40 Minutes at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering

So little time, so much to see at a marquee vintage motorcycling event

close up of vincent motorcycles
The Quail Motorcycle Gathering 2017Jeff Allen

40 Minutes to Go

Kickstand hits pavement and bags gently bump bags. I still haven’t quite mastered parking the Ninja 1000 tightly with its saddlebags installed. No matter, the impact was as soundless as the meeting of two pillows.

Our group had just ridden Kawasaki Ninjas 400 miles from the Petersen Automotive Museum to the Quail Lodge in Carmel, CA for the annual Quail Motorcycle Gathering.

In its 9th annual year, ‘the Quail’ is a concours that celebrates not just individual brands and bikes, but the entirety of motorcycling evolution.

The trip up here took two days but I could stay only 40 minutes before leaving to catch a flight out. This is having the keys to heaven, but time for just a glance around the lobby. There’s no time to complain, though, for I’ve already burned precious minutes checking a bag with event staff.

honda motorcycle at the quail motorcycle gathering
The Quail Motorcycle Gathering 2017Jeff Allen

30 Minutes to Go

Looking for a motorcycle show? Close your eyes, listen for classic rock 1964-’78, with maybe a hint of Metallica, and walk toward the sound. Soon you’ve found the show – the trick works no matter where you go.

Even at the tony, idyllic Quail Lodge, classic rock holds a complete monopoly on motorcycle show entertainment.

What a sight. A concours event and a bike show are the same on paper, but in execution are different. At a bike show, all manner of machinery is present, but at a concours, every bike is at a demanding level of quality. To display at the Quail, you must apply and be selected. Your entry must fit a category of historical significance or cultural impact. It must be good.

And they all are, here. Even through morning fog, paint and chrome glint. The Quail’s day job is being a golf course, but bikes are displayed on its wonderful grass in highly organized fashion - Vincents here, BSAs there, customs sprinkled throughout, the display area surrounded by tiny white tents. Where to start? We head to the back and begin.

classic honda africa twin motorcycles
Vintage dirt machines are surging in popularity, and soon, in value.Jeff Allen

20 Minutes to Go

The first thing to catch my eye is the encroaching force of '70s and '80s machinery. Here are two Honda Africa Twins - one a replica, the other an actual Dakar veteran. Flanking them are other dirtbikes of various vintages, but dating mainly from the onset of Supercross in the '80s rather than from the era of hare scrambles.

‘80s sportbikes are here too, but in smaller numbers. Slowly these bikes expand into the concours field as those who dreamt of them in their teen years attain the financial ability and leisure to finally have their dream bikes.

custom suzuki motorcycle at the quail
Ditto for ‘80s sportbikes. This is Nick ‘O Kane’s thoroughly resto-modded Katana.Jeff Allen

Fear not if you love '60s and earlier classics, for they dominate the show. It's the 50th anniversary of the Norton Commando and many examples stand proudly near the center, including that of CW Editor-in-Chief Mark Hoyer. There's a large gathering of Velocettes as well, and plenty of carefully restored BMWs, Triumphs, BSAs and more.

They are the largest group present because they embody the dreams of the largest population of collectors.

norton commando 750 motorcycle
Quail Motorcycle Gathering celebrates the Norton Commando’s 50th Anniversary.Jeff Allen

How can we see it all in the time we have? We move to the older machinery which no longer makes up the majority of Quail entries.

We also browse the complete opposite of classic production machines - the customs.

These are not just any customs, but seemingly cherry-picked for uniqueness and build quality. Even in my short time there, I heard nearly every one of them start and run. This is in sharp contrast to the usual custom show where the innocent question, “Does it run?” is met with furtive glances and murmurs about wiring.

One standout is Bryan Fuller’s Motus. Emblazoned with stars and stripes, it fires up with devilish glee and no trace of silencing. It sits shaking on its pedestal, a powerful kinetic invitation.

custom motorcycle at the quail motorcycle gathering
Fuller Moto’s Star Spangled Motus.Jeff Allen

10 Minutes to Go

With just ten minutes left I stutter last requests to my traveling companions - to see the bikes I missed. I head out to collect my luggage, moving upstream against incoming visitors, seeing the grounds filling up.

The Quail isn’t stuffy, as concours sometimes are: I didn’t see even one seersucker suit.

Although it’s not a large show, the Quail seeks to present the broadest historical range of motorcycling in one place. It demands more than the hour I had to give it. More like the whole day. I’m not an old bike expert, but I wished I’d had more time to take in the historic machines and their stories.