The Mystery Motorcycle Museum of Solvang
by Mark Vayne
I am mystified by bevel drive Ducati transmission shifter dogs, those fiendishly hidden and crudely-machined circlets of metal that make selecting gears only slightly less difficult than winning a rigged Las Vegas craps game. My otherwise well-behaved 1980 Ducati Darmah SS started popping out of first, making regular trips to the local liquor store more stressful and far less frequent than they shoulda been. Out of sheer self preservation I started browsing through a San Francisco biker newspaper called City Cycle, looking for a machine less expensive to fix and, perhaps, a tad more reliable? The gorgeous but highly dysfunctional Darmah, my thinking went, would make a fine coffee table exhibit drained of all flammable liquids and polished to a gleaming but static luster. In the back of City Cycle I spied a grainy black and white ad for someplace called the Vintage Motorcycle Museum, open weekends only 11-5, in Solvang, California.
Motorcycle museums are thin on the ground here in Northern California. There are a few poser palaces like Alice’s Restaurant up the mountain in Woodside that often double as parking-lot museums jammed with overpolished and under-ridden bikes on sunny weekends. I’ve seen pretty much everything at Alice’s in my 20 odd years of stopping there for greasy cheeseburgers and dishwater coffee: Vincent, Rudge, Norton, Sunbeam, MV Augusta, Brough Superior, AJS, DKW, Triumph GP, BSA Goldstars, factory Honda racers, Excelsior Manxman, Crocker, Indian Four, my personal lifetime sighting list is as extensive as you’ll find outside of, say, the Guggleheimer Exhibit presented in New York a couple years back.
But my middle-aged over-the-hill hoodlum curiosity was aroused: a mystery motorcycle museum open 12 oversize, mammoth, spacious, whacking hours each week? And I get to drive 10 hours on the freeway to boot? A sucker is certainly born every minute and this was clearly my minute, so I decided to temporarily abandon the lurching, cash-sucking Darmah to take a relaxing road trip and see some real classic two-wheelers in Solvang. A couple of days later, I grabbed a fourpack of Starbuck’s vanilla lattes-in-a-jar as survival rations, wolfed down a stale apple fritter for breakfast, and headed out into the sullen gray Saturday morning. Be still my beating heart, we are going to Solvang.
If you are a California motorcyclist living in either the pristine and highly cultured San Francisco Bay area or that crime-ridden smoggy cesspool we call Los Angeles, Solvang is 5 hours up or down the coast from anyplace important. It also enjoys the reputation as the very heart of Danish tourist culture on the West coast, so glad to know that aren’t we? If we believe that dignified people of color live in the Deep South, and spiritual native New Mexicans populate New Mexico, then industrious Asians must prepare tasty chow mein in Chinatown, right? This kind of third-grade logic hardly prepares you for the fact that cruising Solvang in search of cool old bikes guarantees that you will be overwhelmed by waves of pantsuited middle aged matrons with dimples, crinkly smiles, short hair, reading glasses and comfortable shoes. Solvang is all chock-a-block with happy, cheerful, helpful, middle-aged white people. I was immediately suspicious.
In its’ defense, Solvang does provide comforting refuge and gainful employment opportunities for expatriates from the chilly Northern European countries. My own theory is that a busload of vacationing Danish bakers were stranded here at some point in the misty past, but they loved the bucolic grassy hills and many cows, so they decided to stay and bake a while. This explains the dozens and dozens of too-cute bakeries cramming every nook and cranny in tiny Solvang, places called Nordverson’s, Arnsttringers’s, Berndt’s, Flakenschwelt’s, Tweilland’s, Pflatzgraff’s, etc. They all bake perfect white bread, fussy little cakes and mountains of sugar cookies, and late at night the big semis rumble through town replenishing their stocks of flour, sugar, butter and icing. Bake, baby, bake!
The town of Solvang is one dense mass of faux Olde Danish Market Towne buildings, a veritable architectural purist’s nightmare and so completely disorienting to drive through I kept circling the same block looking for this mystery motorbike museum for fifteen minutes. Building after building sported the identical exposed wooden beams, steeply gabled roofs, stuck-on gingerbread trim and cheerful painted happy Danish symbols. I was on the very brink of Olde Danish architectural insanity when I finally just parked the damn car and walked to the museum.
The Vintage Motorcycle Museum, or the Solvang Motorcycle Museum, depending on if you read owner Virgil Elings’ business card or the trifold brochure handed out at the door, is located inside a small shopping center at the edge of town. The center, also owned by Elings, is called Solvang Village Square, and yes, it’s designed to look like an Olde Danish Market. Elings co-founded a company called Digital Instruments in 1988 and became both successful and wealthy in short order. Eventually, DI merged with a company called Veeco, and Elings retired. He bought a home in the Santa Ynez valley near Solvang, and soon became bored. Being bored and digging bikes begat the idea for a Solvang motorcycle museum. Eling’s interest in motorcycles began when he was in high school in the 1950’s, and in 1958 he humped a vibrating pre-unit BSA from Iowa to California and back. Elings and his son raced in the AHRMA for several years, and they were both very competitive, Elings senior on an AJS 7R and son riding a Matchless G50.
Was the museum hard to find? Does walrus crap reek? Thankfully yours truly is gifted with the ability to channel roundcase Ducati twins from a coupla miles away, so I walked right in, it being after the 11 am opening by a couple of hours or so. I’d already wasted away 20% of my available weekly viewing time and I wanted to start looking at weird classic bikes right now, please. Opened in March 2000, the museum is spacious, clean as a whistle, has gorgeous hardwood floors and large North-facing windows. The space is bright, open and inviting. Recessed ceiling lights add yet more luminance, and you can really see those tiny mechanical details that can disappear in the murk when bikes are shown in more sinister environments like tenement basements, barns or abandoned missile silos.
The machines are beautifully staged with lots of space around most of them. High points for the gleaming wood floors and textured white walls, many of them decorated with motorcycle-related paintings, prints and lithos by local artist Gene Inglis-Ward. Unlike some other anal-retentive museums I could name but won’t, (Barber’s in Atlanta, for example) the motorcycles are not protected from either themselves or reverential paying visitors by velvet ropes, armed guards or bulletproof plexiglass display cases. You may walk up to, and entirely around, many machines, and they’re not even jammed all together. Wow. Ten on a scale of ten for presentation, then. This luxurious display philosophy sorely tempted me: I wanted to jump on the priceless supercharged Vincent Black Lightning, crouch low over the tank, make loud roaring noises in my throat and rock the old British fella from side to side just to see what it felt like.
This is a kick-ass collection of rare and fairly significant machines, not on the scale of Barber’s or the Gluggleheimer show, but well-thought out and intelligently presented. The motorcycles themselves really shine through. Eling’s entire collection is actually many times larger than what can he comfortably display on the museum floor. (the other bikes are stored in various warehouses & garages.) There’s not an obsessive single theme like other collections I could name but won’t, (the glorious All-Italian Bike Barn of photographer Guy Webster, located semi-near Solvang on the Central California coast–maybe it’s the fresh salt air and lots of friendly cows that makes guys want to amass large numbers of odd, elderly motorcycles?) The bikes on display when I visited were mostly from England, Italy, England, Italy, Italy, England, England, Italy, Italy and England. Oh, a few German examples, one lonely Arlen Ness Harley, and a nice Indian or two, plus a coupla motorcycles of….uuuuhhhhh….. dubious origin and lineage. Chinese pushrod singles, anyone?
Some of the machines have been restored and others retain their hard-won patina of extensive use, but all are claimed to be running and roadworthy. There are some printed signs with basic information but not a lot of detail, and this was probably my biggest disappointment. Motoheads are universally obsessive about every microscopic detail and obscure technical specification of a bike, its’ intended use, factory lineage, race history, claims of dubious celebrity ownership (Look! Over there! The rear wheel hub bolts from Jay Leno’s first Honda 50!) etc., but the signs here were few and quite far between. I hope more informative and professional signage is in the works, as it would improve the quality of this experience dramatically.
Motorcycles on display when I visited included an impressive lineup of cammy singles: Norton Manxes and Internationals, (A George Beart tuned green painted Manx being the pinnacle of Norton-ness, unless you counted the air-cooled rotary street Commander) Matchless G-50’s, 7R’s, Excelsior Manxman, etc. etc. etc. More gems to be seen: a 1950 Gilera Saturno, a rare, fragile and largely unsuccessful Matchless G-45 racer, several Vincent Rapides, Comets and the aforementioned supercharged Black Lightning. This holder of the 1953 flying mile at Bonneville (175 mph) had a whacking huge SU carb bigger than Rosie O’Donnell’s mouth. Also from the Stevenage works: a genuine Grey Flash and an fine unrestored 99.99% original ’47 Rapide with a playful sign claiming the bike had but “… one new bolt, can you find it?…” I quickly found three or four non-factory fasteners and went to claim my prize from the attendant, but he refused to hand over the Vinnie… what a rip-off for the $3.00 admission cost, huh?
There were only a few Ducatis to be seen: an 888, an ossified 750GT (for sale) and a gorgeously perfect 1974 750 Sport, and a coupla singles. My visions of snitching a Ducati gearwheel with pristine shifting dogs for my crippled Darmah soon faded, so I chugged my last Starbuck’s drink and continued wandering the floor. I found a nice Guzzi Falcone, and the one-and-only 1956 MV 125 of champion Carlo Ubialli, one of the rarest and most desirable (to my way of thinking) bikes on the floor. It appeared to be in as-raced condition, with stone chipped fairing, engine castings rougher than a drag queen’s Sunday-morning stubble, oil stains and a faded black suede racing saddle. Is there anything sexier on an Italian motorcycle than a black suede saddle? Oh, Angelina Jolie sans Billy Bob Redneck, you say? Point well taken.
Triumphs on display included a Speed Twin, a TR5 “Just Like James Dean’s.” A very rare BSA Blue Star caught my attention as did a single-cylinder high-cam Parilla racer from the 60’s. Looking forlorn and desperate for a Saturday night date was one pink and seafoam blue supercharged Arlen Ness Harley. Pioneer machines included a 1910 FN 4-cylinder and a replica of some mammoth Daimler-Benz 19th century wood and iron monstrosity that weighed around 900 pounds and needed to be pulled by a team of horses to get the engine started.
There was a lot of good stuff to see, but very little of it was explained well or in proper detail. As I wandered through the museum, other folks around me bombarded the attendant with questions, many of which he either couldn’t answer (being all of 21 years old) or answered incorrectly. This joint needs major attention paid to explaining such wonderful old motorcycles in deep, relational and correct detail: signs, signs, signs. Video displays too, maybe? It was also a bit off putting not to see any bits like old fairings, parts of engines, wheel rims, crusty helmets or scuffed leathers, dog-eared posters or faded photos, ancient race schedules… all there is, is just motorcycles, ma’am, just motorcycles.
The museum has a web site www.motosolvang.com but it’s as incomplete as the small paper brochure, maddeningly short of facts and accurate information about such a wonderful collection of rare moto-history. On a recent visit to the site, the photos and copy hadn’t changed significantly in many months. Clicking on one “featured bike” brings up text about Ubialli’s MV 125, but the picture shows a 4-cylinder inline 1906 FN. Note to Virgil & the Solvang crew: someone ought to try and match up website words with the right pictures, and what good is all this newfangled internet technology if you don’t make an effort to update the information every once in a while?
Solvang itself clearly exists to feed off the tourist trade. Indeed it was like my wallet was velcroed to my forehead with the words “take whatever you want” emblazoned in Danish. Solvang didn’t light the candle for me, but Virgil Elings’ collection of bike is a must-see if you’re on that section of the mid-California coast, and if it’s a weekend, and if it’s after 11 a.m. or before 5 p.m. Otherwise you’ll have to be content with some sugar cookies and a ride on the cheery Solvang Old Danish Market Place horse-drawn cart with the pantsuited matrons. And what if you’re still hungry for more wheeled fun? For a double shot of genuine motorized nostalgia, check out Jack’s Gas-Up Museum in Buellton, a short drive from Solvang. Jack Mendenhall, owner of the place, has got hisself a bang-up collection of old gasoline pump tops, oil cans, signs, license plates, nostalgic ads, car parts, kerosene lanterns and petticoat rims.
Vintage Motorcycle Museum (Solvang Motorcycle Museum)
Solvang Village Square
320 Alisal Road