Nostalgia was the order of the day when European motorcycle racing legends Giacomo Agostini and Phil Read, traveling with an entourage of journalists, filmmakers, friends and family, stopped in for a visit to Virgil Elings’s Vintage Motorcycle Museum in Solvang.
Elings’ is well known in the academic and financial world as a maverick physicist and inventor with 42 patents in scanning tunneling and atomic force microscopes, a former UCSB professor who walked away from tenure to found Digital Instruments in Goleta.
Equal in importance to these impressive accomplishments, in Elings’s opinion, are motorcycles, which have been an integral part of his life since he was 14, when he bought his first bike, a 1939 James 125. After college, when he left Iowa to come teach at UCSB in 1966, he rode a black 1966 BSA all the way.
Motorcycles have given Elings more than a means of transportation. They’ve served as his lifelong hobby as he worked on, restored and raced motorcycles throughout the past four decades, including a stint of serious Grand Prix racing that he and his son, Jeff, did for several years.
An avid collector of motorcycles, after he moved to the Santa Ynez Valley around a decade ago, his motorcycle collection outgrew the guest rooms in his 10,000-square-foot Santa Ynez home, and he bought the Solvang Outlet Center on Alisal Road. He selected the former Brooks Brothers shop for his motorcycles, where the wood floor tolerated leaking oil, and opened the motorcycle museum.
Elings’s museum features an extensive collection of motorcycles dating all the way back to 1910, but as a former racer himself, the emphasis of his collection slants toward racing motorcycles.
What better place to meet up and reminisce with two of the world’s most famous Grand Prix racers?
“This particular museum is exceptional—anywhere in the world it would be, but that Virgil has it here…” said noted Speed Channel and ESPN personality Alain de Cadenet. “Among serious affectionados of vintage motorcycles, this particular museum is well known throughout the country.”
Cadenet, a former race car driver, accompanied the racers and their entourage up the coast from Los Angeles to Half Moon Bay, in a motorcade consisting of motorcycles, vans and cars, to attend the Motorcycle International Concours d’Elegance. Agostini and Read both served as honorary judges at the event and Agostini received a lifetime achievement award there.
“It’s incredible that man (Elings) had the passion to collect so many iconic bikes,” said Read, visibly impressed with the motorcycles in the museum, especially the racing bikes from his era.
Though there was deadly serious competition between Read and Agostini in their heyday, the two respected each other and remained friends.
“They were rather like pilots in combat,” said Cadernet about the rivalry between the two racers, “at the end of the day they were happy to be alive.”
This Britten V1000, shown below, a gem in Elings’ collection, is one of 10 that were made by a handful of New Zealanders, including Ken McIntosh in the photos above. In the early 1990s they were the fastest 4-stroke motorcycles in the world. All the body, including the wheels, is carbon fiber. John Britten designed the motorcycle.