Friday, July 01, 2016

GEARHEAD VALHALLA: THE 2016 CONCORSO DI VILLA D'ESTE

This article was commissioned by The Automobile magazine for their June 2016 issue.  The Automobile is the best old-car mag on the planet, and features my work fairly regularly.  It's reprinted here with permission:

Best in Show!  The 1928 Grindlay-Peerless 'Hundred Model' ex-'Boy' Tubb Brooklands racer 
Lake Como’s leafy sentinel towers over the Villa d’Este’s grand gravel terrace, but the hoary Sycamore is chopped further back every year, its once expansive canopy shrinking to a leafy fat spire, providing shade no longer, yet still the axis of the party. The villa’s Renaissance gardens and pebbled grottoes are intact these 500 years; swapping an elderly companion for younger model may be the habit of the Concorso’s wealthy entrants, but the tide of History demands respect for the old tree, as it does for the automobiles and motorcycles celebrated within the grounds.
A 1952 Ferrari 225S Vignale Spyder beneath the dwinding Sycamore tree at the heart of Villa d'Este's grand terrace
Anxiety over the Sycamore’s fate defines the beginning and the end of troubles at the Concorso d’Eleganza di Villa d’Este; as lucky guests and journalists float on the music of clinking glass flutes, the poor tree plays Cassandra for the real world’s troubles - vanishingly absent from the scene otherwise. Burbling Rivas deliver the happily elegant to the hotel’s shores, not the desperate, so we may rightfully celebrate the fabulous treasures of our world on the weekend, and return to reality on Monday. 
For BMW's centenary (it was established in 1916, making airplanes), this early BMW-powered monoplane was moved (not flown) from villa to villa.  When fired up, an LED display on the prop made the BMW logo - nifty.
For 2016’s iteration of the most coveted spot in the show-car/show-bike calendar, Nature offered a 3-day gap between torrents; tourist-brochure perfect days, suitable for the otherworldly perfection of 50 cars and 40 motorbikes gleaming with elbow-grease, from helper-hands conjuring prize-granting djinns via yellow microfiber cloths. And that, readers, is serious work, conducted by an unsung and invisible army, never thanked from the podium by the Jereboam-armed, ribbon-draped swells who paid their salaries. The Little People, as tactless Oscar winners once at least acknowledged, whose labors transformed the inert cash of connoisseurs into an invitation to this truly incredible party beside Italy’s most beautiful lake. As tax-haven oligarchs stage dramatic, black Amex duels at fine auctions houses, sending car (and now moto) values to the lofty heights inhabited by the finest of arts – the realm of the gods - rolling sculpture has become the last publicly visible evidence of real wealth, as great art disappears into freeport bunkers, and nested shell companies obscure ownership of part-time mansions. 
This original-paint 1938 Triumph Tiger 100 was originally owned by BMW! They bought it for testing/comparison, and soon blew it up.  It lay undisturbed for years, and was recommissioned recently, with its patina intact.  Fantastic.
Temporary membership to this sunshiney, sweet-smelling tableau grants one – e.g. me – a few days’ overlap with wildly different Venn circles; it only hurts when the bubble protecting wealth and beauty floats off, and the sweaty tang of real work and deadlines returns. My nominal job at the Concorso di Moto (judging the assembled treasures) is difficult only in the weighing, discussing, and choosing, which can only be counted a pleasure in such company as the since-1949 Motociclismo fixture Carlo Perelli, the director of Prague’s Technical Museum – Arnost Nemeskal, the chief of BMW’s motorrad design - Edgar Heinrich, French moto-institution Francois-Marie Dumas, and, god bless our host country, the editor of Italian Cosmopolitan, Sara Fiandri, who scatters Milan’s pedestrians like leaves aboard her racy Honda. 
Fellow moto-judge Sara Fiandri in the driver's seat of the 1911 Magnet Selbstfahrer, a remarkable machine, used as a taxi in Berlin originally! 
It must be equally true for our automotive counterparts that Choosing is a profession of thick-skinned devils, as subcurrents of politics, aesthetics, nationality, status, and history swirl around every vehicle, while judges argue – oh yes we do – their views on such matters. We have a day to observe, discuss, ponder, and reassemble before the prizegiving ceremony on Sunday, overseen in the case of motorbikes by the affable and poly-tongued Roberto Rasia dal Polo, while the four-wheeled crowd suffers the inconceivably smooth Simon Kidston, whose puns and light verbal pokes reveal his intimate familiarity with the assembly. 
Yours truly aboard the BMW R5 Hommage concept bike, which used original 1935 R5 engine and gearbox castings, with everything else new.  The grotto behind me is original toVilla d'Este from the 1500s.
BMW, owner of the Concorso, litters the grounds of Villa d’Este with new Rolls Royces and prototypes, while neighboring Villa Erba, which hosts the Concorso di Moto, is saddled with drudgeries like a ‘Teens BMW monoplane, a terrific display of concept cars/bikes beside the machines which inspired them, and the public, which has free range on the expansive grasslands of the park. This year’s overall theme was ‘Back to the Future’, which translates from German as ‘retro’ – the concept car unveiled at Friday’s swanky cocktail party claimed parentage from the 40 year old BMW 2002 (though it was hard to see resemblance, it was a sharp effort by Adrian van Hooydonk), while the concept motorcycle was an industry first – no factory to my knowledge has ever used a vintage motor as the basis of a show vehicle. 
A terrific display of rally cars on the grounds, ready to spit some gravel skyward.  A 1972 Ford Escort 1600RS, 1973 Renault Alpine A110, and 1975 Lancia Stratos
The ‘R5 Hommage’ ridden in noisily by Edgar Heinrich (beside designer Ola Stenegard on an original 1936 R5) used the castings of an 80-year old engine as its heart, although the vintage 500cc OHV motor sported a new supercharger, disc brakes, and a discreet swingarm. While seemingly odd for a technophilic team like BMW to dig around its museum for the actual building blocks of a prototype, ‘heritage’ is the most potent design tool in the moto industry today, and the smooth castings of the old flat-twin motor just might point to an upcoming engine redesign? Back to the future, indeed. 
What it looks like in the jury room - not eleganza! But we're in the conference center at Villa Erba, near the motorcycles
Picking winners in the physical context of Lake Como and a pair of grand Villas seems almost gauche – if you’re there, you’ve won, as has your vehicle. But everyone loves the tension of a contest, and so the list: the under-16 public referendum went rightfully to a 1974 Lancia Stratos rally car, while the drinking-agers chose a bottlefly green ’71 Lamborghini Miura P400SV, which only proves the crowd was Italian, and excitable. The gentry strolling the closed party at Villa d’Este preferred a streamlined ’33 Lancia Astura Serie II, while the judges appointed an exquisite ’54 Maserati A6GCS as Best in Show, a title having much to do, I have learned, with what might look best on the cover of next year’s catalog. This was actually discussed amongst the motorcycle jury, and with vehicles of near-equal money-no-object perfect restorations, what Should tip the scales?
Epic; a 1937 HRD-Vincent Rapide 998cc V-twin
But, we are reminded annually that ours is a Concorso di Moto, not an Eleganza, and thus chose the charismatic and oh-so-English 1929 Grindlay-Peerless-JAP ‘Hundred Model’ with illustrious competition heritage from new, multiple Gold Stars from Brooklands, and a fantastically mechanical, and poster unfriendly, all-nickel finish. What bridged a chasm of disagreement among jurors between suavity and pugnacity was a special Jury Award to the very most elegant ’37 Gnome et Rhone Model X with tailfinned Bernardet sidecar, lovely awash in cream and burgundy, which pretty much describes lunch. Wish you were there.
The motorcyclists tour the lake on Saturday, finishing up with a burble across the grounds at Villa d'Este for the entertainment of the hoi polloi.  Several two-stroke bikes guaranteed a Zika-free zone.
Drama, with a 1944 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Sport Coupe and 1933 Lancia Astura Serie II
Lago di Como
At the far end of Villa d'Este, a Bizzarini, Lamborghini Miura S, and early Countach lurk
All bubbly; 1961 Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato and '68 Bizarrini GT Europa
Pushing all that 1925 Böhmerland Reisemodell to the display
The Concorso di Villa d'Este has the best (hardback) event programs in the industry.
Puzzling out the relative simplicity of an early Ferrari V-12 engine
Instructions for Concorso losers
Happiness is Jürg Schmid on his 1938 Gilera VTGS Saturno
Some of the elaborate nickel-ness of the Grindlay-Peerless 'Hundred Model'
The Grindlay-Peerless logo is famously mis-spelled on this tank, and shows up in many books on vintage racers.  When I asked the owner if he'd change it, he said, 'the mistake is too famous now!'
Alberto Soiatti and his peerless restoration of his 1968 Hercules GS
Special Jury Award for the magnificent 1937 Gnome-Rhone Model X- Bernardet outfit of Jean-Claude Conchard
1980 Lamborghini Athon, with body by Bertone - deliciously understated
Timeless design - the Miura is eternal
Lovely BMW display of concept vehicles with the originals which inspired them.
Strike a pose, there's nothing to it. Vogue. But dig the pebble mosaic work on this 1500s grotto
Serial #1 'Black Pig', the 1967 MV Agusta 600 of Tobias Aichele
Head of BMW's motorcycle design team, Ola Stenegard, aboard an original 1935 BMW R5
Caught mid-flight, borrowing Sebastien Gutsch's BMW R5 racer around the grounds of Villa Erba
A proper view of the R5 Hommage - the rear end is a 'softail', with a vertical monoshock at rear.  Only the engine and gearbox castings are from the '30s, all else was built by Unique Custom Cycles of Sweden
Trying on the R5 Hommage for size.  But my suit; a commission for Dirty Needle Embroidery's Cody McElroy, who did a genius job on the Russian prison tattoo theme.  Soon to be copied by a major fashion label. (Photo by Hermann Kopf)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

VINTAGE TRIUMPH WINS MEXICAN 1000

[My article is republished from Cycle World - check the original here]

Julian Heppekausen is the first ever to win Baja with a ‘60s Bonneville desert sled.

Sand is perhaps the most difficult terrain for a motorcycle, but the Triumphs weight was an advantage over newer, lighter machines.

Dirt; it’s how Americans race. That was the story in 1961 anyway, when Daytona still referred to a beach.  Honda wanted to crack the American market, and that meant building dirt bikes; they’d dominated global GP racing, but were mostly absent on the rough stuff. The machine they developed to spearhead an off-road push was the CL 72 Scrambler, which used the sophisticated OHC twin-cylinder motor of the CB 72 Hawk, installed in a new full-cradle frame with a bash plate and high ground clearance, high-level exhausts, minimal fenders, and a small fuel tank.  To modern eyes, the Honda CL 72 Scrambler looks more enduro or street scrambler, as it was fully road legal with lights and all, but pure motocross machines were rare in 1962 – most scramblers were roadsters with their lights removed.
The easy part - a lousy dirt road is the best road you'll find in the Mexican 1000
American Honda’s lightbulb moment to launch the CL 72 was a record run over the wide-open desert of Baja, Mexico. While plenty of SoCal racing took place in California’s Mojave desert, very little happened south of Tijuana, and an audacious 1000-mile endurance test could be conducted out of the public eye.  Legendary desert racer Bud Ekins was tapped, but his contract with Triumph meant Honda was a no-go, so he passed the opportunity to his equally talented younger brother Dave, who teamed with LA Honda dealer Bill Robertson Jr. No official record existed on the run from Tijuana to La Paz, so the bikes only needed to finish the 963-mile ride, and send telegrams from each end to confirm their time. That didn’t mean the prospect was easy; with no gas stations from Ensenada to La Paz (851 miles), and few villages, the riders would need to be supplied en route. The going had only a few miles of pavement, and long stretches were untracked sand through desert wilderness.
Baja buggies from vintage to new compete side by side with motorcycles
The riders’ route was scouted by air, then food, gasoline, and support were provided the same way.  John McLaughlin, former Catalina GP winner (on Velocettes) piloted a Cessna 160 with Cycle World founder Joe Parkhurst and photographer Don Miller as passengers. A larger Cessna 140, piloted by Walt Fulton, carried the food and fuel for the riders, along with Bill Robertson Sr.  The bikes needed 9 refills, and landable spots were chosen for riders to meet the planes. Come ride day, Ekins and Robertson sent their telegrams from Tijuana at midnight, and headed south on Highway 1.  There were hardships and lots of crashes; they got strung up on barbed wire fences while sun-blinded, Ekins fell 13 times in one night, and they were lost and rode in circles for 6 hours.  Robertson’s Honda holed a piston 130 miles from La Paz after crushing his air cleaner in a crash, and grit entered the motor, but he carried on with one cylinder, catching up to Ekins 2 hours after he’d clocked a 39hour, 49minute elapsed time.  The point had been proven, and the publicity for Honda was certainly worthwhile, as they sold 89,000 CL 72s from 1962-68.
Historic Era entry Mark Post's highly modifed 1992 Ford F-150 racer
Not long after Honda’s ride, Bruce Meyers took his prototype Meyers Manx VW dune buggy along the same route, and lopped 5 hours off Ekins’ time – those hours spent lost at night no doubt. Thus was born a car/bike rivalry, which sparked the idea for a proper race, and Ed Pearlman founded the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA), which ran the first Mexican 1000 race in 1967.  Motorcycles, cars, and trucks ran the same route, using a rally format, with mandatory checkpoints in the multi-day event.  The Mexican 1000 was run for 6 years, before the Oil Crisis of ‘73 dampened everyone’s spirits; NORRA was disbanded, and there was no race that year.  But nobody had asked Mexico’s opinion on the matter; the attention focused on the nearly vacant Baja peninsula was too good to let lapse, so they promptly announced their own Baja 1000 race over the same course. They contracted Mickey Thompson of Southern California Off-Road Enterprises (SCORE) for organization, who hired Sal Fish (of Hot Rod magazine) to created SCORE International to organize the Baja 1000, which it has done since 1974.
Hayden Roberts ('65 Triumph TR6) chats with Julian Heppekausen ('66 Triumph T120)
The rising interest in vintage dirt racing in recent years spurred Ed Pearlman’s son Mike to revive NORRA, and bring back the original Mexican 1000, with its multi-day rally format.  Started in 2009, the race originally catered to pre-1998 motorcycles, cars, and trucks; now there are classes for modern vehicles as well, in case your 800hp trophy truck needs exercise between professional Baja bashes.   Running superfast modern desert tools alongside vintage motorcycles and cars is daunting, but also part of the fun, at least according to Julian Heppekausen.  He recently rode his 1966 Triumph T120 desert sled, ‘Terry’, to victory in the Vintage Triumph Thumper class, becoming the first rider ever to win, and one of only 3 to complete a 1000-mile Baja race on a Triumph.
Julian's lucky number!  An arcane mix of family numerology, which apparently works
You might know Julian Heppekausen as CEO of the Deus store in Venice, CA, or for his exploits on Terry the Triumph in the Barstow-Las Vegas off-road race, which he’s finished 4 times.   He credits this success to the quality of Terry’s original construction by motorcycle industry icon Terry Prat, for whom the bike is named.  Prat was the European MX correspondent for several magazines in the 1970s, then a manager at Cycle News from 1979 – 2011.  The ’66 Triumph T120 desert sled was his last build, which he raced in the Barstow-Las Vegas Rally in 2011 (it’s not a race; that’s not allowed in the tortoise sanctuary – but everyone knows who finished first).  Heppekausen bought the bike in 2012, and carried on competing across the Mojave desert every year since, finishing the ‘hard’ route twice.   The means riding with new KTMs and Honda 450s, and his Triumph is the only 1960s bike to finish the Rally in a very long time.  “They really don’t have a class for such an old bike – they call 1980s twin-shock motocrossers vintage!’
Viet Nguyen's 1969 Triumph T100 at dawn, ready for the day's stage on his 500cc twin
Keeping a 50-year old Triumph from grenading mid-desert exposes Heppekausen as a sensitive hooligan; “You need to know your bike really well. There’s a harmonic hum at certain rpms, where it seems like the motor will go forever, and in a long race you have to bring it back to that pace when you can. I continually pat the tank and thank Terry for not breaking!”  Some vintage riders are scared of breakdowns on gentle street rides, but the old saw ‘the more you ride them, the better they get’ seems to apply here. Julian shipped Terry the Triumph to Europe in 2014, competing at events in Germany and England; it’s also been filmed wheelying in front of the Eiffel Tower under Dimitri Coste. After successes in Vegas-Barstow, he decided to try the revived NORRA Mexican 1000, along with several friends on their own vintage Triumph dirt bikes, although Terry the Triumph was the only finisher.
Classic rally roll-charts keep the riders from getting lost...too often
That’s perfectly understandable – all the bikes were at least 50 years old, and 1000 miles of desert racing is insanely demanding.  Julian notes, “Modern trophy trucks with special tube-frame chassis and high-HP motors run 36” of suspension; they can run over a basketball and not feel it. I can’t do that on a Triumph with 3” of travel, and when the road is full of rocks, I could hit a baseball and be thrown off.  Near the end of the race was a 15-mile stretch of rocky downhill, which was mentally challenging after 1000 miles, especially with trophy trucks passing at 140mph!  I have to go to work on Monday, so kept way left to preserve myself.”  While running with $200k, 600hp specialized desert trucks is hairy scary, it has benefits too, “Robbie Gordon passed me around a corner, driving like I’ve never seen a car driven. I was doing 60mph, and he was doing 110mph – I don’t know how he got around!  And I was the only one watching – it’s the best view of the race, from the saddle.”
Viet Nguyen's T100; unit Triumph 500cc twins are considered very reliable, but none has ever finished the Mexican 1000
While Julian races Terry the Triumph far and wide, it isn’t actually his machine; when purchased from Terry Prat, he immediately gifted the Triumph to his son Henry, as a legacy. Henry isn’t big enough to ride a Triumph yet, but he likes to remind his dad whose bike it is, “My wife and kids met me at the finish in La Paz, and Henry told me to clean the bike!  I said let’s leave it dirty a little bit yet.  Terry’s had some real adventures, including wheelies in front of the Eiffel Tower.  The best people have worked on it, and it’s been in many hands, but you know, we build these bikes for ourselves, and they eventually end up with someone else.  That’s why I gave it to Henry - for the future.”  And the future will remember that Terry was the first Triumph to win (let alone finish) a 1000-mile Baja race, an epic accomplishment in any decade - our hearty congratulations to Julian Heppekausen and all who helped make his win possible.
Julian abandons the roll-chart for an impromptu mileage-based warning system for sand washes and potholes
Mark Stahl's Legend category '78 Ford F-100 pickup
Julian finishes a stage, alone again
John Crain's beautiful 1953 Rickman-Triumph pre-unit racer, the most exotic Triumph in the race
Nate Hudson's 1969 Triumph T100 after a day in the desert
Hayden Roberts exits Tijuana on his 1965 Triumph TR6

Friday, June 03, 2016

MATCHLESS RASING FUNDS FOR MOTORCYCLE PRODUCTION

The 'Mail on Sunday' gives details of the Matchless bond offer, to raise cash for making motorcycles...
The Matchless name, currently embroidered on a line of moto-inspired clothing, was purchased by the Malenotti family of Italy, back in 2012.  They'd previously purchased the Belstaff brand, and found considerable success selling updated moto-ish gear, after hiring supermodel Kate Moss for ads, and product-placing their gear in movies and TV shows.  Rapid expansion of Belstaff retail shops around Europe meant borrowing lots of money from Italian banks, and when those banks got nervous and made 'the call' for their cash back, the Malenottis were forced to sell Belstaff.  But they pulled a rabbit out of a hat, as the brand was sold for nearly 100M euros more than they owed the banks, and the Malenottis walked away smelling like a rose.
The Matchless 'Model X Reloaded' prototype
With Matchless, they've been running the same playbook, immediately hiring the evergreen Kate Moss for the next round of Matchless logo gear.  The Malenottis went a step further with Matchless, though, and have stated their intention to begin limited production of Matchless branded motorcycles, and have shown the prototype Model X Reloaded, as shown here.  Last Sunday's 'Mail on Sunday' newspaper noted the Original Matchless Motorcycle Company will offer a bond to investors through the online finance platform Karadoo, with the promise of a 6% annual interest rate for 5 years - considerably more than any bank offers at the moment.  The £5M they intend to raise will fund the launch of 'two superbike models', neither of which is Kate Moss.  But surely she'll be in the picture; she's their lucky charm.  Whether the Model X Reloaded will be produced in the same configuration as the prototype shown is unclear, and I'll refrain from passing judgement on the design, except to say,
The Model X Reloaded...
Michele Malenotti designed the Model X Reloaded, and is quoted saying, "We want to build the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles...I spoke with the Rolls-Royce CEO and he told me 'congratulations, you have found a place in the market where nobody is selling right now."   I don't expect the Rolls CEO to know his bikes (although their parent company BMW happens to produce motorcycles), but that's not an accurate statement. Several boutique motorcycle firms have price points far beyond typical production models, including the revamped Brough Superior SS100, and the Ecosse Moto Works Founder's Edition Titanium XX, which currently holds the #1 spot for most expensive new motorcycle at $300,000.  Brough Superior's tagline has been 'The Rolls Royce of Motorcycles' since 1921, so the Matchless claim is audacious...and Brough is already delivering new bikes.  In fact, I'll be test riding one next week!  Stay tuned...


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