Barber Museum is home to the world’s largest collection
By David Haynes
If you want to experience Leonardo De Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in person you’ll need to buy a ticket to Paris and visit the Louvre. A personal viewing to ponder the moody, swirling colors of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” requires a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
But to marvel in the presence of the chrome and black steel of a rare 1951 Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle in pristine condition, Birmingham, Alabama, would be your destination of choice, where the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum houses the largest collection of vintage motorcycles in the world!
Earlier this year, the Guinness Book of World Records officially recognized the Barber collection as the world’s largest. According to Museum Director Jeff Ray, the museum currently has more than 1,340 motorcycles in its collection with approximately 700 on display at any one time in its sprawling, five-story building, with new bikes and cars added every week.
The museum employs a staff of 22 people, including five full-time and one part-time restoration technicians who continuously restore and maintain machines in the collection. Nearly all of the motorcycles on display could be running and ridden within an hour. At present the technicians have 13 major restorations under way with another 200-plus in the warehouse awaiting some type of restoration or conservation, Ray says.
But as impressive as the museum’s collection of vintage and rare motorcycles and racing cars is, it is only one component of the 830-acre Barber Motorsports Park, located near Leeds on the east side of Birmingham. Directly adjacent to the museum is a world-class 2.38-mile race track where national and international competitions are held several times a year for both motorcycles and cars. The museum is so close to the track that one entire glass wall of the 5-story museum overlooks a sweeping turn where visitors browsing in the museum can watch motorcycles and sports cars zoom past on the track below.
According to Ray, the various events hosted by the museum and track annually pump around $100 million into the local economy. Over the past 10 years this had totaled about $1.1 billion, he added. The two biggest events each year are the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in the spring and the Barber Vintage Festival in October, each of which brings about 65,000 visitors to the park.
Aside from these major events, Ray says the track is used approximately 285 days in a typical year with private or corporate events, track days, a Porsche sport driving school and other public events.
In recent years the Barber Vintage Festival has become almost an annual pilgrimage event for many in the motorcycling community from around the country and around the world. This year’s Vintage Festival – the 10th Annual – will be the weekend of Oct. 10-12. This motorcycling mecca feels like a three-ring circus of activities and rapid-fire events that offers something for everyone in the motorcycling world.
At last year’s Vintage Festival there were near continuous races featuring vintage motorcycles racing on the track as well as vintage motocross and other dirt-oriented events. Surrounding the beehive of activity on the track were vendor and manufacturers’ display areas, one of the largest and best-attended motorcycle swap meets anywhere. There was even a motordrome “Wall of Death” featuring riders on vintage bikes defying gravity as they ride sideways around the 30-foot-diameter wooden barrel. So much is going on at once there’s literally more to see than one person could take in without being in two places at once!
The museum, track and park are here primarily due to the efforts of George Barber, the longtime head of Birmingham-based Barber Dairies. He raced Porsches in the 1960s, including 63 first place finishes, and began collecting and restoring vintage sports cars in 1969 (The Barber Museum today has the largest collection of Lotus sports cars in the world).
Soon Barber’s interest turned to collecting and restoring vintage motorcycles and his collection grew until in 1994 it became the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum when it was granted a 501(c)3 not-for-profit status. A year later the museum opened to the public for the first time, being housed in an almost hidden building on Birmingham’s Southside, where it operated until moving to its present location in 2003.
“The track was built a year or so before we built the museum and it really started on its own with Porsche coming here and having their classes here,” says Barber. “They have been with us ever since and they have around 160 days of Porsche school every year, which is really fabulous.”
Over the years vehicles from the Barber collection have been featured in numerous shows, including the famed “Art of the Motorcycle” at the Guggenheim’s New York and Bilbao, Spain, locations as well as the Field Museum in Chicago. Another show at the Birmingham Museum of Art featured a special exhibition devoted entirely to motorcycles from the collection.
Barber himself will be inducted into the prestigious American Motorcyclist Association Motorcycle Hall of Fame on Oct. 17.
Today visitors to the museum can see bikes ranging from a 1902 Steffey, which was driven by a leather belt, to modern-era production consumer and racetrack machines. These include bikes from 20 different countries representing over 200 manufacturers. A day browsing through these beautifully restored machines is akin to walking through the history of motorcycling. Motorcycle enthusiasts and non-riders alike will undoubtedly find the experience rewarding and satisfying, if only for the appreciation of the craft involved in preserving these unique machines in their original state.
And the work goes on. Barber says future plans include building an autocross track, installing a walkway from the museum’s second floor to the gazebo and observation area to allow visitors to watch races, and constructing a 60,000 to 80,000 square foot addition to the museum.
For more information on Barber Motorsports Park, the museum and upcoming events visit www.barbermuseum.org.