I rise early and stumble out into the motel courtyard, exhibiting my usual bleary-eyed pre-caffeinated lack of focus. I wander into a group of immaculate Harley-Davidson touring models tended by a troupe of middle-aged riders. I say hello and someone compliments my Aprilia in a thick European accent, mentioning how few they see over here in America.
It turns out that they are a group of Italians who rented their H-Ds in Oakland to tour around California and Arizona. It seems like a perfectly appropriate way to tour the US of A, and I'm reminded of my dream of riding across Italy aboard one of their uncompromising two-wheeled exports. Probably aboard a Ducati, but an MV, Moto-Guzzi, or Aprilia would be quite alright too.
In the case of our European guests, Harley is the only way to go. They have the right idea. It would be a bit weird (though probably much smarter) to use a Victory or an Indian, Polaris' new pretenders to the Moto-Americana crown. It would somehow not be quite as authentic. H-D hate mongers can go on all they like about how much better the alternatives might be but when it comes to the richness of an experience the flexing of your powers of dull rationality are irrelevant. And unwelcome.
I can picture the prototypical Harley basher in my mind. There are two genealogies: one is the blowhard squid who can't comprehend the appeal of something slower than the latest generation of litrebike. The second is the bespectacled, greying dullard who rides a metric cruiser that is decked out precisely like the Harley he not-so-secretely wishes he had, but didn't buy because he convinced himself they are unreliable oil-spewing crap. He usually follows up with one of those corny Hardly-Ableson jokes you've heard a dozen times, before he dons his leather daddy getup and hops aboard his Eastern Electra-Glide knockoff. The former species I can understand; the latter I find infinitely amusing.
But I'd better digress.
I head for Solvang to make a stop at the Vintage Motorcycle Museum, one of the few places in the US where you can see a Britten V1000 on display alongside a slew of rare vintage racing hardware and antique beauties. It's pretty much the only motorcycle related stop I have planned on this trip, now that Bonneville has been cancelled. There is surprising dearth of motorcycle museums along the Pacific Coast, what with this being one of the best goddamned areas in the world to own a bike.
I pass through Buellton, leaving the cool breeze of the coast and moving inland into arid desert scrub land. The temperature skyrockets and the humidity drops, the landscape changing markedly. I've gone from resort beaches to a Sergio Leone scene in the span of a few miles.
You might think this is a new experience for a Northerner like myself, but in fact we have similar deserts just east of Calgary. The Badlands offer a strange bizarro oasis in the heart of the prairie farmland, deep canyons and hoodoos carved into the otherwise flat expanses, populated by a unique ecosystem that has more in common with Death Valley than it does the rest of Alberta. In fact a lot of the iconic visuals you picture in your mind's eye from classic American Western films come courtesy of Canada. Unforgiven was filmed near Drumheller. Brokeback Mountain was shot in southern Alberta. Ditto The Revenant.
I arrive in Solvang and find the museum tucked away in a small courtyard, a tiny sign hanging over the door the only indication that this is anything other than a clothing shop or hipster boutique. The Britten is placed near the entrance, alongside a Honda NR750, but these appear to be aberrations - most of the collection appears to be from a bygone era of polished aluminum and glossy enamel.
I'd be happy to elaborate and give you a glowing appraisal of the quaint little museum and the treasures therein, but I can't. All I saw was what was visible from the front window. It turns out that the place is only open a few hours on weekends, and by appointment only any other time. This happened to be that other time and I had no idea I needed to call in advance to get in. Another bust, this time due to my seat-of-the-pants planning and lack of a set schedule.
I head for the coast again, this time suffering through heat and congested freeways that are markedly different from the twisty PCH route I'd enjoyed until now. This region has clearly been dry and hot for a long time, which explains the numerous forest fires they've been suffering as of late. What is surprising is just how extreme the drought is when you are riding through it. The landscape is tinder dry and the vegetation is bleached to a crisp, dead tan colour. Trees look sickly and the grass has been reduced to a brown blanket of kindling. It looks like you could set the whole county ablaze with one errant cigarette butt; a possibility which probably isn't that far from reality. It's downright miraculous that all of SoCal hasn't been burned to a crisp already.
Congestion builds as I approach Los Angeles, the familiar pattern of smaller outposts and suburbs feeding into the big city, municipal boundaries blurring together as you get closer and closer to LA. It's dull, grey and maddening, the concrete walls and strip malls closing in around you, all of it made seemingly worse after spending several days riding through picturesque locales and wide-open vistas over the ocean.
I have a brief respite planned, a detour to Oxnard to visit a destination that was strongly recommended by a friend.
Flashback to October 2014. I'm at the Barber Vintage Festival at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. JT Nesbitt is here, along with representatives of the ADMCi, to unveil the just-completed trio of Bienville Legacy motorcycles. I spend several days hanging out with the group, sharing a room with JT and helping out however I can while we shuttle the bikes between Barber and the Motus factory in downtown Birmingham.
At some point I was walking around Barber with JT, checking out the sights and sharing opinions. For some reason the topic of car design came up.
"I hate cars."
JT pauses and glares at me, incredulous, with an intensity he reserves solely for the people who piss him off the most.
That was the wrong thing to say.
I have my reasons. I don't find cars engaging. Driving them is a chore I wish I didn't have to suffer. The ones that are interesting are exorbitantly priced, their performance eclipsed by even a modestly powerful motorcycle. I have a hard time getting excited by them. If I could spend the rest of my life without ever getting behind the wheel of a car again, I wouldn't be bothered in the slightest. The only reason I own one at all is to pick up groceries and get my ass to work during the winter.
I ride motorcycles because I love them. I drive cars because I have to.
JT proceeds to berate me for my ignorant opinion and strongly encourages me to do a little more research, to earn some appreciation for automotive design and engineering. Somewhere out of that conversation came the suggestion that I needed to visit the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard.
A short detour off the freeway and I find myself in an industrial park, pulling up to a nondescript windowless building that looks much like any other warehouse in the area - until you notice the French flag flying out front, and an abstract flourish hung on the side of the building.
I'm sweating profusely and exhausted from the heat. I take a moment to drain a bottle of Powerade, pop an ibuprofen, and have a smoke while I air myself out. A pristine yellow Ferrari Dino 246 is parked out front. A closer inspection reveals… Ontario plates? This fellow is a long way from home, particularly if he is driving an Italian machine.
As am I.
I walk to the door and find it locked. Ah fer fucks sake, don't tell me.
A woman opens the door. She informs me that the museum is by appointment only.
Great. Solvang all over again.
I tell her my story. How I was encouraged to come here as a pilgrimage by a friend of mine. I turn on the charm, telling her how I had ridden all the way from Canada and I would truly appreciate the opportunity to visit.
A call is made to the museum director for permission. A few minutes later I'm allowed in.
The first thing I encounter upon entering is the Hispano-Suiza Dubonnet Xenia, an unmistakable one-off that is staggeringly beautiful and advanced for its era. I know this car. I glance around the room and see other familiar machines, the best examples from the golden era of coachbuilt automobiles. These are the icons that I've read about in magazines, Pebble Beach winners and historically significant machines with unmatched provenance.
It turns out the owner of the Dino is currently touring the collection, the only reason anyone is here at all. He has driven here from Toronto; for doing that in a classic Italian icon he has my respect.
The private tour begins with an introductory film presented in a small Art Deco-themed theatre that gives a brief overview of the museum, the broad strokes of the period represented in the collection, and profiles of some of the more interesting machines on hand. After this I'm given a private tour by Tessa, one of the museum's guides. She presents a brief history of each machine, with a few anecdotes and interesting tidbits thrown in, allowing me a few moments to take in the details before moving on to the next object.
It's a bit overwhelming. I'm in the presence of some of the most significant, most beautiful automobiles of all time. I hardly know where to begin, barely able to process the beauty and craftsmanship before me. The collection is relatively small, but packed with the absolute best examples of the period.
There are famous artifacts here; one of the most fascinating being the Swiss Lake Bugatti, displayed just as it was recovered after spending 75 years at the bottom of Lake Maggiore. The Type 22 was dumped there by customs officials when the owner, who won the machine in a poker game in France, was unable to pay the import duties upon his return to Switzerland.
JT was right. This was well worth the detour, and as good a place as any to expand my appreciation for automotive design and history. In fact it is probably the best place to do so. This is a quiet, intimate museum. I am here alone, with Tessa as my guide, free of distractions. I can take my time to examine the machines in detail and ask endless questions. I'm frustrated that I don't have more time and more energy to peruse the collection and fully appreciate what I'm seeing.
Tessa proves to be an excellent and engaging host. She gives me the opportunity to muse aloud about the vast disparity between the appreciations for French automobiles and French motorcycles. Good fodder for a future article, I think. Why these four-wheeled machines are considered the pinnacle of car collecting while the equally innovative and beautiful (if not as exotic) offerings from the French motorcycle industry are largely forgotten and under appreciated. I inform Tessa that her homework is to look up the Majestic to see what sort of innovation was going on on the other side of the fence, and make a note to myself that I really need to get around to writing a profile of that thing.
We discuss life, art and design; cars and motorcycles. I haven't had an intelligent conversation like this in ages. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit smitten.
I'm drawn to the strangest and perhaps least sexy item present in the collection: the Voisin C6 "Laboratoire". Here is the essence of innovation of the early 20th century, a slab-sided vision of the future that was considered a failure due to its inability to compete against faster contemporaries on the French circuits in 1923. The machine here is an exact replica, there being no surviving examples of the four originals.
The C6 is unapologetically weird; just the sort of thing that I adore. Wonderful design elements abound. A small propeller on the top of the radiator drives the water pump. The sleeve-valve inline-six uses magnesium pistons. The rear track is narrower than the front, the rear wheels fully enclosed into the bodywork for aerodynamic efficiency. The chassis is a fuselage-like wooden structure with stressed aluminum skin, the genesis of the automotive monocoque. The whole machine takes a lot of inspiration from aeronautical design, not a surprise given designer André Lefèbvre's history in aviation.
This is the spirit of what I love in motorcycle design, but in automotive form. It is the trope of the ahead-of-his-time innovator, whose brilliance only becomes apparent long after the fact. Lefèbvre's uncompromising vision of progress is beautiful in its purity. It would prove to be an early example of his peculiar genius; he would go on to work for Citroën, where he designed the Traction Avant, the 2CV, and the DS.
The C6 can't compete with the classical beauty of the coach built wonders that surround it here, but to a technical mind it is equally stunning. Having this machine here, among these stable mates, is akin to displaying the Lunar lander next to the Bugatti 100P. Equally amazing, but for different reasons.
I only wish Mr. Mullin had a Bugatti Type 32 "Tank" to round out his collection of unusual racing hardware.
The automotive collection is rounded out by Art Deco and Art Nouveau furniture and paintings, including many pieces by the talented members of the Bugatti clan. It's overwhelming and I feel like I'm doing no justice to the significance of these objects in my current state, racoon-eyed and coated with road grime and sweat, my brain baked numb by the California sun. At this moment I am completely out of place here, but I feel entirely welcomed and respected by the staff. Most importantly, much like JT had hoped, I am leaving the Mullin with a new found appreciation for some of the beauty and innovation you'll find in the four-wheeled realm.
Back on the road and back onto the freeway towards LA. I make a beeline for the coast once again, passing through the famed Malibu and Santa Monica seaside. Traffic slows to a crawl along the crowded beaches populated by half-naked beautiful people, the picturesque palm-lined avenues dotted with million-dollar properties and surf bum hangouts. It looks just like you'd picture it from images presented in countless films and TV shows, only with about 200% more people and cars cluttering up the scene.
I head into Culver City to meet my host for the weekend. I began exchanging emails with Abhi from Bike-urious.com several months ago, discovering that he was a kindred spirit in the moto blogosphere. Like me he is fascinated by weird and unusual machines and runs his modest site in his spare time, pouring his passion for motorcycles into a unique niche that he felt wasn't satisfied by existing media. He's achieved some notable success and developed a pretty significant following, particularly after he made an appearance on Jay Leno's Garage.
Incidentally I tried to organize a visit to Mr. Leno's motor mecca on this trip but unfortunately my request wasn't answered. One doesn't contact him directly. Word was he probably would have said yes if he had received my message, but odds are it was screened out by the layers of entourage that surround him and he probably never got the request. Oh well.
I meet Abhi and drop off my gear at his place before we head out to a nearby In-N-Out burger for dinner. I've heard great things about the SoCal staple and have been meaning to try it while I'm down here. It proves to be well worth it. Not only is the burger delicious and the shake thick enough to grout tile with, it's also absurdly cheap. Cheaper than McDonalds cheap. I imagine that's the biggest draw, aside from the quality of the grub. Food seems exponentially better when it's underpriced.
I don't have long to rest. I've been invited to attend a lecture by Miguel Galuzzi being held at Pro Italia in Glendale, on the other side of town. Time to suit up and terrorize the freeways once again, this time free of the hindrance of tens of pounds of luggage.
I venture onto the 10 into late rush hour, a perfect opportunity to hone my lanesplitting skills. I've been gradually building my confidence and my spatial awareness, getting quicker and quicker at slicing through the lanes and manoeuvring the Aprilia with authority, exercising the sort of sharp low-speed agility I never have the opportunity to practice back home. With the luggage gone, the Tuono is an absolute weapon in traffic. The wide bars and sharp steering make rapid manoeuvres telepathic, the high seating position giving excellent visibility and allowing me to easily keep an eye on my blindspots. The not-insubstantial weight of the bike disappears beneath me, allowing me to focus on the task of picking my way through the rows of cars.
The best part is the torque. The instant snap offered by the rabid twin at low-ish rpms is addictive, allowing me to slingshot through gaps without hesitation. Keep it in first or second somewhere around the magic 4000 rpm mark and control the explosive acceleration with the clutch; spot openings, give it a twist, and boom, you are there. No waiting for power to build. Just point and shoot, and punt your ass into the gaps without delay. It's fantastic fun, and the discovery of a new aspect of the Tuono's capabilities.
Everyone may think that LA traffic is nightmarish, but the truth is that I found Montreal to be far worse - and the drivers there are far less conscientious of motorcyclists, if not downright hostile towards us. It's simply a matter of calling upon those survival skills I learned in Quebec and resetting my perception to deal with the fast pace of churning traffic after years of complacency from riding in Calgary.
I feel perfectly at ease here. Especially considering I couldn't split lanes in Montreal.
I arrive at the venue just as Galuzzi is wrapping up and shaking hands; I would have arrived on time if someone had warned me that there are two Verdugo Roads in Glendale, and they are not connected in any way. Oh well, can't win 'em all. I take the opportunity to say hi to Miguel, who I met during the first USA Tour in Birmingham, Alabama. He claims to remember me, though I would have forgiven him if he hadn't. I'm disappointed to have missed his presentation, which was apparently quite inspiring, with some call outs and criticisms of the industry that resonated with (or pissed off) a few of the people present.
But all isn't lost. I meet with the guys who invited me and join them for a drink at a Mexican joint across the street from Pro Italia after the presentation. Eddie and Dom are ex-Erik Buell Racing employees who migrated to Los Angeles after things went south in Wisconsin. Eddie served as lead design engineer, while Dom was an industrial designer.
We talk bikes and design for a while. They keep mum about their work at EBR, only hinting at some of the shenanigans. I don't blame them; I have a reputation for being honest to a fault, and the ink is barely dry on their NDAs.
We hit the road for a late-night ride through LA. Eddie is aboard his KTM 690 Duke, an appropriate tool for scything through traffic. Dom is attempting to follow us in his car.
We promptly get lost and spend some time bombing around in the dark trying to navigate the tangled freeway junctions. Traffic is moving freely now, and it is manic. In this way LA is worse than Montreal. Speed limits are completely disregarded on the freeway where traffic is flowing at 80-90 mph, cars and bikes weaving across lanes. It's pretty obvious there are no speed cameras here, and no one seems concerned about the CHP sneaking up on them.
Eventually I figure out my route home and peel off, leaving Eddie and Dom to their fates. I'm tired from riding all day and cooking myself in the SoCal heat, and my adrenaline can only carry me so far before my mind will turn to mush and I'll start making mistakes. A fact that is made plainly clear when I bump a truck's mirror while filtering up to a stoplight. I don't get far enough away after the light changes and he chases me down, his passenger leaning out of the window to scream obscenities. I pretend to be oblivious before I escape.
Let's not do that again. Last thing I need to do is to get killed by some psychotic Los Angeleno in a violent incident of road rage.
I arrive back at Abhi's safe and sound, exhausted in the most wonderful way. I stand in front of the apartment building, enjoying a cigarette as my adrenaline subsides. I'm happy to be here, to have ridden as far away from my responsibilities and my anxieties as possible.
Tomorrow will be another busy day in LA.