The Barber Vintage

Text: Greg Smith • Photography: Greg Smith, Barber Vintage Museum

Which motorcycles would you most like to see? Maybe that first bike you owned or the one Dad or Granddad rode during the war. Maybe you want to examine a legendary, historic or a one-of-a-kind ride? If you could see them all in one place, up close and personal, would the destination be worth the trip? In the case of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum outside Birmingham, Alabama, the answer to this last question would be a most emphatic YES!

Possibly the best, most varied collection of vintage motorcycles anywhere in North America or the world is waiting for your inspection at the Barber Museum. With over 80,000 square feet of display area and 144,000 square feet of total space, the museum is home to nearly 1,000 motorcycles built from 1904 to the present day. At any given time, nearly half the collection is on display, and thanks to an ongoing rotation of motorcycles, the exhibits change regularly. So, even if you have visited before, you really haven't seen anything yet!

The visionary behind the museum is George Barber, a one-time Porsche race driver and fulltime motor sports enthusiast. Mr. Barber has assembled a truly magnificent assortment in an even more impressive home. What began as his private collection now constitutes the largest philanthropic organization in the state of Alabama, and the events held at the motorsports park and museum contribute over $ 100 million to the local economy each year.

Mr. Barber's vision for the museum is evident in every facet of the exhibition. Visitors are enticed inside on arrival by the antique motorcycles parked at the entrance. Through the doors they're greeted with a wall display that is built to resemble a child's model toy collection box. Only the "models" on these shelves are real vehicles mounted in a multi-level display. Beyond the front desk, the world of motorsports opens up as a broad sweeping ramp encircling a glass-encased freight elevator leads the eyes and mind toward endless possibilities. No blue lines, red lines or arrows suggest a path to follow. This is a journey of self-discovery. Awestruck visitors typically spot a special motorcycle across the open expanse of the gallery and gravitate there. Halfway to the intended target, they routinely zig and zag off course, detoured by another fascinating example that's drawn their attention. Before long, visitors find themselves crisscrossing the entire gallery, examining unique totems of design, history, and personal recollection.

This is certainly no ordinary display. The motorcycles and cars - the museum also boasts of the best collection of Lotus racing cars in the world - are not simply arranged in neat rows or in a timeline. Rather, grouped in other ways, they indicate function, era and significance. In one part of the gallery, you'll find authentic board track racers displayed on a simulated board track. You can also find momentous racers from Daytona displayed in another section replicating that track's high banking. Elsewhere, a wall display pays homage to the artistry of Italian motorcycle designers. On the ground floor, visitors can peek in on the restoration projects in progress, including "one-of-a-kind" bikes and even a Don Vesco record-setting streamliner.

In many cases, however, the motorcycles are left un-restored and original. Some appear to be in a state of long-time wear. But, as the museum's director Jeff Ray points out, these are the most important pieces in the entire collection. These original examples put to rest all of the arguments that come up during any restoration project.

"Restoration is an interpretation," Jeff explains. Restorers don't necessarily know where something might have gone, or whether a certain paint scheme was ever actually produced on a model. There is usually no photographic record. The available marketing pieces are also interpretations, conceived by the marketing department based on an interpretation of engineering diagrams or illustrations drawn up during the production process. The engineers and designers produced sketches of what they expected a model to become. The builders interpreted these designs and built the model which may or may not include all of these details. Meanwhile, the marketers produced slick advertising with details and paint schemes that may never have been produced. And so, many years later, the restorer can't always rely on a combination of these artifacts to bring a model back. He may be building something that never existed. Therefore, an original example is a priceless commodity. There are several such treasures in the gallery.

In the active restoration facility, one of the restorers, Brian Slark, is jokingly called Dr. Norton because of his intimate, firsthand knowledge of the British motorcycle industry. For over fifty years, Brian has worked for many of the legendary British makes at one time or another. Utilizing his sharp memory and keen eye for detail, the museum has become home to a fabulous collection of beautiful British motorcycles, including some very interesting landmarks typifying the pinnacle of British motorcycle racing.

The Barber Museum displays are all arranged artistically with loving care. Placed high and low, every intricate detail of the machines can be examined. Some visitors are drawn here for the beautiful designs; others come for the engineering aspects. The museum gallery is, as Jeff Ray describes it, "a place where you bring a passion to motion." That passion is evident in the artful layout of the museum, the creative displays, and in the detailed restorations on every floor.

Maybe the motorcycle you most want to see is a Vincent Black Shadow, or a Harley WLA. Perhaps it's a rare Britten or a newly minted, sand-cast Honda CB-750. A board track racer or a more modern race machine ridden by Freddie Spencer or Yvon Duhamel? Regardless, whatever brings you here, you're likely to suffer from what the staff calls "moto-coma" by the time you leave. No matter which bike and era interest you, chances are you can examine and explore them to your heart's content at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
Barber Motorsports Park
6030 Barber Motorsports Parkway
Leeds, Alabama 35094
www.barbermuseum.org