When it comes to biking bucket lists there are a handful of undisputable destinations that’ll take your breath away.
A visit to the TT will fry your mind and the barely-controlled chaos of the Nürburgring has to be seen to be believed. But if you want to pore over just about every bike you’ve ever dreamed of, lusted over, or seen in magazines, and all lovingly presented like two-wheeled pieces of art, you have to see the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Alabama, USA, at least once.
One of biking’s best kept secrets is set in the immaculately-manicured grounds of the 930-acre Barber Motorsports Park and sits on the edge of a dramatic 16-corner, 2.38-mile racetrack (which is home to MotoAmerica, IndyCar and vintage racing). Set up by dairy multi-millionaire, ex-racing driver and philanthropist George Barber, this non-profit museum is home to the world’s largest motorcycle collection with over 900 machines on display (and a further 700 in storage or being restored) and, with the exception of a handful of prototypes and one-offs, all can be run within the hour.
Speak to anyone who’s been and they say you need hours, a day, or even multiple visits to see everything properly but just before entering the giant, air-conditioned entrance hall, an escape from the searing heat of the Deep South, I’m imagining I can whizz round in less than an hour. After all, when you’ve seen one museum…
But within seconds of stepping into this temple of motorcycling the plan’s changed. I clap eyes on a 1991 Ducati 888 Corse and the bodywork of a factory Bimota Tesi 1D levitating above its rolling chassis. I’m immediately side-tracked and, looking up at the towering, seemingly endless displays of gleaming machines stretching to the rafters, I realise they’re right... I’m here for the long haul.
A sudden rush of panic for fear of missing out forces me into quickly making a plan. From where I’m standing I can only see the edges of each of the two floors above me, but already I want to check-out David Sadowski’s 1990 Daytona winning Vance and Hines OW01 over here, a concours Honda MB-5 (my first bike) over there and a Yamaha RD350LC (had one of those, too) up there.
Many bikes are arranged in themes: grid-fulls of Yamaha TZ racers, a succession of Buells, vintage rarities and off-roaders, but most are displayed haphazardly. A Honda NR750 sits next to a Benelli 500 Quatrro. A Blackbird can be found nuzzling up next to an MV Agusta F4 1000 Tamburini. So it’s not just a case of finding what you want and breezing past the rest.
Everyone has their own era and type of bikes they really connect to. Mine are sports and race bikes from the mid-’80s to today, so I’m forced to rummage through pretty much everything to find the ones with my name on, like a kid excitedly searching for his presents under the Christmas tree. Before long I’m stopping to gawp at hidden gems: the weird Honda Motocompo, the wonderful Britten V1000 and things I’d never normally give a second glance, like a two-stroke Kawasaki H2 Pro Stock drag bike.
Starting at the top and working my way down through the four floors seems to be the best way to take everything in. I can take the lift, but the spiral walkway gives a bird’s eye view of the displays as I ascend, making mental notes to myself: I must check out the Yamaha R7, Moto Guzzi MGS-01… Oh and that Honda NS400R.
Memories are stirred and thoughts flood through my brain like falling dominos. A 1989 GSX-R570K Slingshot as pictured above was my first proper fast bike (mine was the ’88 J model) and here it is, looking like its just rolled off the production line, complete with mint condition Michelin A59/M59X tyres (the first ever production radials).
A few dozen bikes along is an ’89 RGV250K; I raced a proddie version with Bemsee back in the day. Next to it is a KR-1S and suddenly I picture being a 20-year-old obsessed with 250 two-strokes reading the shootouts in PB, Bike and Fast Bikes wondering what being a road tester must be like. One day...
An AMA racing collection has my jaw hitting the floor. Back in those days, without the easy archive provided by YouTube and Google Images, catching a glimpse of sideways-slewing Daytona 200 and AMA superbike legends in magazines and obscure Sky channels was the only way of seeing what the Americans were up to. Yet here are those bikes in Technicolor glory: gnarly GSX-Rs, tricked-out FZRs and bumblebee-coloured TZs. I could stay here all day.
Like a visual supermarket sweep, I’m filling my mental trolley with two-wheeled visions and my phone with countless photos as I make my slowly, floor by floor back to the entrance. But there are more displays in the bowels of the Barber museum and I can already see a Colin Edwards TZ250, Ducati Desmosedici RR, Honda RC30, Ducati 851, BMW HP2 Sport, Suzuki Katana, Kawasaki GPZ550 and even the odd car. Barber has the world’s most extensive Lotus collection and Porsches are scattered liberally among the bikes (George used to race them).
The only way to the basement is via a huge, glass-walled lift, which happens to have an F1 car plonked on top of it. Peer down into the shaft from above and there’s also a skeleton of a lift engineer on the roof. It’s just one of many curious pieces of art and sculptures dotted around the museum and park. It’s the best lift ride in the world as it glides past an R1, a slab-sided Suzuki GSX-R1100 and Ducati 1098S Tricolore…
I spill out of the lift to be greeted with pristine ’80s and ’90s supersport and superbikes stacked up on walls like Matchbox toys. The museum’s restoration area which I peer into is as spotless as an operating theatre and must be a mechanic’s dream. In complete contrast, a dark room in the corner holds hundreds of machines waiting to be brought back to life.
I keep walking and there’s a library, racing leathers display, pictures, paintings and a restaurant with a veranda. Step out, blinking back out into the sunshine and watch the track action surge downhill from Turn 8 under huge American skies.
Leaving the museum some hours later I regret not spending more time looking at each bike. I want to go back upstairs to look at the JPS Norton F1 again, prod around the Honda Pacific Coast and take more pictures of the ’70s and 2000s Ducati Paul Smart replicas.
The pictures here give you a flavour of what Barber is like, but nothing can prepare you for seeing this huge collection in the flesh, with every glance crammed full of two-wheeled goodness.
The "mecca of motorcycling"...
“Barber Vintage Motorsports museum is the only place like it in the whole world,” says Communications Manager Kelly Stewart. “Period. There are over 1600 bikes in our collection and they date back from the very beginning to the current day. Over 900 of them are on display and the remainder are either in storage or waiting to be restored. We’re always adding more exhibits; there’s no ceiling to our capacity.
"The museum started in a really small location in Southside Birmingham in 1995, but it came to Barber Motorsports Park in 2003. Even in the past five years the amount of growth and capital improvements taking place here is immense. A new 84,650 square foot expansion was added to the museum’s original 144,000 square feet last year.
"In 2014 the Guinness Book of Records said we have the largest collection of motorcycles in the world. The elevator is large enough to carry a truck and that’s so we can move vehicles around. We use a forklift to get the bikes on the towers.
"The main reason we built a track here was to exercise the vehicles and test the newly restored ones. We’re trying to expose people to vintage motorcycles and what a beautiful and exciting place to do it.
"People call it the mecca of motorcycles, or motorcycle heaven. It is in a sense because people leave motorcycles to the museum in their will. When you look around at everything and think about the spirit and the people who owned and touched them, it’s pretty incredible."
Barber Vintage Motorcycle Museum entry pricing:
- Adults $15 (around £11.42)
- Children 4-12: $10 (£7.61)
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