Classic Motorcycles at the 2009 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance!

Classic motorcycles have finally joined the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance - the most prestigious classic car show in North America.

Classic Motorcycles Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance - 1948 Vincent Lightning

This classic motorcycle, a 1948 Vincent Lightning, became known as the “Bathing Suit Bike” after a scantily-attired Roland “Rollie” Free hit 150.313mph riding it at Bonneville. Owner Herb Harris of Austin, Texas brought it to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

Photo by John Landstrom

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For the past 59 years, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance has been considered the most prestigious classic car event in North America. And not just any car gets in, as the classics chosen to appear at Pebble Beach, Calif., are culled from the finest collections from around the world by a jury of automotive judges and historians.

Only the very best examples of the most rare, beautiful and significant motor cars are considered for display at Pebble Beach, so to exhibit here is to reach the top of the collector car hobby.
This year, for the first time ever, classic motorcycles were included in the Pebble Beach Concours. This was a milestone event in the collector motorcycle hobby, which has struggled for years to attain the same high profile respect that’s been afforded to classic cars for decades.

Famed marques such as Vincent, Triumph, AJS, BSA, Brough Superior and Ariel shared the field with iconic automotive classics like Duesenberg, Bugatti, Ferrari, Packard and Rolls Royce. As leather jackets brushed elbows with silk blazers, everyone had one thing in common, a mutual admiration for fine machinery. Pebble Beach is more than a car show, it’s a place to make a fashion statement, a place to declare one has arrived, and a place to appreciate and admire the finest rolling art that the designers, engineers and craftsmen of the 20th century have ever produced.

The Concours comes at the conclusion of a week’s worth of motoring activities; there are the Historic Races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, The Quail Motorsports Gathering, Concorso Italiano (which also includes Italian motorcycles), five major auctions, and the 60-mile Tour d’Elegance. These are all significant events in their own right, but the event that everyone waits for is the Pebble Beach Concours.

At the crack of dawn on show day, cars — and now motorcycles — were driven onto the lawn and the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Lodge overlooking the Pacific Ocean. With their headlights barely breaking through the heavy morning fog, 175 cars and a handful of motorcycles struggled to find their designated places. The sound and sight of ancient engines churning to life, belching smoke through open exhaust pipes, and the smell of burning fossil fuels was enough to make any gear head’s hair stand up straight.

Fifteen motorcycles in all filled the field, participating in a theme of pre-1959 British Motorcycles. The top three finishers included the Barber museum’s 1954 AJS E-95 “Porcupine” (one of only four made), the 1947 Vincent-HRD Series B ex-works racer better known as “Gunga Din” (now in the care of Paul Pflugfelder, who calls himself simply the bike’s “current keeper”) and Theresa Worsch’s sidecar-equipped 1932 BSA W32-6. Rollie Free’s record-breaking Vincent Black Lightning, now owned by Herb Harris, was also on hand, and was actually ridden in the Tour d’Elegance by Alain deCadenet.

Although the crowd was a little thinner around the motorcycles, the folks I talked to were delighted to see the bikes and thought it was about time. So now that motorcycles have their foot in the door of the world’s most prestigious show, the question begs, will they be invited back next year? With the value of a Lalique hood ornament (upwards of $30,000) exceeding the value of some motorcycles in the show the snob opinion might be “no thanks.” But I have it from a solid source that next year’s Pebble Beach Concours will feature American-made motorcycles, and judging by the steady crowd of interested viewers this year’s bikes received, it looks like motorcycles have finally broken the Pebble Beach barrier.

Sideshows and auctions
One of the most enjoyable events during the Pebble Beach weekend is held at the beautiful Quail Lodge, just a few miles down the road. More than “just” a concours, “The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering” is billed as “an unequaled lifestyle experience.” At $400 a ticket, it should be, but even so, spectator admission was sold out six months in advance. Didn’t get your ticket on time? No worries, Craigslist entrepreneurs were hawking spare tickets for $1,000 each. If you can afford it, you’ll take in a great Saturday automobile show, complete with gourmet lunch and plenty of wine. They were also serving up some very tasty motorcycles, along with the Bonhams & Butterfields “Exceptional Motorcars and Automobilia” auction.

Gooding and MidAmerica
Gooding & Company is the official auction house of the Pebble Beach Concours, and they moved some precious heavy metal over the weekend. On Saturday alone 74 cars netting $21 million crossed the auction block. That’s an average sales price of $283,783 per vehicle. There were only two bikes in the auction, a 1917 Indian Power Plus that sold for $28,600 and a very nice 1931 Indian Four that crossed the block at $62,700, both on the low side of average retail. One could conclude that keeping expensive company does not guarantee a higher than average price for a motorcycle at a car auction.

In addition to Gooding, several other auction houses competed for bidders with hundreds of collector cars, netting nearly $120 million in total sales. This year, MidAmerica Auctions threw its hat — or should I say helmet? — into the ring. MidAmerica was front and center in the Retro Auto grounds with a handsome display of 84 classic motorcycles covering the gamut of the motorcycle collector hobby, and almost everyone who attended the Pebble Beach Concours had to walk past the MidAmerica auction tent before entering the Concours field.

Featuring everything from Cushman scooters to Brough Superiors, the auction was unique in that it was conducted on the Internet; all bids were taken online via Proxibid.com. Space limitations — and a desire to reach the widest possible audience — pushed MidAmerica to take the auction online. The most obvious downside was the lack of live auction fervor. Last-second decisions by impulsive bidders are certainly dampened when an auction is conducted remotely. Nevertheless, MidAmerica deserves credit for trying a new approach. There was a steady flow of onlookers over the three days the auction tent was open, and even Jay Leno stopped by to check it out and entertain the small crowd that happened to be there on Friday.

Can you sell motorcycles to a car crowd? The answer is yes and no. Of 84 bikes in the MidAmerica Auction, 44 sold, a 54 percent sales ratio — not great by auction standards and way below MidAmerica’s well-established Las Vegas auctions. In comparison, the Gooding auction sold 76 percent of their 170 cars.

However, this was a first time venue, and the exposure for MidAmerica and antique motorcycles in general can only support the business aspects of our hobby, and I’m hoping motorcycle auctions continue to be a part of the Pebble Beach experience. MC