Sunday, April 18, 2010

Barber Motorsports Two

A 500cc parallel twin from Ducati. I wondered at the time why and they in fact built a terrible, unreliable machine and pretty soon it was replaced by a proper V-twin. But Barber has one of the weird and wonderful Ducatis forgotten by everyone else.MV Agusta 800 America. A Dream Bike, four cylinders, shaft drive and cool as all get out.
MV Agusta took a while to figure out what (rich) people wanted and they offered this first, the "Flying Saucer" (Disco Volante) so called for the weird shaped tank. And before that they built a 600cc abomination that looked like this:No really, like this:My first bike was a used 350cc parallel twin by MV Agusta but when I was 16 I would have loved one of these. It looked a million dollars this 125cc single but it wasn't very fast, they say. "25 time world champion" says the sticker on the tank. My 350 had the same sticker. In Italy 16 year olds can ride 125cc motorcycles so this little buzz bomb was aimed at a particular market, and it wasn't old men commuting to work. You think I wasn't drooling over this machine, as slow as it might have been? 65mph would have been enough tucked behind that fairing. This Hercules Wankel was just a bad idea. Norton tried it too and Barber has one of those on display. It didn't make the gas guzzler rotary engine any the better that a company as cool as Norton built one. A few BSA motorcycles taking up space. Check out how vast the five levels are. "As smooth as a Silk" was the advertising slogan for the British built 700cc two stroke twin.
It was based on the Scott Flying Squirrel's engine which Barber had on display (of course). Water cooled in the 1920's? There is nothing new under the sun.
I would have liked to have seen this little beauty up close. The Honda 400 Four was part of the revolutionary line of multi-cylinder motorcycles Honda was building in the 1970s. It was extremely popular for young hooligans. I rode Italian instead.
A Velocette single, looking venerable next to the Honda.
A whole section devoted to the history of Harley Davidson. My grandfather had a Harley similar to this 1929. Very revolutionary in Italy between the Wars.
The nicest of Honda's four cylinders in my opinion, the CB500.
Race bikes don't do much for me but MV is always an exception. This is John Surtees' GP winner from the end of the 1950's.
One last look at the road going MV four cylinders. I wish they had had my old 350 on display.
At the bottom of the stack is the workshop where they restore Lotus race cars as well as the motorcycles for display. No admission to the general public.
A replica of the Easy Rider from the movie, parked above the entrance to the museum.
A Crocker, a revered and much admired bike and there aren't many around. I have seen one up close now at last.
A Ducati 200cc single in the foreground and yet another Trumpet up there behind it.
Gilera's Saturno 500 single in racing guise.A pre-war Triumph twin with the Harley Café Racer in the back ground.
Can you see the drool on my face, reflected in the tank of this BSA Clubman?
I wonder if there really would be a market for a modern version of this? Something more reliable than an Indian Enfield?
This was Edward Turner's idea of a commuter bike, a Triumph 21 from 1957 or thereabouts, known as a Bathtub:It didn't sell very well but collectors love them now.
I had a revelation walking around the museum taking pictures and hovering over all these motorcycles. A lot of these machines on display are here because they were the wild failures, the crazy experiments that moved motorcycle design along down the road. These oddballs are tributes to the vision and misplaced zeal of people who wanted to offer us a better way to ride and I am extremely grateful to the people at Barber (and the man himself, known to Johnny Coley by reputation only as the biggest property owner in Birmingham) for the time and energy they have devoted to preserving these iconoclasts of the motorcycle world. Like the Triumph Bathtub, which was far ahead of it's time, Aprilia known to day as a superbike builder, once tried to produce a motorcycle like a scooter that should have appealed to non riding commuters. I wish Triumph offered a motorcycle like this 650:If they did it would probably sell as badly as Aprilia's Moto 6.5 by Phillipe Starck.
A light, fast, good handling street bike with belt drive, excellent gas mileage and large fuel tank to haul a rider, a windshield and dedicated luggage across a continent or to work every day with minimal maintenance (hydraulic tappets are to be included). There's a concept I'd love to see on the road. Perhaps even looking as smooth and classic and slightly odd like this Aprilia! I'm not sure why the ignition key has to be behind the water cooled cyclinder though.What an incredible bunch of bikes.

My visit reaffirmed the power of nostalgia. It's hard to imagine going back to a world where riding a bike was as experimental as it was back then. We were learning to ride long distances, to create luggage suitable for motorcycling, to add windshields that worked and to make clothing that made riding more comfortable. I read about all these modern motorcyclists who are ready to sue at the drop of a hat and who study warranty forms with greater passion than they ever would a shop manual. Back then we rode for fun and we frequently suffered inconveniences when things went wrong and we carried tools because motorcycles could be repaired and jury rigged roadside. A motorcycle stopped by the side of the road was a plea for help and we waved to each other as reassurance that should the need arise we would be there for each other. We didn't wave because we both ride Harleys on the weekend. Clothing was marginal and "safety" was not something fearsome, it was simply the counter balance to risk, and risk yielded joy and that was why motorcycles were good. We were rebels because riding involved getting dirty and wet and tired and we didn't have internet fora to share the pain, each trip was a private accomplishment. While I like my modern Bonneville's reliability (notice I never owned one of the oil leaking, breaking down pieces of shit in the 1970s!) I ride today in the same spirit that I have always ridden, as a way to get away, as a way to arrive without getting bored and frustrated driving a cage. I don't want electrons getting in the way and I am an iconcolast because of that even though I don't feel iconoclastic. I can't recreate the freedom of my own youth but I draw my own lines. For instance I would use electric clothing if I lived Up North, but I don't use Blue Teeth or listen to the radio or make phone calls while I ride. I sing in my helmet, I talk to myself, I compose essays and promptly forget them. I look out at the countryside and remember rides past, I look at the handlebars and think how lucky I am that I am out here riding in the rain while they are in there wishing they had arrived. I always remind my wife that if I die riding it was doing what I wanted to do. The way I want to do it, still, after all these years.

Tomorrow my final essay from the Barber Museum with a look back at my life on two wheels.