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.
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?
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.
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.
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…
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!