The approach to the Quail event is always impressive. Turn off Carmel Valley Road onto Valley Greens Drive, go past the hotel, cars and pickups lined up on each side of the road, cross over a little bridge, see the lodge and golf club on your right, and then two endless rows of motorcycles parked mirror to mirror for more than a quarter of a mile. Inspecting the parked bikes is almost as good as the show, as there are some strange sets of wheels among those thousand-plus machines.
That was one part for 2017; another part was the weather. It takes a good deal of dedication to go out on a gloomy, windy, cold day and spend five or six hours walking around in the open. But the better part of 3,000 people did that last May, apparently enjoying themselves quite well. That is because the Quail event, now in its 9th year, always promises to be entertaining, even if the weather is not very accommodating. While Gordon McCall has done an excellent job with this show, he can’t work miracles, and if the weather gods are feeling a bit feisty, so be it.
On view were upwards of 400 motorcycles. The many bikes at the Quail are always an eclectic lot, from ancients to moderns, race bikes and choppers, dirt and street, but there is always a focus. This year was a celebration for the golden anniversary—that’s 50 years—of the Norton Commando. Which deserves a little background. James Norton was in the bicycle trade back in 1898, but was soon smitten with the internal combustion engine, and began putting bought engines in his own frames in 1902. Then he began producing his own engine, the Big 4 (a 633cc single with a rated four horsepower) in 1908. The company made its reputation on single-cylinder machines, both as basic transport and for racing. In 1924 an OHV single won the Isle of Man Senior, and Mr. Norton was a happy man.
Move forward to 1949 and Norton was selling the 500cc Dominator 7, its first vertical twin, soon to be housed in the excellent “Featherbed” frame. By 1962 the engine had grown to 750cc, and the model was called the Atlas…the Greek god noted for his strength in supporting planet earth on his shoulders. The mechanical version was strong, but also noted for its excessive vibration and was regularly outsold by the smaller 650SS. How to deal with the problem? Build a new frame in which the engine could be rubber mounted, freeing the rider(s) from the vibes. Call the frame Isolastic, and the model Commando. Good chassis, good engine, good names, good bike, and the first Commando was sold in 1967. However, the economic handwriting was on the wall, and although upwards of 90,000 were built, 1977 saw the last of the Commandos—and the Norton name. Though it was resurrected a few years ago.
Close to 40 Commandos were on display, from the early Fastback to the last 850cc, electric-start Mark III. Talking with the owners of some of these Not-runs (a humorously pejorative nickname for the noble breed) was an education. Some had done all the restoration work, others had farmed the job out—which takes a bit of moolah. And while a few may have been garage queens, most were taken out and ridden. Looking at the smooth lines, especially on the early Fastback, from headlight and instruments to the long gas tank, flat saddle and tailpiece, is a delight. There was even a trio of Norton “babes” on hand, celebrating the highly successful 1970s ad campaign.
A hundred other marques were spread across the grassy sward, from a handful of Velocette KTT models to a delightful Britten race bike—the last of 10 built by New Zealander John Britten. The visitors, those not displaying motorcycles, came from every walk of life. I must say that I love both the show and the people who attend. Quail is a great meeting place for people who may see each other only once every year or more.
The Quail has always invited a well-known figure as Legend of the Sport, and this year it was Kenny Roberts, best known for being the first American to win the Grand Prix World Championship, in 1978—and then repeat his feat for the next two years. Also on hand were Mert Lawwill and Wayne Rainey, racers who have made America proud. Ten million of us Yanks are involved in the sport in one way or another, whether it is winning a world championship, commuting to work on a bike, riding the Wall of Death at some carnival, pitting for a friend in the Baja 1000—or treasuring the old bikes to be seen on the Quail grass.
And then the awards, with John Goldman’s 1957 Mondial 250 race bike getting the top honors. It was a beauty, restored by The Zen House in Point Arena, California, with the last of the dustbin fairings, which were banned from GP racing in 1958. This was followed by 10 more special awards—the Innovation Award is always fun, this time going to a BMW being housed in a frontal fairing looking a bit like an Honest John rocket. The 10 traditional classes are given first and second awards, but no third. As McCall said in his briefing, he had never heard anybody boast about being third.
And then the day was over. With people already talking about the 10th Quail Gathering, a few miles east of Carmel, California. Maybe there will be a second coffee vendor next year. And better weather.