Costa and I found ourselves together this week on a Land Rover event in Spain, and we enjoyed a decent lunch at the Les Comes Estate somewhere north-west of Barcelona. This is a huge place, with dusty trails heading every which way through the Spanish hills, where anyone with enough cash can put Land Rovers through their off-road paces.
After the meal, we walked down to our SUV and there, just off the main entrance, was a stone-walled room with seven dirt bikes, just parked. We froze. These were no ordinary dirt bikes. These were old Montesas and Bultacos and even an Ossa Mick Andrews Replica, all clean but apparently well-used.
“Those are Pep’s bikes,” said our Land Rover host. “He’s got some more next door. Would you like to see them?”
Well, duh! And there, in an adjoining stone room, were another dozen or so motorcycles, with some Fantics and Riejus among them. Each one looked as if Pep Vila, Spanish Enduro champion of the early 1980s, had just been for a ride, washed it off, and parked it ready for the next day.
Pep’s company manages the property, but he wasn’t around for us to meet, and we were being pressed to get back in the SUV to hit the trails. We never got to learn of how or why he maintains this unsung collection, but we did think about those people we know with collections of their own. Costa told me of his friend Carl, who has 38 Japanese bikes from the 1980s and, once a year, invites a dozen of his friends to come ride the best of them.
Probably the finest collection in Canada is owned by Bar Hodgson, who for many years owned and ran the Motorcycle Supershow every January in Toronto. He still brings some of his immaculate bikes to the show, and this year, he gave CMG a tour of his favourites. Take a look at them here.
Perhaps the most famous private collection is owned by Jay Leno, who once gave me a tour through the five warehouses that house his 200 cars and bikes in Los Angeles. He only collects “interesting” or historically relevant vehicles, and the highlight of my tour was when I got to help push him back into the warehouse on the jet-powered motorcycle he’d just demonstrated in the driveway. The turbine had to be shut off and allowed to cool before it could be handled; Jay said that one time, he revved it while waiting at some traffic lights and it melted the plastic bumper of a car that was waiting too closely behind.
Like Jay, but in a much more wide-eyed way, I was like a kid at Disneyland. There was really only one bike I wanted to see: a Van Veen rotary-powered motorcycle. When I was a teenager, I had a poster above my bed of Blondie’s Debbie Harry draped across a Van Veen, wearing leopard skin pants, posed just so. I’ve never seen one in the metal. “Do you have a Van Veen?” I asked Jay, just as he was about to wander off and talk to someone else. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. “It’ll be in the back somewhere.”
Jay’s chief custodian – yes, he employs a chief custodian – knew exactly what I was talking about. The Van Veen was hand-built by a Dutch entrepreneur in the 1970s and used a rotary engine, but was heavy and expensive and its production quickly floundered. “Jay doesn’t have a Van Veen,” he said. “That was a stupid bike anyway. But I remember that poster. Quite the poster.”
I think we all have one special bike that we’d love to own. For me, it’s a Honda CBX because I remember seeing one power up the street once and it looked and sounded incredible with its six-cylinder engine. It’s far too fussy to maintain, though, with its 24 finicky valves, so I’d only own it if I had plenty of spare time.
Maybe instead it would be an original Moto Guzzi Le Mans, the first exotic bike I ever got to sit on, or an original Suzuki GS750, the first bike I ever rode on as a passenger and which scared me senseless. Or a Norton Commando 850 because it’s just so great, or a Triumph Thruxton, or even a Wankel-powered Suzuki, just because.
As it is, I own and ride a Harley-Davidson that I bought with the money I earned from writing a book, and I also own the original Suzuki DR600, more than 30 years old now, that first took me across North America and instilled a wanderlust that’s never faded. I’ll never sell them.
So I can understand why people maintain collections of motorcycles. Pep’s collection didn’t look too valuable, but it seemed well chosen and carefully maintained, and lovingly used on a fabulous property. Maybe one day I’ll have something similar with my own choice of bikes, each one special for some uniquely personal reason. And on the wall, looking over them all from a poster, will be Debbie Harry in those leopard skin pants, forever young.