Touring the British National Motorcycle Museum

MotorcycleUSA Staff | December 15, 2015

During our recent trip to London for Triumph’s Bonneville unveiling event, we carved out a day and hopped a train up to Birmingham to meet with contributing editor Frank Melling and his wife Carol for a tour of the world’s largest collection of British motorcycles at the National Motorcycle Museum. The Museum, which opened in 1984, has more than 1000 beautifully restored specimens from among 171 manufacturers, spanning the earliest days of motorcycle production up to the present. The rich history found throughout the five halls of the Museum warrants more time than we had to devote, but with Melling as our guide we were fortunate enough to observe some real gems among the throng of immaculate motorcycles.

1938 Triumph Speed Twin

The 1938 Triumph Speed Twin, perhaps one of Triumph’s most important motorcycles ever.

In keeping with the original nature of our journey across the pond, we ogled a number of Triumph models. The 1938 Triumph 500cc Speed Twin we found was pristine, an example of one of the most successful turns for the company as it moved into production of twin cylinder machines that were sporty, lightweight and lust-inspiring. The 498cc mill with four-speed foot-change gearbox is housed in a brazed, full cradle frame with a large diameter, tapered front downtube. Its girder fork has adjustable dampers, it weighs in at 378 pounds and originally cost £74. This machine is one of Edward Turner’s greatest successes and, in the words of Melling, “took Triumph from bankruptcy to being one of the most important motorcycle manufacturers in the world.”

Also on display from Triumph is the 1975 1000cc “Quadrant” prototype built under Doug Hele in the Experimental Department at Kitts Green. The machine, constructed largely from Trident parts, features an Inline Four that was created by machining and welding two triple cases, cylinder blocks, heads and cam boxes together. Only one was made in this way, but since then a number of home builders have recreated the effort.

1962 Ariel 700cc Four Cylinder Prototype

Val Page’s last design project, the 1962 Ariel 700cc, four-cylinder prototype.

Another interesting machine is the Valentine Page-designed 1962 Ariel 700cc four-cylinder prototype. It was the final design project for Page before his retirement and featured a 696cc Inline Four with fan-assisted air-cooling, a Zenith carburetor, coil ignition and electric start. The design was aimed at creating a luxury touring machine and its sweeping lines immediately command attention, making it a true standout among the myriad machines at the Museum. Clive Bennet is responsible for the majority of the work in building the bike, but the closure of the Sully Oak factory by BSA in the summer of 1962 effectively ended development on the prototype. The bike was then taken to Umberslade Hall and left to sit until BSA’s assets were sold off at its closure. According to information provided at the Museum, the prototype racked-up a little less than 1000 test miles and proved to run smoothly up to around 80 mph.

The 1904 Minerva BSA is the earliest known powered BSA machine, marking a shift in the company’s focus from its early days as the Birmingham Small Arms company. The model displayed at the Museum is a two and three-quarter horsepower bike with a vertically-mounted engine and belt drive. By 1910 BSA had merged with Daimler and debuted its first complete motorcycle with an engine built in-house, starting its path toward becoming one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world by mid-century. Of course, BSA would run out of steam by the early ‘70s and was eventually forced to close its doors.

Frank Melling BSA B.50

Frank Melling with his works BSA B.50.

If you’ve happened to read “Penguin in a Sparrow’s Nest,” you’ll know that the final works BSA B.50 was built for our tour guide Melling, and the bike is now among the selection of motorcycles at the Museum. Melling nearly lost the motorcycle as he drove out of the factory with boxes of spare parts, Cooper Brothers Accountants descending behind him to lock the gates to the factory and a security guard briefly uncertain whether he should let this fellow with the motorcycle pass through.

One of the best parts of the experience at the National Motorcycle Museum is the sheer variety of motorcycle designs, particularly early 20th century machines that are clearly part of an era when manufacturers were still sorting out what a motorcycle could be. The 1912 Wilkinson TMC Series V is one such machine. With a seat seemingly lifted from the parlors of the time and wide, swept back bars, the Series V looks to be one of the most comfortable motorcycles in the entire building. It’s also very interesting mechanically, with a water-cooled side-valve Inline Four engine, mechanically operated intake and exhaust valves, shaft drive, tubular cradle frame and three-speed gearbox. There’s a pedal on the left footboard to operate the clutch and two pedals on the right to operate two sets of rear brake shoes. Air and fuel mixture is regulated via levers on the right handlebar and a gear change knob is located in front of the seat nose. A plunger with sight glass used for pumping oil to the engine is just ahead of the gear change knob as well. The practice it must have taken to get the controls just right on the Wilkinson makes us all the more thankful for the technology we have on bikes today.

1929 AJS

The 1929 AJS here eventually achieved a creditable 145 mph as it chased a world speed record.

A 1929 AJS 1000cc V-Twin was also remarkable, built at the Wolverhamption AJS factory with the goal of breaking the 150 mph mark on a motorcycle. The 990cc engine is alcohol-fuelled and constructed with cylinders at a 50-degree angle, with a chain driven overhead camshaft. Oliver Baldwin reached 130 mph on an early run at the Brooklands track and in 1930 Baldwin entered the records meetings at Arpajon just south of Paris. A piston failure kept him from reaching his goal, while BMW raised the bar to 137.58 mph. In 1931 the Collier Brothers took claim of AJS and moved the V-Twin to their Matchless factory, fit it with a supercharger and bronze cylinder heads for another go. By 1933 they were ready for an attempt on Southport Sands in Lancashire in front of 20,000 fans, but the rider, Joe Wright, was only able to reach 136 mph. The AJS eventually reached 145 mph before a private owner took the bike to Tasmania in 1939.

There were plenty of Matchless examples spread throughout the Museum, and a 1962 G50 500cc was particularly eye-catching. The 496cc Single offers 51 hp at 7200 rpm, in a package that comes in at a lithe 290 pounds. The ’62 G50 is the last racing motorcycle to be produced by AMC (Associated Motor Cycles Ltd.). A 1930 Matchless Silver Arrow was heralded by the company as “the most astounding advance in motorcycle construction ever.” Designed by Harry Collier, the narrow-angle V-Twin houses both cylinders within a single block, with side valves operated from a single, longitudinal camshaft. The Matchless spring frame offered riders enhanced comfort and that package reached a top speed just shy of 70 mph.

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A Brough Superior SS100 sits in a special display all its own, lending gravity to the already steep price tag such a motorcycle will fetch at auction. In 2014, a 1929 SS100 Alpine Grand Sports became the most expensive Brough Superior to sell at public auction, fetching a price of £315,100 (nearly half a million USD).

Norton, Scott, New Imperial, Norvil, Excelsior, Hesketh, Rickman, Vincent…the list of represented manufacturers goes on for miles. It’s overwhelming to stand among such rich examples of motorcycling history; each bike carrying a story, a context, a reflection of its creators and the companies responsible for their existence. If it were closer to our Pacific Northwest headquarters, we’d make it a habit to brush up on our history more frequently at the Museum.

It was a pleasure to have the chance to spend a day at the National Motorcycle Museum, and we can’t thank staff at the venue enough for their hospitality and care. We’d also like to thank Mr. Melling and his wife Carol for making the hours long drive down to meet us and help bring history to life. If you’re ever trotting around the UK and would like to stand in the presence of some incredible motorcycles, head on over to Birmingham and take a walk through the National Motorcycle Museum. You’ll be glad you did.