Quail Motorcycle Gathering
2019 featured celebrations of Brough Superior motorcycles and much more
Text + Photos: Mike Blanchard
Feature | On the West Coast, arguably the premier motorcycle concourse and show has to be the Quail Motorcycle Gathering. This year it took place on a glorious, sunny California Carmel Valley day bookended by fog.
The 2019 show featured celebrations of Brough Superior motorcycles on the 100th anniversary of the company’s founding, a salute to the rather more proletariat Honda CB750 on that motorcycle’s 50th anniversary, a tribute to off-road bikes up to the 1990s, a salute to women riders and a well-deserved recognition of Malcom Smith’s contribution to motorcycling.
Despite a very healthy turnout, the thing that came to mind at the Quail this year was the old catch phrase from Brooklands: All the right people and no crowding. I suppose one might add all the right motorcycles as well.
This is one of those shows where you will see a lot of people that you know. Everyone is there: industry folks, the magazine guys, racers, custom builders, rock stars, collectors and just regular folks who love motorcycling. In general there is none of the look-down-your-nose “my dick is bigger than yours” crap that goes on at some of the high-end car events.
Participants seem to have a refreshing attitude toward their fellow competitors, with many showing real interest in bikes other than their own. That said, there does seem to be a bit of a feeling among some of the competitors that there is a preference for hyper-restored machines over original historic bikes.
It is interesting to see what people are drawn to at a show like this because there is a bit of everything. For me there were four bikes that especially made my day. A ’34 Cotton 500 JAP, a ’38 BMW Rennsport, a ’51 Moto Guzzi Falcone Sport and a ‘29 original paint Brough. Only the Guzzi had been restored. But I could just as easily have picked any other four motorcycles.
When talking with people at the show I always asked, “What is your favorite bike?” The funny thing is no one picked any of the four that I picked, although all were very rare, historically significant and beautiful. Like I said, something for everyone.
The Brough Superior lineup was prominent and featured 10 motorcycles as well as Paul D’Orlean’s, which was parked in front of the Vintagent booth. These bikes have reached legendary status and the promethean heights of value, so it is a pleasure to realize that many of the bikes shown are actually riders and not trailer queens.
Broughs of the ‘20s and ‘30s are often referred to as the Rolls Royce of motorcycles, but I think a much more apt metaphor would be the Bentley of motorcycles. The Bentleys of W.O., Woolf Barnato and the Bentley Boys; hot rods for men of means, the legendary gentlemen’s express.
The Brough Superior was a bespoke machine made to order for well-heeled customers who demanded individual attention. The customer could order from a menu of engines and styling options. Given their high initial value, it is not too surprising that a fair amount have survived, although surely many were lost to attrition, accidents, neglect and wartime scrap drives.
Six of the Broughs on display were owned by one of the most original characters I have ever met: a fellow from Louisiana named Bryan Bossier, who is the man behind Sinnless Cycles out of Woodworth, Louisiana. Bossier rides these bikes and loans them to his friends to ride. At least two of the bikes have competed in the Cannonball cross-country ride.
In his droll Southern accent, and chomping on a big cigar, he related stories of searching out famous and rare motorcycles; telling a story of a locked garage stacked full of American four-cylinder machines and a check for $26 million.
“I’m going to sell off the Broughs and we are going to do Hendersons,” said Bossier. “We are going to take them out and ride the pants off of them.”
Given the cost of these machines (and the cost of repairing them when they break), it is really cool to find a guy with the attitude and means to use the bikes as intended. There are very few who would go to the lengths that Bossier has to enjoy his bikes.
Bossier’s 1929 680 OHV bike won the HVA Preservation Award. During the presentation he referred to it as “ugly as an old billy goat.”
I wonder if there will ever be another gathering with this many Broughs in one place … but you never know.
The Honda CB750 has become a model celeb among collectors of a certain age. You know the old collecting rule? All things go down in value for 25 or so years until time and stupidity dwindle their numbers. Then all the people who now have a bit of change and whose brothers or fathers or uncles had one in their youth (or maybe they always wanted one but could not afford the price) decide, “I want one of those.” And then the price goes up, up, up.
When I was a young man, everyone wanted the hot Japanese bikes and Harleys, and Brit bikes could be had for a song. Then the American stuff and the Brits got expensive and you could get Japanese bikes for the price of “Get that out of my yard.”
No more, a good early CB750 will cost you a mint. Parts like side covers and silencers bring shocking prices.
If I am honest, I find it hard to get too enthused about CB750s. To me they are a rather dumpy-looking bike. They lack the panache of the best English and Italian bikes. I know there will be howls of protest at this statement, but there you have it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Also, I am not one for the flavor of the moment, and CB750s are definitely the flavor of the moment.
The CB750 is generally accepted as the first “Super Bike,” a sort of made-up marketing/magazine term that doesn’t really mean much now. It was the first mass-produced and mass-marketed four-cylinder road machine and was streets ahead of the big Brit bikes that were its rivals.
Honda made a big splash in late 1968 at the Tokyo Motorcycle Show when the CB750 was introduced. Honda had such a good name in the U.S. that the bikes sold very well. The bike won the Daytona 200 and was a strong force in international racing. However, the big Honda was very soon eclipsed by better bikes from Kawasaki, Suzuki, Laverda, Ducati et. al. It took Honda a long time to make any meaningful improvements to the CB750.
The first production run of the CB featured what is referred to as “sand cast” engine cases, and these are the models that all collectors seek out. The cases were not in fact cast in sand molds but were gravity cast instead of vacuum-die cast. This gives a slightly rough surface to the case. The bike that won Best of Show, and the CB750 award, was Sam Roberts’ immaculate red 1969 “sand cast” CB750.
This year the Quail made an effort to salute women riders. The industry as a whole is working hard to find new customers and participants, and women are one of the fastest-growing segments of a slightly stagnating industry. The total number of riders is stalled somewhere around 3 percent of the population in the U.S. at the moment.
Gordon McCall interviewed Ginger Damon, Kayla Yaakov and Christine Sommer-Simmons about their exploits and then invited all the women riders present up on stage for a group photo.
One of the real highlights of the Quail this year was a chance to meet Malcolm Smith. Anyone who has seen the seminal Bruce Brown film “On Any Sunday” will know Malcolm straight off. For those of you who have not seen the movie, stop now and go watch it. You are not allowed to be a motorcyclist (or a gearhead for that matter) and not see this movie.
Malcolm Smith is one of the most accomplished, unpretentious and charming of men. He won the Baja 1000 several times on motorcycles and in cars. He won eight gold medals in the International Six Days Trial, the Mint 400, the Elsinore GP and many, many more races. And not least of all, he ran a successful motorcycle dealership and accessories company.
He spent the day walking around the greens looking at bikes and very patiently posing for photographs and hearing people’s stories. This was no small feat given that he walks with a cane and is rather unsteady on his feet. Just about every woman there made sure to get a photo with the elfin Malcolm, and good for him.
There was a presentation with Malcolm and his “On Any Sunday” co-star, the equally beloved Mert Lawwill, being interviewed by Gordon McCall. This was followed up by Smith being awarded the AMA Dud Perkins award for a lifetime achievement in motorcycling. The award is well deserved. Lawwill, a former AMA National Champion and number 1 plate holder, and Smith traded fascinating stories of their racing careers and how they got involved in the film.
As the afternoon wore on the crowd thinned out, and those left were drawn to the presentation stage to see who was getting an award. This offered a chance to view and photograph the bikes one more time without anyone around them. You know the show is over when the fog begins to roll in, and as we walked out we got the consolation of quite a show of the bikes parked along the road.