Feature

Hog Heaven

Odd as it sounds, those who dig motorcycles should proceed directly to Birmingham.

by Paul Gerald

Afriend of mine in Birmingham asked me one time if I wanted to go see her friend’s motorcycle collection. This guy runs a local dairy, I gathered, and he got into collecting motorcycles a while back, and now he’s opening his collection to the public. I don’t know or give a flip about motorcycles, but I figured I could put up with seeing a few of them. Besides, I’m polite, so I went along.
It turns out the guy, George Barber, runs a $250-million-per-year dairy and he has 600 motorcycles. He’s got a warehouse in downtown Birmingham with 325 of them on display. He’s got motorcycles that are rare, like one out of four ever built; old, like from 1904; innovative, like a Hercules W2000 with a rotary engine; and plain old collector’s items, like a 1913 Harley Davidson Silent Grey Fellow in original, unrestored, and working condition.
He has what is certainly the biggest motorcycle collection in North America, and may well be the biggest one in the world. And all this is in Birmingham, Alabama.
It’s called Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, but you’ll need the address to find it, because practically nobody knows it’s there. It has six parking spots out front and a small sign with the name. If you subscribe to motorcycle magazines and watch ESPN’s SpeedWeek, you’ve probably seen it. Otherwise, you would never have heard of it.
The collection started in 1988 with 1950s cars, but Barber soon realized there was no definitive, historical, and international motorcycle collection in America. Now there is, with 11 employees, a 4,500-square-foot space that’s jam-packed and soon to be doubled, and 10,000 visitors a year despite running no ads.

The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum

There are still some cars around. There are three Lotuses – an 18, an 11, and a 21 from the early 1960s – and a four-seat Formula One car built and owned by actor James Garner.
But the whole museum has an evolving purpose. It restores all of these bikes to their original condition, based on serious research into things like the location of decals on the gas tank, the location of racing stripes, and the kind of paint used. The most amazing thing about it, to me, is that 99 percent of the bikes in the collection are “runners,” meaning they can be ridden right now.
Along the way, Barber’s crew has put together a definitive motorcycle library – did you know there have been over 3,600 motorcycle manufacturers? – and now there are even glass cabinets full of a toy motorcycle collection and about 60 hand-carved wooden cars. This summer the Guggenheim in New York is having an “Art of the Motorcycle” show, and Barber is supplying most of the 100 bikes they’re using.
Barber had the warehouse seven years before he let the public in to see it. But even when it was just his, it was already set up like a museum, with bikes hanging in cases and informative plaques all over. Even now they’re not prepared for hordes of tourists with kids in tow. The place is only open from 9 to 3 on Wednesdays and Fridays.
The executive director, Jeff Ray, told me the museum is for enthusiasts and they “aren’t really set up to do educational programming.” He said it’s a self-guided tour, aimed at people who are into motorcycles enough to have a grasp of what they’re looking at. But even then, how many people have heard of, much less seen, an Aermacchi Chimera 175, the “Italian Harley”?
Ray also said that this is the year Barber intends to make more of an effort to accommodate the general, non-bike-obsessive public.
I walked around this place, utterly ignorant, and utterly amazed. Here’s a 1904 Shaw, basically a bike with a motor stuck on it, built by a man named Shaw in some small town in Kansas. Here are a couple dozen different Triumphs, the official bike of the 1950s bad boys, from the days when, as Ray said, “If it didn’t smoke, vibrate, and leak oil, it wasn’t a motorcycle.” Here’s a 1992 Ducati Corsa Superbike, a monster racing bike with an 888cc, two-cylinder, four-stroke, liquid-cooled engine – whatever all that means. The plaque says it goes 185, though.
The museum does field a racing team, by the way, and they’ve won championships in vintage racing. But Ray likes to point out that this isn’t vintage racing like the vintage car races, where you drive around politely and race the clock. Ray says, “Our racing bikes are used in anger. We have a photo of our driver, Steve, with his knee dragging on a turn, and you can see air underneath the rear wheel. The bike is just balanced on his knee and the front wheel. He was probably doing 100 at that point.”
Not everyone at Barber’s museum is that insane, but your head just might get readjusted while you’re there. I went in knowing and caring nothing about motorcycles, but I found myself thinking those Triumphs looked pretty cool. I just might start shopping for a leather jacket.
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