Destinations: The Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum, California

A unique classic motorcycle museum

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A 1954 Norton Manx and a 2001 H-D VR1000 at the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum.

Photo by Joe Berk

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Interesting people are the ones who move the world, and there’s no doubt that Virgil Elings, the man behind the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum in Solvang, Calif., is an interesting man. Elings earned an MIT doctorate, taught physics for 20 years at University of California, Santa Barbara, and started a technology company making microscopes that can see things at the atomic level. And he makes donations with lots of zeros after the first number to worthy organizations.

While all of the above is interesting, there are two things that really make Elings stand out: He says what he thinks, and he’s a motorcyclist. A real motorcyclist. Someone who’s been riding and racing since he was 14 years old. Someone who has such an overwhelming interest in classic motorcycles that he opened The Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum in Solvang, Calif.

Elings’ interest in vintage motorcycles is driven by their looks, their performance and the freedom they provide. And when he looks at a bike, he likes seeing the engine and how things work. That last bit had me asking Elings how he feels about motorcycles with fairings that cover the engine. His eloquent response? “Someone once said that when you remove the fairing, they look like washing machines.”

This classic motorcycle museum is open Friday through Sunday, and sometimes during the week (but don’t count on it; call ahead if you plan to visit during the week). The museum is in an old Brooks Brothers retail store, and the ambiance works. It has hardwood maple floors, distinctive architecture and a classic feel, perfect for old bikes.

The collection reaches back to the early 1900s and extends to more modern times. And yes, a few of the bikes even have fairings. It includes rare race bikes such as Mike Hailwood’s 250cc Honda RC181 and intriguing street machines including Vincents, Triumphs, BSAs, Indians and other exotica. Just under 100 bikes grace the Solvang moto-temple’s maple floors, and there’s another group of about a hundred kept in reserve (Elings rotates the display to keep things interesting).

Located about 35 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, Solvang is an interesting town in its own right, as is the surrounding Santa Ynez Valley. The town is a tourist trap, but a friendly one. A Scandinavian theme predominates, and if you run low on refrigerator magnets or similar kitsch, this is the place you need to be. Solvang has more than a few restaurants, but unlike most tourist towns they are all good and the prices are reasonable. If the chow lines are too long, just stroll a storefront or two away and you’ll find another good one.

The area is beautiful, making Solvang a great side trip as part of any Pacific Coast Highway trip. Traffic on the surrounding roads is light, and the roads are so good it’s not unusual to see top-rated bicycling teams along the way (if you look closely, you might even see Lance Armstrong!). A visit to Solvang also offers a chance to visit two magnificent California missions: the Mission Santa Inés in Solvang and the Mission La Purisima just a few miles west.

The Santa Ynez Valley is a great part of the country, and the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum is a great destination for any trip through this region.


The Skinny

What: The Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum, a world-class moto temple displaying some of the rarest and most interesting motorcycles on the planet. You’ll find the museum at 320 Alisal Rd., Solvang, CA 93463; (805) 686-9722.
How to Get There: From Los Angeles, grab U.S. Route 101 and motor north for about 100 miles. Take the San Marcos Pass exit (state Route 154) for another 24 miles, turn left at state Route 246 for 5 miles, and then make another left on Alisal Road. From San Francisco, pick up U.S. Route 101 and go south for a whopping 293 miles to the Solvang/state Route 246 exit (that’s the quick way; take the Pacific Coast Highway for a much more scenic ride).
Best Kept Secrets: The roads anywhere in the Santa Ynez Valley and the California missions (especially Mission La Purisima, my personal favorite). State Route 246 to the coast, especially when the marigold farms are blooming. The Hitching Post restaurant (yes, the one in the movie Sideways). The Santa Ynez Valley vineyards. The Cold Spring Tavern restaurant. Did I mention the roads?
Avoid: Leaving home without an appetite. Forgetting to bring a camera.
More Info: www.motosolvang.com