One man, George Barber, put together the world’s largest motorcycle museum, and it’s a spectacular place. He made his money from milk and indulged a passion for speed by driving Porsches professionally and picking up 63 first place wins. In 1988 he began collecting classic cars, but knowing he would never manage to have the world’s best or biggest collection of cars, Barber took the advice of a friend and in 1991 began collecting motorcycles. Over the last 25 years he has put together the world’s largest collection of motorcycles, according to The Guinness Book of World Records.
The museum Barber founded in 1995, the Barber Motorsports Museum just outside Birmingham in Alabama, now has over 1400 of his bikes. About half are on display at any one time, all of them in immaculate condition and all of them drivable. The opening of a new extension, due in fall 2016, will ensure that almost all the collection will be on display at last.
The museum draws enthusiasts from around the world, but even if you have zero interest in motorcycles it’s worth visiting for the historical fascination of the items on display and because, from the moment you walk through the doors, the whole museum has that Wow Factor. The museum is one gigantic atrium-like building, with shiny bikes in bright metallic colors gleaming at you from every direction, over five floors. The whole display is a work of art.
The bikes cover the last hundred years and range from ancient machines that are little more than pumped-up bicycles through the days when Harley Davidsons looked about as sexy and as powerful as a sewing machine, right up to today’s high-powered models.
Among the many rarities are a 1968 Jawa 350GP from Czechoslovakia, one of only three ever made; a 1954 Motobi 200 Spring Lasting, a model that was only in production for one year; and a 1965 Valmobile from Japan, a scooter with all of 49cc to its name, and a top speed of 25mph. No wonder Batman preferred a Batmobile.
A 1953 Honda Cub was also from Japan and also had a top speed of 25mph, and the bike is significant as it was one of Honda’s first motorized products even though it was basically a bicycle with an engine strapped to it.
And why, you might wonder, is there a lawn mower on display? Mainly for fun and because it was a powerful mower built by Vincent Engineering in England to supplement the poor sales of their very expensive sports motorcycles. The mower was also once owned by four-time 500CC Motorcycle World Champion, John Surtees, though even he would struggle to get much speed out of a lawn mower with a two-stroke engine.
The museum has a large number of Harley Davidsons from over the years, including military models. One of these has had the name Ginny painted on it by the museum. It was driven during World War II by a local man, William Virgil Burton, who hadn’t known when he was given the bike that it was named Ginny, the same name as his mother.
Two of the bikes on display were used by Jim Rogers and Tabitha Esterbrook, also from Alabama, on a round-the-world trip they took in the early 1990s. They traveled for 20 months in 1990-91 and covered 57,354 miles by bike, through 51 countries and six continents. They became the first people to ride from the Atlantic (the west coast of Ireland) to the Pacific (the east coast of China) and the journey was all the more impressive because they used regular street bikes, not the kind of sports or adventure bikes that would be used today.
The museum is full of fascinating stories like this, as well as beautiful bikes… and others that look like they’re out of Wacky Races. And if you want to see some of them in action, check out the annual Vintage Festival, held early October every year.
For opening times, admission prices etc, see the Barber Motorsports Museum Website.
All photos (c) Mike Gerrard.