Motorcycle Heaven in Birmingham.
Every collector understands the story. First, a couple of objects—motorcycles perhaps—are acquired, soon followed by a few more. After all, bikes are wonderful to look at as well as ride—and there is still room left in the toy box. Quickly the number swells to twenty or more and there is no longer space at home, bikes are on display in every room. But it’s impossible to stop. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a few real race machines—maybe an MV Agusta GP bike, or an antique Indian board tracker?
So, a building must be found with sufficient real estate that the fun of acquisition can continue. So many motorcycles, so little time. But when does the idea to create a formal museum occur? After the first hundred or so? Three hundred? In the case of George Barber that number had risen to over eight hundred—and he isn’t finished. (Click image to enlarge)
Barber is a successful dairyman and former sports car and motorcycle racer whose original intent was to gather fine automobiles. Jeff Ray, director of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, recalls, “While collecting a few cars, we also took in a few motorcycles. Barber quickly decided that although a car exhibited body shape, some paint and chrome, it also hid all the interesting mechanical parts. A motorcycle on the other hand is completely exposed, showing the intent of the designer, the mechanical artistry and the workmanship of the craftsman who put it together.” Thus in 1988, George Barber’s motorcycles began to replace his cars.
Barber began to purchase entire collections, housing them in a nondescript old building that had once been used for the maintenance of milk delivery trucks. As the number of motorcycles grew, the exhibit was opened to the general public. Eventually, almost ten thousand visitors a week were coming to see “that dairy farmer’s motorcycle collection.” (Click image to enlarge)
By 1994 a non-profit corporation had been established, creating a permanent museum. Now operating with tax advantages, the cramped downtown building could be replaced by a dedicated facility, specifically designed to show off what had become perhaps the finest showcase of motorcycles in the world.
“The difference between a collector and a museum is that a collector has temporary possession of the articles for a period of time, then they go away. A museum acquires them for permanent display,” explains Ray. “We wanted to do something special for the city of Birmingham by creating a destination for motorcycle enthusiasts from all over the world.”
When the “Art of the Motorcycle” opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the majority of machines in that now legendary exhibit came from Barber’s collection and the worldwide interest it created helped fuel the drive to establish a new facility. Barber Motorsports Park is now perhaps the most beautiful tribute to motorcycling to be found anywhere.
Designed by Barber himself, the museum building reveals his strong background in art and architecture. The layout finds its influences in the Guggenheim’s famous spiral walkway and in an open parking garage where visitors initially view a panorama of multiple floor levels displaying the many machines.
This is a “living museum,” where all of the machines are in running condition and require periodic exercise. What was planned as a small track to run and test the museum’s inventory instead became a full 2.38-mile, 16-turn professional racecourse. Beautifully landscaped, the circuit is a fine ribbon of tarmac that follows the terrain, with 80 feet of elevation change and wide run-offs for safety. It has hosted professional automotive and motorcycle race series and appropriately, the Porsche Driving Experience. (Click image to enlarge)
The museum has a unique layout that satisfies both informed enthusiasts and those with general interest. “There is no specific time line for the exhibits,” says curator Ray. “It is not a ‘follow the green line’ type of display. We try to create a gallery setting as much as possible.” Some are grouped according to era, while there are also some diorama exhibits. One such is Daytona Banking, featuring bikes raced at that famous venue including those from the beach course era. “For instance, if you were interested in Triumph motorcycles, you would not find all of them in one exhibit. They would be displayed along with other machines of their particular era or type,” he says.
As one enters the building the first bikes encountered are mounted on shelves attached to the walls. This type of display is used effectively throughout to showcase entire genres of motorcycles. “It was a space-saving method that we liked at the old facility and continue to use,” Ray says. “We also had many of the bikes in glass cases, but at the new facility we have enough room that they can be shown out in the open where a visitor can walk right up to them.”
The sheer depth of the collection is incredible. Starting from the earliest prototype bikes, the exhibits go through nearly every type of racer and road bike from each era right up to the newest production offerings. For example, there are several very rare MV Agusta race bikes, the dominant marque in GP racing until the mid-‘70s when the company retired from competition. Here, a 500cc MV four-cylinder of the type ridden by motorcycle and Formula One World Champion John Surtees can be seen close-up. Joining it soon will be one of his racing Ferraris, currently down in the maintenance shop waiting for its body to be reinstalled prior to a test run on the track. (Click image to enlarge)
Although motorcycles dominate the museum, Barber by no means gave up his love of car collecting. When he found he could purchase an entire fleet of consequential Lotus race cars for the cost of two or three Porsches, he took the pragmatic approach. As with the motorcycles, the collection is among the finest anywhere and includes early sports cars as well as Dan Gurney’s Lotus 38 Indy car, and Formula cars up through the ‘90s.
After more than two decades of acquiring and planning—not to mention an investment in excess of $55 million—George Barber has built a fitting homage to the fine art of the motorcycle through the ages. As a result, Birmingham should now be firmly on the map as one of the mandatory riding destinations for every enthusiast.