600-Mile Tour to Experience the MotoTalbott Collection“I don’t buy bikes, I buy history and stories,” Robb Talbott said to me as we stood in the shop attached to his recently opened MotoTalbott Collection in Carmel Valley, Calif.In the adjoining rooms sit nearly 150 classic motorcycles from 12 different countries, with dozens of brands represented—everything from road to dirt bikes, from prototypes to mopeds, from an MV Agusta Truckette to a 1947 Diamond T truck with the engine out of a B17 on the bed.
This was my fourth visit to the museum since February. Bobby Weindorf, curator and restorer for MotoTalbott Collection, is a friend, and I had made his shop a destination on days when I woke up in my home in Ojai with a wild hair. At 300 miles away, and with a route choice between the stupidly picturesque California Highway 1 or a series of deserted inland twisties, Carmel Valley is the perfect day ride when I feel the need to go somewhere far-ish.Bobby had Betty, my Ducati Scrambler, up on the lift, giving her a 14,000-mile check up while I gave her a good scrub and made mental notes of how he had gotten the tank off. It amuses me to see my Scrambler in this building. I imagine she feels both a little insecure, and a little cooler at the same time, while among all these beautiful machines—kind of like when I was a little girl and my older brother first took me along to play backyard football with him and his friends. I awkwardly felt “I don’t fit in here,” while simultaneously feeling “This is so cool!”As we’re tinkering, Robb comes back into the room holding up a three-foot long tin toy truck from the early 20th century and jovially exclaims, “And I have cool stuff like this!” Suddenly, I don’t feel so unrefined on my bike’s behalf.Sure, in the other room there is a 1911 Indian board tracker and the 2008 MV Agusta F4 that set the production-bike speed record at Bonneville (185 mph), but there are also mopeds and pedal cars. It’s easy to see that Robb is genuinely delighted by all of it. For him, it’s not about prestige and perfection—it’s about the stories.The stories include the 1965 BMW R 69 S that was buried in a hillside by its owner to protect it from one of the Big Sur fires, and the Rat Chopper— a 1969 Triumph Bonneville that some Hells Angel bought as a salvage and turned into a proper biker bike by putting a chopper front end on it, a Death’s Head on the front forks, and some spikes. At some point, the Bonnie caught on fire and was salvaged again, and now it sits in the museum, a little worse for wear, but it still runs.Also running is the 1925 BMW R37, one of only 65 ever made. It’s so rare, and such a perfect running example of a 1925 factory racing bike, that it won Talbott best in show at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering and best in class in the BMW division at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance at Monterey in August. One of Talbott’s Benelli race bikes won top bike at the Concorso Italiano show that same week, giving Talbott a triple crown victory to celebrate along with the opening of his museum.Now, in the museum’s open-to-the-public glory, these stories are on placards that sit next to each bike, explaining what makes the bike unique. But, it wasn’t until I heard more about Robb Talbott’s story that I understood what makes the MotoTalbott Collection so special.First, there’s the part of the story where Robb is the son of Robert Talbott, of Robert Talbott Tie Company repute, and the part where, after years of working in multiple capacities for that company, Robb launched the highly regarded Talbott Vineyards. And then there’s the part where Robb has ridden, raced and adored bikes since he was 14. That’s a typical recipe for the type of person you might think would have his personal collection of impeccable bikes on display in a fancy museum in Carmel Valley.Still, the story gets more interesting. Robb has a degree in Fine Art, with an emphasis on design. After he graduated, Robb had a business buying, restoring, and selling antique cars and trucks. When he moved back to Carmel Valley, he built his own house—by himself—cutting all the joints by hand, pounding each nail in with an old hammer. It took him a year to build it because he was working three other jobs at the same time.With Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth as his bible, Robb lived in that house for the next eight years, completely off the grid, butchering his own beef from the cattle on his ranch, and eating the food he grew in his garden.So, yes, Robb Talbott is a successful businessman who has played a significant role in two substantial companies. Yet, at heart, he’s also an artist, a mechanic, a builder, a farmer, and a rancher with a healthy dose of counterculture in him. He’s the guy who jumps in and gets his hands dirty—the museum owner who would also crawl under a truck to fix it.In fact, already that morning I’d seen him take off on a dirt bike to go help the caretaker of his property work on a project. Later, he came into the museum and climbed a ladder, looking to haul some paint down out of storage.All of that comes through at MotoTalbott Collection, from the striking yet down to earth design aesthetic to the collection itself. “This museum is eclectic because it’s me,” Robb says. “I buy what grabs my soul, takes my heart, and interests me.” The barn find room is where this is most apparent.Tucked between the shop and a row of Vespas is a 50-square-foot room built out of reclaimed wood. Hanging on the wall are old gas tanks, license plates, and paraphernalia that Robb has collected over his lifetime. On the wooden bench are a couple of tools, and a quirky Bultaco flat tracker that Erv Kanemoto, a mechanic and motorcycle race team owner in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, had built for his nephew to race back in the 1960s.The room is the perfect tribute to the buried treasure of motorcycles—the barn find—and an homage to all the guys who, like Talbott, ever tinkered on their bikes in an old shed. Peering through the windows of the barn find room is like looking into the heart of MotoTalbott, and motorcycling itself. It captures the lifeblood of motorcycling, the place where the passion that fuels all things motorcycle was born.“You miss so much in this wonderful world of bikes if you stick to the trailer queens,” Robb says as he tells me why, unlike most motorcycle museums, he chooses not to restore all of the bikes he finds in order to let them retain their history. Having the mix of unrestored bikes and pristinely restored bikes among each other is refreshing. It somehow seems to lend a little life and infuse a bit more passion into the trailer queens.MotoTalbott Collection has its fair share of beauties you’d traditionally see in a museum, too, though it wasn’t until four years ago that Robb started acquiring motorcycles like these. Bikes that, to the artist in him with an eye for design, were gorgeous and significant. It started with the MV Agustas Robb bought from Gary Kohs’ collection, and continued to include bikes like the 1957 Mondial Dustbin factory racer from Guy Webster’s collection.He’s even sought out bikes from the list of 100 bikes that Guggenheim showed off as art in 1998 in The Art of the Motorcycle, such as the 1974 Bultaco Sherpa T. The particular Sherpa T that Robb purchased also happened to come with a great story— it was owned for 40 years by Señor Bultó, the founder of Bultaco.The shift four years ago to buying motorcycles that were considered pieces of art came at the point when Robb decided to enter into what he calls Phase 3 of his life. After 33 years of being in the wine business, he had stopped learning and had lost his passion. It was time for a change.When Robb sold Talbott Winery to Gallo last year, Phase 3 went into full effect and the MotoTalbott C0llection was born. A 501(c)(3), its mission is “education, preservation, restoration…all driven by passion.”The education part of the mission is twofold. First, it’s for Robb to keep educating himself and learning every day. He’s the type of guy who is happiest when his mind is as active as his hands. Second, it’s about giving back to the community by educating the public about his bikes and their stories.There are a lot of aspects of motorcycling that even motorcycle enthusiasts don’t know about, and the historian in Robb is excited about seeking out more uncommon types of bikes to share. For example, he’s commissioned a totally wacky aluminum bike called a Decopod made by Randy Grubb out of Grants Pass, Oregon. There are three in existence, and number four will live at MotoTalbott Collection.In the meantime, one of the ways Robb’s collection currently represents the obscure is through bikes from a handful of old Italian companies that aren’t well known— Moto Devil, Rumi, Bianchi, and Motobi, a company that two of the five Bianchi brothers split off and started in 1949.“It happens all the time that people come in and say ‘I’ve never even heard of these brands!’” says Bobby Weindorf, who, along with being MotoTalbott Collection’s curator, restorer and social media maven, is also an enthusiastic Italophile.In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect job for a guy who has wrenched on and ridden bikes his whole life, who worked for Ducati for five years, spent six years as a factory road race mechanic for Honda, and 10 years owning his own Moto Guzzi, Aprilia, and Vespa dealership in Santa Barbara.To see Bobby going from expertly restoring a bike, to calling a vintage dealer in New York to inquire about an old racing jersey he saw on Instagram, to excitedly meeting riders who come into the parking lot on cool custom bikes—all while Italian radio plays from his computer in the background—is to see a man in his element.That’s what makes MotoTalbott such a treat to visit. Robb and Bobby are remarkably talented men who work hard, but you also get the sense that they are two kids at heart who are just playing in their element. Neither one of them will hesitate to stand around with you and talk bikes, tell stories, and share what they know about all things motorcycle.As I put the panniers back on Betty to get ready to head home, Robb and Bobby met up to talk about what’s next. Robb considers the museum only about 80 percent finished, and he is looking forward to continuing to make it into an unusual and wonderful place to come learn about bikes.Robb wants to keep the museum fresh and outrageous, which means he’ll be selling off bikes he loses interest in, and buying more that he finds exciting. His goal is to have people come in and love the museum, and to make sure the museum goes on after he takes his last ride.I left the museum with Betty all spruced up and tore off down the G16 out of Carmel Valley. Carmel Valley Road is one of those roads that is so perfect to ride, especially when it’s a bluebird Tuesday afternoon and no one else is out, that I actually said aloud to myself in my helmet, “This is my life!”I thought of my friend who had asked me before I left the day before why I was riding 600 miles round trip to have some work done on my bike. Sure, I could drop it off at the local dealer, I told her, but then I wouldn’t have an excuse to take a long ride and see a friend—a friend who lets me stand right there while he works on my bike and teaches me things, instilling a slim hope that maybe someday I’ll be able to do the work on my own bike. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I can wander off and drool over Robb’s truly amazing collection.So why ride 600 miles round trip to get work done on my bike? The same reason why Robb Talbott created the MotoTalbott Collection—passion. Because of a longing to take in as much beauty as possible and a desire to continually learn. For the pure damn delight of it. And because it’s all about the story.Photography by Bobby WeindorfJay Fields is the author of two books: Teaching People, Not Poses and Home in Your Body.