Wednesday, August 18, 2010


While every one of the myriad events of Pebble Beach Week has its own flavor, the best party on the grass by a long stretch is The Quail - A Motorsports Gathering.  Now in its 8th year, the Quail has become THE most sought-after ticket, with scalpers charging up to $1200 on Craigslist to gain access to the sold-out event.  Unlike the Pebble Beach Concours, which feels more like a casting call for Soylent Green every year, the Quail is limited to 3000 guests, and the old Brooklands saw 'the right crowd and no crowding' comes to mind.  I'm not sure what the 'right crowd' might be, but I had never before attended, as the $400 entry keeps riffraff like myself well off the gilded grounds.  Is it worth it?  If you have to ask, save the money for your bills, but if you can indulge, why yes, it is. 

Motorcyclists are particularly adept at crossing class boundaries, to a point.  At any rally or show, the millionaires and the paupers happily rub elbows at the Church of the Gearhead.  They are also united in being cheapskates, frugal, parsimonious, mean - whatever term you prefer, most find a $400 entry fee an insurmountable hurdle, for even at one-quarter that price for a ticket to the Quail Motorcycle Gathering, the chat rooms echo with the sound of wallets snapping shut. Result; I did see a few of my motorcycle pals at the Quail, but they either had their bikes or cars on display, were working, or had snuck in!

In the spirit of full disclosure, my ticket was comped by Courtney Porras, the Quail's Events Manager, who oversees much of what goes on during the Quail 'moto' events, and is a miracle of calm omniscience in the midst of the chaos of hundreds of arriving vehicles, guests, auction companies, caterers, musicians, handlers, and security staff. Whenever I have a panic about where to be when, Courtney's smile is a beacon.

To set the scene: two bands played all day - an excellent Mariachi ensemble at one end, and a small Frenchish combo at the other; no main or secondary stages, just good music near the main dining tents.  Did I mention the food?  The Quail does its own catering (having a very good restaurant at the Lodge helps), with a limitless (and free, with ticket) supply of excellent salmon, grilled steaks, handmade tortillas, insanely good margaritas, beer, several wine booths, champagne from sponsors Roederer, oysters from Hog Island, caviar... my only regret was I didn't eat enough, as I was too excited to see the cars on display, and the motorcycles, and the people.

Carroll Shelby of Mustang and Cobra fame was the honored guest, and it was amusing to hear his laconic Texas drawl over the loudspeakers as I washed down an oyster with a gulp of champagne.  'I was never very good with cars, but I knew who to hire' was my favorite quote - such disarming honesty from a legend served to emphasize the casual nature of the Quail.  No teams of blue-coat judges roamed the grounds, every entrant voted a peers'-choice Best in Class and Best in Show, and it was possible to have a conversation with just about anyone you bumped into, including Gordon McCall, who was shockingly un-harassed at the event he founded.

The quality of vehicles ranged from 'barn find' (the first Shelby Mustang GTR in primer, cracked windscreen, and Mexican 'turista' stickers), to totally over-the-top restorations (like an E-type Jag coupe which was 1000 times nicer than showroom stock; Pebblish), and an AJS 7R which could have graced any dining room table, but lacked the attractive grit of a hard-used racer.  Nearly 30 Shelbys of every stripe and age crowded the back corner, across from a big lineup of Ferraris, Alfas, and Maseratis.

Highlights of the day included a drive-thru of 27 Bugattis which had been circulating at Laguna Seca raceway during the Monterey Historic races, escorted by lights-flashing police motorcycles, the Bugs sexy and charismatic and smelling of hot oil.  Wisely, the Type 35s and 51s parked up in a rough gaggle to descend on the food and champagne booths, giving assembled guests a moment to pore over these gladiators, many showing the scars of their 70+ years.  Of course, these were my favorites, even if the patina was stage makeup on one or two.   Later, a mini squadron of Chinese trainer planes made a smoky, low-overhead flyover in tight formation, at a very leisurely pace, prompting many jokes about slow, smoky Chinese planes!  At 240hp/180knots, fast these birds will never be, but they sounded great - almost as good as the Bugattis.

Bonhams had a huge tent across the street, auctioning everything from a world-record-price Porsche ($3.95 Million!) to a small Daimler tank, just the thing for keeping deer off the lawn.  The sale was a big success, suggesting the car and bike market may be on the upswing after two years of doldrums.  Notably, two motorcycles graced the entrance of the Bonhams tent, an Indian 8-Valve and high-patina Flying Merkel, which advertised their upcoming sale of motorcycles at Las Vegas, this coming January 2011, smack on the first day of what will instantly become THE week on the calendar for the world's biggest collection of vintage motorcycle auctions.

Motorcycles have oiled the grass at Quail since the very first (unlike Pebble, which saw the light only after 59 years!), and two-wheelers were fanned out dead-center on the grounds, a completely random selection of road and racing bikes, with a bog-stock '70 Triumph Bonneville standing proudly beside Richard Gauntlett's still-wet-paint Harley board-trackish big-wheeler (watch for a future road test on this bike, designed by Conrad Leach and built by Cro Customs). A dozen bikes in all, which garnered plenty of attention from the 'car guys' and gals, and to which I say, More Please!  There's plenty of room yet!

The indescribable 'Motomorphosis' returned from May's Quail Motorcycle Gathering, where all assembled witnessed the machine being helmed (is there another word?) around the sinuous backroads of Carmel Valley and remarkably, around the track at Laguna Seca.  This machine challenges my sense of what is rideable, but I've seen it done, and after years of utterly useless 'choppers', I'm happy to report it goes around corners like a motorcycle and not a Jean Tinguely sculpture intent of collapse.

Falcon Motorcycles hadn't quite finished their Vincent-based 'Black' Falcon, which would have been a superhuman feat given that the Kestrel was born (hatched?) only 3 months prior.  Any disappointment at the non-Vincent reflects eagerness to see the results of Ian Barry's wrestling match with Phil Irving; the Upstart vs. the Legend - watch this space!  Instead, we were treated to an audience with the reigning Kings of Custom, the Bullet and Kestrel, looking surprisingly diminutive in a sea of automobiles.

As mentioned, each entrant votes for Best in Class in the category their own vehicle is entered, and motorcyclists voted for a 1993 Moto Guzzi 1000S - basically a 'retro' machine in the style of the V7 Sport from 20 years prior.  While certainly immaculate, and fetching in black and lurid green, it was a confusing choice, given the several super-clean non-retro icons on either side of the Guzzi, like a stunning 'KO' Honda CB750, a pair of immaculate Triumph twins, the AJS 7R, and several top-shelf customs.   But, that's what the class decreed...and that question mark was but a Pebble in the water compared with the mighty wave of confoundment to come at the Beach on Sunday.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Best in Show car was a 1936 Delahaye 135 Competition 'Disappearing' Convertible, an elegant Deco sculpture, which itself nearly disappeared under the marquee behind the winner's podium, at the end of the day.  A freak accident which, amazingly, found no one nearby to injure... whether sabotage, a mischevious djinn, or plain ol' Friday the 13th, the inimitable sound of a $6 million car being crunched was a shock to everyone's sensibilities.  I shed a tear - not for the car, but for Gordon and Courtney, who didn't deserve such bad luck after all the effort to create this amazing event.  While ultimately an 'insurance moment', that sound and my shock have resonated for days hence, a memento mori: we are temporary caretakers of our treasures, and exit this world with nothing.  What truly matters can't be found within a machine.
And some of what matters could definitely be found at the Quail.