In­side the world’s best bike mu­seum

The Bar­ber mu­seum has more than 1600 in­cred­i­ble ma­chines


‘A Honda NR750 sits next to a Benelli 500’

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, 2.38mile race­track (which is home to Mo­toAmer­ica, IndyCar and vin­tage rac­ing). Set up by dairy mul­ti­mil­lion­aire, 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.

Dis­played hap­haz­ardly

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 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...

AMA Su­per­bike leg­ends

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.

Huge col­lec­tion

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 and there are more on­line, but noth­ing can pre­pare you for see­ing this huge col­lec­tion in the flesh, with ev­ery glance crammed full of two-wheeled good­ness.

‘Bikes stacked up on walls like Match­box toys’


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