Robb Talbott is late. We agreed to meet at the site of his forthcoming motorcycle museum in Carmel Valley, but the guy is nowhere in sight. Just then, a late-model pickup comes rattling up the drive, towing a trailer. On the back is something you just don’t see everyday: a single-cylinder, brakeless, fire-breathing, on/off switch of a motorcycle that looks like it could pitch you into the grandstands faster than you could say “JAP.” The owner, a former European speedway champ, now in his 80s, just gave him the damn thing, along with all his trophies and memorabilia. After all, what was he going to do with the stuff? Robb might as well have it.
Then, while we’re standing there, slackjawed at the raw muscle of a vintage speedway bike, some guy with a French accent walks up, and by the way, would Robb like to come over to his house and see a couple of old Triumphs he has in a barn? “No problem,” says Talbott, caving faster than a tire that just encountered a broken Coke bottle. “Be there this afternoon!”
Welcome to the world of Robb Talbott, heir to the Robert Talbott clothing company, owner of Talbott Vineyards, and unabashed gearhead. Where motorcycles are concerned, Talbott emits a giant sucking sound. People want him to have this stuff, because they know he loves motorcycles more than anything in the whole world.
For the last 15 years, Talbott has been collecting bikes and dreaming up his yet-to-be-named motorcycle museum in the bucolic town, next to his tasting room. He plans to open it to the public sometime in 2016. And he was kind enough to give us a walk-through – despite the fact that the museum is decidedly a work in progress.
“I’ve been riding since ’64,” says Talbott, now 67. “When I first had a motorcycle, and rode across Colorado, I just couldn’t believe the freedom. And I still have the passion, 50 years later. That’s pretty cool. I just love riding.” And he means it. Talbott spent years racing motocross. He recently rode the Motogiro, and after we met, embarked on the 850-mile Moto Melee – on a 1965 BMW R69S. In 2011, he circumnavigated the country on a BMW GS. The guy is saddle-certified.
There is no logic to the Talbott museum, other than the most logical thing of all: it’s full of stuff Robb likes. This means three large categories: vintage dirt bikes (especially those he raced); MV Agustas and all things Italian; and piddling, 175cc, pre-1957 Motogiro bikes.
Despite donations, the museum is definitely not built upon the charitable impulses of others. Robb figures he’s already put a couple of million into the project. But that’s okay. He can. He’s Robb Talbott, after all. Why shouldn’t he?
When finished, Talbott’s museum will cover about 6,000 square feet and encompass two floors: road bikes upstairs, and mostly dirt bikes downstairs. Another dozen or so machines will reside next door, in the Talbott Vineyards tasting room. All told, the museum will feature about 100 bikes, stored in racks two and three high. There will also be a “barn find” room of unrestored machines, and a few vintage bicycles for good measure (pedal bikes are another Talbott passion). The nonprofit museum will be open four days per week, and will also be available for special events.
One other thing about Talbott: he likes his bikes a bit scruffy. Some are untouched; others are internally reworked but tatty on the outside. Only a few are complete, concours restorations. “I like barn finds,” says Talbott. “If a bike has a neat story, I’ll never restore it. After all, it’s the only bike in the world with that story.”
The best example of this leave-’em-be philosophy is the 1965 BMW R69S that won the “Spirit of the Quail” award at the recent Quail Motorcycle Gathering. The bike was originally owned by a recluse in the Big Sur mountains. When a fast-moving wildfire threatened his property, the owner simply dug a hole with a loader and buried the bike – for a month. Talbott acquired the Beemer, had it reworked internally, but left the outside dirty and paint-chipped, as a testament to the conflagration – and to Talbott’s eclectic tastes.
Geoff Drake (www.wriding.com) is the former editor of Bicycling and VeloNews magazines, writes regularly for moto mags, and has written books about motorcycles and bicycles. Randy Wilder is staff photographer for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.