Conversations on the Green: The 2018 Quail Motorcycle Gathering

I missed the Quail in 2017. Sadly, other work got in my way. I was at the 2016 show, though, and I have fond memories of that experience, including a rather lengthy conversation with Mert Lawwill, that actually precipitated a later phone conversation with the man. I can’t say I get to call Mert a friend, but he might remember talking to me, and I get to call that a win.

The featured themes for 2018 were café racers, electric motorcycles, and Arlen Ness’ private collection. I’m not on a first name with Arlen, but my father introduced me to him long before I knew what I was looking at when looking at motorcycles. Arlen’s name has been somewhat hallowed in my households as long as I can remember.

For my dad, Arlen’s “diggers” stand out as some the coolest bikes in his career, and the digger style seems to define Bay Area cool for my dad. My personal favorite is a Sportster-engined FXRT that lives at Arlen’s shop in Dublin.

By the way, if you live in The Bay and you’ve never been to Arlen’s shop, you should be ashamed of yourself. His collection is a timeline of the pinnacles of custom motorcycles from the early Seventies to today.

I’d apologize about gushing, but the fact of the matter is that the Quail is a giant gush fest for me. There’s something different about this event, and it’s not just the golf course. I’ve been to my fair share of motorcycle shows—as a matter of fact, you can read about my barbecue-stained adventures at the Handbuilt Motorcycle Show in Austin (more on that soon). I don’t want it to sound like the Handbuilt and other shows are not as good as the Quail, but they’re different.

Different how, you may ask. Obviously, the Quail’s setting is unlike anything else. The beautiful landscape of Carmel Valley and the Quail Lodge’s greens are such a contrast to the overhead lights and concrete walls that usually house shows of this caliber. The included buffet lunch is delicious, and there’s free ice cream from Marianne’s Ice Cream in Santa Cruz—no overpriced county fair food to be found.

Conversations can be delightfully interrupted by a bike being started up and run. When someone fires up a 1919 Harley, it’s worth listening to. It’s also not uncommon to hear a two-stroke racer from the early Eighties being lit up. There’s none of that “the fire marshall says no” bullshit here, despite the seemingly sharp contrast of the upscale setting to the hooligan nature of some of the bike owners.

Speaking of conversations, remember the whole gush fest thing? That’s what really made this year’s Quail so memorable for me. I walked in the gate to the show an hour before official opening. My plans for the day included departing early to ride up to the Calistoga Half-Mile flat track races with the AMA’s Western States Rep Nick Haris, so I wanted to touch base with him. Before I could finish a sentence, Craig Vetter rolled up with his son. THE Craig Vetter. Nick politely made the introduction, and Craig took over the conversation.

His current passion is helping develop electric motorcycles. He lives within golf cart distance of the show, and he’s housing several engineers and fabricators while they push the technology farther. He likens it to the way people shared housing with him as he was developing his fairings and streamliners.

Once the show opened, I made my way through the sea of rare and amazing bikes. I paid special attention to the Suzuki RE5 hanging out in a group of other stellar vintage Japanese machines. I have a thing for rotary engines: nothing like an angry Dorito having a seizure inside a beer keg for a power plant.

Always-pleasant Jim Carducci brought out his Dual Sportster, and it turned out that by pure coincidence I had recently bought some Buell parts from his wife’s brother-in-law. Jim got a chuckle out of the pictures of the TKC 80s strapped to my backpack as I rode away on my FXR. Small world, right?

Next was a stop at the Arlen Ness exhibit, where Arlen was on hand to chat about his bikes. He was standing near a bike he’d built that used an AMF-era Cone Shovel bottom end with Knuckle heads on it. I was fascinated with the tappet blocks and pushrod assemblies used to make the valvetrain function. As we discussed the subject, my friend Dick McClure walked up with Wayne Carini in tow. I know Dick from my adventures in LeMons racing, but he shares a passion for vintage Hondas as well. Wayne is a well-known car guy and host of “Chasing Classic Cars” on Velocity TV.

Dick brought up my recently-acquired ‘71 Land Rover Series 2a, which sparked a short conversation about the rust-prone nature of the much-loved, archaic SUVs. Arlen is a bit of a car guy too, so the three of us proceeded to banter about various hot rods and cars we’ve owned and sold. Just as Wayne and Dick needed to continue onward, Ron Covell walked up.

Ron Covell is one of my personal heroes. His metal shaping videos and books have been instrumental in my career, and he’s a genuine craftsman with incredible talent. We began discussing the ins and outs of 1926/27 Ford Model Ts. One of Ron’s ongoing projects is a reproduction of the “turtle deck” rear section, and I have one last ‘27 Model T body in my shed that will become a car someday, a turtle deck model that’s been widened and lengthened. Talking sheet metal with Ron Covell certainly stands out as an experience not to forget, even if was “car stuff” at a bike show.

That’s when it all clicked. The Quail is the one show I’ve been to that literally puts everyone on a level field. While Arlen, Ron, Craig, or Wayne have no idea who I am, they’re still willing to have a conversation with me about our shared passion. I’ve met other celebrities at other shows, sure. But those meetings were a sort of assembly line style autograph session or an overcrowded Q & A session. It’s a rare show that has the builders and benchmarks taking in the show as a spectator the way everyone else is.

Fish is founder and president of the CityBike Foundation for the Preservation of Front Tires, and since he was riding with the AMA, did not once break the speed limit on his way from Carmel to Calistoga.

Want more Quail photos? Head to 40 Photos from the 2018 Quail Motorcycle Gathering.

This story originally appeared in our June 2018 issue, which you can read in all its glory here.