Story and Photography by William Edgar
At first it seems a medieval jousting field of honor, a time-travel panorama of knights and steeds flanked by peaked tents and smoke from roasting meats. Missing here, though, are armor and lance, and at least some of the ancient chivalry. The horses are not flesh but metal—steel, iron, alloy, carbon fiber—on wheels, not hooves. Ages after Sir Walter Scott’s 12th Century Ivanhoe, this is The Quail Motorcycle Gathering of year 2011. Welcome to it.
This being a more lengthy “walkabout” than succinct event report, I nonetheless commence with the organizers’ welcome words for what this event is, then move on to the beating heart of the day itself, to the motorcycles and the people.
This is the Third Annual Quail Motorcycle Gathering held May 14th, 2011 at the Quail Lodge Golf Club on the Monterey Peninsula in Carmel, California. As the event’s program opening page makes known: “We are convened today because of a common interest in these remarkable machines, and to honor significant marques from around the world.” Co-founder with The Quail, car and motorcycle collector Gordon McCall sees The Gathering as “an event that keeps hitting all the marks” and in so doing has become extremely popular with enthusiasts. In just three years, it has earned its place among the most prestigious of motorcycle show events.
Not to keep secret what is by now already known to enthusiasts, this year’s Best of Show honor belongs to Gene Brown of Denver, Colorado for his stunning 1938 Brough Superior SS-80. [A complete list of class winners and special awards presented for 2011 is found at the end of this article.]
Mr. Brown’s English Brough is a drop-dead icon of motorcycle dignity. But a machine, too, that prompts his own sense of humor. From the awards ramp came the winner’s words: “I was going to get married, and when that didn’t work out, I started collecting bikes, but every time I told this story somebody in the back row would say either ‘You made the right choice!’ or ‘It’s cheaper!’” Though Brown had been looking for a different bike to add to his small but first-rate stable, he was directed by conversation to this SS-80 formerly owned and restored by Herb Harris, the renowned collector-builder proprietor of Harris Vincent Gallery in Austin, Texas.
Harris, it so happens, is the third of three former owners of “The World’s Most Famous Motorcycle”—a 1948 bike that I, too, once owned—namely, “The John Edgar Lightning”, a 2011 Quail featured exhibit.
To keep a long yarn as short as possible, this is the Vincent HRD Black Lightning prototype that Rollie Free rode to set the American Class “A” speed record on Bonneville’s Salt Flats back in September 1948. For his final two passes through the AMA timing lights, Free had stripped to skin tight swim trunks for less drag than his torn leathers, resulting in this Vincent thereafter being popularly called “The Bathing Suit Bike.” It is still referred to by, I must proprietarily say, that asinine moniker. But call it what you will. My father commission England’s Philip Vincent and Phil Irving to build the motorcycle as a record-breaker, and that this earliest Black Lightning indeed did, with Free laid flat out, head against the tank, posting a 2-way average speed of 150.313 mph over six decades ago.
Twenty-four years later, with John Edgar’s death, I inherited legal title to what my father and I had always simply called “The HRD”, and in 2001 that original certified ownership was passed on to Herb Harris who’d restored the Vincent to its Bonneville trim, now known by its official name, The John Edgar Lightning. In December 2010, car-and-motorcycle collector William E. (Chip) Connor purchased this “JEL” from Harris, and delivered it here to The Quail for display at this 2011 Motorcycle Gathering.
From record-breaking to the road racing, The Quail this year also celebrated “A Century of Racing at the Isle of Man,” arguably the hairiest of open road motorcycle racing from its first running in 1907, and was a conquest for America’s Indian motorcycles a century ago in 1911. Isle of Man historian Paul d’Orleans, who also co-emcees this Quail Gathering, wrote of that distant time in this year’s program, noting, “Indian was the only American manufacture to send a racing team abroad in the first 75 years of motorcycling.” Michael T. Lynch extended that history in the event program to include more recent Isle of Man achievements by legendary Giacomo Agostini and Mike Hailwood.
Winner of The Quail’s “Isle of Man Award” is this 1925 New Hudson Factory Racing machine owned and entered by Paul Hudson. Imagine flogging a bare-bones single like this over the 37-mile Mountain Course back in the day when an average speed for the famed TT’s then torturous public roads was a harrowing 60 mph!
Far from that famed isle in the Irish Sea is a downtown Los Angeles loft where 38-year old designer-engineer Ian Barry, with his business partner/fiancée Amaryllis Knight, creates his one-off Falcon motorcycles. Their company’s 1952 Vincent Black Shadow-motored handmade “Black Falcon” won this year’s Custom/Modified Through 2011 Award at The Quail for owner Chad Findley. I’ll have more later about the innovating motorcycle artistry of Barry and Knight.
With an eye for beautiful bikes and skill to help put The Quail Motorcycle Gathering together—Event Director Courtney Porras Ferrante, always on her cell, is a tireless coordinator making the show happen with McCall and Courtwright. “We work so hard on this all year,” says Ferrante, “and it brings this to life.”
“Now being our third year we are really getting in stride,” says co-emcee and motorsport author/historian Lynch, who works closely with the event’s Chief Judge, Somer Hooker, well know to collectors and as a recent judge of motorcycles at Pebble Beach. Hooker tells about his own 30 motorcycles that include “a bunch of Vincents” as well as Ducatis, older BMWs, and early Japanese bikes. Alluding to his judgeship, the big man from Tennessee says, “I’m very non-discriminatory.”
Lynch informs there was no judging at The Quail Motorcycle Gathering until this year. “We had special awards before,” he says, “but a lot of people said they wanted to have judged classes, so we’ve assembled a judging team. We are not Pebble Beach, and we are not trying to be Pebble Beach. For people who have a competitive spirit, they can now come out here for a very relaxing day and not worry that their taillight might be burned out. But they still want to have someone say that their bike might be better than someone else’s, and are willing to subject themselves to a judging process.”
When Hooker tells me they have eight people judging, I ask what his Quail Judges Committee looks for in motorcycles voluntarily submitted by entrants to be judged. “This is more like a French concours,” he says, “in that it’s a little more glamour oriented as opposed to being technically correct—like when they had the Legend Show at Pebble Beach where you are really kind of held up against the manufactures’ out-of-the-crate type of standards. This is a looser type of approach to things. We do look at the bike as far as correctness, but then we stand back and say, ‘What’s the elegance factor here, too?’”
Outstandingly here are elegant, early BMW motorcycles that share pre-WWII Bauhaus artistic influences.
To convey relevant bike info, emcees d’Orleans and Lynch take to the show field with PA microphone in hand. Says Lynch, “Paul and I talk about these bikes in everyday terms so the attendees can understand what they are looking at.” Such “everyday terms” can at times be insightful even to the shrewd bike scholar. Motorcycle admirers are by their very nature intensely focused on what they love.