How far would you travel beyond your hometown for a good price and great service on a vehicle? San Francisco? Reno? Michigan?
That may sound silly, but buyers of high-end sport motorcycles are traveling those distances to buy and get their bikes serviced at Modesto Ducati.
The dealership on North Carpenter Road has been selling the Italian motorcycles for just six years, but it has developed a nationwide reputation for being easy to work with on sales and service that has buyers traveling past several closer dealerships.
Take Tom Collins, for instance. He works in Reno and lives in Michigan but didn't mind traveling 3½ hours to buy his 2007 1098S Tricolore Ducati in Modesto.
"Even though we have a dealer in Reno, and I passed two or three on the way there," Collins said.
The Modesto Ducati service department has two technicians who have been trained in Italy on the complex Ducati motors, including Don Babb, service department manager.
Ducati North America named the Modesto shop as the best service department two years in a row and the best dealership in 2006.
"The Ducati community is pretty small, and you get to know the reputation of the dealers," Collins said. He's owned various Ducati models for 10 years and had been hearing good things about the Modesto dealership.
With a bunch of accessories such as a high- performance exhaust system and ultralight, carbon-fiber parts, the 1098S was going to set him back $30,000, so service was important.
When it came time to install those accessories, Modesto Ducati sent a technician over the mountain on a Saturday to make a house call.
"He brought his tools and the accessories, and spent three or four hours," Collins said. "It's a long way away, but they found a way to give me great service. It was unexpected."
Dealership manager Deanna Babb, Don's wife, estimates that about 10 percent of her sales come from outside California, and 40 percent from within the state but outside the 60-mile reach of a typical dealership. Modesto Ducati has cus- tomers from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Bakersfield and Fresno.
Part of the appeal, Deanna Babb said, is that the Modesto shop concentrates on Ducatis, while many other dealerships sell the Italian bikes as a second brand after higher-volume brands such as Honda or Kawasaki. "We are Ducati, that's what we live and breathe," she said.
Babb said her dealership is in the top 10 for Ducati sales in North America and will sell 150 of the exotic machines this year. The dealership ranks second in the nation for sales of the high-end, high-performance superbike Ducatis.
More expensive, but more sold
Surprisingly, the superbike models sell better than the more down-to-earth models, such as the Ducati Monster, which costs $8,000 to $10,000.
The superbikes range in price from about $14,000 all the way up to the $72,500 Desmosedici RR, a replica of the motorcycle Casey Stoner won the MotoGP championship with last year. Ducati is only making 1,500 of the Desmosedicis, which develop 200 horsepower and reach 200 mph.
Modesto Ducati has sold several of them. Who would spend that kind of money for a motorcycle?
"They are average people who want the best in motorcycles," Babb said. "They can be a 25-year-old with a good job, or a 50-year-old and it's what he always wanted."
Some prefer the traditional twin-cylinder Ducati motor to the V-4 Desmosedici and spend about $40,000 for the top-of-the-line twin, the 1098R.
But when they spend the money, they want the bike to run perfectly, Deanna Babb said. The service level is a big part of the appeal of the dealership.
Chris Lagasse of Maui agrees. He flew Don Babb to Hawaii last week to service his 1098S, which he bought in Modesto. Flying the mechanic to the bike is easier than crating up the bike and sending it to the mechanic, Lagasse said.
There are closer dealerships, he admitted, but when he was searching for the bike to buy, Modesto Ducati was the one that went out of the way to help him, Lagasse said. He wanted an unusual color, black, on a rare bike.
"I called all over the country to find someone to help me," he said. Dealerships told him if he didn't have a reservation and deposit on the bike a year ago, he was out of luck. Until he called Deanna and Don Babb. "Everyone who works there is superfriendly and honest," he said.
When he flew to California to pick up the mo- torcycle, Modesto Ducati met him at Sacramento International Airport, took him to Modesto and let him stay with an employee of the dealership, Lagasse said. He rode the bike 800 miles, visiting Yosemite in the process, and then took it back to the dealership for the break-in service.
Good service earns loyalty
That level of service has made loyal customers out of Collins and Lagasse.
"If I buy another Ducati, I will buy it from them," Collins said. Lagasse said for his next service, he will crate the bike and fly it to Modesto, so he can spend some time riding it around the state.
Ducati customers are buying a premium brand and expect premium service, said John Canton, Ducati North America's public relations representative. Modesto Ducati goes above and beyond that level, he added.
"They are really, really top-notch with that stuff," Canton said. "They pay attention to detail, and it pays off for them."
Don Babb said word of mouth is behind the success.
"The Internet is a wonderful thing. You get on there, the forums, and you treat one person right and they are in a chat room with 40 other people. If you have a bad reputation, everyone knows it. If you have a good reputation, they know that, too," Babb said.
That's how Vincent Bertram discovered the dealership. Bertram splits his time between Michigan and Southern California, and found Modesto Ducati on the Internet. When he called, he was impressed with the Babbs.
"They were more willing to work with me. They are both good people, they tell you upfront what things are without the sales pitch," Bertram said. "They are happy to see you, and you are happy when you leave."
Bertram qualifies as a special customer. He was planning on picking up a Desmosedici and a 1098R, spending well over $100,000 for the two motorcycles.
"It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing," Bertram said. "I'd always ridden Japanese bikes, and for an import, they are pretty good. But this is a whole different level, the best of the best of everything. Ducati truly is the Ferrari of motorcycles."
Don Babb sees devotion to the brand regularly.
"Some of these guys keep their bikes in their house. It's not just a vehicle or transportation for them. They want to be pampered."
Collins falls into that category. He keeps his Ducati in his office in Reno when he isn't riding it, "So I can look at it." And he's glad he has a dealership that makes house calls.
Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2349.