Just as little children should be seen and not heard, perhaps classic and vintage bikes should be viewed and not judged. Who’s to say that any motorcycle of a specific vintage or pedigree should be deemed more worthy of our affections than another? For that matter, who among us can vouch for the authenticity of a restoration that, according to a designated team of judges and insiders, matches the assembly line criteria of its day?
I know that I can’t make such distinctions. However, as a motorcycle junkie I know a nice motorcycle when I see one, and with apologies to the late humorist Will Rogers, I never saw a motorcycle that I didn’t like. And so this last spring I headed to Carmel, California, for The Quail Motorcycle Gathering to observe and enjoy, rather than pass judgment about, a gathering of old motorcycles.
Like several thousand other motorcycle junkies in attendance, I stepped through the temporary portal on The Quail golf course fairway, and with wide-eyed anticipation I might add, into a world of old and historically significant motorcycles. My older brother Alan, who taught me how to ride bikes in the first place when we were teenagers, joined me on this journey to yesteryear that featured a reported 366 entries.
Al and I viewed hardware we hadn’t seen or experienced in years, and the occasion allowed us to recall stories about certain bikes we had owned or raced in a prior lifetime. We met and chatted with longtime friends and acquaintances, and in the process shared old war stories about our former days on two wheels. (I had forgotten just how fast I thought I really was in my youth.) And, at no charge, bike owners and collectors entertained us with interesting backwater stories about their motorcycles on display.
In for a penny, in for a pound
Whether you’ve been in this motorcycling thing for years or owned just a single bike during your lifetime, you’re worthy of visiting The Quail Motorcycle Gathering. This year’s show took place Saturday, May 16, although Friday’s pre-Quail buildup includes a 100-bike, 100-mile ride through some of Monterey County’s finest back roads before culminating in a parade lap around Laguna Seca Raceway. That victory lap through Laguna’s 11 turns warrants each entrant a barbecue lunch afterward (the $295 fee also includes a show ticket for the following day), and if that’s not enough culinary and old-bike excitement for you, there’s a formal dinner later with an accompanying evening program that should satisfy the cravings and appetites of the staunchest of gear heads. Event organizer Gordon McCall and his legion of Quailees deserve a two-thumbs-up for the two-day happening, and if I had to judge the show, I’d give it an 8-plus, maybe a 9. (The inclusive lunch and all-you-can-eat ice cream as part of admission did nothing to sway my vote, I swear. Burp.)
First and foremost, it is the bikes standing regally along the plush green fairway during Saturday’s show that deserve our accolades and attention. This year’s gathering included numerous class entries and private collections, and leading the charge was a fitting tribute to vintage military vehicles that helped the good guys (that would be us, the Free World) win two global wars.
On another section of the fairway turf sat a gaggle of Formula 750 race bikes representing a period when bold racers learned to race on slick tires. Wrote Kevin Cameron in the official event program: “… the new 750 class reinvented the motorcycle. 1972 showed that existing tires, suspension, and chassis were completely inadequate. New solutions were essential.”
And in a nod to the hooligan members of our sport, this year The Quail honored Choppers that, in their heyday back in the Sixties and Seventies, were ridden by crusty guys who often rode on slick tires simply because they couldn’t afford fresh rubber: Looking cool and partying were their primary goals. As Paul d’Orleans stated, “The Chopper is a homegrown phenomenon which was actively discouraged by the professional motorcycle industry for decades, with its own system of unspoken rules for both machine and rider, its own oral history, its own stars and a mythic status closely tied with ‘outlaw’ culture.”
But for the most part The Quail is composed of bikes from private collections. Many of those owners and collectors will tell you that they’re merely the bikes’ current custodians. Through divine provenance or other fortuitous circumstances they became the ones entrusted with maintaining specific bikes so that later generations can assume the role of temporary ownership, thus preserving the legendary marques and brands for as long as people revel in the smell, feel and texture of old oil and old bikes.
There wasn’t a more fitting story underscoring that heritage at The Quail than the 1967 Honda CB77 Super Hawk from the Zollo Family Collection. Showing barely 10 original miles on its odometer, the blue bike originally had been shipped to Honda of Arcata in Northern California for sale during the Summer of Love. With Honda’s new CB350 looming over the horizon for model-year 1968, few customers rushed to buy Super Hawks in 1967. Especially blue Super Hawks (black and red were the preferred colors), so this particular CB77 never sold. As time went by, the shop owner never bothered to uncrate the bike, and so it sat idle in the back room until Byrel Zollo sold the dealership in 1970. For whatever reason, he kept the Super Hawk, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the Honda was uncrated and assembled for the first time. However, nobody dared start the engine. Finally, in 2004, when they entered the Honda in a show, the 305cc engine was fired up. As I gazed at that blue Super Hawk on The Quail fairway, my mind drifted back to a time in my youth when I purchased a similar bike — a brand-new black CB77 of the same vintage — during my senior year in high school (yes, I was among the few Super Hawk stalwarts that year). I put more than 10,000 miles on that bike in about seven months, and part of my journey took me north to the San Francisco Bay Area where I experienced the fabled Sunday Morning Ride aboard my Honda.
Elsewhere, we spotted a black 1962 Honda Super Sport C110, a 50cc model similar to Alan’s first bike, which also happened to be the bike I learned to ride on. I realize that, metaphorically speaking, the world has shrunk since the days when Al and I were bike newbies, but that little Honda looked especially small compared to the bike I recall riding when I was 15 years old.
No doubt, there are many lessons and nuggets of information about old bikes to be gathered at The Quail. Stand near any bike on the lawn long enough and you’re bound to be enlightened about its historic past, or you’ll learn an interesting factoid about its mechanical design from the owner or some other knowledgeable bystander. That reality struck when I knelt down to examine the fueling system of an early-vintage Rex-JAP and its owner politely interrupted my interlude to show me precisely how the crude, yet efficient, system worked. The bike’s archaic plumbing was a reminder that the early pioneers of motorcycling were, indeed, blazing trails into uncharted territory. As Denis Manning, builder of several land speed record-holding streamliner motorcycles, once told me, “The rule book for early bike builders, and for us [land speed racers], was filled with blank pages.”
We seem to be filling those blank pages on a more frequent basis, though. Electronic fuel injection, computer-regulated traction control, anti-locking brake systems are but a few of today’s innovative ideas that greet a rider when he or she swings a leg over the saddle. But in the end, it’s the rider who determines the quality of the ride because — and we can thank our lucky stars for this — we still (mostly) have control of the throttle, clutch and brakes. Al and I were reminded of that as we headed toward the exit, spotting a showroom-fresh 1975 Yamaha RD350 along the way. “Seems like only yesterday we were racing those things,” I said in reference to the RDs my brother and I rode in the modified production classes at Southern California club road races back in the Seventies.
“Yeah,” replied Alan, as we stopped to gaze at the little ringy-dingy bike. “Hard to imagine now that our bikes started out looking like that — you know, showroom stock,” he added. “But our bikes were much faster,” I said, raising a small chuckle from both of us. I could have added that there’s no judging in racing, that winners are determined by who crosses the finish line first. Nobody judges who is first or who is last in a race. The results speak for themselves.
But I didn’t say any such thing, and we left The Quail with some great memories of some great motorcycles. That was all we needed for this day. No first place, no last place. Just a pleasant place where we could enjoy a horde of pleasant motorcycles. As another Mr. Rogers from the past might have said, “It was a wonderful day in the neighborhood.” MC