Sunday, August 1, 2010

Barber Museum Revisited

I never really appreciated what an amazing motorcycle era I grew into. When I was riding my first Vespa 50 Friedel Munch was busy in Germany shoe horning an NSU 1200cc automobile engine into a motorcycle frame. he called it the Mammoth, for it was the largest motorcycle in factory production.I never saw one of these on the road because they were built to order and in my neck of the woods men rode to work on motorcycles that looked more like one of these variants on the 125cc Moto Guzzi Stornello. The "Starling" (they used a lot of bird names for some reason) came in three types, sport, touring and scrambler. These I remember:Even when I grew up and started traveling on my Italian factory bikes I never did get to see a Mammut in the flesh. But here it was at the Barber Motorsports Museum outside Birmingham forty years later! These I saw on the street and wanted:But all I could afford was one of these. My Morini 350 was good for 100 miles per hour and I installed my own race fairing to look cool as I took off traveling around Europe. It wasn't a Ducati 900 but it worked very well for me.
Barber has recreated the first motorcycle factory in the US which appeared in Wisconsin (shortly after Triumph had started building motorcycles in England I might add). Harley Davidson we are told "accidentally" tore down the original shed when they were refurbishing the factory. A strange mistake considering how much they trade on nostalgia these days. And outside they have a 1913 Harley in perfect running condition, unrestored. I took quite a lot of time staring at this hundred year old machine. Quite amazing. Barber calls this 1915 Harley, shown below, the motorized equivalent of a horse and buggy.
An 11 horsepower Harley (similar in power to a modern Vespa 150) was attached to a two seater carriage making for a cheap way to transport goods or family members. Barber says this Harley Davidson had a new improved three speed gear box that made the attachment of the "buggy" a likely proposition. What I find interesting about this place is how we get to see all sorts of innovations that came ages ago but that weren't supported by the technology of the time. As technology improved, those ideas came back and we see them today on modern motorcycles. Modern trikes aren't a cheap way to do anything but people seem to love them.The pocket valve cylinders were also used on this Australian delivery Harley. Pocket valves had the intake over the exhaust valve and were considered very reliable for the day.
I was quite impressed by this decidedly overbuilt speedometer take off on the rear wheel.
It led to the instrument through that big black hose on the back of the tank. These early bikes had it all hanging out, making them much easier to repair. Nowadays we seem to like lots of plastic sheathing to hide the complexity of our bikes. (Not, I might add, on my Bonneville!)
The sidecar still has the Australian delivery logo. Never head of 'em, I wonder if theys till see cookies in Sydney.
There are so many bikes at Barber I tend to get overwhelmed. I decided I wanted to check out more of the Harley's this trip to try to give myself some focus. This is more familiar to modern riders. The 1976 FLH Electraglide with 66 horsepower (just like my Bonneville).
This Sportster with final drive chain was on the Christmas Tree rack up the middle of the five storey museum.
This below is an earlier, electric start Sportster with distinctive and weird styling. They built this thing to take on the big British twins of 1969, all of which was for naught as Honda's 750 four cylinder wiped the floor with all of them.
I do like modern belt drive on Harleys. Belts made of leather were in evidence on early motor bicycles but reliability led to the use of chains on motorcycles in the intervening years. Then the technology to build tough plastic belts made them possible again. Yet Bonnevilles use chains because modern Triumph buyers don't want their nostalgia machines to resemble modern Harleys! Belts are maintenance free and clean. Nice for people like me who actually ride their motorcycles.This is a 1981 "peas and carrots" style nostalgia Harley, so called because they only came in orange and green as pictured. The FLH 80 (cubic inch) produced 60 whole horsepower but it was quite cute.
This was another particular Harley produced to appeal to strange people with it's cowhide saddle.
Built in 1993 they called it the Heritage Nostalgia. Less charitable types called it the "Cowglide."Harley owners (not necessarily riders) are desperately opinionated people, I've discovered, and if you think riding a Sportster makes you a member of the clan think again. Sportsters are usually known as "chick" bikes which must be why I like them. Erik Buell used Harley motors to power his sports bikes and eventually he got bought by HD and destroyed by them. I suspect these early Buells were on display at Barber to take notice of Buell's passing (though they need to update their descriptors as they describe Buell as still belonging to Harley Davidson).This black rubber thing is a kickstarter on a Birmingham Police Special, a panhead from 1965. Panhead describes the valve cover which I discovered finally, looks like an upside down circular aluminum frying pan on the cylinder head.As this machine was on Birmingham's streets in the fateful year of 1965 there is not telling what sort of crowd control issues it was used in. The museum is too delicate to speculate in it's literature.
This was Harley's attempt to lure young people to it's brand in 1976. These two strokes were built using Aermacchi engines from Italy and I remember them well. This was during the bad years when American Machine and Foundry, the sporting goods manufacturer owned Harley and hadn't a clue what they were doing. AMF nearly sank the Motor Company until the family reasserted control and got them back on track. If a Sportster is a chick bike I wonder what this 250cc two stroke was?
Aermacchi wasn't the first two stroke built to lure new customers into the fold. Remember these were the days when there was a general theory that one should start small and with experience work one's way up to bigger more powerful machines. Unlike today when any old accountant or banker can plunk down 20,000 dollars and ride off (wobbling) on a 700 pound Road King.
This 165 cc, ten horsepower two stroke Harley was produced the year I was born, 1957. It was based on a German DKW 125 whose factory was occupied by the US after World War Two and whose small bike designs became spoils of war apparently.
It cost $445. Since my last visit to this fabulous place these two machine have been moved together. The original 1959 Bonneville on the right and the 50 year Anniversary Bonneville, just like mine, on the left. Except mine is green and rather tatty by comparison.
This was my second visit to the Barber Museum where they tell us they have more than 800 machines and can only display half of those at a time. Mr Barber is a major land owner in Birmingham and made his fortune the best way, by inheriting a dairy business. He makes good use of his surplus millions here.
The weather was a bit threatening this visit and car races on the 2.4 mile race track outside only lasted a little while. I saw two other people walking the museum but by the time I left, at closing time, three hours after I arrived, I had had the place pretty much to myself all afternoon. For a $15 entry fee($12 if you are, like me, AARP) it is very well worthwhile. I can't wait to go back. Check it our for yourself, you won't be disappointed. Plus the displays are always changing so each visit is a fresh experience, I have discovered. Now I need to go back a third time to make sure that is true.