Rats, I missed the Quail Motorcycle Gathering again for the eighth year in a row. Not to worry, our excellent correspondent Geoff Drake was there to deliver an excellent story for MO. Luckily, I’m not terribly upset. I seem to have a pretty low tolerance for standing around looking at rich guys’ motorcycles, though at the Quail I hear there is at least a good ride to break things up. (You have to sign up early and pay like $350 to go on it, but lunch is included!) Getting to Carmel and back is usually better than being there, unless the reason you’re there is to go to Laguna Seca. Or if somebody else is picking up the tab.

Hope springs eternal, but I may have already had my peak Classic Motorcycle Gathering a few years ago at the Ritz just up the coast in Half Moon Bay, where I drew the fantastic assignment to ride up with Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read and Eraldo Ferracci to write a story for a competing publication. MV Agusta sponsored the event that year, and spared no expense in putting on quite an extravaganza. (I wish I could evolve into the kind of person who doesn’t let the occasional bankruptcy keep me from enjoying the finer things.) The best part was listening to Read and Ago rehash the old days, though it was Read doing most of the hashing. Still a bit testy after all these years.

Ago and Phil at the Sea Lion Breeding thing on the Pacific coast. Phil is either about to make an important point regarding the 1966 Swedish GP or just did.

Ago and Phil at the Sea Lion Breeding thing on the Pacific coast. Phil is either about to make an important point regarding the 1966 Swedish GP or just did.

New old bikes are still being found in barns and being restored I suppose, but I think I’ve already seen one of each, thanks. There is some interesting engineering in old motorcycles, but frankly most of them are pretty rudimentary. Say, look at those funky plaid spark plug wires! I register the nostalgia but mostly I feel empathy for the hardy suckers for whom this was as good as it got: Not only are most old motorcycles unreliable, they’re also pretty damned uncomfortable and unsafe – just like life before penicillin and disc brakes. Basically, vintage bikes bring mortality to mind, which is the last place I want to go when it’s motorcycle time.

For awhile there it was all about the perfect 100-point restoration. Now I think it’s about original condition and retaining the patina, which I’m completely down with but which doesn’t leave much room for the restorer to show off his skills. Look, you can still see the tracks of the last guys’ tears who tried to kickstart this one… is that blood spatter?

Okay maybe listening to Phil Read and Ago wasn’t the best part. I digress…

Okay maybe listening to Phil Read and Ago wasn’t the best part. I digress…

I understand that I’m kind of an introvert/ borderline misanthrope lately, but seriously, how long before you get tired of standing around telling people about the same motorcycle you’ve been bringing to concours d’elegances for the past ten years. For many collectors, it is about the motorcycles. For lots of other ones – especially the guys with the really expensive bikes – there seem to be equal amounts of ego, one-upmanship and money in the mix. In that contest I am an unarmed opponent, I am Vichy France, I’ll have another glass of champagne. Have we located the Holy Grail Billy Bike yet?

You expect that sort of short-fingered vulgarianism with Ferraris and Aston Martin Lagondas and Delahayes, which were built in the first place to separate wealthy swells from their money. But motorcycles were never about that, not even the most expensive ones. Then as today, they were built for crazy people to tear around the countryside on. If Phil Irving or George Brough or Soichiro Honda were to reanimate and turn up at one of these events, they’d make a beeline for the modern bikes in the parking lot, where they’d freak out over fuel-injected V-Fours with DOHC, liquid cooling, ABS, traction control and TFT displays; Soichiro would freak out the most as he tried in vain to find a VFR1000RR with that stuff.

I like going places on boringly reliable new motorcycles way better than breaking down on old ones halfway there.

I like going places on boringly reliable new motorcycles way better than breaking down on old ones halfway there.

What it comes down to is, I’d probably like old bikes better if people would quit loaning me brand new ones all the time. I love my ’97 Jaguar, but I know if somebody from Road & Track took it for a spin they would laugh at its cassette-player antiquity. The few times people have let me loose on their Nortons and things, I’ve come back with a big fake grin trying to conceal my disappointment. Most vintage bikes are loose-jointed old things that produce more noise and vibration than performance. Probably most of the really valuable bikes at the Quail don’t get ridden much.

Alas, it’s probably just class jealousy rearing its green head again. I had to work the weekend of the Quail. That’s right, the Man forced me to ride the new VFR1200X up Figueroa Mountain Road north of Santa Barbara so I could write last week’s review. As we learned, that bike weighs 612 pounds and it’s not really meant to go “off-road” at all, but it’s amazing how effortlessly the thing disposes of freeway, then does surprisingly well roosting up mountain fire roads too.

The Gloved One never buzzes us in to Neverland anymore.

The Gloved One never buzzes us in to Neverland anymore.

They were all “dual-sports” in the early days before all the roads got paved, but it’s horrifying to contemplate riding the Big Bear Hare & Hound on a BSA Victor or old Triumph. In the old days, you had to be a really good rider, great mechanic and accomplished masochist. Now all you need are legs long enough to reach the ground and a vague urge to get off the couch. The VFR will handle all the other details, including starting itself and dodgy traction, and if you manage to get a flat you can usually just plug it in five minutes and keep rolling thanks to tubeless tires. I’m trying to remember the last time I suffered a mechanical failure on a test bike… I’m drawing a blank. The more modern the bike, the better its ability to deliver me effortlessly from the teeming belly of the SoCal beast to where other people aren’t, which is really my favorite place to be. Ahhhh…

Just like with big adventure bikes, a few people will drive their SUVs off the beaten path. Most of them are Euros on holiday. “Is thees the weelderness?” Not quite, it’s just over that next ridge.

Just like with big adventure bikes, a few people will drive their SUVs off the beaten path. Most of them are Euros on holiday. “Is thees the weelderness?” Not quite, it’s just over that next ridge.

Maybe I’m just not old enough yet. My eyes glaze over pretty quickly hearing about setting your Norton points with a cellophane cigarette wrapper, but I can see the eagerness in your orbs when I launch into mansplaining that my 2000 R1 was the last year of the first generation R1 and thus the best of what many consider the first really modern superbike. I can tell by your body language you want to learn more. It’s the last one with carburetors. I actually attended the launch for the first one in Cartagena. Hey, come back! I will buy you a champagne!

  • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

    Let’s see if Paul invites you to his villa in Southern France with that attitude!

    • john burns

      Quiet Gabe! nobody will notice.

  • JMDonald

    I love looking at the old bikes but it is much better for me that the rich guys own and take care of them. Give me a nice new modern bike to ride anytime. It would be nice to visit the Quail gathering however. Being only mildly jaded I bet I would enjoy it. Not that there’s anything wrong with being jaded.

  • 12er

    I thought about going but then basically the same mindset hit me. I think I’d have more fun at the twosmoke event than the Museum on the lawn type thing.

  • Old MOron

    Amen!

  • Christopher Barnickel

    I went to Quail this year. I got no sense of pretentious behavior or dickish attitudes until I read this piece. Let’s cut the bullshit and just enjoy the sport for what it is regardless of income or bent on make/riding style.

    • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

      I just go for the food, which is really good.

      • john burns

        they let you in? Ok now I am jealous.

    • john burns

      wait, are we allowed to upvote our own posts?

      • Christopher Barnickel

        If there are other life lessons you are looking for I’m sure somebody is looking for a charity case. In the meantime keep up the passive aggression, my delicate flower. Keep the rubber side down, Burnsie.

        • john burns

          actually that is a super important life lesson: Upgrade your own post whenever you can! Thank you, CB.

      • Starmag

        Well, as long as one doesn’t mind looking pathetic and needy….

  • Starmag

    The Quail seems a bit stuffy. My best motorcycle event was Daytona vintage races about 10 years ago before they split it off. Amazing vintage racer craftsmanship that you could see because of the lack of fairings, great racebike sounds and smells, amazing bikes in the parking areas, met and had my picture taken with Cook Nielson, etc. Not the best track for vintage racing, but otherwise good stuff..

  • pcontiman

    I was hoping this article would make me feel better about not even knowing about the Quail this year let alone missing it since forever. Alas, no. An entertaining bit by JB on nostalgia over unreliable machinery nonetheless. Still, I’m sad I didn’t get up there yet again to stare at and yak about all those purty bikes. Just like an Easy Rider show, I suppose, there are going to be a few dingo heads but most of the folks with motorcycles just love motorcycles and it’s nearly always enjoyable to talk with them when you love motorcycles and I suspect that would be mine and JB’s experience also. Have fun out there folks and get out and ride SoCal when you can….or the Black Hills….or…..

  • ADB

    Well done Johnny B., well done.

  • Bruce Steever

    The Quail: an ideal place to blur the line between classic and just plain old.

  • Tod Rafferty

    Elephant seals, actually, but patina is similar to sea lions. Carmel Valley weather beats Half Moon Bay, and you could’a heard this one run.

  • Joe Bar

    Bravo, Mr. Burns. Another classic!

  • ccm911

    That was a completely snotty article! I wholeheartedly approve!