Destinations: The Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum, California

A unique classic motorcycle museum

| July/August 2010

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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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    Photo by Joe Berk

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  • solvang 2

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.

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