There are a number of great motorcycle museums in the world but my favorite is the quirky, eclectic collection gathered by one of the deities in the motorcycling pantheon – Sammy Miller.
Sammy comes from a breed of sporting motorcyclists which simply doesn’t, and couldn’t, exist today. He was unquestionably the greatest trials rider of his generation but was also a world class roadracer and one of the best enduro riders of his time. In short, he was best of the best as a rider.
If engineering and development skills are added to his riding ability you have a range of talents bordering on genius. Having taken the classic British trials bike to its ultimate manifestation with his legendary 500cc works Ariel, GOV 132 (so named after the British license plate it carried) Sammy then moved to Bultaco and developed the 250cc Sherpa – the first mass-market, two-stroke trials bike.
His talents were legendary and so, after ten happy years with Bultaco, he was signed by Honda who felt that the world, and particularly the US motorcycling world, was ready to turn trials into a mass participation sport. As it happened, Honda misjudged the potential popularity of trials riding but Miller developed the first successful lightweight Hondas and these went on to dominate the sport.
So, we have Sammy as a world class roadracer, trials and enduro rider and an incredibly gifted development engineer. What else is left?
Unlike the vast majority of star riders of his generation, Miller was also laser sharp at business. First, he had a small shop selling trials bikes and accessories. This blossomed into the world’s biggest trials mail order business – remember, this is pre-internet – with Sammy selling a huge range of his own products. For example, he made over 400 of his own frame kits and even manufactured a complete motorcycle.
Then Sam blossomed into property development and applied the same skill, enthusiasm and dedication to this black art.
The final part of the equation is that Sammy was, and still is, the consummate PR professional. A long time before public relations’ skills were ever taught, and rarely even thought of in the world of motorcycling, Sammy was brilliant at the job.
It was as a baby journalist that I first met him and tried the works Honda he was developing at the time. It was a daunting experience. I only rode in the occasional club trial, and then not very well, and yet here was the great, the very great, Sammy Miller giving me a unique factory Honda to ride. It was a bit like being asked to sing “Help” along with the Beatles at Shea Stadium!
The experience was fascinating in many ways because it reflected Sammy’s multifaceted character. Within an hour Miller had shown perfect professionalism, kindness, a lovely sense of humor, irritability and the impatience of a bored child.
Forty years later, having worked with Sammy on many, many occasions professionally, this is still Sammy.
So to the museum. Here is a video in which Sam tells the story in his own words but in essence this is how the museum began.
The museum was born when Sam re-acquired his legendary works Ariel GOV 132. Then came a few roadrace machines from his days on the GP circuit and so, inevitably in my eyes and everyone else who knows Sam, the museum grew.
It had to expand because Sammy was the driving force behind it. The museum is a metaphor for Sammy and for his complexity and ambition. It was never going to be ordinary or straightforward, nor was it going to reach a state where Sam would sit back satisfied with his achievement. He might have been honored by our Queen for his services to motorcycling, but even this honor was never sufficient to sate his hunger for more and better. In the simplest terms, coming second is not an option.
This is what makes Miller’s museum so important and so fascinating. Probably the best motorcycle museum in the world in terms of its size and collection is George Barber’s elegant glass palace at Leeds, Alabama. The Honda Hall collection is also outstanding as are the factory displays of BMW and Ducati.
However, two things make Sammy’s museum unique. The first is that even the most exotic bikes on display can move seamlessly from static museum exhibits to race ready machines firing on all cylinders – and do. Sammy, and a very few invited riders, use the bikes regularly in high-speed demonstrations all over the world. And to prove it, you can read about my experience riding the eight-cylinder Moto Guzzi V8.
Secondly, the bikes challenge the viewer and invite, demand even, thought and speculation. The collection of more than 400 machines is jammed with prototypes. Some are clearly engineering blind alleys which were never going to work, like the ugly and complex Belgian FN.
Others did perform well but circumstances were against them. For example, if the Great Depression had not come when it did, would Henderson now be in the position of Harley-Davidson?
The 1939, three-cylinder, 986cc Scott could have been a world beater except for the outbreak of World War II and just one more year of development could have seen Giulio Carcano’s Guzzi V8 become the dominant force in 500cc Grand Prix racing.
It is the constant intellectual challenge which these projects offer visitors to the museum that makes it so fascinating.
Sammy was originally from Northern Ireland and moved to Birmingham, England, in 1957 because this was the center of the world’s motorcycle industry. It was here, working for Ariel, that he developed GOV 132.
When he joined Bultaco in 1964 the importers were the Rickman brothers, of Metisse fame, and they were located in the far south of England in New Milton. Sammy relocated to an area of Britain he described, as “two pullovers warmer than Birmingham” and it was there that he later established his own business.
The museum grew exponentially and, eventually, in 1990 Sam moved to Bashley Manor and the museum continues to expand almost every day.
The whole site is quintessentially English. Extremely neat, almost English country garden pretty with lovely, old brick buildings. Pet llamas, which are so tame that they insisted on being in all the pictures when we tried to use their field for a photo shoot, are both completely incongruous and yet entirely in keeping with a museum which is so important that it can tread its own path without having to follow what every other display in the world is doing.
There are craft vendors, a tea shop and one whole section of the museum quadrangle is devoted to Sammy’s extensive workshop because the life force of the museum is that all its bikes should run and are useable.
Everything at Bashley Manor reflects Sam’s personality. Turn and about, it is completely laid back and ultra-professional. The museum has no controlled lines monitored by security cameras, or bullet proof glass pay booths but rather open doors with a polite notice asking visitors to pay before they view the bikes. How wonderfully quirky and non-21st Century is this?
Yet the displays are stunning – the equivalent of anything, anywhere in the world. Each bike has a fascinating narrative card describing not only its age and specification but also the motorcycle’s place in history. Nothing is fenced off, or behind protective barriers, and it is a surreal experience to walk down the tight aisles of bikes and count off the hundreds of millions of dollars of value.
For me, it’s also a delight to see fresh race tires on the GP bikes, scrubbed hard from one of Sam’s many high-speed demonstrations.
It would be an impossible job to describe the whole museum in detail so please indulge me if I give you a few of my very personal highlights.
First, the four-cylinder Henderson. If there were any justice in the world, Henderson would have survived to become the company to have really challenged the Japanese in the 1960s.
The Henderson was a genuine 100 mph fast Superbike and was also ultra-reliable. Police departments throughout the US loved it.
The bike is a lovely piece of engineering and was selling well when, in fear of the Great Depression, Henderson’s owner Ignaz Schwinn ceased production – despite still having a full order book. A true tragedy.
Another tragedy was the F Type Norton. This was a complete modernization of Norton’s ageing, single-cylinder Grand Prix engines and took the marque forward by leaps. The engine was unit construction, with the gearbox and engine in one casting, like a modern motor, and it was laid horizontal for better handling.
In tests, the new motor immediately made better power than its ageing predecessor and would have formed the basis for some sophisticated road machines. But Norton was staggering along from one financial disaster to another and so the F Type never made production. As I stood beside it, I could almost taste the champagne from the races it would have won…
When “On Any Sunday” was launched in 1971 I had a girlfriend who, although pretty and very lively, didn’t like bikes. Regardless, I took her to see the film and she loved its universal appeal but, very soon afterwards, not me!
My favorite parts are Mert Lawwill on the mile but I also loved seeing the great Lawwill roadracing a Harley XR. Sammy has one and it’s drop dead gorgeous! Decades after “On Any Sunday”, I rode an XR at Roebling Road, and it is every bit as lovely in action as it looks in the museum. Yes, please wrap this one up for me to take home.
I have never been a Vincent fan but Sammy’s stunning 1939 HRD-Vincent had me drooling. A genuine 100 mph performance, monoshock suspension and superb brakes made it the definitive pre-war Superbike – but then Hitler came along and spoiled everything.
The number of bikes which this terrible war destroyed confirms my Hippie pacifist beliefs. Make peace not war.
I have been more than extremely fortunate to ride some truly exotic bikes but one group which has slipped past me are the 125cc four-cylinder Japanese bikes produced just before the FIM killed the lightweight class in 1969. Sammy has one of these bikes in his collection in the form of the RS67 four-cylinder Suzuki. Revving to over 16,000 rpm, the Suz would have been good for 140 mph and reportedly handled very well.
The downside is that these bikes wear out at a truly terrifying rate, which is a key reason why I have not persuaded Sam to let me ride this bike.
Strangely, Sammy’s favorite bike in the museum is one which I wouldn’t want to load in my trailer simply because I am too much in awe of it. The bike in question is the 1939, supercharged, 500cc, V4 AJS. I have been privileged to ride a fair number of Sammy’s bikes but the AJS is the one bike in the museum which is off limits to every guest rider – including, sadly, me!
Before the War (that sad expression again) AJS was one of the world’s leaders in technical innovation and Matt Wright’s V4 pushed the boundaries of motorcycle design beyond anything imagined.
In the last Grand Prix before war broke out, Walter Rusk lapped the Ulster GP at over 100 mph – the first machine to break this barrier in the history of motorcycle racing. Rusk retired shortly afterwards with a broken front fork – the AJS chassis was considerably behind its engine – but Sammy has this actual bike on show. To his credit, Sam regularly runs this million dollar motorcycle to the delight of fans all over the world.
It costs £7.50 – around $10 – to visit the museum and you can stay all day. Parking is free of charge. Bashley Manor is about an hour and a half from Heathrow – the main airport for US visitors to Britain. The museum is open only at weekends during the winter months but seven days a week from the 16th February. For more information go to: www.sammymiller.co.uk