The Honor Guard at The Quail Motorcycle Gathering
As urban legend has it, the hamburger was a spontaneous pairing of a beef patty and a bun. Likewise, the Amphicar was a sly fitment of a Triumph drivetrain and propellers into a water-tight convertible to form a car and boat, all in one. And Alice Cooper, the mash-up of a minister’s son and a makeup mirror was … well, go watch Wayne’s World for details! Laud or lament these cultural icons as you please, but such disparate elements sometimes do yield splendidly offbeat successes.
Might this include the odd quartet of barn-find vehicles seen here? Let’s take a visit. The beefsteak of 1950s English motorcycling, these 500cc Matchless G80 CS singles were among the first factory scramblers, a full decade before motocross arrived stateside. With aluminum engine cases, aluminum heads and magneto ignition, the big Matchboxes were simultaneously maximum and minimalist. Many, like these 1954 and 1955 models, were stripped of their lights, re-geared and reshod for offroad work, and then summarily trained America’s first generation of dirt riders. These two bikes were siblings, asleep at the back of a garage for nearly 50 years after their owner bought a new Yamaha RT1 in 1970.
The slinky black 1958 Austin-Healey 100-6 roadster endured a similar slumber — nearly 30 years in a garage after its owner withdrew from the world, closing the garage door and piling boxes and housewares atop and around the car. In its day though, 61 years ago the Big Healey (so-called, as it’s big brother to the Bugeye Sprite) was a formidable sports car, with a 2.6-liter, dual-carb inline six, a lightweight aluminum central body, and few creature comforts. And the little 1964 Allstate trailer? It was purchased new for $138 at a neighborhood Sears store by a gentleman who used it sparingly before retiring it in the side yard, where it sat for nearly a half century.
It’s not unusual, really, that such vehicles would be sidelined, squirreled away or forgotten over time. There must be millions of such cases across America. But what’s eerie is the common denominator of these four: Family men just like us bought and used the machines during their prime, and as they aged out of the game, they still retained them — right to the bitter end.
Which raises a question: Why do we connect so indelibly with machines, keeping and protecting them long after they can serve any real purpose for us? Some may call this hoarding, but I call it honoring. And so, in honor of their former owners, car racer friend (and classic motorcycle enthusiast) Randy Pobst, photographer Seth DeDoes and I decided to combine them for a trip to The Quail Motorcycle Gathering. The inspiration for this came from racer John Morton’s excellent book Inside Shelby American, where he describes using a Jaguar XK150 as a tow vehicle for his Lotus Super Seven race car during the early 1960s. “If a Jag can tow a car trailer, why can’t a Healey tow a bike trailer?” I thought. So we hatched a plan, and as Sergeant Friday drawled in Dragnet, “The story you are about to hear is true.”
In the mid-1960s, a lifelong California motorcyclist retired the aforementioned Matchless G80 desert sleds. A street rider, tourer, trail rider, and Catalina Grand Prix competitor, he had owned many bikes, and more would follow after the Matchlesses were propped against the rear wall, ready for hibernation. This was a fairly ordinary occurrence back then, as old bikes stored easily as better ones came on the market. More extraordinary, though, is that they would not see sunlight again for nearly a half century.
When I first heard about the bikes in 2012, a rumor described some old Matchlesses in a garage near the Pacific Coast. But this one was true and the bikes were indeed real: a 1955 G80 CS and a 1954 G80 CS wearing a Velocette front end. A suspiciously bent frame downtube suggested that long ago, the ’54 had ridden into something immovable. Fortunately, a parts bike was included, and it had the correct fork.
Even in their mothballed state so many years on, clearly the bikes were worthy of resurrection and a return to action. Fortunately, a dedicated group of riders organically formed to bring the Matchlesses back to life, while preserving their “as-found” state. But why not clean or restore them at the same time? With every passing year, more bikes get restored, leaving less original examples and fewer portals to real connection with — and understanding of — moto-history. In originality lives the story, and to some, the story is what really matters. Plainly then, these Matchlesses, sitting in a suspended state (some might say decay) for nearly a half century, clearly still fully possess “their story.” And so, to me, honoring the owner and his life meant doing what he surely would do, were he still alive and able: (1) Make them run. (2) Go riding. (3) Respect the rest.
For the Matchless Resurrection work party, some brought or shipped parts they had squirreled away. Racer Jimmy Allison from New Mexico sent a Lucas competition magneto for the 1954 model after the original seemed lost for spark. L.A. Matchless guru Don Madden brought factory manuals and a sprocket to juice up the ’55’s performance. And FIM Land Speed Record holder Ralph Hudson brought a wealth of mechanical knowledge and focus.
What transpired on a cool fall day was like a Matchless Woodstock, except that no one was in it for the money or music or fame. It didn’t need explaining, and it didn’t need selling; it was just understood that these two old bikes were somehow more than just two old bikes.
At a local shop, we arranged ourselves in little teams according to our skills and interests. One group changed rotten inner tubes (to be followed later by new Coker-made Firestone ANS “All Non-Skid” 4.00 x 19-inch universal tires), another the Lucas engine and gearbox oil, and another the Regina primary and final-drive chains. But who knew that the magneto sprocket nested on a tapered shaft and could be finessed to the exact right place simply by loosening the sprocket, bolting a degree wheel onto the crank, turning the engine over, and watching the points open? Mechanic Kirk Sloan did.
Sloan likewise checked the lubrication systems and pre-oiled the rocker arms before hanging a little tank of fuel like an IV feed above each bike. He then kicked first one and then the other to life as thick plumes of rust flakes and smoke burst from the old exhausts. Amazingly, magically, it all worked, and then otherwise undisturbed, the G80s both started, ran, rode and shifted, and were essentially ready for the Quail ride.
The G80s after new chains, fluids, tires, and more, ready to go. Sadie the retriever approves.
“History has a texture,” said Peter Hageman, chief judge for the Preservation Class at Pebble Beach, after seeing the ‘55 G80 CS. “A vehicle like this is a historical document of a time gone by.” If seeing these bikes was like reading such a document, then riding them would be like being in the movie.
Compared to the Matchlesses, getting the Austin-Healey (nicknamed “Often-Squealy” during its heyday) up and running was a Royal Pain in the Arse. Nearly everything containing fluid was gummed up, frozen or inoperable, including the carburetors, water pump, brakes and hydraulic clutch. Miraculously, the long-term owner — an aerospace engineer — had drained the fuel tank prior to storing the car, and it was as clean as the rest of the car was filthy. Furthermore, the tires were cracked and flat-spotted and the muffler badly rusted.
The Often-Squealy tow rig looks perfect parked by the coast.
A local English car specialist had most of the needed replacement parts on hand, and while servicing took much time — and learning — the work generally proved straightforward and easy. I also changed the gearbox and differential oil and lubed every Zerk fitting visible on the chassis.
While the Healey now ran well, it was a disaster at anything over 25mph, thanks to the ancient tires. New ones were in order, but I wanted a period look with safe performance, not some fat “restomod” performance tires or skittish original-style bias-ply rubber. Again, Coker Tire offered the exact right solution — Michelin ZXZ 165SR15 radials, whose overall height was within 0.1 inch of the car’s original 5.90 x 15-inch tires. Tubed, fitted and balanced on the wire wheels by a local shop, they turned the Big Healey from a nervous, thumping, crisis-in-waiting to a smooth freeway flier in a couple of hours. So worth doing, and with a fifth Coker-made Michelin on the spare wheel, we struck potential tire problems completely off the worry list while gearing up for the Quail trip.
I’m fascinated with the old Sears catalogs, from which mail-order customers could buy everything from sugar bowls to shotguns, and music boxes to motorbikes. And trailers. Combing through Craigslist and eBay ads over months unearthed various vintage utility trailers that could haul the G80s, but most had big wheels and a tall bed height, which would tower the bikes above the little car. No good; we needed something small, low and light. It finally surfaced 80 miles away — the ’64 Allstate utility trailer with a straight axle, leaf springs, removable rear panel and low-slung 8-inch wheels and tires. Still in the original family, it also carried a coveted California black license plate, and the family also retained the original Manufacturer’s Statement of Origin, purchase contract and title. Deal.
Randy Pobst and John L. Stein carefully load the ’55 G80 aboard the modified ’64 Allstate utility trailer.
Its only problems: Rotten old tires, and its 5-foot box was too short to accommodate the Matchlesses. Coker Tire came to the rescue for the third time with a set of repro Cushman 4.00 x 8-inch scooter tires that looked absolutely perfect on the old Allstate. Some angle iron and 3/4-inch plywood extended the trailer length perfectly for the twin G80s. After welding ace John Tilford modified a Toyota Corolla bolt-on trailer hitch to fit the Healey, we were ready to roll.
Kings of the road
Talk about iffy. Loading the two bikes into the trailer, figuring out solid tie-down points, and checking the tongue weight all happened on the fly on a cool, pleasant Wednesday morning. This allowed two days to travel 250 miles along the famed Pacific Coast Highway from SoCal to Carmel, site of The Quail Motorcycle Gathering. Pobst had parachuted in that morning after testing at Willow Springs International Raceway, and as usual arrived switched on and ready to go. (Where his energy comes from is a mystery; he is racing the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in a 700-plus-horsepower Dodge SRT Charger Hellcat Widebody as this is written.) With relief, we found the Austin-Healey towed the trailer and its 750-pound cargo with reasonable ease, although I worried as Pobst, aka “The Rocket,” dove into corners, fearing the trailer would overturn.
We had reason to smile as the car’s coolant temperature and oil pressure held. After sailing west for a time, we turned inland to pass Vandenberg Air Force Base — site of West Coast rocket launches — the towns of San Luis Obispo and foggy Morro Bay, and then rejoined the spectacular Pacific coast, home to massive elephant seals, the “Red Triangle” (great white sharks!), plunging rock cliffs and magnificently clean and cool coastal air. An overnight in San Simeon, home of the Hearst Castle, served as a midway point.
Only the failure of the Healey’s old generator armature spoiled a perfect run, but with an overnight charge, the next day the car’s battery brought us into Carmel and the Quail Lodge in fine style. And miracle of miracles, the electric overdrive even worked, giving the Healey six-banger a nice low rpm at our 45-55mph cruise speed. As expected, the trip had smeared the old car, trailer and bikes with even more grunge, salt and grit than they already had, making the ensemble probably the dirtiest exhibit ever to arrive at The Quail.
It was remarkable that an old English sports car could be pressed into duty as a tow vehicle — and succeed brilliantly — after such a long time asleep. But a bigger and even more doubtful enterprise was still before us: The Quail Motorcycle Tour.
The Quail Motorcycle Tour
Each year, The Quail Motorcycle Gathering gets more popular. The traditional Friday ride is capped at about 100 riders, but Saturday’s Quail Motorcycle Gathering at The Quail Golf Club had a record 356 motorcycle entries, and would draw some 3,000 spectators. But to enjoy that, we’d have to first convince the G80s to make the 100-mile Tour. Widely known now in its 11th year, the Tour winds through some of Monterey County’s prettiest back roads, starting in this case with Carmel Valley Road, a genial, narrow two-lane winding under the shady oaks for mile after blissful mile. Led by the California Highway Patrol and followed by a sweep crew with a flatbed truck, the ride is plenty safe and secure … but our old bikes’ true condition was unknown, despite our prep and servicing.
After some 80 miles, both bikes gave up at the same time, like brothers in arms.
After the somewhat surprising success with the Healey tow vehicle, I considered even getting to the “starting line” for The Quail Motorcycle Tour a victory. And on Friday morning, Randy and I off-loaded the bikes from the Allstate trailer, topped up the fuel tanks, geared up, took a breath, and went. We weren’t ready for it, but we were at least ready to try.
With Pobst aboard the ’55 G80 CS and me aboard the ’54, with each passing mile we exchanged amazed glances and exclamations that these bikes were actually doing it. Barely legal in street equipment but properly tagged and insured, they hadn’t been ridden more than a block since Woodstock. And the ride was simply incredible, as each explosion inside the G80s’ 500cc combustion chambers shoved the bikes forward in a euphoric, steady gallop.
The Matchlesses are simple: Besides the windings and brush wires inside the magneto, the only other functioning wires on the bikes are the spark plug leads. And with fuel delivery courtesy of gravity and physics’ Venturi effect, as long as oil kept circulating through the dry-sump engines, very little could stop us. We hoped. Still, as the miles rushed under our bikes and Carmel Valley Road took us farther and farther south, I was worried that something, eventually, would happen. A friend used to quip, “To avoid future disappointment, set low expectations now.” And man, did I ever use that attitude on this ride.
Removing the bikes’ big overlay sprockets had brought their gearing back to their original street spec, and so, even equipped with only 4-speed transmissions, the Matchlesses practically loafed along. Fifty miles per hour was an easy speed, and both bikes seemed so understressed that it appeared they could go on forever. My confidence grew at the midpoint of the ride, a rest stop at the Hahn Winery. A nut-and-bolt check there revealed a few fasteners and a chain in need of tightening, and with that corrected it was earplugs back in, jackets and helmets back on, and away.
Probably the grimiest grouping of vehicles to ever park on the Quail greens.
Another surreal stint brought us to Highway 68, the artery connecting Monterey and the Salinas Valley, which required Tour riders to mix with fast-moving traffic for several miles to Laguna Seca Raceway. Here participants would enjoy several laps on the famous track before returning to the Quail Lodge. But it was not to be for the brave Matchlesses.
As we approached Highway 68 on little River Road, Randy began shouting something about his engine. I couldn’t grasp what he was saying, but it didn’t matter, as he pulled over just before turning onto the highway. There he explained that he’d been hearing an odd sound, and that the bike was bucking and not pulling well. We pulled over under a shady pepper tree and I began to check things out, starting with the oil level, and then pulling off the side-mounted tappet cover to check — as best as possible with few tools on hand — the valve lash.
Nothing seemed out of place, and so we spent a half hour trying to push-start the bike. It would run, but it seemed super lean and only wanted to go on full throttle. We decided if that’s the hand we were dealt, that’s the hand we’d play, and so merged onto Highway 68.
Almost immediately, as if in sympathy with Randy’s balky ’55 G80, my ’54 started to act up. The exhaust note changed to an explosive rattle, as if the exhaust pipe had come adrift of the head. Gradually the bike slowed and the engine — or at least exhaust pipe — seemed to grow hotter and hotter. The noise, flaccid power and heat had me wondering if the magneto timing had slipped and retarded, but I couldn’t be sure. A couple of miles down the highway the symptoms only got worse and I pulled onto a side road, where I found Randy already waiting, his bike also done.
Both Matchless had expired together; like brothers in arms, they had lived, fought and died as one. That was all. We rode back to The Quail Lodge in the chase truck with the bikes tied down behind us, appreciative of their effort but disappointed in having almost — but not quite — made the entire Tour. And to any other riders who needed the sweep truck helping us instead: Sincere apologies!
In 20/20 hindsight, the woe hamstringing Randy’s ’55 was nothing more than a loose carburetor top, which allowed extra air into the engine, leaning the mixture to an unworkable level. As for the ’54, the mechanical compression release that opens the exhaust valve to ease starting had stuck; this kept the valve open which lowered compression and sent combustion straight into the exhaust pipe. Given time to troubleshoot we surely would have found and corrected both issues roadside, but with the afternoon escaping and the chase truck waiting, we simply had to cut it off.
Let us gather together
Back at the Quail Golf Club, attendees at Saturday’s Motorcycle Gathering were likely shocked (or amused, quizzical, irate?) to find the road-weary black Austin-Healey, Allstate trailer and Matchlesses reunited and on display, vestiges of the great life and times of three gentlemen who preceded us in their moto-passion. One was Marcie Lawwill, the daughter of 1969 AMA Grand National Champion Mert Lawwill, who had spotted the ensemble with her friends, and wanted a closer look.
Malcolm Smith and the G89s on display at his dealership.
With hundreds of machines and thousands of people to see in a short six hours, admittedly I didn’t check on the rig much during the day. But once, I was astonished to find quite a crowd around it. Then as I drew closer, the reason was clear: On Any Sunday, Baja 1000 and ISDT star Malcolm Smith was studying the bikes. It seems Malcolm is a Matchless G80 CS fan, having raced one early in his career, just prior to stepping aboard first Greeves and then the Husqvarna dirt bikes that led him to worldwide success and fame. In addition, Malcolm used to own a Big Healey, and was intrigued that his mechanical past was represented all in one display. And so, this simple act by a humble and heroic man had drawn the crowd.
Along with many Husqvarnas, Malcolm keeps a collection of Matchlesses in his Riverside, California, dealership, Malcolm Smith Motorsports. He was kind enough to sign the bare aluminum tank of the ’54 at The Quail, and since Malcolm seemed to like the G80s, I offered to deliver them to his dealership the next week, so they could join other bikes on display in his collection. He agreed, and so they are there today, fresh (so to speak) from their Austin-Healey road trip and The Quail Motorcycle Tour.
While Randy Pobst and I already have future plans for these two veteran desert sleds, I like where they are presently just fine. In fact, I can’t think of a better place to honor their history — and that of their previous owner. Thanks, Malcolm! MC
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