Story by Brandes Elitch
Photos by David Fetherston unless otherwise noted
Read Part 1
Question: Are you optimistic about the future of the motorcycle?
Answer: “There’s a real romance to motorcycling, and this is always recognized by a certain type of individual who values adventure above security and comfort. Luckily, every generation seems to produce a surprising number of these people.” – Peter Egan
“The perfect man? A poet on a motorcycle.” – Lucinda Williams
I’ve been writing columns for VeloceToday for about nine years. I think most motoring enthusiasts would agree that it is a consistently high quality publication that covers the world of French and Italian automobiles better than anyone else out there on the web, and of course it is quite impossible to publish stories and photos in print of events that took place only a week or two ago. But there are not many current events in the realm of historic and collectible motorcycles, as there are with automobiles. There is however a lot of motorcycle history, glorious history, with wonderful charismatic machines and famous death defying almost superhuman heroes, such as Surtees, Hailwood, Agostini, Mann, Spencer, and three men on stage at the Quail this year: Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, and Mert Lawill.
This year, we lost two great heroes, John Surtees and Joe Leonard. Surtees, who died in March, was the only racer to have won world championships on both motorbikes and in Formula One. He won the 500 cc motorcycle world championship in 1956, 1958, 1959, and 1960 with the MV Agusta factory team (he won 22 races at the top level). He won the Isle of Man Senior TT four times, becoming the first person to win it 3 times in succession.
Leonard captured the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) championships in 1954, 1956, and 1957. By age 21, he was racing in the AMA’s expert class. In 1954, he captured his first AMA Grand National Championship, with wins in 8 nationals, on road courses and dirt tracks, a single season record that would stand until 1986. He earned a total of 27 national event wins, including 2 at the Daytona 200, 3 at the Laconia Classic, and 7 at the Peoria TT. Leonard transitioned to race cars in 1961 and was equally accomplished on four wheels.
These two men are two of the most famous racers on both two and four wheels, but there are many, many other racers and teams worthy of your attention.
If you are interested in learning about motorcycle history, one place to start is a blog run by one of the organizers of the Quail event: Paul d’Orleans. It is called ”The Vintagent,” and you will see that Paul is one of the most knowledgeable people about motorcycle history, as his current entry about the history of the Peugeot motorcycle will prove. This article is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand French motoring history, two and four wheeled. Paul has helped Gordon McCall with this event for a while now, and I’m sure he plays an important role in the overall presentation.
Aside from the Mondial featured last week, there were four other bikes that caught my attention.
Undoubtedly the most impressive restoration shop at the event was a company from Los Angeles called Heroes Motors (www.heroesmotors.com). When you go to their website and look at the pictures of the bikes that they have restored, you will see what I mean. These are very obscure bikes, and the standard of restoration is museum-quality. I guarantee you have not seen these models in your neighborhood. Some examples are: 1903 Peugeot, 1921 Koehler-Escoffier, 1921 Magnat Debon, 1929 Gillet Herstal, 1925 Monet Goyon, 1928 Sarolea, and 1926 FN.
This must be the only shop in the U.S. doing this kind of work on these kinds of bikes. Outside of Retromobile, I have never seen anything like this. If you are in Los Angeles, Heroes Motors is definitely worth visiting.
I am partial to Moto Guzzi as it is my favorite marque. Incidentally, while I understand why Gordon featured the Norton Commando for 50 years of history, don’t forget that the Moto Guzzi V7 is now 50 years old, and Gordon (are you listening?) it should be featured next year! And now for something completely different, a bike that won this year’s Quail Design and Style Award, designed and built by Hugo Eccles, who owns a company called Untitled Motorcycles in San Francisco. Rather than print out all the information about this bike here, you can see all the details at: http://www.untitledmotorcycles.com/umc-023-supernaturale. This is another bike that literally stopped me in my tracks in a sea of other motorcycles. I think I will have to visit this shop.
1975 Norton Commando Café racer
This bike was shown by Bob Macleod, from Calgary, Alberta, who is such an interesting person that I am tempted to say he is more interesting than the bike! He owns a real Jaguar D type and a C type replica so right away he got my attention. He says, “My first new bike was a 1967 Norton, so when I caught the cafe bug about six years ago (Bob is in his seventies) a Commando simply had to be the basis of the build. It didn’t take much research to find Colorado Norton Works and I contacted founder Matt Rambow. Evan Wilcox (another famous name here) hand-formed the aluminum tank and fenders, original geometry, oil-in-frame, chromoly frame built by Jeff Cole, and a Fullauto performance head, Web cam, JE pistons, Keihin racing carbs, belt-drive primary, Brembos, and machined custom bits, resulting in my dream motorcycle. It’s a great bike to ride and the only blemish is a slight scrape on the left pipe after getting a little too aggressive attacking turn eleven at Laguna Seca – a scar of pride!” Bob is definitely an inspiration to the rest of us.
Moto Talbott MV
Regular V.T. readers will recall the article I did about Moto Talbott at last year’s Monterey Historics. This is absolutely a must-see if you are in the Carmel/Monterey area. Curator Bobby Weindorf kindly showed me around, even though I wandered in unannounced and they were not even open yet. Here is what he says. “When I first gazed at the MV Agusta 750S while reading the book “The Art of the Motorcycle” in 2001, I was stunned by the sheer glamour and beauty of this bike. Using GP technology, the dohc engine was fueled by four Dell’Orto carbs, and finished in the traditional MV “sandcast” finish. It was hand-made, very expensive (four times the price of the Honda CB 750!) and had all the options from the MV racing heritage. It uses clip-ons, bum-stop saddle, a jelly-mold tank, and spectacular four megaphone exhausts. Our bike was first sold to Pierre Breney from Geneva, who owned Favre & Perret, the supplier of watch cases for elite Swiss watches. He owned it for 32 years. Our example has only 4039 KM from new. It took 16 years to get it, and it was worth the wait!”
Want to get more involved with motorcycles? Well, one place to start is to do some background reading, and four books come to mind:
The Total Motorcycling Manual, 291 Essential Skills by Mark Lindemann
There are many bikes about “how to ride your motorcycle,” but I just got one that I can recommend. It is called “The Total Motorcycling Manual, 291 Essential Skills,” written by Mark Lindemann and the Editors of Cycle World magazine. It is broken into well-organized chapters, such as “Know Your Gear,” “Ride Like a Pro,” “Repair – Keep It Running.” There are ten highlights, called the “Inside Line” that elaborate on important topics. I was impressed with the look and feel of the book – very well done, in my opinion. The author was Associate Editor of the late, great Cycle magazine and has ridden over 750 bikes on four continents, of which, he reports, only a handful have actively tried to kill him. If you just want to get right down to the important things to know in an easy to read format, this is the book for you.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig.
Here I need to say a word about Persig, who died last month at age 88. His book took him 4 years to write, and was rejected by 121 publishers, before going on to sell 5 million copies in 25 languages. It is the best-selling philosophy book ever (it’s not really a motorcycle book, but it is a road novel). Persig saw that, in his search for meaning and individuality, you see things completely differently on a motorcycle, because you are in constant contact in the scene, and are not just watching things go by. The sense of presence is overwhelming, and to appreciate it, you need to be sparked with a direct apprehension of life. Now obviously, all 5 million people who bought the book did not go out and buy a motorcycle, but some did, because what Persig said resonated with them and he caused a spark of interest to ignite in them. Perhaps that next person for whom this happens will be you.
In my case, I restored a Velocette MAC from a basket case to a show bike over a ten year period and then sold it to Paul d’Orleans, a leading light in the Velocette community. Now I have a Moto Guzzi V50 (my favorite brand) and a Honda CB 750 which I got at a garage sale. It has the original 1984 license plate decal and about 7000 miles and has never been out of a garage. The owner went out for cigarettes one day and never came back, or to quote Bruce Springsteen, “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack. I went out for a ride and I never went back. Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going.” I’m pretty sure that Bruce was riding a bike here, not driving a Buick.
When I saw the Honda, I didn’t know anything about it. It was the distinctive upswept twin pipes that got me. Now, it turns out, the CB 750 is called “the first modern superbike,” and the “motorcycle of the century.” Who knew?
Because it’s much easier to store a motorcycle than a car (all you need is a shed or a basement or even a lean-to) this kind of thing can happen, which can make motorcycle collecting even more fun than car collecting. And you can put it in your living room. Just think about that for a while.
Two more books worth your while are:
The Perfect Vehicle, by Melissa Holbrook Pierson
Rebuilding the Indian, by Fred Haefele