Snippets of motorcycling lore

Honda owes its early success with bikes to a field telephone. Bicycles and telephones don’t mix, you say? Perhaps. But Honda didn’t think so. They combined the two and made it work. Now, wasn’t that an innovating idea?

Before motorcycles, Honda sold bicycles called pushbikes to differentiate them from motorbikes. For reasons unknown, the first of the latter by Honda were called pushbikes; never mind they had a motor. Of course, that may be questioned when the origin of that motor is revealed.

Back in the day, before reliable radio, the army used telephones in the field even in battle. These were not the wireless wonders we know as cellphones today. They were wired to switchboards and one to another over miles and miles of scarred terrain left by trench warfare. Batteries also worked, but they didn’t last long. Early on, required power was provided by a wind-up generator which was hand cranked when in use. Later improvement was the gasoline powered generator. The little internal combustion engine used to run this generator was hefty enough for telephones, but what if applied to bicycles?

Honda decided to find out. Lo and behold, they had a pushbike transformed into a motorbike with a 50 cc engine. Now again, we’re faced with the ongoing problem of semantics. They still called them pushbikes even though pushing them by hand or foot was no longer necessary except, perhaps, to get them started (remember the run-and-bump starts we used back in the 1960s?) So, pushbikes, motorbikes, motorcycles — where does one end and another begin? In Honda’s case, it doesn’t matter. They built all of them.  (Al Karasa)

The Barber Vintage Motorcycle Museum – More Than Just Motorcycles

Part Two


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.


Motorcycle Diplomacy

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.

Why Birmingham?

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.


Thanks, Brian.

You’re welcome.


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 The phone number is (205) 699-7275 and admission is $10. Track event information is at 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.


Danger on the Home Front

By Billy Hufnagle

A short while ago, my sweetheart Mary had a minor accident while driving her truck.  A sixteen-year-old girl had misjudged speed and distance, and pulled out of a stop sign right into Mary’s path.  Fortunately, everyone was OK—this kind of accident all too often claims a motorcyclist as its victim, with dire consequences for the rider.  Later that week, when the whole family gathered for our usual Sunday dinner, the collision was of course a topic of discussion.  As often happens, in short order we were comparing accident tales of other family members, and as the conversation advanced a common thread surfaced: Almost all of these collisions occurred within a few miles of home.

This got me to thinking about a bike accident I had in 1990, thirty years ago this summer.  That was a difficult year for me by any measure.  My mom had been ill and passed away that spring.  After the trauma of her passing and the painful process of burying her, closing her affairs and home, and dealing with both the grief and the entire end-of-life issues, I was exhausted.  By late that summer, I knew I needed to take some time off to do some personal healing, and I decided that the best way was to spend some time on the road.  I took three weeks off and circumnavigated the 48 states and the lower provinces of Canada.  Over 8,000 miles and 21 days later, I returned home; my mind was clearer and I was on the path to healing my psyche.  I had passed through that long journey far from home without harm or incident.

Back in those days I had a riding vest covered with pins and patches, one of which showed the outlines of the states and provinces of the North American continent.  These patches are to be colored in to indicate the places you have ridden.  A few days after my return I decided to paint in my trip and, realizing I did not have enough colors of acrylic paint, I found an excuse to take my other bike for a ride to town.  Can you guess what happened on the way?

I had always heard that accidents were more likely to happen within a few miles of home, either three or five miles.  Therefore, I have been more cautious when riding through that zone, which is both the beginning and the end of most rides.  Well, all the caution in the world could not have deterred the mindless car driver that got me.  However, my MSF (Motorcycle Safety Foundation) rider education courses did serve me well that day, by giving me the instincts and skills to respond to danger correctly.  I was able to minimize the collision via a combination of effective braking and swerving, and I survived what would have otherwise either killed or maimed me terribly.  Still, my bike was heavily damaged and my right leg had such major muscle trauma that I was laid up for six weeks and then had to learn to walk again.  However, if that car driver had also had the benefit of the extensive training that the MSF gives motorcyclists, the accident would not have happened.  When she realized she was about to hit me, she just panicked and plowed forward; a trained operator would have been able to avoid collision.  I got hit a little over two miles from home.  Just goes to show you.

Well, thinking about that long-ago accident, along with the daily view of Mary’s damaged truck, has also served as a reminder of a promise I made to myself.  That fall, as my body healed and my bike was being rebuilt, I promised myself to keep my rider training fresh.  I took another MSF course the following spring.  Oddly enough, earlier this winter I already decided that I wanted to take another MSF course come spring.  Mary’s recent experience has served as a wake-up call.

Riding skills need to be maintained, just like your bike and safety gear do.  Study, and most of all practice, are needed on an ongoing basis to keep you sharp.  The Rider Education Courses are the best place to develop and maintain your riding skills.  They also offer something you just can’t get on your own—objective observation of your riding habits.  You will be surprised at the bad riding habits that you have picked up.  Even if you have been riding for years and taking safety courses along the way, you still have developed bad riding habits.

Since there is no way to avoid that dangerous zone of travel around your home, you had better be prepared.  I am going to do my part and polish my skills and renew my training by taking an MSF course this spring.  Care to join me?

Quick Salsa

This classic Biker Billy recipe is simple yet supremely delicious.  While I make more complex salsas, this one is so fresh and tasty that a batch never lasts long.  It is great to have it and some chips as a snack, while you are working on your bike during the winter.  The fiery fresh favors will warm you and remind you of the fresh tastes of summer.

Column copyright Bill Hufnagle 2020. Recipe reprinted with permission from “Biker Billy Cooks with Fire”, published by Whitehorse Press, Center Conway, New Hampshire copyright Bill Hufnagle 1995, 2004.


Bill Hufnagle
Biker Billy

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Exotic parts, accessories and bikes: At the show

By Geoff Uyehara

I went to the international motorcycle show recently and was surprised but not too overwhelmed with the idea presented that all exotic parts are American, conversely American  bike parts will fit all other bikes as long as all the original parts are removed.  I expressed my ideas with the management of the show on how to open up the concept of a new exotic American view of collecting. I was met with an interested, well maybe.    Levels of collecting exotic parts and cycles are of course self designed and cannot be dictated by anybody.  My exotic interests and other people’s exotic ideas do not have to be the same.  The process of finding exotic cycle’s and parts is almost always the same for everybody though.  The long and winding road is something to bring all collectors and searchers of the special, the rare and those obsessed with the almost fanatical passion for the chase, together to lament the ones that got away.  Motorcycle shows and events are great for introducing new and old ideas and have the potential to blend exotic new concepts with tried and true methods and to introduce them to the changing riding demographic.

European, American and Asian cycles all have pedigrees with long heritage.  Harley, Brough Superior, Honda and Kawasaki, all have valuable and exotic models.    Getting parts for some of those bikes and even the entire bike can sometimes be a long and arduous search.   Parts is parts is how the saying goes. Everybody needs parts for their scoot now and then and some bikes are more difficult to find parts for than others.  A friend has a Velocette and original parts are not found for it at the local parts shop.  Getting a crank for a Suzuki square four or an oval piston probably ranks right up there in the wow pricy range.  Spark plugs and oil are not so hard to find.  Plugs for a 1903 cycle might be a bit difficult to look up and source though.

Experienced parts searchers know that it can take time to find parts and that sometimes the search ends up in having to give up the search and make the part. Having to make things and parts for my cycle led me to work towards my still growing understanding of my passion of architecture and transportation art and the art of industrial design, and the angst of the long long search. My travels to cycle shows, auto jumbles and International Motorcycle Shows have been great too and I’ve seen a lot of great design items and some crazy stuff.  A friend at the office bought a new MV Augusta and held it for a few years just to have the rights to that he once owned an exotic.  All parts and cycles are exotic to some degree.

Accessories and exotic bikes come from many places.  Some accessories are made by the manufacturer, others come from aftermarket producers.  Options for getting an exotic motorcycle or parts for bikes not imported here like the Suzuki square four: RG 500 Gamma, Yamaha MT-07, Honda 2014 cb650f. Honda super four CB400,1300 Bol D’or, Kawasaki Zephyrs, are getting better but still a lot of work.  I’ve even inquired of famous motorcycle museums how they can get so many exotic and expensive cycles into their shop, but to only get a stone wall of secrecy.  I once ordered parts from Canada, but the gas tank was left behind due to it might be a full tank and “explode”.  Sometimes changes are required to meet US standards if the full exotic cycle is to be used on the street as a regular ride.   I have found alternate places too, since my Canadien international experience of sourcing elusive accessories and cycles.

Those funky TV shows where you can guess prices and value today, and those picker runabout shows can lead one right into a want to search and buy attitude.  The web is great beyond the swap and bid sites. Getting what you want can be a “simple” task with the Internet and other resources.  Some parts are harder to find and dependent on timing in the ever fast bidding wars with others, some parts and items are easier to acquire than others. The more people you know also helps.   I have been to the Mid Ohio summer vintage race and parts jumble and saw a lot of great stuff, but often shows are great for general sourcing and can be very difficult for finding that one exotic part or accessory or even a bike of rare vintage that you are looking for. It could be there but under a pile of Harley or Triumph parts. For other accessories and variations we have to work extra hard to get them here.  We have come a long way with parts sourcing.  Now motorcycles and many other things are made globally and assembled in many places for import and export around the world, but variations can still be site specific.

The Ride to the show, the long search for a new or antique special bike, accessory or replacement parts is part of the joy of collecting and making new motorcycles and adventures.   Buying your exotic cycle or finding a kit of parts is great and making your own can be challenging, the end result is up to you.  I’ve ordered new and exotic parts from far across the globe, and have made a few parts, and have found that making parts and searching and buying exotic items for my cycles and collections can be a satisfying challenge.


Read the Manual!

By Jack Applebaum

Some time ago, I had a 1993 Harley 1200 Sportster which was a 90th Anniversary Edition.  It was truly a minimalist’s bike with a very nice factory paint job and, notably, a two and a quarter gallon peanut tank.  Getting upwards of sixty miles per gallon, I could keep up with most Poker Run groups without having to switch to reserve.  It did have one problem in that it tended to spit oil out the air filter assembly.  After riding it a few years, I found out why it did that.  During a Virginia HOG Rally, I attended a lecture given by a mechanic that worked for Harley Davidson at the engine plant in Milwaukee.  During the course of his talk, he asked the audience “How many of you with Sportsters have oil coming out of your air cleaner?”  More than a few hands, along with mine, went up.  The mechanic then said “You’re using 93 octane, aren’t you?”  No one said otherwise.  He then chided us saying “Don’t do that!  The manual says 87!”  He was right, of course.  Several of us used the higher octane to squeeze a few more miles per gallon out of our tiny tanks.  We also got a bit better performance, but, as I later learned, the engines ran hotter, boiled the oil, and spit a bit of it out the air cleaners.  Sure enough, I started using 87 octane, and the problem went away.  Being even more at fault, I had, indeed, read the manual and still thought that I knew better.  The designer(s) of that 1200 Sportster engine knew the intimate details of his creation, knew its limits, and knew what it needed.

I’ve heard the Bible called “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (BIBLE)” and “The Owner’s Manual”.  The information is there for our benefit and, in this country, readily available to virtually all of us.  Years ago, I read a statistic that claimed the average household had seven Bibles in it regardless of their faith.  That’s a lot of “Owner’s Manuals” – any one of which is worth reading to avoid operating outside of the specifications.  Having designed us, God knows what works for us and what will push us outside of our operating limits – “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (Psalm 139:14, NIV).

Good mechanics put in real study time with their manuals to know what works, how it works, and what needs to be done.  Modifications can be made, but you really have to know what you’re doing.  I’ve been a long time advocate of Tim Allen’s motto that “Even if something is not broke, there’s a chance you can fix it!”  For our own lives, the Bible tells us to seek wisdom which is an excellent modification and upgrade.  As the Owner’s manual for our lives, the Bible is an excellent place to seek that wisdom.  Start in Proverbs as a suggestion.  Your engine will thank you for it.