Memorable Motorcycles Barber Museum

June 1, 2006
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

The Barber Museum s namesake is George Barber  a wealthy man who knows how to spread his wealth and enjoyment of motorcycles with the public.
The Barber Museum’s namesake is George Barber, a wealthy man who knows how to spread his wealth and enjoyment of motorcycles with the public.

It is the sheer intellectual boldness of the Barber Museum which is awesome. There are many good motorcycle museums in the world, but none with a mile and a half of dual carriageway for an access road. Lots of museums have test areas, but only Barber has the use of a 2.3-mile long Grand Prix quality racetrack literally next to the displays. And while there are exotic motorcycles on display in many centers, nothing but nothing gets near the five floors of breathtaking bikes at Barber.

Everything about the Barber Museum is on a scale which is astonishing. It is not only the size of the operation but the grace and elegance with which it has been carried out. The circuit is set in over 700 acres of immaculate parkland, the toilets are pristine, and the bikes are displayed in huge areas, so that the viewer can stand back and consider them from every angle. It is the confidence to drive for perfection, merely than accepting sufficiency, which makes the Barber Museum unique.

The Barber Museum is the brainchild and vision of George Barber, a hugely wealthy Alabama businessman whose family made their first fortune in milk products and their second in real estate development. Vastly wealthy people are often hard work, and I feel sure that George is a tough business negotiator, but he is also deeply charming, relaxed and worshipped by his staff and customers. It’s a strange experience to talk to someone who could probably buy many small countries outright, and be constantly interrupted by ordinary bike fans who simply want to come and thank the man for building the museum. George loves the museum, the bikes and his customers; and they certainly think the world of him.

The vast 80 000-square foot space of the Barber Museum in Birmingham  Alabama is chock-full of almost 900 bikes.
The vast 80,000-square foot space of the Barber Museum in Birmingham, Alabama is chock-full of almost 900 bikes.

Despite being a cutting edge business tycoon, Barber has a touchingly Victorian attitude towards the museum. “I raced Porsches as a young man but always had a passion for bikes so I started a little museum in Birmingham. The museum grew and grew and we began to open for short periods to let other enthusiasts see the bikes. Then the staff were always telling me we needed a test track – all our bikes run – so I got to thinking that maybe we should build a small test area too.

“I bought over 700 acres of poor quality land which had been badly stripped of its timber and was rough as hell. Then we got to thinking that perhaps we could have quite a nice test track and a museum as well. My aim was to make a gift to the city of Birmingham, and the state of Alabama, which has given me so much over the years. Not just a good museum and facility, but something really special.

“Fortunately, I was in a position to be able to fund everything without going to banks or committees so we were able to spend $60 million immediately and without any support. Half of the $60 million came by way of tax relief and the rest from me.”

The result is truly one of the great museums of the world, with almost 900 bikes, and a few cars, lavishly displayed over 80,000 square feet. At this point in the story, it’s normal to highlight a prize exhibit, but this is simply not possible with Barber. Stunning road bikes from every corner of the world are available for close-up examination. The primitive American motorcycles are fascinating, the display of 1920s board racers breathtaking, while for anyone interested in racing, the quality and range of the exhibits is a dream.

Every conceivable form of GP bike from tiny 50s to Daytona winners are everywhere. Still, even in this galaxy of biking glory, the gem for me has to be the utterly exquisite DOHC FB Mondial – left just as it finished its last race and, as George says, too nice to restore.

With so many classics to choose from  it is difficult to pick a favorite bike at the Barber Museum  but for Melling this Mondial racing machine tickled his fancy.
With so many classics to choose from, it is difficult to pick a favorite bike at the Barber Museum, but for Melling this Mondial racing machine tickled his fancy.

“More than anything I wanted to do something positive with my wealth – not just lay in the sun in the Caribbean drinking cocktails. I am still amazed that there are so many snobby-assed bastards who just sit on their money and do nothing for their community. They don’t know what they are missing.”

Bizarrely, it is what is not on display which is as impressive as what the public can see. A carefully worded begging letter might just let you see: The Garage.

The garage bears as much resemblance to what you or I know as a garage as Valentino Rossi does to the guy who can pull a two-inch high wheelie for six feet. Barber’s garage is of truly galactic proportions. I can’t estimate how big it is except to say that a large commercial jet could be parked in it easily (and leave plenty of room for a nice mini-moto track round the edges).

It’s not only the immense size of the area but the fact the bikes are stacked vertically, as well as horizontally, each with its own ID tag. Take 30 feet square – up, down or sideways – and any red-blooded biker would have a collection which would make him a superstar. The difference is that here there are many, many, many 30-foot areas.

Brian Slark, the ex-Norton staff member who acts as consultant/technical expert/bike purchaser/apostle and super fixer for the museum explains:

As impressive as the museum is  the accompanying garage could be a museum in and of itself. It houses all the bikes which don t have a place on the main floor quite yet.
As impressive as the museum is, the accompanying garage could be a museum in and of itself. It houses all the bikes which don’t have a place on the main floor quite yet.

“We just can’t do everything that we want to do simultaneously, so we have to store ongoing projects here. Every day I get offered bikes for the museum and most of them are not suitable for us. Equally, there are some which we simply cannot refuse and these go into the garage.

“We are also constantly being offered bikes for free because their owners recognize that this is the finest space anywhere in the world for their pride and joy to be displayed. These bikes too have to wait their turn to be shown. The garage also gives us the chance to build themes. We are working on a major dirt bike display at the moment and it is taking time to get all the potential exhibits together.”

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