Birmingham Adventures Part 1: Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum

Welcome to 2023!  If this new year is anything like the last, I’ll have lots to blog about! 

After returning from my epic retirement moto journey, I didn’t stay home for long.  I made a return trip to Louisiana for a couple of weeks in October, then headed back in December for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.  One of the many benefits of being retired is that I can go visit my family pretty much any time I want 😊

It’s about a 15-hour drive to make it to my parents’ house on the bayou, so I broke up the holiday trip ride by stopping in Birmingham, AL.  I spent a couple of nights there so that I could visit two museums that have been on my list to experience ever since I learned of them.  First up:  Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

I’ve been to a fair share of motorcycle museums in my time.  Ranging from smaller private collections like the Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum in Colorado Springs, CO; Lone Star Motorcycle Museum in Vanderpool, TX; and American Classic Motorcycle Museum in Ashboro, NC, as well as some much bigger, well-known ones such as Wheels Through Time in Maggie Valley, NC and the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, WI.  Looking at a map after I returned from my trip, I realized that I could have fit in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Pickering, OH if I would’ve realized it was somewhat on my path…oh well, it’s yet another reason for me to return to Ohio!  Anyway, at some point during my trip, someone told me about Barker Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, AL, so I made sure to work it into my trip down to Louisiana.  I’m sure glad I did… this place is unbelievable!  I figured that the overcast and chilly day was perfect for a day of museum touring, so I headed out bright and early.       

The 250,000 square feet museum is located on an immaculately landscaped 880-acre park that includes a road course with ample space for spectators, larger than life metal sculptures, and unexpected, humorous discoveries planted throughout the building and grounds.  Although the museum is mostly motorcycles – 1,600 of them spanning 100 years of production – it also includes an impressive collection of vintage racecars, rare vehicles, and even outboard motors!  George Barber raced Porches in the 1960s, then started collecting and restoring classic cars in 1988.  According to the museum’s website:  “Since the world’s best and largest car collections had already been established, Barber heeded some wise advice…from his longtime friend Dave Hooper – a motorcycle enthusiast … – who suggested that Barber shift his focus from cars to motorcycles.  Being a man of big dreams, Barber seized the opportunity to accomplish what no one else had done – build the world’s ‘best and largest’ motorcycle collection.”  With hundreds of motorcycles representing 220 different manufacturers from 22 countries, this place is recognized by the Guinness World Records as the world’s largest motorcycle collection.  Mission accomplished!

Before even entering the building, you are greeted with the impressive, larger-than-life metal sculpture known as “The Chase.” This is one of 41 sculptures sprinkled throughout the grounds.
The museum boasts 6 floors of exhibits and artwork ranging from Lotus cars to off-road and track two-wheeled machines to the very first versions of motorcycles.
There are nearly 900-1000 mint-condition bikes displayed on the floors at any given time with another 600 in storage and/or being restored. The amount, coupled with the staggering variety of manufacturers and models, of motorcycles easily made this place an all-day destination. The elevator (tall open shaft on right side of pic) has the space and weight capacity to lift full racecars. The circular ramp around the elevator allows two and four-wheel vehicles to be ridden/driven between floors, parking garage style.
Mr. Barker apparently had a great sense of humor as evidenced by the unexpected, humorous discoveries, like these skeletons at the bottom of the elevator shaft, planted throughout the building and grounds.
Replica of 1867 Roper Steam Velocipede, representing what is possibly the first true two-wheeled motorcycle. Signage on the replica states that Sylvester Roper, a native of Boston, MA, built his first steam engine when he was 14 and drove his own steam carriage around the city in 1863. The steam valve was opened by rolling the left-hand grip forward, and rotated backward to operate the spoon brake, a feature that is assumed to be the predecessor to the modern twistgrip. He developed a “safety cycle” chassis that is still used today. Roper died in 1896 at the age of 72 of an apparent heart attack while speeding along on his velocipede. What a way to go!
This replica of an 1885 Maybach Daimler Reitwagen represents one of the first, if not THE first, motorcycle to be built. Signage on the display states that “two German engineers, Daimler and Maybach, constructed this simple vehicle to try out their new engine. They called it a Reitwagen (riding car) and Maybach rode it for two miles reaching speeds of 7 mph. They also constructed a device to mix gasoline and air and called it a carburetor. This is where it all began.”
1980 Hondamonium, a perfect example of the 1970s/1980s chopper build craze. This bike was build by Kolor Me Kustoms in Southern California “at the outrageous cost, at the time, of $10,000.” This bike took first place at major shows and was featured on the cover of chopper magazines.
This crazy red and yellow bike from 1925 is a ten-foot long Bohmerland, built in Czechoslovakia. It was designed to seat three people in tandem! About 1,000 of these were made between 1924-1939 and now only a handful remain – including this actual machine, which is the oldest one in existence.
From this bird’s eye view, you can get a feel for the enormity of this place! Notice the row of vintage outboard motors along the window wall.
Behind the museum is a world-class 16-turn, 2.38-mile racetrack. It’s home to the Porsche Sport Driving School (there was a class happening while I was there), and is open to the public for certain events, where motorcycle riders and car drivers get the opportunity to run laps.

I’ve found that it’s not just the tour guides and exhibit attendants that have the most knowledge about a place; you can get great insight from custodians and security guards as well.  As I chatted with one of the security guards, I discovered that he, and most of the folks that work at the museum in various capacities, are military veterans.  He introduced me to a few other folks and filled me in on the history and layout of the museum and grounds.  After swapping military and motorcycle stories for a bit, I went on my way and continued sightseeing in the museum.  Not long after our conversation, he found me on another floor and asked me if I’d like to see some restoration work occurring and to visit the unparalleled maintenance manual library.  Uh, YES, thank you!  It was so cool to see these areas not usually open to general visitors.  I felt like a V.I.P.! 

Even after spending three and a half hours in this place, I felt like I hadn’t even scratched the surface.  This is definitely a multi-day event!  With my brain and phone camera full, I left the museum in search of lunch and the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum.   

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