Project Ducati 998 Superbike Part 1: Getting a Basket Case Running With a 999 Engine Swap!

I stupidly picked up this dilapidated Ducati 998 Superbike as a birthday gift to myself in October of 2017. My wife said it was stupid to buy another motorcycle a month before the birth of our first child. Nonsense. Perfect timing.

The idea was to ‘rescue’ this poor thing and turn it into a fun track day/race bike to race in the ‘Modern Classic’ classes that are becoming quite popular as new sportbike prices continue to rise. A 15-year-old Ducati with no service history is something to be approached with trepidation. The real problem started by not setting myself a proper budget, timeline or actual detailed do’s and don’ts. So down the Craigslist rabbit hole, I went…

One dirty, neglected and crashed Ducati 998 Superbike.  At this point it looked like this still could be a reasonably easy project.


When you see the battery zip-tied in place, you know you’re in trouble. Notice the broken fairings and scraped clutch cover also.


First things were to strip the bike, check over everything and service the engine. The previous owner had gotten it on trade from someone who couldn’t pay him for some automotive work he did. Always a good starting point. Pro-tip: don’t buy motorcycles at night. You can’t see things, even when you bring flashlights. I ‘knew’ what I was getting into and was prepared to deal with whatever would come given how cheap this thing was. It ran, didn’t spew oil everywhere or rod knock itself to death, so I bought it.

A week or two goes by as I await service parts to arrive. Walking into the garage with all my shiny new parts, anxiously turning the key, it won’t start. Not hugely surprising given my experience with Ducatis.
The battery goes onto the charger and another attempt to start is made. Nothing, but this time it coughs through the intake. Odd. I remove the tank and try squirting some starting fluid down the intake and try cranking it again. Nearly burn my eyebrows off. Dammit. The stupid thing sounds like the timing is way off. Weird, it ran a week ago when I bought it. Unplug the fuel injectors and spark plugs and turn the engine over. I can see a horizontal intake valve hung open and never fully closing. That’s not good. Removed the radiator and valve cover to get a better look. An intake valve is definitely bent. I didn’t bend it. Time to start taking things apart to find out how bad my problems really are.

Removed the horizontal cylinder, surprise surprise, total carnage. The Horizontal cylinder, piston, and head are all toast. I’m still not 100% sure on what happened here, but it looks like someone did some port work and it didn’t run long after it was put back together. All the ports and valves are really clean as are the piston tops. But someone definitely dropped something, maybe a valve retainer, into the cylinder and mashed everything up. It’s a miracle that it ran the night I checked it out. The valve retainer was never found, maybe it made its way out of the exhaust. Either way, the cost of repairing this engine means it’s not going to work for this project.


  1. FYI check to be sure the rear nut keeper spring for the swingarm is threaded correctly and undamaged. My friend has an 748s and 998s said over time those parts will become a serious PITA. good luck on the swap. If your cluster super dim too go with led swap. Cheers 2-wheels,

    1. The wheel side and axle side have been lock wired just to be sure. Great tip though! My cluster is pretty dim, but given that this is a track only machine, it’ll only be ridden during the day and I’m not bothered.

  2. Man…I don’t ride motorcycles, but I love Ducatis…I saw some guy who had to call a tow truck just outside a Starbucks in Azusa, after coming down from a ride on the HWY39…it was a brand new bike…and he had to wait a few hours with his GF. I felt bad for the guy…such a beautiful bike. But, that’s why I put in the work to learn about this stuff…I don’t know what I would do without ‘mechanics specials.’

  3. Great write-up! It’s interesting how the world of motorcycles can be so foreign and intimidating to people who have no problem wrenching on their cars.

    1. I’ve always found that really odd too. My ‘car friends’ aren’t into motorcycles and my ‘motorcycle friends’ aren’t really into cars. I think a lot of that comes from accessibility to cars at a young age. Most parents won’t let their kids buy motorcycles when they’re 16-17yrs old.

  4. I remember when the 916 came out; loved that thing! I’m a car guy, motorcycle guy, and bicycle guy too 🙂

    1. You’re dating yourself there Khiem! The 916 and is amazing, but after working on those old desmoquattro engines, the testastrettas found in the 998s all the way up to 1198s (and still in use in other model lines) are so much better. Raced desmoquattros can be finicky to say the very least.

  5. I am very excited for this project, and want to see it progress!

    Personally love wrenching on cars and bikes. (havent mastered the bicycle yet) Ive often wondered how challenging ducati timing systems are for the average person of this era to maintain but it seem straight forward.

    I missed out on my dream specd yellow 748 at auction for a measly $1000 Canadian maple dollars last year. probably a $1/cc USD but perhaps the engine was toast like this one!


    1. The funny thing about Ducati camshaft belts is, coming from car guys’ perspective, they’re completely ordinary. They’re only ‘different’ in the motorcycle world because EVERY other modern motorcycle engine uses chain driven camshafts that don’t require tension adjustment or replacement normally.

      The 998 and 999 ECUs are physically the same, but their operation is very different. The 998 is very unique in the regard that it was still the original 916 derived chassis and electronic layout configuration, but with a much more modern EPROM-less ECU. I maintained all the stock 998 electrical system and wiring because the engines are fundamentally the same.

        1. This is the general consensus but I must admit I’ve never had problems with he CAN BUS systems on 1098 and newer Ducs. I just kept it for simplicity’s sake.

    1. A thorough flushing and inspection should ease your mind. Ducati’s of this vintage also use roller bearing crankshafts. So if the bearings do fail, the chunks are much too large to make it past the oil pump pickup filter. Rod bearing material could be a concern, but after cleaning and inspecting I’m satisfied enough to use it.

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