What a show! The day began cool and lightly overcast, but by 11 o’clock the skies were blue and white, with lovely puffy cumulus clouds drifting slowly overhead. Absolutely perfect weather—obviously ordered up for the occasion. A walk through the entrance opened to four grassy acres of the venue, with more than 400 bikes on display, some going back a century and more. Upwards of 3,000 people, many of them well-dressed and well-hatted, others in Levis, leather vests and do-rags, were roaming the length and breadth of the show. Sensible ones got a cup of excellent coffee from the Moto Espresso mini-van to kickoff the six-hour event.
This was Quail No. 8, and organizer Gordon McCall must be doing something right. Every year he makes minor adjustments to the focus of the event, which this year included classic BMWs, pre-1916 machines and bicycles—just to keep the two-wheeled theme all-encompassing—along with hundreds of beautifully waxed and polished vintage motorcycles from Europe, America and Japan, and the occasional unrestored barn-find. Small groups were on display, be they half-a-dozen Italian scooters, Dick McClure’s bicycle collection, an eclectic lot in the “Chopper” category or the two late-‘80s Honda XRV650 Africa Twins, a mere hundred yards from the new CRF1000L Africa Twin displayed at the Honda tent.
The 400 motorcycles on display were mostly due to the generosity of the owners. Admission for the pedestrian is $75, while to display a bike the fee is $150—with two admission tickets. A good deal, except the owner has to get the bike to the site himself, and should one win in any category, no cash but a very nice engraved plate is the reward. An excellent lunch is provided free to all ticket holders.
What prompts people to admire or collect two-wheelers? It would be interesting to have every visitor write 50 words or so on why they attended the Quail. Any number of reasons might emerge, from “I love everything to do with motorcycles” to “my spouse wanted to go.” Attendees ranged in age from Baby Boomers to Millennials, from those who grew up with the Japanese invasion to those who have been subjected to the ever increasing televised ads pushing everything from Harleys to Aprilia Shivers. A major turning point in the public’s view of motorcycling was the Guggenheim Museum’s show “The Art of the Motorcycle” in 1998—which suddenly gave motorcycles a heretofore-unknown respectability. More than 300,000 people came to view the 100 or so machines on display in that New York show, the most successful exhibit the Guggenheim had ever had. And the after-effects show up on the Quail’s manicured lawn.
Many museums are focused on industrial design, or commercial products, like the Toaster Museum in Seattle, or the Zippo Museum in Bradford, Pennsylvania. And a dozen museums around the country are dedicated to motorcycles, from the Barber Vintage Motorsports in Alabama to Wheels Through Time in North Carolina to the National Motorcycle in Iowa, and now Robb Talbott’s Moto Talbott Collection in the village of Carmel Valley, just a few miles from the Quail. But the Guggenheim was very, very different, as it is a noted museum that promotes the “arts.” For motorcycles to be recognized by the “art” world—what an accomplishment.
The old-timers at the Quail seemed focused on nostalgia, perhaps relating to the Indian Scout granddad had back in the 1930s, or merely to their first bike back in their high-school days, a Harley Hummer or Honda Dream. Some 30 or more years ago a few enterprising types began appreciating the value of certain older bikes, and realized the return on a sensible purchase could be a lot better than putting money in the stock market. But as the Quail’s head judge, Somer Hooker, has said in the past, buying a motorcycle in the hope that it will become a valuable collectible is akin to buying a piece of art—you never know if you’ll make money or not. Buy it because you like it.
I would say that the great majority of the people crushing the carefully maintained grass and stopping every few feet to admire a Vincent Rapide or Laverda Jota are there for the aesthetics. There are those who like the generally old-fashioned “see-through” bikes, where cylinders and carburetors are out in the open, vs. those who appreciate the aerodynamic “enclosed” look, which became popular in the early 1980s with the Kawasaki 900 Ninja and Honda VFR750 Interceptor.
Two of the groups attracting attention were the pre-1916 bikes, and the Superbikes of the 1970s. A four-cylinder Pierce, dating from 1910, had a large group gathered around when the owner fired it up. With shaft drive, a two-speed transmission and the frame holding both gas and oil, this was a very forward-thinking machine that cost a lot to build and reputedly bankrupted the company after only some 500 were built. It got first place in the pre-‘16 awards. While the Kawasaki Z-1, some 70 years later, proved highly profitable.
Surrounding the venue were some three dozen tents, which the Quail rents to those wishing to promote their boots, organized motorcycle tours, tires, etc. The American Motorcyclist Association was promoting membership—a good thing—and two companies were extolling the virtues of their sporting electric motorcycles.
Personalities were much in evidence, with three racers of fame and notoriety—Mert Lawill, Reg Pridmore and Don Emde—signing books and talking with the crowd. Reg, the 2016 Legend of the Sport, had his race-winning 1976 BMW R90S up on the stage, and sat down with Gordon McCall for a fascinating chat. Craig Vetter, seemingly well healed from his accident last year, was on hand to accept the Dud Perkins Lifetime Achievement Award.
At two o’clock the awards began, all 32 of them. Talbott’s 1925 BMW, an R37 racer, won Best of Show.