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A Quail Tale: The 2017 Quail Motorcycle Gathering

Ducati motorcycle

The grandpappy to the modern Ducati Scrambler. All photos by Corey Levenson.

Once a year a posh and tranquil golf course is transformed as it hosts a dazzling collection of exceptional motorcycles and colorful people. No one element — machines, people nor venue — makes the Quail Motorcycle Gathering special; it’s the resulting concoction that’s so intoxicating. A day at this event is like a blissful mini-vacation in one of those pristine little snow globes, except there’s no snow and the little sphere is full of fascinating two-wheeled machinery.

The 2017 edition of the Gathering took place on a gray and windy day in May on the manicured greens at the Quail Lodge and Golf Club in Carmel Valley, California. Like that other bird, the phoenix, the Quail event rose from the ashes of another premier West Coast motorcycle-only concours, The Legend of the Motorcycle. Initiated in 2006, that event went great guns for three years but folded after the economy took a nosedive in late 2008. Fortunately, lifelong motorsports enthusiast Gordon McCall stepped in, moving the focal point for the classic motorcycle scene down the coast from Half Moon Bay to Monterey Bay. For nine years running, Gordon has done an impressive job hosting the Quail Motorcycle Gathering.

Bikes in cocoons

Bikes in cocoons before the show opens.

Motorcycles are also displayed at another event Gordon runs in conjunction with Monterey Car Week in August, the Quail Motorsports Gathering. The motorcycle-only event in the spring serves as a fitting bookend to the existing summer event, which is more focused on classic automobiles. The Motorcycle Gathering this year featured two highlights: one a remarkable American motorcycle racer and the other a classic British motorcycle, the Norton Commando.

Kenny Roberts, three-time 500cc Grand Prix World Champion and two-time AMA Grand National champion, was the guest of honor and “Legend of the Sport” at this year’s Gathering. It was great to see “King” Kenny being recognized for his many achievements. With a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile on his face, he seemed to be at ease and enjoying himself. A nice three-bike display on the lawn represented various phases of Kenny’s long career: a Yamaha TZ750 flat tracker, a TZ750 road race bike and a Team Roberts KR Moto GP bike as raced by Kenny’s son Kurtis.

Brough Superior

Contemplating a lovely Brough-Superior.

Other moto-celebrities in attendance included Wayne Rainey (also a thrice crowned 500cc Grand Prix World champion), Mert Lawwill (AMA Grand National Champion in 1969) and Craig Vetter. Gordon emceed a brisk outdoor panel discussion among Kenny, Wayne and Mert that enthralled and amused in equal measure. These luminaries were very generous with their time, hanging around on the lawn and chatting with the rest of the moto-nuts.

Vintage bike restorer, authority, and collector Somer Hooker serves as Chief Judge for the event. In an apparent fit of recklessness, he invited me to be a judge this year, telling me it was a great way to make new enemies. How could I refuse? In addition to 11 traditional motorcycle classes (American, British, Italian, Japanese, etc.), there were 10 special categories including the Spirit of the Quail Award, the Cycle World Tour Award, the Innovation Award, the Significance in Racing Award and the Historical Vehicle Association (HVA) Preservation Award for the best unrestored machine. The Best of Show Champion was the motorcycle considered to be most significant in terms of presentation and historical significance.

Norton Commando 750SS

Norton Commando 750SS displayed on the lawn.

I requested assignment to the Norton judging group mainly because I’ve owned three 750 Commandos and a P11 over the years and, to the extent I was qualified to judge any motorcycle, I felt most comfortable scrutinizing that particular marque. Judging was “French” style which is less technical, more subjective and reliant on overall elegance and visual appearance (no need for straw hats, blazers or ties). One of my six fellow judges was Jerry Kaplan, a Norton owner and friend for more than 30 years. This was Jerry’s third year as a judge and he offered to show me the ropes.

Brian Slark, AMA Hall of Famer and currently Technical Advisor at the Barber Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, was our team leader. In the late 1960s he managed the service and competition department for Norton in the U.S. and later became marketing communications manager for Norton-Villiers. Brian was the perfect choice to be alpha dog in our pack.

Norton judging team

The Norton Judging Team working under Brian Slark’s leadership (he’s the one sitting).

After being briefed by Chief Judge Hooker, all 48 judges were given cards to fill out for each bike listing several categories to be evaluated on a numerical scale. We had three hours to complete our judging — some quick math revealed we had an average of six minutes per bike. No way could we fill in the all the blanks for each bike in that amount of time (plus our hands were too cold to do that much writing!). We decided to resort to Alternate Plan B in order to get it all done in time. Since we only had to choose one bike from the Norton group to be “Best in Class,” our strategy was to review all the bikes as a team, discuss our observations/thoughts and assign a single aggregate score (1-10) to each bike. We’d then go back and review the top ranked bikes in the class to pick a winner.

Needless to say, as a novice judge, the last thing I wanted to do was come off as a gormless twit, feckless dolt or utter pillock. I had brought photocopies of various appendices to Roy Bacon’s excellent books on Norton twins (just in case I needed to verify engine numbers for specific models or know what colors were correct for which years). That turned out to be a complete waste of time and paper — the collective knowledge of our judging group ensured that I never once needed to refer to any of those pages.

Norton and transport vehicle

Classic bikes deserve classic transporters.

This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Norton Commando, arguably the best of the big British twins of the 1960s and 1970s. Between 1968 and 1972, it won the Motor Cycle News’ “Machine of the Year” award five consecutive times. With assistance from the Norton Owners Club Northern California Chapter, the Quail organizers had at least one example of each of the many Commando models on display.

“The Commando was introduced as a stop-gap model intended to last for two years until Norton designed a new engine and model. It was basically an old power unit in a new chassis. It’s amazing that it was competitive up until 1975, essentially in its original form,” Brian Slark said. “They’re one of the few British bikes of that era that can be run under modern high-speed traffic conditions without vibrating apart. For a motorcycle introduced 50 years ago, it’s pretty remarkable how well they’ve survived.”

Vincent in Chinese Red

A stunning hot-rodded Vincent in Chinese Red.

The Commando has stood the test of time and remains a popular classic bike. They’re still relatively affordable and easy to work on. Spare parts and aftermarket bits are readily available and there’s great support via the various Norton Owner’s Clubs which host rallies worldwide. Commandos look great, handle well and make nice noises. The event T-shirt this year featured a Commando Production Racer and the phrase “Celebrating 50 Years of the Norton Commando” and the official program had a cover photo of Gordon McCall’s immaculate silver metal flake 750 Commando “S” Model featuring both pipes high on the left side of the bike. There was a rumor that local megastar, Clint Eastwood, might show up with his own 750 S Model — sadly, ’twas not to be. Maybe next year?

Forty-two Nortons were entered in the class but 11 were for show only, leaving 31 bikes to judge. All but five of the Nortons being judged were Commando derivatives. In the non-Commando group, we had a 1951 500T trials bike, a 1951 International (a 500cc single with a bevel-driven overhead cam), a 1952 Dominator Model 7, a 1988 Classic Rotary and a 1989 F1 Rotary pre-production prototype. Talk about apples and oranges.

Velocette KTT 350cc racers

Velocette KTT 350cc factory racers in a tidy row.

Our task as judges was simplified by the fact that, out of all the bikes we examined, we only found three to be faultless and only one of those was a Commando. So, given the special significance of the Commando in 2017, our choice was clear. We awarded Best of Class to a stunning green 1968 Commando Fastback, one with the early round plastic tank badges, before they went to decals.

I was surprised by how many non-standard bikes were entered for judging. Many were beautiful machines I’d be proud to own, but they were nonetheless not correct. There were 750 Commandos with 850 Commando forks, Nortons with Mikuni carburetors, even a lovely full-on Colorado Norton Works Commando with every optional accessory in the book. Unquestionably stunning, but it should’ve been entered in the Custom Class if it hoped to win anything. I think folks simply wanted to have their pride and joy seen and appreciated and, in that, they certainly succeeded.

Honda CBX

A Honda CBX gets a facelift — those titanium pipes made wonderful music.

Our task was comparatively easy. My friends Vicki Smith and Rich Lambrechts from DesmoPro in Florida were on the team judging the Custom Class. I didn’t envy them — how do you judge a class where there are no objective standards? You’ve got to rely on intangibles like creativity, visual impact, degree-of-difficulty and the quality of fabrication.

The Quail Motorcycle Gathering offers an impressive collection of motorcycles of all ages and nationalities in a well-groomed venue that was big enough to allow space around each bike but small enough to see it all comfortably. In addition to the visual treats, many of the machines were briefly awakened from their slumber to disturb the peace. The Honda CBX with full titanium exhaust brought by Imagine Vehicles International (IVI), John Bennett’s naked Motus MSTR special built by customizer Bryan Fuller and John Goldman’s 1957 Mondial GP bike were particularly spine-tingling and ear-shattering. Virgil Elings brought his spectacular Britten V1000 (one of ten made) up from his Solvang museum and fired it up for the crowd. It was wonderful to hear these magnificent beasts — the snarling sounds of these machines is a big part of what excites and captivates us.

Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey and Mert Lawwill

Three Californian moto-legends: Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey and Mert Lawwill.

There were too many notable motorcycles to describe them all here. Among the most memorable “theme” displays was a stunning collection of five rare 350cc KTT Velocette production racers with bevel-driven single overhead-cams. Built over a 20-year span between 1929 and 1949, they all had megaphone exhausts, matching black livery and gold pinstriping. There was also a line-up of four Honda CL350 K4 “Flying Dragons” (the ones with the rare psychedelic paint jobs), one in each of the four known color schemes — not something you see every day.

The Quail brings together outstanding motorcycles and interesting people in an attractive and relaxed setting. Vendors and sponsors have tents set up, there’s live music throughout the day and a mighty fine BBQ lunch is included in the price of admission. Cycle World magazine also organized a pre-show ride for those wishing to enjoy some of the great riding in the area.

BSA with two motors

When one BSA engine is not enough …

The quality of bikes and number of sponsors grows every year. This year 350 machines were displayed and 3,000 people attended. When asked to describe his vision and goals for the event, Gordon said: “To constantly evolve and continue to grow conservatively, staying relevant to the sport, hobby and business. It’s key that we attract new enthusiasts and those who don’t yet know that they’re going to become enthusiasts, across all age groups with an emphasis on the next generation.”

He continues: “The motorcycle industry was hit particularly hard in the ’08 economic meltdown — many segments of the industry are struggling to recover. What has remained constant is the motorcycle community and its never-ending interest in motorcycles. Honoring iconic figures that have helped to shape the historic path of the sport, interacting with manufacturers and industry vendors, as well as providing a beautiful venue for all to enjoy whether as an entrant or a spectator is extremely satisfying. So many motorcycle shows have gone out of business over the last few years — we’re extremely proud to be able to carry the torch forward.”

1957 Mondial DOHC 250cc

Firing up the Best Of Show 1957 Mondial DOHC 250cc ex-Tarquinio Provini GP race bike.

The Quail Motorcycle Gathering is a fairytale event — a moto-oasis that provides welcome and much appreciated respite in an often chaotic and stressful world. It’s a perfect opportunity for die-hard motorcycle fanatics to gather in idyllic surroundings, admire the machinery and share their vision and skills with fellow enthusiasts and enthusiasts-to-be. Long may it fly!

For more information, visit The Quail Motorcycle Gathering at http://signatureevents.peninsula.com/en/Motorcycle/Motorcycle.html

The 2018 event takes place on Saturday, May 5.

Mark Atkinson on his BMW special

Somer Hooker, Gordon McCall and Craig Vetter look on as proper riding position is demonstrated by Mark Atkinson on his Innovation Award-winning BMW special.


The Quail Motorcycle Gathering
2017 Award Winners

Best of Show 1957 Mondial 250 Grand Prix Double Overhead Cam John Goldman – California
Spirit of The Quail Award 1948 Triumph T100
Tiger
Jonnie Green – California
50th Anniversary of the Norton Commando 1968 Norton Fastback Jeff McCoy – California
Industry Award 2015 Prototype Fuller Moto Motus Naked John Bennet – California
Innovation Award 1991 BMW Alpha Mark Atkinson – Utah
Design and Style Award 1975 Moto Guzzi 850T Untitled Motorcycles – California
HVA Preservation Award 1942 Indian Pre-War Big Base Scout Gary Landeen – South Dakota
The Cycle World Tour Award 1980 Suzuki GS1000S Trevor Franklin – British Columbia
Significance in Racing Award 1995 Britten V1000 #10 Virgil Elings – California
Why We Ride Award 1978 Yamaha XS750 Fernando Cruz – California
AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Heritage Award 1983 Honda Factory RS 750 Flat Tracker Anthony Giammanco – California
Extraordinary Bicycles/Scooter Class Award 1971 NYPD Lambretta LI150 Special Siobhan Ellis – California
Antique 1st Place 1918 BSA Model H Bud Schwab – California
American 1st Place 1937 Indian Chief Kalle Hoffman – California
British 1st Place 1939 Brough Superior SS100 William E. “Chip” Connor – Hong Kong
Italian 1st Place 1959 Moto Parilla 99 Olimpia Vincent Schardt – California
Japanese 1st Place 1976 Yamaha XT500C Owen Bishop – California
Other European 1st Place 1976 Hercules W2000 Wankel Stephan Haddad – California
Competition Off-Road 1st Place 1975 Husqvarna 360 Flat Tracker Clyde Williams – California
Competition On-Road 1st Place 1957 Mondial 250 Grand Prix Double Overhead Cam John Goldman – California
Custom/Modified 1st Place 1958 Triumph Tiger Bryan Thompson – California