition
Customised STM 5 button switchgear
Renthal clip-ons with endurance grips
Alloy adjustable rear sets with GP shift

Fram full race radiator and oil cooler (modified)
Twin 4.5” Spal fans
Custom alloy bodywork
Custom SS exhaust system
Cut down Moto Guzzi alloy front mudguard with hand built mount
All electrics re-located, re-wired to suit
Custom alloy header tank
Custom alloy overflow tank
Custom coolant hardline pipes (adding fan switch and removing thermostat)
Machined belt cover mounts (inner and outer belt covers removed)
Chrome plated belt pulleys
Larger bore clutch slave cylinder
Modified side stand perch (non spring return)
Custom seat subframe with single bolt seat unit mount
Quick change renthal sprocket carrier with 520 chain
K&N crankcase breather fliter with one way valve
Silicone coolant hoses throughout 
Custom made Goodrich braded brake and oil lines
LED dual tail lights
LED Rizoma indicators
Nickel plated bolts throughout
All parts either replaced or re-conditioned


Photography by Mike Vosloo from Twist&Grip

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