If you’ve never visited Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Ala., you’re really missing out. Not only is it one of the most gorgeously groomed race tracks in the world, but it is also home to one of the largest and most eclectic motorcycle museums in the world. This was my third visit in the last twenty years, and every time I come here I find more stuff to ogle. I could get lost in here for hours, but sadly I never have as much time as I truly want. If you ever find yourself in the area, stop in to learn a thing or two about bikes.
(Full Disclosure: Honda invited me to hot and muggy Birmingham, Alabama to ride its newly updated third-generation Grom mini-moto and attend the Barber Small Bore festival. Honda paid for my flight and accommodations and fed me delicious food. I was also afforded access to the Barber Motorsports Museum on their dime.)
It’s Bike Week here at Jalopnik, so we’re going to have more motorcycle features than you can shake a stick at this week. If you’re new to bikes and want to learn something, stick around. If you’re a veteran rider, pull up a handlebar and let’s go for a ride! Anyway, on to the museum.
Alabamian milk impresario George Barber started the idea of his museum way back in 1991 when a friend told him it was silly to try to build an impressive car collection because there were already too many out there, and it would be far more expensive and difficult to make a name for a new car museum. He shifted his focus to motorcycles, then, because it would be less expensive to build an impressive collection and far easier to make it the best in the world with less competition.
Now, I’m not going to get lost in the weeds here complaining about alleged billionaires turning private collections into 501(c)(3) tax exempt charitable foundations. We live in a society and it sucks, but if you can put all of that out of your mind and just live in the moment enjoying the cool bikes on display here, it’s pretty okay.
This museum has pretty much everything you could want from a motorcycle museum, including a drag racing display, a dirt bike display, a slew of Daytona 200 winners, and the Ferrari that carried former motorcycle champ John Surtees to his 1964 championship. There’s also a slew of Lotus road and race cars because Mr. Barber likes them and his name’s on the building, so I guess that’s fine. Anyway, the bikes are great.
From the moment you walk in, your jaw will be on the floor, thanks to the impressive architecture of this museum. The central-shaft glass-wall freight elevator will take you up to the top of the museum where you can wind your way down a central spiral concrete walkway. I am fairly averse to heights, so I kind of hate the way the middle of the museum is open, and get nervous on the higher floors, but it’s totally worth it.
Last time I was here in 2017, the museum was just getting its most recent wing added on to the side of the building, but now those floors are full to the gills with totally rad motorcycle, bicycle, and automobile displays. Some of the museum seems a bit haphazard in its organization, despite small segments of the displays being organized around a central theme. There’s a bit of everything for everyone, and some of the bikes here have very interesting stories behind them.
Did you know Honda once sold this wild tie-dyed design from the factory? That was new to me.
The Moto Guzzi California is pretty stylish for a touring bike. Who wouldn’t want that 1400cc longitudinal V-twin thumping away on a long haul down I-395 or something?
I’d never seen a Vetter Mystery Ship in person until this weekend, and it was everything I hoped it would be and more. What a rad machine!
One day I’m going to have to find an XR750 to rock around on.
Who wouldn’t want to mount a Chevy small block to a drag slick and shoot it down the quarter mile?
The real John Player Special was red, white, and blue all along.
Ed Culberson’s BMW R80 G/S (nicknamed “Amigo”). This was the first vehicle to ever cross the Darién Gap! Such a humble machine for such a fine and dangerous accomplishment.
I have a thing for fast Italian bikes, even if I’d never even want to ride them.
I’d love to add a Paso to my collection of weird machines, but I fear I would never be able to keep it running long enough to enjoy it.
Look at that lil guy trying to climb a wall. How cute!
Hey! It’s the infamous NR Oval Piston. Eight valves per piston! What a weird machine.
Some people have a special room in their house where they wheel their Christmas tree for the other 11 months of the year when it’s not on display. I would like to have a room in my house specifically for my motorcycle tree.
You could pull up to any bike or car event today and still look like a total badass on this old NSR.
Garelli 50 streamliner! Who you callin’ a scooter?
I will never be as cool as this cigar smoking man riding his Flying Merkel in a United States Tires turtle neck sweater.
There is a weird sub-basement of the museum where Mr. Barber keeps his private collection of bikes and cars and outboard motors and fine rugs and a piano for some reason. This is unashamedly the weirdest part of the museum, as it puts on display that the only reason this museum exists is because some rich dude willed it into existence. There are worse things you could spend your money on, and the track/museum have certainly brought business to the Birmingham area, but it’s a very stark reminder of the difference between the haves and have-nots.
Some Lotus F1 cars for reasons.
The museum had an interesting display of electric motorcycles on loan that I could have spent another hour looking around. It was only a handful of bikes, but very cool ones indeed.
Electric propulsion has always been a great idea for short bursts of speed. This wild contraption packed with what look like deep cycle RV batteries ran 171 miles per hour!
That bike was built to promote this bike. In 1973 your electric choices were pretty limited, but the fuel crisis made them seem like a great idea for about 2 years. I’d ride one of these, it looks like fun!
Custom electric swapped bikes are even better.
This Brammo Empulse R is still one of the coolest electric bikes ever built. I’m still a little bit mad about Polaris buying the company and letting that tech rot on the vine.
The original Honda. You could almost call this motorized bicycle kit from Honda the progenitor of the line that would eventually become the Grom I rode around this weekend.
Norton did the Senna bike way before MV Agusta or Ducati did.
In addition to a motorcycle tree, I would also like a motorcycle wall.
The ketchup and mustard K1 has always been riding around in my dreams. I’d love to own one someday.
Goodbye Barber Museum. It’s been real.