The Quail Motorcycle Gathering

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The Indian streamliner that Burt Munro rode to a Bonneville record in 1972 won "The Spirit of The Quail award."

There are motorcycle events, and then there are motorcycle events. As two-wheel devotees, we gravitate toward most anything motorcycle related, regardless of size or scope. Whether the venue is classy or a little rough around the edges, whether the bikes are rusted barn finds or immaculately polished gems, we tend to show up and gawk—as motorcyclists that’s our prerogative. Among the endless string of motorcycle events, there will always be special ones that rise above the pale, establishing themselves as the crème de la crème of happenings.

The Quail Motorcycle Gathering (The Quail) is one such event. Recently celebrating its ten year anniversary, this unique gathering of motorcycles has placed itself squarely at the pinnacle of two-wheel appreciation and has risen to the status of must-see for anyone who believes themselves a genuine motorcycle enthusiast. The Quail unfolds every May on the grounds of the revered Quail Lodge and Golf Club in Carmel Valley, California. This corner of the world is a haven to old money and well-off retirees, situated directly at the epicenter of coastal California desirability. A decade ago, organizers envisaged a motorcycle event that would reflect the upscale surroundings and intentionally elevated their unique gathering to fit the venue. The result is a setting of proud exclusivity, sans any lingering hints of snobbery. For this one day in May, the serene Carmel Valley is awakened to the visceral magic that only ardent admirers of vintage iron can summon. The devout, as well as merely curious pilgrims (of which there are more each year), are rewarded with sensory overload of all things two-wheeled, the morning air occasionally punctuated by one of these glorious machines of yesteryear being brought to life.

There is wonderful irony here. The Quail Lodge is only forty-some miles from Hollister, California. The small agricultural town that dramatically shaped public perception of motorcyclists on one sensationalized July Fourth weekend, 1947. The San Francisco Chronicle screamed: “4000 Touring Cyclists Wreak Havok in Hollister.” The story was lavishly embellished and included a single staged photo of a slovenly biker reclined on a Harley, the ground below littered with empty beer bottles. The event spawned an entire genre of biker films like, “The Wild One,” and effectively labeled motorcyclists as drunken hooligans. A perception that permeated for decades. To be nearby, 71 years on, basking in the sophisticated environs of The Quail, with a cadre of immaculately restored motorcycles, welcomed onto the lodge’s perfectly manicured greens, is a cathartic experience with a quaint touch of redemption. Further irony is that some of the vintage Triumph Bonnevilles and Harley-Davidsons on display are the very brethren of those that “terrorized” Hollister’s Main Street in 1947—all in quiet repose.

We’ve come a long way. The Quail began life purely as a celebration of yesteryear, with the antique motorcycles on display being carefully hand plucked from select collectors around the nation. The organizers always seeking out the most regaled machines to illustrate a moving history of the motorcycle. The event, though still devoted to the past, has broadened its spectrum and carefully expanded its focus, now also encompassing present and future. This year included a salute to master builder Arlen Ness, with a private collection of handcrafted customs on display. Ness’ signature modern design aesthetic sat juxtaposed alongside many vintage Indians, Matchless, BSAs and MV Agustas. The past was represented by The Quail’s traditional mix of exquisite American, European and Japanese machines, with a smattering of motocross mounts and flat trackers from the 60s and 70s. Brough Superiors and Vincent Black Shadows held court alongside examples of early Moto Guzzi machines and vintage Ducatis. Sandwiched between such stylish mounts one can always find the odd, the sadly ill-conceived and the outright ugly, each, in their own way, contributing to a colorful, albeit strange lineage in the annals of motorcycling. There is always a small gathering of boardtrackers on hand, having somehow survived the high banks of a century ago to draw a modern crowd. At rest in their aged and flimsy skins, it’s hard to fathom them hitting speeds of more than 100 mph, the only thing between the riders and a collection of splinters being a fall against the track’s wood planking in a leather skull cap, shirt and pants.

The present was represented by several manufacturers that, unlike years past, chose to dispatch transporters to cart current model bikes in. Honda had an impressive display chronicling the ancestry and evolution of the Gold Wing and offered demo rides of their all-new 2018 machine.

Ducati used the show to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their beloved Monster. Moto Guzzi and Aprilia also had a variety of current models on display. Royal Enfield’s new machines, truth be told, intentionally look like antiques. Manufacturers choosing to attend The Quail speaks volumes about the event’s status, and we expect to see their continued involvement.

To bridge the gap between present and future, Arch Motorcycle Company had its beautifully intoxicating Method 143 on show. The machine is a firm and decisive step into performance cruiser terrain, borrowing heavily from MotoGP in terms of machining, sectioned exhaust and race-inspired wheels, and craftily wrapping its stunning billet aluminum and carbon fiber elements around a 143 cubic inch S&S V-twin engine. Gracefully fitting into such rarefied air, only 23 Method 143 are being built, each carrying an appropriately measured price of $250,000. Arch stands as an example of truly indulgent rolling art and unattainability, which is still glorious fun to ogle and precisely what a motorcycle show is all about.

The Quail seems to conjure more sentimentality than any other motorcycle event, always displaying a host of machines tied directly to my youth. This year, such motorcycles included a 1971 Honda Trail CT-70 and a 1973 Penton Six Day, both significant machines. The Trail 70 was lusted after at 12-years-old, then acquired as a first bike the following year, thanks to a summer job at the princely sum of 50 cents per hour. The Penton came a few years later, bought secondhand and intended to be part of ascension to motocross stardom. The Sachs-powered 125cc had a quirky transmission, which was jokingly referred to as a neutral between every gear. Although racing fame didn’t materialize as broadly as hoped, the bike still garnered a treasure trove of motocross memories and priceless duels on the track.

Wandering about the manicured grass of The Quail Lodge’s Clubhouse, it was apparent that other attendees, and a greater number of women, were stopped at various machines, lost in the same unmistakable forlorn recollection. Whether it was a BSA Gold Star, one of several meticulously refurbished Nortons, a lusty Brough, or any one of the 350 beautifully preserved Japanese, German and European bikes, each entertained its own private audience of quiet contemplation. One can’t help but wonder about the colorful memories being revisited; the rich experiences that had once been found on each of these motorcycles of yesteryear. These tacitly shared moments are in abundance at The Quail, serving as icebreakers for fellow motorcyclists to engage in spirited dialog.

For 2018, The Quail had four specially featured classes; The Arlen Ness Private Collection (not judged), Electric Motorcycles, Café Racers, and a special tribute honoring the 25th anniversary of the Ducati Monster. Naturally, The Quail also had traditional classes, which included: Antique (1916-1935); American, British, Italian, Japanese and Other European divisions (1936-1979 to offer an illuminating retrospective); Competition On Road and Competition Off Road; Custom/ Modified; and a class for Extraordinary Bicycles/Scooters. Proffering such a diverse range of machines from a plethora of disciplines and eras reminds us of their common linkage: They all have two wheels. Rest assured, as a motorcyclist, if you can’t find something that moves you at The Quail, you need to check yourself for a pulse. Another aspect of The Quail that makes it unique among motorcycle events is that the management deliberately limits the number of machines, intentionally keeping the offerings at a comfortable number, to ensure event-goers don’t suffer getting lost in abundance.

Another interesting fact for fiscally aware enthusiasts, though carrying a higher than normal ticket price, attendees receive a catered meal befitting the Lodge’s reputation and free parking. With those perks, The Quail becomes a fairly reasonably priced outing. A pristine 1913 Flying Merkel Twin was named “Best of Show” by the judges. The award reminded all in attendance that at its heart, The Quail pays homage to significant motorcycles that have shaped the industry and evolved two-wheel technology. In admiring the Flying Merkel, it’s hard not to appreciate how far things have come in the 105 years since it rolled off the assembly line. “The Spirit of The Quail Award” was given to the famous 1920 Indian Streamliner (Competition On-Road class), which Burt Munro made famous in his endeavor to conquer the salt (top photo). The New Zealander set a World Land Speed Record in 1967, which was the subject of the film, “The World’s Fastest Indian.” The bike also took home the HVA Preservation Award. The “AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Heritage Award” went to the cheery little 1971 Honda CT-70 (Japanese class), that stirred my fond memories of youth. The Quail Motorcycle Gathering has evolved into an exemplary motorcycle event, which deserves serious consideration for attending. The 2019 event is scheduled for May 4th. Mark your calendar.  Alfonse Palaima photos