In the pantheon of vintage motorcycle shows, the Quail Motorcycle Gathering is a little like your neighborhood block party. Part Concours d’Elegance, part custom show and part biker bash, it’s a place where a hardtail chopper with springer forks sits happily alongside an impeccable Manx Norton. Vincents, Velocettes, and boutique customs share the grassy expanse with a newly introduced Yamaha XSR900 in retro Kenny Roberts livery.
In the middle of the green, two hipsters with nose rings are discussing the virtues of electronic ignitions with the original owner of a Honda 305. Nearby, actor Keanu Reeves ambles past, doing his best hobo imitation, which of course makes him instantly recognizable, because it’s the same hobo uniform he wore last year, right down to the dirty feed cap and oversize sunglasses. (Reeves is co-founder of boutique custom builder, Arch Motorcycle Company.)
The amount of money involved – some bikes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars – may be an affront to your average tatty V-Strom owner, but, hey, it’s all motorbikes, right? Cool with us.
Out on the fairway, brightly colored golfers seem to look askance at the whole proceeding. While the Quail Lodge & Golf Club is an egalitarian venue, we’re pretty sure that guys with tie-die, sleeve tats and foot-long beards are not often seen on the impeccably manicured greens.
Just outside the gates, the array of parked motorcycles offers further evidence that this is an all-comers affair, with BMW GSs snuggling up to ’70s Honda Fours or the occasional electric bike. This is motorcycling. Give us your tired, your weary, your well-loved but leaky conveyances of perfection and poetry. They’re all here. It’s called a Gathering, and a gathering it is.
Unlike last year, where show-goers huddled with chattering teeth amidst the fog, this year’s event, held May 15 in Carmel Valley, California, was a crystalline, shirtsleeves day. You couldn’t ask for better. There were more than 400 motorcycles on display (up by 60 over last year) and a record 2,700 guests in attendance. This year also added two categories: pre-1916 and – gasp – bicycles (a special love of organizer Gordon McCall). Two anniversaries also marked the occasion: 100 years of BMW (the brand, not the motorcycles, which first appeared in 1923); and the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Superbike championship.
Moto royalty were also in abundance, including AMA Hall of Famer and 1972 Daytona 200 winner Don Emde; off-road racing legend Dave Ekins; AMA Grand National Champion Mert Lawwill; Cliff Vaughs, designer of the original “Easy Rider” chopper; and three-time AMA Superbike Champion Reg Pridmore, who was honored as a Legend of the Sport. Motorcycle industry pioneer Craig Vetter (of Windjammer fairings fame) made his first public appearance since his unfortunate encounter with a deer in 2015, and was awarded the AMA Dud Perkins Award.
Even Jock Boyer, the first American to ride in the Tour de France bicycle race, rolled in, bedecked in Lycra. Two book signings took place: Reg Pridmore autographed “Smooth Riding” (of which I was co-author); and Emde debuted his book tracing Cannonball Baker’s record 1916 cross-country run, titled, “Finding Cannon Ball’s Trail.”
The event is much more than just a show. If it’s total immersion you’re seeking, you can do the Quail Ride and Dinner the day before, and the breakfast ride the morning of the show. (This year, Quail Ride participants were treated to a sneak peek of Robb Talbott’s vintage motorcycle museum, just a few miles away; it opens later this year.) To get to the Quail in the company of like-minded gearheads, you can tag along on the “City Bike” ride from the San Francisco Bay Area, or join the “Why We Ride” group from Pismo Beach down south.
McCall, who also runs the Motorworks Revival and is a class judge at the Pebble Beach Concours, started the event in the depths of the recession.
“We’re an eight-year overnight success,” McCall says. “Some shows have gone away. We have staying power. “Everyone has their interpretation of what’s cool. People thought I was nuts, mixing Grand Prix bikes with the custom guys who are building in garages with hand drills and sandpaper. But I’m fascinated by that creativity.”
Winners at the Quail, encompassing more than 25 categories, received crystal platters and enormous bottles of champagne. (Even though you got the impression that quite a few of them would rather have gotten a Netflix subscription and a case of Budweiser.) Fifty judges from across the country made the selections, which inevitably involve “making lots of enemies and one friend,” as one put it. The awards were given out by McCall and motojournalist Paul d’Orleans, who, in his usual fashion, was bedecked in psychedelic clothing and summoned an encyclopedia of arcane moto knowledge throughout the proceedings.
Best of Show and Best BMW Classic: 1925 BMW R37 (Robb Talbott)
Talbott, heir to the Robert Talbott clothing company and founder of Talbott Vineyards, has been feverishly collecting bikes for his forthcoming moto museum in Carmel. The R37 may have been his best catch to date. “It’s one of the rarest BMWs ever made,” he said. “BMW only made 100 R37s in 1925, and just two in racing trim. This is one of them.” The bike was recently accepted to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, one of only a few motorcycles to get the nod.
Pre-1916 and Historic Vehicle Association Award: 1910 Pierce Four (Tom Holthaus)
The Pierce is an enormous freightliner of a motorcycle, with four, longitudinal cylinders and a cavernous frame that doubles as a gas tank. The bike — the first American four — was stunningly original, covered with a suitable mist of oil and dirt, and displaying desiccated but original tires, grips, and seat. “I thought it looked better with all the cobwebs,” said owner Tom Holthaus. Indeed it did.
American: 1949 Indian Arrow (Jason Hartje)
Mention “Indian,” and most people think of valanced fenders, sprung seats, and enormous, pulsing V-Twins, not a relatively svelte, 218cc Single. The restoration took six years “of scrounging parts,” said owner Jason Hartje. “Eventually we had to fabricate a few things.” It was obviously worth it. Sadly, the bike marked the last of the line for the once-proud company.
British: 1952 Vincent Touring Rapide (Gene Brown)
Black is the color we associate with Vincent, so what makes this matching-number bike unique is the red-and-black livery. “Vincent made 40 bikes in red between ’47 and ’55,” said owner Gene Brown. “And of those, they only made 17 in red and black. There are probably 8-10 left. It’s very rare.” (To emphasize the fact, Brown wore red shoes and hat on stage to accept his award.) When first found, the bike was in 10 boxes, and the crankcases had been crudely painted red with a brush by some enterprising but wrongheaded restorer. It’s obviously come a long way.
Italian: 1963 Malaguti Olympique (Vincent Schardt)
Many restorers have a passion for piddling, 50cc Italian bikes, and this Malaguti shows why: it’s more jewelry than motorcycle, with its diminutive single-cylinder engine and bicycle-like tires. “They’re called 50cc motorcycles, but technically, they’re 49cc,” said owner Vincent Schardt. “They had to be below 50cc at that time, so you wouldn’t have to register it or get a license.” Schardt specializes in the miniscule motorcycles, and makes frequent trips to Italy to find them. “There are so few left, and most are not in good shape when you find them.” Interestingly, Malaguti still makes scooters today.
Japanese: 1972 Honda CL350 K4 Flying Dragon (Don L. Stockett)
To paraphrase from the drug culture of the day, if you remember this motorcycle, you probably weren’t there. Honda actually made this psychedelic swirl paint job, known as “Flying Dragon,” to attract the bubble-lamp crowd of the early ‘70s. It didn’t work. “I know of only 21 in the country,” said owner Don Stockett of Vintage Motorcycle Rescue. “The paint didn’t sell incredibly well.” Incredibly, this is not custom paint: Stockett found the NOS (new old stock) Honda parts in a box, dating to ’72, and then restored a CL350 to go along with them. Righteous, man.
Other European: 1969 Bultaco El Montadero (the Delamore Family)
Could this be the original production dual-sport? Sure looks like it. Owner Steve Delamore restored the Bultaco El Montadero as a gift to his dad, who bought the bike in ’71. For most of its life, this Montadero cruised the trails and fire roads of the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. “One day I asked my dad, ‘Where’s the Bultaco?’ He said, ‘Oh, I gave that to a neighbor.’ “ Steve retrieved the bike from the neighbor’s barn and restored it to original condition. “Now, it will never leave the family,” he said. “My dad still rides at 81, and it’s a tribute to him.”
Competition Off-Road: 1989 Honda XRC Africa Twin Marathon (Sam Roberts)
It was only fitting that the iconic Africa Twin should be represented at the Quail, as the company introduced an updated version this year. This particular bike was actually entered in Dakar, and had authentic sand in the toolbox to prove it. Whereas the original had a 6.5-gallon tank, this competition example had a cavernous 15-gallon tank — more than some cars.
Competition On-Road and Spirit of the Quail: 1964 MV Agusta Triple (Virgil Elings)
On its first trip to the award podium at Quail, this ’64 MV Triple refused to start for its owner, Virgil Elings, founder and longtime owner of the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum. “Virgil, it’s as cranky as you are,” joked d’Orleans. Elings, true to his reputation, refused to give up, and for its second trip to the podium, the bike wailed to life.
Custom/Modified: 1952 Triumph Thunderbird (Bryan Thompson)
There’s not much to say about this matching-number Triumph Thunderbird, other than it was stunning, with its deep blue paint, pinstriping, touches of nickel, and aggressive, dual-sport tires. “I painted it twice, because I thought I could do better,” said owner Bryan Thompson, of Thompson Cycles. We’re glad he did.
Scooter: 1967 Vespa Sears (Gianluca Baldo)
In the late ’60s, Sears re-badged Italian Vespa scooters and sold them in department stores alongside the tools and lawn furniture. (Initially, they were labeled “Allstate.”) The example was found in Davis, California, brand new, in its original wooden crate.
Significance in Racing: 1957 Harley-Davidson KR (Michael Taggart)
In the late ’50s, 750cc Harley KR side-valves were the quintessential racers, used on dirt tracks and the road, and earning numerous championships. This bike finished fifth at Daytona in 1959.
Design and Style: 1960 Velocette (Revival Cycles)
This café racer from famed Revival Cycles in Austin, Texas, sports a Rickman frame and aluminum tank.
Innovation: 1973 Vincati 1200cc (Mitch Talcove)
This bike combines a ’73 Ducati frame with a “new” Vincent engine, from England, that uses the modern alloys and CNC machining.
AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Heritage Award: Wayne Rainey #60 Kawasaki (AMA)
Show founder McCall is a personal friend of former world champion Wayne Rainey, who lives nearby. “I thought, how cool would it be to get his winning ’83 bike here, since we are honoring the 40th anniversary of Superbike? It hadn’t been here since ’83.” The bike will also appear at the Laguna Seca round of MotoAmerica in July – a series now run by Rainey.
Other Quail Highlights…
Reg Pridmore, the Original Superbike Champion
To help celebrate the 40th anniversary of U.S. Superbike, Reg Pridmore, winner of the first three titles, was honored as Legend of the Sport at Quail. One of his first championship bikes, the famed “ugly duckling” Butler & Smith BMW R90S with coffin-shaped tank, was on display. It was originally fettled by famed tuner Udo Gietl.
“That first AMA title meant an awful lot,” said Pridmore. “I was on a machine that hadn’t had success since the ’30s. We proved what could be done if we worked hard enough. I’m proud of the results; it just got better and better. I had five really good years with BMW on bikes that people said were not competitive.”
Dave Ekins’ Honda CL72 Baja Bike
Hard to believe that this diminutive Honda was the first bike ridden the length of Baja, in ’62, “We got our passports stamped at the Tijuana border, then rode to La Paz – 963 miles,” said Dave Ekins, off-road pioneer and brother of the legendary Bud Ekins, he of On Any Sunday fame. There weren’t sufficient gas stations along the route, so American Honda supplied petrol with the help of a small plane. It took them just under 40 hours to make the trip.