The Great Escape
For more than four decades, Journey guitarist Neal Schon has enjoyed a roaring relief from the daily grind that only fast cars and custom motorcycles can deliver.
Story by Chris Gill | Photos by Jay Blakesberg
Most people dread their commute, but when Neal Schon was recording tracks for Journey’s Eclipse album and his solo effort The Calling at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studio, the ride to and from work was one of his favorite parts of the day.
Considering that his daily drive took him down from the hills of San Anselmo and across the San Rafael Bridge, which boasts one of the most gorgeous views of the San Francisco Bay and city in the area, it’s easy to understand why he looked forward to this trip. Having a garage full of high-performance automobiles and custom motorcycles to choose from each day also helped eliminate the tedium.
“I loved driving in to the studio each day from Marin County,” Schon says. “On the way to the studio I’d drive on the lower level of the San Rafael Bridge, and when I went back home I’d go on the upper level, which is almost like an entirely different drive. Some days I drove a car, and other days I rode a motorcycle. I like to take long drives in the morning when I’m recording because it gives me time to think about what I’m going to do in the studio that day. When I want to listen to music that I’m working on, I’ll ride one of my big baggers, because they have great stereos in them.”
Schon’s current collection of cars and bikes is quite impressive. It includes a Bentley Continental Supersport convertible, Lamborghini Gallardo, two Porsche Cayenne Turbo S SUVs, and seven custom Harley-Davidsons built by Arlen Ness, Cory Ness, and Kirk Taylor that range from compact café racers to big, comfortable touring baggers. “All of my cars and bikes are sporty,” he says. “Even my baggers are very sporty bikes, even though they’re big, bulky, and heavy. They handle like sport bikes.”
Schon has appreciated both style and speed from cars and bikes for as long as he can remember. As a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, he often attended custom car shows. “I was as much of a car freak as I was a guitar freak when I was a kid,” he recalls. “I loved hot rods, Ferraris, and Maseratis. I bought my first car when I joined Santana. I was only 15 at the time and didn’t even have my driver’s license yet. I wanted to buy a Mercedes, but since I was only 15, the Mercedes salesman wouldn’t pay any attention to me, so I left and went to a British Motors dealer. The guy immediately helped me, and I bought a Jaguar XJ6. I had the Jag for about six months. My mother worked as a secretary for an attorney in the Bay Area back then, and he had a Maserati Ghibli. He liked my Jag, and I liked his Maserati, so we swapped cars.”
As expected when youth and a very powerful engine are combined, Schon quickly collected numerous speeding tickets. When a judge threatened to take his license away if he didn’t get rid of the Maserati, Schon bought a Triumph Spitfire. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the influx of tickets, so he ended up getting a Volvo sedan.
“I drove a lot of different Volvos for the next three years,” he says. “The great thing about the Volvo sedan is that it had a lot of room in the back for amplifiers and guitars. I needed to get a low-key car and drive slow until the speeding tickets were off my record and my insurance was affordable again.”
Schon’s driving record finally cleared in 1975, around the time that Journey released their debut album. To celebrate both, he bought himself Ferrari’s newly introduced 308 GTB. “I loved that car, but I had a lot of problems with it,” he admits. “When the Quattrovalvole came out in 1982, I got that as well, so I had two Ferraris. When one was in the shop, I’d drive the other. Then the Testarossa came out in 1984, so I got one of those. It was a wicked gray-market car shipped from Europe that had no emissions controls. I drove the crap out of it, blew the engine a couple of times, and fried the clutch almost every week because I was dropping it so hard.”
Schon began playing with the band Bad English when Journey temporarily disbanded in 1987, resulting in the relocation of him and his Ferraris to Los Angeles. “I lived in L.A. for the next eight years,” he recalls. “During that time there were floods, fires, and all kinds of weather-related disasters. My Ferraris were useless there. When the floods happened, the waters were above the doors of my Testarossa, so I couldn’t even drive to the grocery store down the street. I ended up buying a Ford Bronco, which was the best car I could have for the time I spent in L.A. A friend hot-rodded it and got the most he could out of the engine. It was a beast, and I never had any problems with it.”
After the Northridge earthquake hit Los Angeles on January 17, 1994, Schon decided he had enough, so he packed his bags and returned to the Bay Area. Shortly after his arrival, he finally purchased a Mercedes-Benz like he originally wanted, this time opting for an SL500 convertible. “When I moved back to San Francisco I got the itch for cars again,” he admits. “I got back into exotic cars, and eventually I bought a Lamborghini. I really love the Gallardo. I just sold my white Gallardo, which was all-wheel driven, and got an all-black 2013 Gallardo that is rear-wheel driven. The old one held its value very well, so it didn’t cost me that much to upgrade to the new one.”
Because Schon has so many cars and bikes to choose from and spends a good amount of time away from home every year on tour with Journey, he keeps very low mileage on each vehicle. “My Bentley Supersport has about 1,500 miles on it now, so it’s just starting to loosen up,” he says. “It has racing seats in it, but it’s still very comfortable. My day-to-day running-around cars are my Porsche Cayennes. They have Twin Turbo 550 engines, so they’re really fast and drive amazing. For a daily driver, you can’t beat them.”
Schon started riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles when he moved to Los Angeles. These days he prefers to ride the custom creations of Arlen Ness, his son Cory Ness, and Kirk Taylor, all of whom are based in the Bay Area as well. “Arlen is the granddaddy to everybody when it comes to customizing bikes,” he says. “I’ve been following his work for a long time, and I’ve become friends with all of these guys over the years. They’ve built me quite a few beautiful bikes.”
One of his favorite bikes is an orange Harley Dyna café racer built by Cory Ness. “I had a great Harley FXRS that I loved that was stolen,” he says. “They don’t make them anymore. The Dyna was the closest thing I could find to what I was looking for, so I had Cory build me something that was comparable. I call it my little orange rocket.”
He says that usually takes his orange Dyna for quick rides along the Pacific coast, which is only a few minutes down the hill from his home. For longer excursions, he prefers the comfort of his baggers. “I love the way that rigid frames look, but my kidneys and back can’t handle riding on one for too long,” he admits. “I’m too old for that. My baggers are so comfortable that I can ride them all day long without feeling worn out by the end of the ride.”
The international success of Journey has taken Schon all over the world, but even though he’s visited numerous exotic locales he says that there is nowhere he’d rather be than the city by the bay. Auto and motorcycle enthusiasts already know that the remote, winding roads north of San Francisco offer some of the most thrilling motoring experiences available anywhere in the world, but for Schon the location offers much more than that.
“I live on top of a hill that has some of the best views in Marin County,” he explains. “I can see the ocean from my house, and I get to see the most beautiful sunsets every night. The location is perfect for anywhere I want to go. It’s easy to get around, and there’s so much to see. San Francisco really has the feel of a European city, and there are lots of fascinating towns up here that are all connected by great drives. It takes me about 20 minutes to reach the city when there’s no traffic, or 20 minutes to reach the beach. It takes me maybe 25 minutes to reach my favorite recording studios in the East Bay. I’ve lived in the Bay Area most of my life, but I’ve haven’t found another place that I love as much as San Francisco.”