Quail Motorcycle Tour & Gathering | Rolling Concours

“Motorcycle” as Verb at the Quail Tour & Gathering

By John L. Stein, Photography by John L. Stein

Talk about a wet dream: When I looked down at my Manx Norton after our 100-mile ride, it was so covered in castor oil that a nearby match would have set it ablaze. But that’s what you can expect from the only known motorcycle to include a valve-train sponge as factory equipment. And so my first try at the swanky Quail Motorcycle Tour & Gathering proved to be a fantasy experience all right—a really oily one!

This two-year-old Central California event is inching closer toward must-do status. All the key elements are in place: a Friday backroads tour around the fetching valleys of Carmel and Salinas; a multi-course dinner replete with celebrities (this year including Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, Mert Lawwill, Craig Vetter and Danny Sullivan); and a really nice Saturday motorcycle gathering on the driving range at the Quail Golf Club. The idea, says promoter Gordon McCall, is to elevate the motorcycle experience to the level attained by premier automotive events long ago.

Any chance to ride Monterey County backroads should never be missed, especially among the anticipated group of neat bikes. Nor should the promise of a few laps around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. And, for that matter, neither should the opportunity to connect with some of the greatest racers and inventors of our generation.

And so I signed up. But what to ride? Digging into the nether regions of the Stein Monastery for Delinquent Motorcycles produced the aforementioned 1961 Norton Manx 500, race-ready but hardly fit for the road. Or was it? A taillight, horn and mirror were easily enough affixed, but a license plate and compulsory insurance would be another matter. A call to Hagerty added liability to the bike’s existing fire-and-theft policy for a whopping $9, and a quick trip to the DMV netted a one-day permit for $18 more. Twenty-seven bucks to ride an old Grand Prix bike on the road for a day? Tell me I’m dreaming!

About 40 bikes lined up in front of the Quail clubhouse on a pleasant Friday morning, and I’ve never seen a more diverse group of machines in one setting—from the intricate 1959 Moto Guzzi Falcone Sport to the overbearing Motomorphic JaFM; and from a Ducati alloy special hand-hammered by Shinya Kimura to a freshly minted Lawwill Street Tracker owned by Sullivan. Rides also included modern Indian and Harley cruisers, vintage Honda Gold Wings, older BMW and Royal Enfield sidecars, various contemporary sportbikes and several 1960s-’70s classics, including an impeccably restored 1960 BMW R50/2.

Bump-starting a 500cc racing single requires a powerful sprint, a quick side-saddle leap and split-second clutch timing. And with that done, I joined the parade of baggers and racers, relics and tourers making its way south out of sleepy little Carmel. CHP Motor Sergeant Ray Faulk led the way on his BMW R1200RTP, proving his worth almost immediately as a pair of semis hauling a mobile home lumbered along the narrow, twisting road. Ordinarily bikers would take turns squirting past the big vehicles in whatever space they found available, but Faulk got them to pull over and our group sailed past.

But so much for the fantasy of whisking an old GP bike undisturbed along the backroads. With no chance to test the Manx’s top end, the only thing to do was drop back and enjoy the day. I did this for a while, riding next to or behind most every bike in the group. But then it occurred to me: With a CHP officer sweeping the road ahead, and stragglers bring up the rear, that left a pretty sizable chunk of roadway in the middle. Dropping back to the rear guard, and then spiking the Norton ahead in a jangle of noise, vibration and oil spray from the exposed cam followers and springs produced a reasonably satisfying outing.

Several cycles into this little game, the pack turned into the driveway of the Hahn Winery for refreshment (but no wine) and a chance to stretch our legs. With no stand available, the Norton got leaned against a fencepost in the little parking lot. Craig Vetter’s rough-hewn, aerodynamic 1994 Honda Helix scooter was parked nearby, a work in progress. The noted designer lives in the Monterey area, and uses Salinas Valley’s afternoon headwinds to help him test variations of his plastic bodywork, netting an average of 88 mpg on this day.

Rest time ended soon enough, only to give way to a wee bit of drama. The small parking area made it imperative to get a good run-and-bump to start the Norton, but there were too many bikes in the way at first. So I waited while the others hit their starter buttons and motored up the drive. Last up was Lawson Little, president of the Quail Lodge Resort, aboard a borrowed Ducati Multistrada 1200. A great sport, Little: Without so much as riding a single mile in 36 years, he had hopped aboard this powerful Ducati, fell in with a pack of much more experienced riders, and then… fell to earth with a thud as the tall V-twin proved too much to balance on the sloping lot. He emerged chagrined and with a grin, and despite finishing the ride on a duct-taped Duck, rejoiced in the adventure later that night.

The pack had long since disappeared by the time I got the Norton lit and rolling, and I soon found myself hustling to catch up. That is, until the makeshift taillight bracket, fastened to a shock mount, cracked through. Off flew the taillight, bouncing along the road like a lopsided apple until stopping against a fence. Returning to nab the errant lamp cost still more time, and when the Manx finally arrived at the desolate intersection of Foothill and River Roads, there wasn’t another bike for miles ahead, and nothing but the Land Rover chase vehicle behind. What would you do?

Somewhere around 7000 rpm in third gear, chin on the tank, the DOHC motor fully in its powerband and that sweet Featherbed frame telegraphing every single pavement datum into the bars, seat and pegs, it occurred to me: Sometimes you just get lucky. With a shift into top gear, what little of the V8 Rover could be seen in the dancing mirror quickly faded and we were well and truly alone.

At easily double the rate of the Tour field, it was only a matter of minutes before the Norton and I caught up, and one by one made our way past, arriving with the lead group at Laguna Seca’s front gate. If the mix of bikes on the Tour seemed odd, it was even more bizarre on our three laps around the racetrack. But any possibility of spirited lapping was thwarted when a Skip Barber School instructor wheeled to the head of the line, and we were summarily ordered not to pass him. So the Manx slotted in behind, hoping that a friendly numberplate in the leader’s mirrors would remind him to gas it up. Didn’t happen, and the Norton slunk around one of the world’s finest tracks barely, it seemed, above idle.

It’s no wonder why, though, as the mix of bikes and rider capabilities were completely unknown to track management, just as they were to Sergeant Faulk earlier. In fact, Faulk leads about 10 car and bike tours a year in the Monterey area. “The most challenging thing is people who don’t drive everyday and who don’t know how the old cars work,” he admits. “But motorcycle guys are more in tune and aware of things.”

With one of three laps gone, it was decision time: Either break ranks or grow old in line as the traffic wormed its way around the racetrack. But just as on the Tour, a third possibility soon emerged: Turn 11 is completely blocked from the pits by the new garages, and so I simply pulled off there and waited for the pack to disappear. And then waited some more. It worked! In a couple of minutes the Manx and I pulled back onto the track and threw down a glorious two fast laps, staying wide of the queer assortment of hogs, sidecars, et al as they were inevitably caught and passed.

A windy luncheon set-up near the Corkscrew was fun, and so was the unescorted ride back to Carmel and the evening dinner featuring Roberts, Rainey, etc. The world champs each received large bottles of wine from Roederer Estate, while Lawwill revealed his interest in developing a second Sportster-based special, this time inspired by the XR750 roadracers of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Rainey has lived in the Monterey area for years, but a much newer local is Sullivan, the Indianapolis 500 winner celebrating the first long ride on his Lawwill bike, a birthday present from his wife. “I saw a Street Tracker at the Quail last year and said to Brenda, ‘This is a cool bike,’” he recalls. Sullivan professes not to be a serious motorcyclist, but he’s trained on dirtbikes and was soon heading to BMW’s Rider Training Center in South Carolina.

In contrast to the excitement of Friday’s Tour, the Gathering on Saturday was full of quiet elegance. Most of the 135 showbikes rolled onto the Quail Golf Club’s driving range in silence, polished and perfect, many of them looking like they hadn’t been started since restoration. To each his own—but I always thought “motorcycle” was a verb! This just proves that people interface with classic machines on different levels. Some, like Tim Stafford, whose BMW R50/2 later won Best of Show, restores, rides and shows his bikes. Another dedicated entrant was Jon Martino, whose Sunkist-orange 1981 Laverda Jota is both a weekend rider and a first-time showbike. “I buy junk that doesn’t run because I like the mechanical challenge, but I also like the history and, of course, riding them,” he says.

Row after well-spaced row of Ducatis, Triumphs, Indians, BSAs and Nortons welcomed show-goers in a genuinely pleasant and thoughtful environment. With a cover band playing in one corner, and wine and gourmet fare flowing in a pair of large tents, there wasn’t a reason on earth not to be happy in this garden. Especially considering that a number of the Bonhams & Butterfields auction lots could be seen waiting on the balcony above, bringing the total bike count to 250. The show was barely over when the auction began, and onlookers and buyers filtered indoors to watch 106 motorcycles and memorabilia cross the block. In all, the auction grossed $865,368, with the top seller a Massachusetts-built 1910 Royal Pioneer at $92,000. While back on planet earth, a 2002 MV Agusta F4 went for $8050, and for the budget-conscious, an as-new Italian-built ’75 Harley SX175 traded for just $920.

Just as McCall envisioned, the Quail Motorcycle Tour & Gathering has quickly become a top-flight event, well worth the attention of anyone moved by classic bikes, beautiful roads, interesting company and great food. Some suggestions for next year, though: Separate classic and modern bikes on the Tour, cordially “un-invite” choppers and cruisers, start up particularly interesting bikes on the show field, and require that award winners participate in the Tour. If “motorcycle” really is a verb, that only seems right! MC

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By John L. Stein
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