Heading away for a jam packed week of vintage motorcycles and racing is a dream trip. MDM headed to Alabama to check out the Barber Motor Museum... Words & Photos: Dave Manning
For many of us, a holiday abroad is not a true holiday if it doesn’t involve motorcycles in one form or another. Dave Manning interrupted his trip in the USA to indulge himself in classic bikes and classic racing at an amazing Museum called the Barber Motor Museum.
Recognised as being the world’s largest motorcycle collection, the Barber Motorsports Museum has over 1,600 motorcycles spanning over 100 years of production and represents 200 different manufacturers from 20 countries. I’ve always wanted to take a look at the collection, but with it being on the far side of the Atlantic from me (I live in England), it wasn’t somewhere that I could just pop over to for a quick look around!
Once a year, in early October, the museum also organises the Vintage Festival, with a race track on the expansive Leeds, Alabama site. They run alongside the American Historical Racing Motorcycle Association series doing parade laps and also have an area set aside for trials too. Given the size of the festival, as well as the size of the museum, I thought it made perfect sense to travel to Barber for the weekend on which they hold the festival.
Held over three days, the expansive museum and sprawling Motorsports Park have just about everything that any motorcycle fan could want, from on-track action to club displays, via the incredible museum, two large ‘swap meet’ areas, trade stands and ‘Ace Corner’, the area sponsored by the Orlando branch of the London’s famous Ace Café.
As a specifically-designed race circuit, rather than a converted road, country park or airfield, there are lots and lots of very good spectating areas at Barber. Yet, Ace Corner is not only situated at a superb place to watch the racing, but is also the venue at which live bands play, and a custom bike show takes place on the Saturday afternoon and into the evening. Somewhat impressively, it’s not what you might expect from a custom show in the States either, with many café racer and streetfighters on display.
The classic racing aspect of the festival is somewhat different to classic racing in Europe or Australia, with there being a huge dependency on classic twin cylinder Honda four strokes, rather than the British singles and twins that dominate the UK scene. The variety of race classes and machinery is equally as fascinating, with the bikes in the Hand Shift Shoot Out proved interesting. Many hours spent walking the race paddock in baking temperatures on the Friday morning resulted in hundreds of photographs.
Elsewhere, an impressive line-up of machinery in front of the Vintage Japanese MC saw even more Honda twins alongside a variety of Seventies trail bikes and a glut of early inline fours. While the Antique Motorcycle Club of America had an impressive display of mainly home-market material, plus the occasional Brit classic and a fascinating array of classic flat-trackers, and a handful of choppers.
Inside the AMCA marquee was a stunning example of an Excelsior single, parked beside a V-twin from the same manufacturer, an immaculate Model F Harley, and an inline four Patria of 1263cc capacity. Some real rarities on show there, many of which had been used in the infamous Motorcycle Cannonball run for veteran machinery that has been running, coast-to-coast across America, every other year over the last decade.
But the rare machinery wasn’t just on show, as a surprisingly large number of them were being used for transport around the site. As the Motorsports Park encompasses no less than 880 acres, it was something of a task to cover the grounds on foot, and while golf carts were available for hire, most folk used their bikes. Apart from the obvious choices such as classic Honda Monkey bikes and Cushman scooters, there were some real rarities being used. Essentially, if you can think of a type of classic bike, there was one there somewhere.
That all-encompassing variety of machinery was exemplified within the walls of the 230,000 square feet of the museum. Not just in the number and variety of bikes on view, but in the way that they are displayed. The ceiling-high racks that line the walls and the lift shaft, which were 14 bikes high; the ‘christmas tree’ stacked bike displays; the mopeds hanging from cables; the wooden board racing display; the Daytona 200 race banking and the off-road bridge / jump.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the, frankly colossal, museum is that the bikes on display aren’t just rarities or factory prototypes, but also more common production bikes such as a Suzuki Hayabusa, a SOHC Honda 750, Yamaha FZ750, Kawasaki Z1, Triumph Rocket III etc. But perhaps the most fascinating section is that of the early machinery produced prior to World War 1, and the amazing American built Harleys, Popes, Indians, Hendersons and more.
And all of the display bikes have information boards detailing each machine and it’s history. The lowest floor of the museum comprises a food and drink area, plus the restoration rooms, including a full machine shop and the very talented people to use it. Barber maintain and restore all the vehicles in their care, and the restoration area is open to view for visitors. They also have the world’s largest collection of Lotus race cars, if classic four wheelers are your thing.
I spent a full day just in the museum, and didn’t see it all. So, even if you head over to Alabama outside of the first weekend in October, and you’re not there for the Vintage Festival, plan on having at least two days at the museum, there really is that much to see.
Barber Motor Museum Gallery