Monday, April 19, 2010

Barber Motorsports Three

This is my third and final essay in this series of pictures taken at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum outside Birmingham, Alabama. I am going to wax personal and nostalgic as I say good bye to the bikes so lovingly displayed. I blitzed through in two and a half hours checking out the bikes of my youth mostly and trying to see as much as I could of the 800 bikes on display. My long suffering wife and dog napped and talked on the iPhone in the Nissan while they waited for me to be pushed out by closing time. My wife is such a good sport that when I came out at ten to five she said "You've got another ten minutes...?"
My mother bought me my first two wheeler when I was twelve years old, a Vespa 50R in bright orange in the summer of 1970, the dawn of the best decade in motorcycling in my opinion. Motorcycles could go three thousand miles between oil changes and up to 7,000 miles between final drive chain replacements which meant a summer vacation could be completed without stopping to do what our ancestors a decade earlier had to do all too much roadside. Nevertheless for many people it was the 60's that was the decade of motorcycling romance:
I rode my little Vespa all over the hills of central Umbria learning to explore and travel at a young age, in an era when police patrols were non existent in rural Italy. I had to be 14 to be legally riding a 50cc motorcycle, but my mother wanted me to grow up to become a rider so she decided to instill the bug in me from a young age. I had an exceptional mother, too bad she was dead from a brain tumor three years later. She was 49 which seems rather young to me nowadays as I approach my 53rd birthday.I guess the bug bit because I traded the Vespa for an off road Beta 50 scrambler moped which I abused horribly on the goat tracks in the mountains but I did discover that I liked road riding and traveling. A used MV Agusta Sport, twin cylinder pushrod powered café racer came up for sale and I bought it for half a million lire as I recall in 1974. The next year I quit my English boarding school and rode that 100mph twin all over Europe every moment I had.
American riders grew up with the myth of the big V twin and Germans had their BMWs while everyone else wanted a Triumph. In Italy where import quotas were in effect to protect the local industry my contemporaries wanted Hondas and Yamahas, Kawasakis and Suzukis. I wanted light, fast good handling Italian iron. I traded the MV for the next sensation, a Moto Morini Three and a Half Sport, also in fire engine red with a disc brake and a top speed of 110 miles per hour. I had to kick start it but that lightweight 72 degree v-twin rode circles round Honda CB 400 Fours with all their chrome and it took me to North Africa, Spain and England in 1977/8 before a friend borrowed it and totaled it. I have never lent anyone my motorcycle since.
Then I bought a well used Benelli 650 Tornado, designed to beat the unreliable Triumph Bonneville of the day and it was way too fast and powerful for a boy used to 350cc twins. It was a real super bike and vibrated like one constantly breaking the wiring looms and the spark plug coils. I couldn't travel on it as it was totally unreliable. Like these Indian 500s designed to earn the failing company a new niche but so badly built were they, they just hastened Indian to the grave. When a motorcycle company abandons what it knows best it inevitably fucks everything up. Before I was born Gilera produced race winning singles, like the tank badge says "Absolute World Champion." By the time I was wondering how to replace my unreliable, snot-off-a-stick Tornado, Gilera was an arm of Piaggio (the Vespa builder) and producing pokey but cute 150cc daily riders.
BMW was the touring man's motorcycle, clean quiet and efficient but horribly expensive.
It may seem like there are lots of bikes to choose from today but back then we had all sorts of machines we could ride, two strokes, three cylinders, singles, twins, and even a few water cooled motorbikes.
On the subject of fucking things up Norton tolled their own death knell wasting what little money they had building a twin cylinder rotary Wankel engine which burned fuel like it was water and looked totally weird. Am oil tight electric start Commando with nice electrics and solid paint would have given Honda a run instead of this mess.
BMW produced the R100RS with a wind tunnel tested fairing and blew everyone away. A friend owned one and I rode it to my girlfriend's house 40 miles from home. I was more in love with it than with her by the time I got there. But it cost too much. Investment Biker Jim Rogers could afford a touring version for himself and a lighter BMW with bikini fairing for his girlfriend to ride around the world bringing capitalism to the unenlightened masses. He lives in Singapore now and looks down on the US where he expects revolution to break out any minute, but his bike is in Birmingham, safe for the time being. In those days we tourers wanted hard waterproof bags and weather protection and BMW was offering that sort of stuff long before anyone else. This was my ideal set up, no radio, no GPS, no auxiliary lights (the electrics would have fused) and newspaper under my leather jacket for warmth. It is weird to be old and to find oneself chuntering like an old fart.
Once again we have a motorcycle company bollocking it up and no surprise- it's English! This ugly duckling came from Vincent known for its speedy roadsters. No one much liked it.
This was the machine of the 1950s if you wanted to go fast. I think Vincent, a fine machine mechanically, takes top prize for building the ugliest motorcycle seat ever. It's a lifetime award. Some wags knew Vincents as "the plumber's nightmare" owing to the multiplicity of hoses and tubes sprouting among the mechanicals.
Thomas Edward Lawrence, famed as Lawrence of Arabia even in his own lifetime lent his fame to the advertising brochures of the Brough Superior Motorcycle Company. It is well known he rode fast and died of head injuries after falling off his last of seven Broughs in 1935. Please note this magnificent specimen has no tachometer, just like my basic Bonneville.
Lawrence lay in a coma for six days with severe head injuries and the surgeon who attended the last days of this famous soldier became convinced motorcyclists should wear helmets to protect themselves from catastrophe and campaigned for a helmet law. So now you know. This is the second most desirable motorcycle I never owned (a Moto Guzzi LeMans is the first). Check out the detail and the attractive seats...
One quick detour to acknowledge the Lotus collection at Barber (I was thinking of Old School Orin celebrating the purchase of his own car).
I know nothing of these machines so...
This next one is for the Toad who rode a 750cc version as his first bike and chased women with it, as only he would. I was sorry none of "my" motorcycles were on display and even though this is a 350cc version of the famous awful 750cc Kawasaki two stroke triple with the rubber frame, it represents the derring do of the 1970s when Japanese bikes went fast, looked great but didn't corner worth a shit. Speaking as the rider of Italian bikes with peeling paint, duff headlights, uncomfortable seats but that could catch up on the twisty bits. It is all about speed and statistics when we are young.
Here is the fiftieth anniversary modern Bonneville based on...
Quite amazing to see the first 1959 Bonneville next to the 2009 Replica. And all illuminated by these huge windows looking out on the private race track in the pine hills of Alabama.
They had a well supplied war section as well with the original Ural sidecar combo (built by BMW of course!).
If you are hopeless at remembering your proper tire pressure the Wehrmacht had the optimal, though ugly, solution for you.
I'm very glad they lost in the end, because people who paint umlauts on their mudguards (the dots over the U) are not going to be very easygoing in other matters methinks. Time for more Italian stallions.The modern Ducati classic replica next to...the original! Complete with see through fuel gauge in the tank.I never did own a Ducati either and nowadays they are sport machines not daily riders unless you are 6 feet tall and can ride a Multistrada that needs an expensive valve check every 7500 miles.
I toyed with the idea of a 450cc Ducati single after I decided to ditch the unreliable Tornado but I went Japanese instead for the first time. I bought a Yamaha SR500 single said to be built in the style of the famous British singles with a dry sump, kick start only (I learned how to start a big single here!) and utter Japanese reliability. I added luggage and a windshield and took off across Africa on it. I got to Cameroon where hepatitis laid me low and the bike and I flew home to recuperate. I loved that bike and wanted to see one here but no luck. They can be found on Cycle Trader for a couple of grand so I hold out hope I might ride one again. It would be ideal for the Keys, light, comfortable and impossibly difficult to start if you don't know how which would make it thief proof in this electronic era. It never leaked a drop of oil either. Another weird corporate affectation, a Harley Café Racer, designed as a single seater that had nothing to do with the Motor Company's image. They didn't sell, imagine that.Even at the time, when I rode solo almost all the time, I couldn't imagine owning one. But it is as lovely now as it was then. While the 1980s brought in greater reliability and more safety features (turn signals as standard was shocking and odd on Italian bikes), I loathed the horrid plastic fairings and coverings that became all the rage. This is a 1982 version of my 1977 Morini 350 and underneath all that crap is the heart of a road racing bike of epic pedigree. The struggle to look Japanese killed off Morini when they were bought from the Morini family by corporate Cagiva and killed off because they were unbeatable competition for the Cagiva line of ugly bikes.
Moto Morini has been revived building huge water cooled V Twins not for sale in the US and probably about to go bankrupt. One of their bikes is known as the Nine And A Half to honor the memory of the exceptional 350 that made the company's fortune in 1976. Here is a bike you don't see in the US, a Benelli 250cc two stroke twin, spare essential and sober with the ability to go faster than should be allowed. My kind of ride.
Then in an effort to compete with Honda Benelli tried to go all multi-cylinder. This was their smallest offering, a four stroke 250cc four cylinder. I never saw one on the road but they sold a few in Italy.
Again with all the horrible 1980s plastic bits. I wanted simplicity reliability and economy as I was a daily rider back then and complex motorcycles were not easy to look after at home. You had to check the valves every three thousand miles and doing that on a double overhead cam was not easy. These exotica looked silly to me as a single or twin was simple to look after and even though fuel looks cheap now it seemed pricey back then. A friend of mine had a Suzuki 500cc two stroke twin in England and it was thrifty, easy to ride and reliable. I liked this machine.And here is Kawasaki's effort to trump the Bonneville, the original 650cc twin whose existence was trumpeted as the reason for Kawasaki's retro 650 briefly imported to the US in 2000 and called, uninspiringly, the W2.
This bike was the first hint of Japan's future dominance of the motorcycling market. And here it is at Barber's incredible museum. Now I need to go back and pay attention to everything else they have on display.
So many bikes. So little time.