The Legend of the Motorcycle 2007

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Unofficially billed as "Pebble Beach for Bikes," the Legend of the Motorcycle is a celebration of motorcycles intended to rival the best concours d'elegance for cars.

Its venue certainly sets the tone: the resplendent Ritz-Carlton resort, a bastion of exclusivity perched alone atop a massive bluff overlooking Half Moon Bay, some 28 miles south of San Francisco and about 100 miles north of Monterey. To my way of thinking, this is a perfectly proper place, suffused as it is with an atmosphere of extravagant indulgence, for motorcycles to receive some of the overdue respect they richly deserve. The many grand classics stood for inspection arrayed on the closely mown fairways of a championship links course, sharing the beautiful scene with cypress trees and crashing waves.

Featured marques at this year's event were Vincent and Excelsior-Henderson. Even the least desirable Vincent fetches tens of thousands of dollars, and the most exquisite of the examples featured here would easily run to six figures - had they been for sale. Take the prototype series B Rapide from 1946 for example, or a rare pre-WWII series A Rapide from 1938, a Grey Flash racer, Rollie Free's record-breaking Black Lightning, and a pack of dream-list Black Shadows.

The Excelsiors and Hendersons held up the American end, including some signature four-cylinder machines, as well as Super-X vee-twins and early board-track bikes. A one-off rarity on display was Paul Brodie's replica of the legendary 1919 OHC racer. Bob Perry, Excelsior's top rider and a favorite of the company owner, Ignatz Schwinn, died testing the bike, and Schwinn ordered all examples destroyed. Brodie recreated the bike from three period photographs!

I confess I was rather overwhelmed by the sheer number of hen's-teeth rare motorcycles and the impeccable condition in which they were presented: a line of four 1950's Honda Benly singles and a CR110 50cc racer, scarce Triumph Bonneville models like the TT and C variants, Moto Rumi and MV Agusta racers, the NVT-Cosworth Challenge from 1974, a Royal Enfield Fury flat-tracker, a Japanese Meguro "Matchless"… I could go on.

In addition, there were hundreds of wallet-shredding desirables like Laverdas, MV Agustas, Rickmans and Ducatis together with a display of modern custom machines. And if the bike-citement became too much, complimentary hand-rolled stogies and snifters of cognac were being offered in the Cigar & Spirits Lounge. All this for just $ 65 at the door! ($ 50 in advance).

Lost Cause

So intoxicated was I by the inaugural Legend of the Motorcycle show in 2006, with its seductive mix of machines and money, I entered my BSA Rocket 3 [see RoadRUNNER, December '04] in the 2007 Concours. It had been professionally restored, and to me it appeared faultless. Loading it into my Safari van and pointing wheels south, I left home the Friday before the show. Seventeen hours later I made it to Half Moon Bay and the Comfort Inn, the $ 450-a-night rate at the Ritz-Carlton being just a tad rich for my budget. Next morning, I rode to the shore and parked on the freshly mown grass.

That's when naiveté dashed my hopes. I had scrupulously followed the show instructions not to bring cleaning materials into the display area, but everyone else had ignored that restriction. Veritable tool chests of waxes, polishes and miracle sprays abounded, and the other entrants were busy polishing, dusting and elbow-greasing. I knew I was in trouble when I watched the guy next to me down on his knees sweeping grass cuttings off his tires with a beaver-hair shaving brush. The amount of time, effort and money lavished on just plain polishing was astonishing. In the morning light, the glare from some of the bikes was almost blinding.

Though the Rocket is a standout in most company, here it looked like an ugly duckling. Neither did things go well when the judges arrived: I could see them picking out faults one at a time - the oil weep from the head gasket, the tiny paint chip in the gas tank, the parts of the rear fender my cleaning cloth couldn't reach, the untidy wiring behind the oil tank…

They asked me if I would remove the seat. BSA seats are bolted on, and my tools were in the van; but I would have unscrewed it with my teeth if I could. Then, when I started the engine (concours bikes must all be in running condition), to my dismay, the motor caught with a cacophony of banging and coughing, choosing just that moment to develop a misfire.

The Rocket was trying to tell me it didn't want to be a show bike, I guess, and I couldn't blame it for that. The judges conferred once more, shook their heads mordantly, and moved on.

Sadly, the Rocket 3 continued to misbehave, keeping me from taking part in the Tour of Legends ride to Alice's Restaurant the next morning. And, no, it wasn't the curse of Joe Lucas, Prince of Darkness, or any other British part that failed. A defective NGK resistor spark plug caused the misfire. Next year, I'll just stay with the press corps, thanks!

Brough and Crocker

The 2007 Legend of the Motorcycle event was the second such affair, with the first Legend in 2006 featuring two of the most evocative marques from each side of the Atlantic. George Brough outlandishly termed his Superior the "Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles," and after investigating his claim, the Derby carmaker was forced to concur. Brough produced just 4,000 motorcycles over 16 years, and the 18 examples shown at the Concours represent the largest assemblage ever in North America.

Al Crocker began producing overhead valve conversions for Indians; but in 1936 he developed his own 1000cc OHV vee-twin, with a hemi head, producing 60hp. Given that Harley-Davidson's own OHV EL of 1936 produced just 40hp, the Crocker's performance was remarkable. But Crocker's output was more meager even than Brough's. Fewer than 100 Crockers were built over six years, and only 50 or so are extant, which made the assemblage of 22 Crockers that appeared at the 2006 Concours even more remarkable.