The Barber Vintage Motorcycle Museum – More Than Just Motorcycles
This is the second part of the Barber Vintage Motorcycle Museum story. In the first part, we learned Mr. Barber was an Alabama dairy farmer that made it big in real estate, sold his dairy operation, opened the world’s largest motorcycle museum and built one of the world’s most modern race tracks. The article continues here with an interview of Barber’s Technical Adviser, Brian Slark. Photos courtesy of the Barber Museum.
On a rainy February day the museum was dark and empty an hour before opening. Brian explained the lights wouldn’t go on until 10:00 a.m., so we sat in the snack area’s gray early morning light and talked for a couple of hours. There weren’t any visitors until early afternoon when a group from the old folks’ home showed up to stroll around. The old men, some with walkers, went to the old bikes and started talking old times and a few of the women went to the old sidecar rigs pointing and telling their girlfriends, “See, this (the sidecar) is where the women rode – I was in one of these”.
Later, a high school class showed up and livened the place a bit as they quickly moved through the sport bike displays, but it was still eerily quiet and relatively empty until someone from the shop fired up the new Ducati Desmosedici RR MotoGP Replica for the first time and instantly the entire museum was alive with the thunderously sweet music of a highly tuned four-stroke engine echoing and vibrating from the floors, walls, and ceilings. For a moment, it sounded exactly like a MotoGP paddock.
The deafening silence after the engine stopped was immediately followed by the excited chatter of every person in the place. That Ducati had done what motorcycles do to motorcyclists – it had stirred their blood, but the effect transcended to everyone in the building. It was another fine example of Mr. Barber’s motorcycle diplomacy.
Mr. Barber wanted to give something back to his community. He wanted Birmingham to have something that would draw people from all over the world as well as from across the country. He wanted something like nothing else in the world and he wanted to make Birmingham a tourist destination.
How’s the museum arranged?
The first floor has bikes from 1930-1960, including a military exhibit, our 60 seat theater, vending machines, snack tables, and atrium room for events. Part of our mission is to spread the word about motorcycles so we host corporate, political, and charity events including new model introductions. We have our own kitchen and catering service. The windows in the event room open from floor to ceiling and guests can stroll out onto a hill overlooking Turn Eight and watch the action. They call it the Alabama Roller Coaster.
The second floor has race bikes, special exhibits like the Morbidelli, MV Agusta, and Surtees displays, a few cars, mostly Lotuses (Mr. Barber has the world’s largest Lotus collection), the library, the museum store, a coat check, and restrooms.
The third floor has modern bikes from 1960 to the present. The fourth floor has the early motorcycles from 1900-1930, a postwar racing exhibit, administrative offices and more rest rooms. The fifth floor has the international exhibit gallery and special event area. All the displays there are mounted on wheels so they can be removed to create a large room overlooking the track. We even had the Governor’s Ball there.
On the Ground Floor is the machine shop, the wood shop, the plating shop, the paint shop, the garage, the work area, a parts room, and what I like to call the “job security room”. That’s where we have the bikes waiting to be restored or preserved.
What are you trying to accomplish?
Mr. Barber wants to be a motorcycle ambassador. He wants a place that all motorcyclists will enjoy and he wants to spread the word about motorcycles, motorcycling, and motorcycle racing. We all do. That’s why we have outside events. The Porsche Driving School is here 100 days a year and that gets the word out to a lot of influential people who’ve never been exposed to motorcycles, or Birmingham for that matter..
How is the Barber Museum different than other museums?
First, we own all the bikes – they’re not on loan and we’ve never sold any of our bikes. Not one. That brings us a lot of donations because the former owners know we won’t sell their bikes, we’ll take care of them, and they can come here and see them anytime they want.
What’s the relationship between the museum and the track?
The museum’s non-profit and the track’s for-profit. The only time we overlap is for the vintage events. Otherwise, the track’s a separate operation run by a promotion company, Zoom Motor Sports.
How would you describe the museum?
A gear heads mecca, something for everyone.
How would you describe the race track?
The Augusta of racetracks.
What are the museum’s standards for acquisition?
We try to find rare or historically significant models or famous race bikes that are in original condition. Sometimes we buy a bike and have to tone it down a bit because it’s been over done.
What’s the most recognized bike?
“Captain America”, the Easy Rider Chopper. Everyone recognizes it.
What’s the newest motorcycle in the collection?
The Ducati Desmosedici – it was just delivered the other day.
What’s the oldest motorcycle in the collection?
The 1902 Steffey, a bicycle with a motor attached, it even has wooden wheel rims.
What’s the latest restoration or preservation?
The 1929 Harley-Davidson JD-H (High Horsepower). That was a tough restoration. There were lots of one-off parts and pieces we had to make. Just getting information on that bike was difficult. It’s extremely rare.
What are you working on now?
We are just finishing an Egli-Vincent, and a 1907 four cylinder F.N. Also a 1949 Imme is being restored.
What’s your favorite bike?
That would be either the ‘62 Matchless G15/45 road bike or the ‘62 G80CS Scrambler. I used to test ride the G15s and I raced a G80. Or maybe the Norvin (a Vincent engine in a Norton Featherbed frame) – I built that one.
What’s the best advice you can give visitors?
Give yourself at least a full day to enjoy the museum.. You could spend a whole day here and not see it all.
What’s the future of the facility?
There’s really no limit. It’s wherever motorcycling takes us.
Just The Facts
The Barber Motor Sports Vintage Museum is located east of Birmingham on I-20 at Exit 140 (Leeds), just east of I-459. Punch in N33 31.983 W86 36.821 on your GPS. The website is www.barbermuseum.org. The phone number is (205) 699-7275 and admission is $10. Track event information is at www.barbermotorsports.com. The museum has different winter and summer hours and stays open late on event weekends. Brian recommends you start at the top and work your way down.