Thursday, August 26, 2010


 The October edition of Cycle World magazine is out in print, and includes my review of Falcon Motorcycle's 'Kestrel', as part of CW's 'World's Coolest Bikes' series.  Thanks to editor in chief Mark Hoyer for including the piece in this issue, and for a skilled editing job (most instructive, actually, how a few minor tweaks can integrate my florid writing style to the 'feel' of a modern motorcycle mag).
If you're not a subscriber, find it on the IS the biggest circulation motorcycle magazine in the world, so your local grocery store might have it.  Cycle World has always included a few vintage motorcycle articles among the hyperbike shootouts.  Their 'Rolling Concours' events are the best possible concept for a motorcycle show, where your show bike MUST be ridden on their day tour (75 miles or so) to be eligible for a prize...not just onto the podium!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


It took the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance only 59 years to allow motorcycles onto their hallowed greens by Monterey Bay, and coincidentally onto 17 Mile Drive, which is the only access into this gated community.  Previous to last year, attempted entry onto the Drive would have seen you riding back whence you came, as it will today if you approach the guard kiosk, after the parties are over and the temporary motorcycle welcome has worn off.  Don't get Notions just because 27 amazing motorcycles were tucked onto a patch of unmowed grass (the 'rough' - and aren't we just) during the Concours; there are still drinking fountains marked 'biker' at the PB Lodge.
Pebble has chosen a strict thematic presentation for their motorcycle Concours, and this year all entries were US-made and pre-1941.  The number of machines increased 50% over 2009's 'British' display, with a good balance between restored machines, unrestored survivors, plus a few troubling 'restored-to-look-unrestored' bikes.  All hinted at the abundant variety available to an interested customer in the 'Teens and Twenties especially; singles, twins, fours, overhead-valve, sidevalve, F-head, direct drive, belt-drive, two-speed, three-speed.
Of the Unrestored category, most were racers not roadsters, each with a 'wow' factor for different reasons.  Vince Martinico brought his 1908 Indian 'Torpedo Tank', last seen winning Best in Show at the Legend of the Motorcycle Concours; a small miracle of a machine from the advent of that famous company, Vince brought a few photos along to document who raced the bike (Paul Derkum), and pedalled into chuffing life several times during the day.
The little v-twin engine has atmospheric inlet valves (no direct cam operation, opened by piston suction), and the whole machine is still very much a bicycle with a motor stuffed inside...amazing to think that 3 years later, Indian would begin developing their 8-Valve racers, shortly to exceed 100mph!  This little bike simply oozes character.
Dale Walksler of the Wheels Through Time Museum brought this 1929 Harley-Davidson DAR track racer, with four-valve cylinder heads, and four exhaust pipes giving the raciest look of all.  It's a '45' (750cc), and extremely rare as most ohv H-D racers were built for Hillclimbs at that time.  Clearly meant for flat-out speed , this DAR is really the business.   Dale found the intact rolling chassis in the estate/barn of a former Harley dealer, and the proper engine just a few days later.  He is convinced the engine is the Actual original from this chassis, as it fits perfectly with all the oil fittings and chassis brackets - and given HD only made a few of ohv racers of this type, he's probably right.
The DAR bears scrutiny - it's a masterpiece of racing engineering from the 20's; brutal, antiquated, and fast as hell.  To compare this machine, with no gearbox or brakes, with other racers of the day (check this '26 Indian ohv road racer, or any road racer from England or Italy from the late 20s), highlights the unique character of US motorcycle racing pre-WW2, when it was all about dirt or board tracks, or hillclimbs, which evolved quirky machines so specialized as to be useless in any other context, and bearing zero technical similarity to the products in the showroom.  The American equivalent of a GP racer.
Note the hand-hewn racing Schebler carburetor, with extra air intakes - a full separate bellmouth brazed onto the carb body, plus a hole in the mixing chamber, both controlled by the rider at speed via sliding covers - I've never seen a carb quite like it.  More air!
Also interesting - the bike retains bicycle pedals, but these are appendages left from an earlier age, as pedal-starting such a beast would be impossible.  Perhaps racing veterans felt comfortable with hinged footrests?  The oiling system is unique, with two oil tanks inside the left pannier, one feeding the throttle-controlled oil pump, the other oiling the chains.  A hand-pump gave a shot direct to the drive side main bearing; all the oil eventually went back the dirt, not to the oil tanks.
As all machines at Pebble are expected to run (and ride onto the podium in case of a prize award), starting this Harley presented a challenge, solved via the largesse of Bryan Bossier, who allowed his 'Big Tank' Crocker to be used as a starting mule, the two machines backed into each other and making an unforgettable racket as the HD came to smoky life.   It was quite a scene, worth the price of admission - definitely the most expensive set of starter rollers Ever. (photo courtesy Bob Stokstad)

Larry Feece brought his 'barn find' racing team of four Indian Scouts (750cc), '37-'41 models, owned and modified by Buck Rogers, an engineer at Studebaker cars.  Rogers began with one Sport Scout (1937), had it tuned by Art Hafer, then purchased three more over time to support young racers with a bike and some gas money.  He ran his privateer team for five years, then parked the bikes in 1955, where Feece found them in as-last-raced condition decades later.  Larry has wisely kept them strictly as found during his tenure, whilst the collecting world catches up to the idea that untouched machines are simply irreplaceable, and our true historical treasures.
Two unrestored/original Harleys were remarkable historical references, and likely the best century-old (or nearly so) HDs around, both resplendent in subdued grey paint, with oxidation appropriate to their age.  This 1915 '11F' twin sold at the Las Vegas MidAmerica auction in 2009, and gives an idea of the fine quality pinstriping emerging in Milwaukee during the 'Teens.  A very appealing motorcycle (and having ridden a '15 HD just like this, I can attest they go surprisingly well too, with decent handling).
Even more subdued is this ex-La Grange Police Department 1909 HD single, the 'Silent Grey Fellow', very quiet indeed with no whining gearbox or thrashing chains, just that big flat leather belt going around with a quiet 'tic' every time the riveted joint goes over the engine pulley.  This is another amazingly well preserved motorcycle, the sort of bike which might have been restored 20 years ago, but thankfully wasn't.

This 1913 Flying Merkel is mostly an original paint machine, although owner Mike Madden admits to 'sprucing-down' the primary chain cover, as the original was missing and a new one fabricated.  He didn't try too hard to mimic the original paint, so the replacement is clear but doesn't glare.  The Merkel was quite a sophisticated motorcycle, with monoshock rear suspension and an oil-in-frame chassis; features which would be loudly advertised again in the 1980s!  The front fork are rigid though...

Last up on our tour is this faux-original 1916 Excelsior Board Track racer, which has an impressively applied patina.  It took real skill to develop the 6 or 7 layers of paint, varnish, stains, and chips to achieve such visual depth and amber/oily coloration on various new components.  Someday, though, when the paintwork has actually oxidized, it may be difficult to tell this machine from an original/unrestored bike, and then the trouble begins.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


While every one of the myriad events of Pebble Beach Week has its own flavor, the best party on the grass by a long stretch is The Quail - A Motorsports Gathering.  Now in its 8th year, the Quail has become THE most sought-after ticket, with scalpers charging up to $1200 on Craigslist to gain access to the sold-out event.  Unlike the Pebble Beach Concours, which feels more like a casting call for Soylent Green every year, the Quail is limited to 3000 guests, and the old Brooklands saw 'the right crowd and no crowding' comes to mind.  I'm not sure what the 'right crowd' might be, but I had never before attended, as the $400 entry keeps riffraff like myself well off the gilded grounds.  Is it worth it?  If you have to ask, save the money for your bills, but if you can indulge, why yes, it is. 

Motorcyclists are particularly adept at crossing class boundaries, to a point.  At any rally or show, the millionaires and the paupers happily rub elbows at the Church of the Gearhead.  They are also united in being cheapskates, frugal, parsimonious, mean - whatever term you prefer, most find a $400 entry fee an insurmountable hurdle, for even at one-quarter that price for a ticket to the Quail Motorcycle Gathering, the chat rooms echo with the sound of wallets snapping shut. Result; I did see a few of my motorcycle pals at the Quail, but they either had their bikes or cars on display, were working, or had snuck in!

In the spirit of full disclosure, my ticket was comped by Courtney Porras, the Quail's Events Manager, who oversees much of what goes on during the Quail 'moto' events, and is a miracle of calm omniscience in the midst of the chaos of hundreds of arriving vehicles, guests, auction companies, caterers, musicians, handlers, and security staff. Whenever I have a panic about where to be when, Courtney's smile is a beacon.

To set the scene: two bands played all day - an excellent Mariachi ensemble at one end, and a small Frenchish combo at the other; no main or secondary stages, just good music near the main dining tents.  Did I mention the food?  The Quail does its own catering (having a very good restaurant at the Lodge helps), with a limitless (and free, with ticket) supply of excellent salmon, grilled steaks, handmade tortillas, insanely good margaritas, beer, several wine booths, champagne from sponsors Roederer, oysters from Hog Island, caviar... my only regret was I didn't eat enough, as I was too excited to see the cars on display, and the motorcycles, and the people.

Carroll Shelby of Mustang and Cobra fame was the honored guest, and it was amusing to hear his laconic Texas drawl over the loudspeakers as I washed down an oyster with a gulp of champagne.  'I was never very good with cars, but I knew who to hire' was my favorite quote - such disarming honesty from a legend served to emphasize the casual nature of the Quail.  No teams of blue-coat judges roamed the grounds, every entrant voted a peers'-choice Best in Class and Best in Show, and it was possible to have a conversation with just about anyone you bumped into, including Gordon McCall, who was shockingly un-harassed at the event he founded.

The quality of vehicles ranged from 'barn find' (the first Shelby Mustang GTR in primer, cracked windscreen, and Mexican 'turista' stickers), to totally over-the-top restorations (like an E-type Jag coupe which was 1000 times nicer than showroom stock; Pebblish), and an AJS 7R which could have graced any dining room table, but lacked the attractive grit of a hard-used racer.  Nearly 30 Shelbys of every stripe and age crowded the back corner, across from a big lineup of Ferraris, Alfas, and Maseratis.

Highlights of the day included a drive-thru of 27 Bugattis which had been circulating at Laguna Seca raceway during the Monterey Historic races, escorted by lights-flashing police motorcycles, the Bugs sexy and charismatic and smelling of hot oil.  Wisely, the Type 35s and 51s parked up in a rough gaggle to descend on the food and champagne booths, giving assembled guests a moment to pore over these gladiators, many showing the scars of their 70+ years.  Of course, these were my favorites, even if the patina was stage makeup on one or two.   Later, a mini squadron of Chinese trainer planes made a smoky, low-overhead flyover in tight formation, at a very leisurely pace, prompting many jokes about slow, smoky Chinese planes!  At 240hp/180knots, fast these birds will never be, but they sounded great - almost as good as the Bugattis.

Bonhams had a huge tent across the street, auctioning everything from a world-record-price Porsche ($3.95 Million!) to a small Daimler tank, just the thing for keeping deer off the lawn.  The sale was a big success, suggesting the car and bike market may be on the upswing after two years of doldrums.  Notably, two motorcycles graced the entrance of the Bonhams tent, an Indian 8-Valve and high-patina Flying Merkel, which advertised their upcoming sale of motorcycles at Las Vegas, this coming January 2011, smack on the first day of what will instantly become THE week on the calendar for the world's biggest collection of vintage motorcycle auctions.

Motorcycles have oiled the grass at Quail since the very first (unlike Pebble, which saw the light only after 59 years!), and two-wheelers were fanned out dead-center on the grounds, a completely random selection of road and racing bikes, with a bog-stock '70 Triumph Bonneville standing proudly beside Richard Gauntlett's still-wet-paint Harley board-trackish big-wheeler (watch for a future road test on this bike, designed by Conrad Leach and built by Cro Customs). A dozen bikes in all, which garnered plenty of attention from the 'car guys' and gals, and to which I say, More Please!  There's plenty of room yet!

The indescribable 'Motomorphosis' returned from May's Quail Motorcycle Gathering, where all assembled witnessed the machine being helmed (is there another word?) around the sinuous backroads of Carmel Valley and remarkably, around the track at Laguna Seca.  This machine challenges my sense of what is rideable, but I've seen it done, and after years of utterly useless 'choppers', I'm happy to report it goes around corners like a motorcycle and not a Jean Tinguely sculpture intent of collapse.

Falcon Motorcycles hadn't quite finished their Vincent-based 'Black' Falcon, which would have been a superhuman feat given that the Kestrel was born (hatched?) only 3 months prior.  Any disappointment at the non-Vincent reflects eagerness to see the results of Ian Barry's wrestling match with Phil Irving; the Upstart vs. the Legend - watch this space!  Instead, we were treated to an audience with the reigning Kings of Custom, the Bullet and Kestrel, looking surprisingly diminutive in a sea of automobiles.

As mentioned, each entrant votes for Best in Class in the category their own vehicle is entered, and motorcyclists voted for a 1993 Moto Guzzi 1000S - basically a 'retro' machine in the style of the V7 Sport from 20 years prior.  While certainly immaculate, and fetching in black and lurid green, it was a confusing choice, given the several super-clean non-retro icons on either side of the Guzzi, like a stunning 'KO' Honda CB750, a pair of immaculate Triumph twins, the AJS 7R, and several top-shelf customs.   But, that's what the class decreed...and that question mark was but a Pebble in the water compared with the mighty wave of confoundment to come at the Beach on Sunday.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Best in Show car was a 1936 Delahaye 135 Competition 'Disappearing' Convertible, an elegant Deco sculpture, which itself nearly disappeared under the marquee behind the winner's podium, at the end of the day.  A freak accident which, amazingly, found no one nearby to injure... whether sabotage, a mischevious djinn, or plain ol' Friday the 13th, the inimitable sound of a $6 million car being crunched was a shock to everyone's sensibilities.  I shed a tear - not for the car, but for Gordon and Courtney, who didn't deserve such bad luck after all the effort to create this amazing event.  While ultimately an 'insurance moment', that sound and my shock have resonated for days hence, a memento mori: we are temporary caretakers of our treasures, and exit this world with nothing.  What truly matters can't be found within a machine.
And some of what matters could definitely be found at the Quail.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


The week of pure mechanical excess which possesses the Monterey peninsula in mid-August begins with the hardest of the core, those who risk their megamilliondollar cars at Laguna Seca during the Monterey Historic Races. This year one could watch 27 Bugattis in various states from gleaming perfection to 'old paint', hammering around a really beautiful and challenging track, really going at it and ensuring that skilled fabricators will remain in demand to replace all the bits which break.
But I wasn't there; I prefer the parties with Motorcyles.

Which begin on Wednesday night, at Gordon McCall's Motorworks Revival party, held at the Monterey Jet Center.  Considered by many to be the swankest gearhead party in the States, Revival certainly has the best props - the Jet Center becomes a parking lot for all the 'personal jet' makers to show their wares, plus a bunch of interesting older biplanes and fixed-wings, and of course, with a little military hardware to remind us all who defends our right to burn oil.  Thus, an F16 sat front and center, surrounded by various iterations of Shelby Mustangs, as Carrol Shelby himself was to be the honored guest at the Quail Motorsports Gathering on Friday.

The Revival is a study in transforming a patch of tarmac and a hangar into a champagne-and-diamonds party, and the mix is at once surreal and exhilarating.  Approaching the venue is strictly no-frills; parking is limited, and if you don't make it to the available lot early (as I didn't), there's no sidewalk or even pedestrian space on your hike to the Jet Center - as my party mate Richard Gauntlett noted, 'it's unlikely one walks to one's jet'.  Too true.  The entrance tent was graced by black chandeliers, red carpet, and three motorcycles on plinths, all Gordon's machines (Dunstall Atlas, Bultaco Metralla, and BMW R60/2), and special kudos to him for placing two-wheelers front and center, they looked terrific.

Each jet builder laid on a lounge with groovy furniture, champagne, hot rented femmes, and a chance to sit (and drink) inside their wares.  While many of the assembled were Actually shopping for their next plane, punters like me sat bemused with our free drink, while considering my recent trans-Atlantic hop in cattle class...

Walking through the fairly vast party area (bordered by wingtip-to-wingtip jets) meant slaloming between cars to be shown at the Quail, kiosks of ridiculously good food (sushi, Hawaiian barbecue, grilled steaks, etc) and small bars offering anything you'd like, sir or madam.  The motorcycles held their ground inside the hangar, with a duo of Falcons (Kestrel and Bullet), a Moto Guzzi Falcone Sport, a flat-track inspired new Triumph, and a pair of tricked-out modern BMW and Ducati racers.  The Falcons looked especially good beside a blue Maserati A6G/3000 replica and a phalanx of Bentleys.

When asked about my favorite plane of the evening,  I had to admit the Navy helicopter (complete with female crew) in discreet grey-on-grey finish looked very impressive amidst the ultra-slick new minijets.  Fave car was the 'Alligator', a fiberglass horror in original condition, looking filthy and also providing a serious contrast to Louboutin heels, Dior satin dresses, and Brioni suits.

The highlight of my evening was riding the Kestrel through the crowd of swells (with Ian Barry on the Bullet), noisily blatting out the hangar and onto the red carpet to all smiles, and darting under a jet wing at speed to make my exit.  More fun, in fact, than riding it on the world's most expensive golf course...