Saturday, September 1, 2012

Barber's Italian Collection

When I was a child this was the way race bikes looked and I sat in my country bumpkin kitchen miles from the action down on the farm and read my motorcycling magazine and dreamed.

These days anytime I visit Birmingham, Alabama, I get to spend a few hours at the Barber Museum just outside town in the suburb of Leeds off the Atlanta freeway. And there I have the chance to be alone with my memories of my youth. MV Agusta, famous for building helicopters is still in the motorcycle business after several decades of varied ownership and near terminal bankruptcies. These are specialized bikes and not everyone wants one. That my first motorcycle was an MV 350 has given the brand a special place in my heart.

In the US Italian motorcycles are viewed as weird exotica because only the premium models made it out of the country, but in the sixties and seventies the Italian government had a policy of supporting local industry with severe import controls. Gasp! government interference!

As a result Italian industrial output blossomed, people worked and Italians rode Italian bikes. Above we see a Benelli 250 two stroke twin, brilliant and simple and below a Benelli four stroke four cylinder, the worlds smallest production four cylinder motorcycle.

These were the days when outside Italy Japanese motorcycles were decimating motorcycle production. Britain and the US, former giants were reduced to penury, with Triumph collapsing last among the big names and Harley Davidson being saved by sporting goods maker AMF, an inglorious chapter in the Motor Company's history.

Italy, protected by tariffs, import quotas and taxes kept on building. Above the Benelli 500 a copy of the Honda below, but in the US the Italian bike was an exotic as it cost 30 percent more than the Honda.

The Benelli six cylinder 900 was designed to outdo the Honda 750 but price was always a factor, along with quality control issues. Good enough was never good enough for the Japanese factories.

Below we see the Honda 750 the machine that started the modern revolution in manufacturing, quiet, reliable, with modern conveniences such as electric start and disc brake, the 750 Four was recently voted, rightly so, as the Motorcycle of the the Century by Motorcyclist magazine.

Yet Benelli and others were making bikes behind Italy's protective tariff barriers. These days the Benelli factory is still building bikes, employing Italians in Pesaro, even though the company is owned ironically enough, by the Chinese.

MV Agusta built impressive four cylinder machines before Honda but was unable, or unwilling, to market them widely or sell them at competitive prices. They were luxury sport touring bikes for the lucky few. They are still viewed with awe by lovers of old motorcycles.

Ducati survived hard times thanks to the protection of the home market and even though today has been purchased by Audi the factory is alive and active and setting standards for high performance quality motorcycles at affordable prices.

They too started small selling single cylinder bikes after the war and gradually moved into sport bikes led by this funky unprepossessing Sport 250 single. Not much to look at by modern standards but it rocked it's world with a 90 mile-per-hour top speed.

The Monster series of Ducatis were entry level sport bikes that introduced a new generation to the brand, and they are still going strong, built in Italy.

This Ducati circled the world:

And this two stroke single was built in Italy and sold in the US as a Harley Davidson together youngsters onto home brand starter bikes. The Italian protectionist market made this strategy possible for the venerable Motor Company which bought Aermacchi in Italy and used it's small bike technology to brand small Harleys for the American market.

Italians also had a thriving 50cc market in the Seventies when I was a kid. The museum labels this moped as barely better than a bicycle but we had go faster kits in Italy and our motorized bicycles could be persuaded to go 50 miles per hour on a good day. They were street legal for fourteen year olds, no tags, no licenses and no inspections. What a childhood!

Italy after World War Two was a mechanized desert and these small bore motorcycles got the country commuting at 45 miles per hour. They were the basic motorcycle industry that grew and flourished in the Sixties and Seventies behind the trade barriers of which I have spoken.

It's unpopular these days to talk of protectionism as a way out our crisis but I wonder how it is that skilled American labor stands for the exportation of jobs to the Third World to profit the bosses. I find it especially odd when you consider that the cost of labor amounts to a mere 15 percent of the cost of the finished product.

Icons of Italian two wheeled industry set standards like the Lambretta scooter above, the Innocenti rival to Piaggio's more familiar Vespa. Or the rare Cagiva carbon fiber sport bike below, built to make a point, and a very expensive one too. Italians can build bikes.

We know Americans can too and we know that the level playing filed is an industrial myth. Japanese firms have always received government help to dump products and we know China does the same but we for some reason can't protect our own industries and our own jobs for some reason.

It saddens me that US products aren't built here by well paid American heads-of-households turning out machinery and I austral products as they used to. If they can't compete with Chinese salve labor let's level the playing field so they can, and let's bring real jobs home. I find it tantamount to treason to suggest this is fantasy.

Above we see the Pegaso 650 designed by Phillipe Starck, a lovely bike by Aprilia using an Austrian Rotax single. Below the Gilera 125 a technological marvel never seen on the streets of the US.

Moto Guzzi founded in 1922 with the green 500 single seen in the background below is now part of Piaggio Group, Europe's largest motorcycle manufacturer which includes Vespa, Gilera, Aprilia, and Moto Guzzi.

This rather dark picture should show my favorite Moto Guzzi the 1100cc LeMans sport-tourer tucked away on a shelf in the museum's recesses.

Barber has massive workshop operation to repair the bikes on display and cars as well which are often seen racing round the track.

The have 1200 or more bikes in the collection with 800 or so on dilly at one time. It's $15 to visit all day long you like and you should like. I don't know what I'd do with my money if I was Mr Big Bucks of Birmingham but Barber has done a fantastic thing here for posterity and for old farts like me, with his wealth.

It really is a place where you can go and dream. Dream perhaps of a resurgent American industrial heartland once more. Is that really such a subversive idea?

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