High-density displays help free up floor space in the world's largest motorcycle museum.
High-density displays help free up floor space in the world's largest motorcycle museum.

World's Largest Motorcycle Museum

Field review by the editors.

Birmingham, Alabama

When you picture a so-called motorcycle "museum," do you see a dark, cluttered and grimy garage, maybe just one step removed from a gas station grease pit?

Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.
Sculpted creatures, possibly from the Planet Unicycle, wheel their way to the Museum entrance.

Then you've never been to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

The museum's founder is George H. Barber, a Birmingham bazillionare who has also sponsored odd art projects such as Alabama's Lady in the Lake and Bamahenge. In the 1990s he was thinking about opening a car museum (he raced Porsches in his youth) but realized that "the best car collection had already been done," according to Jeff Ray, the museum's executive director. "He was very driven to do the best of something."

Well, how about motorcycles?

That idea appealed to George Barber. "He's a very mechanical-minded person," said Jeff. "With a motorcycle, you can see all the mechanics, all the intricacies, the technology. He could appreciate that. And the best motorcycle museum had not been done."

Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.
Art gallery or parking garage? The Barber Motorsports Museum is a little of both.

So Mr. Barber set out to make the world's best motorcycle museum.

With money as no object, really, Mr. Barber rapidly built his collection. In 2014 Guinness World Records counted his bikes and declared that George Barber had more motorcycles than anyone else on the planet: around 1,500 bikes, with new ones arriving frequently.

How to display them? That question had already been answered by Mr. Barber. He spent $70 million to buy several hundred acres of woodland on the outskirts of Birmingham, then hired workers to chainsaw the forest, build a parkway to the nearest interstate exit, and manicure the grounds with flowers, decorative shrubs and trees, and sculptures. He built a 2.3-mile track that his museum mechanics could use when they needed to air out the bikes. "These are living exhibits," said Jeff, which means that all of the museum's motorcycles, even those that are over a hundred years old, can be started up and taken out for a spin.

The museum has five floors and 144,000 square feet of exhibit space. Mr. Barber designed it as a cross between the Guggenheim art museum in New York City and a parking deck that he liked in Birmingham. Visitors take an elevator to the top floor, then follow the pull of gravity down a series of spiral ramps, past the various galleries, to the exit. It's built to be easy. Looking down from the fifth floor, the walkways reminded us of the flyovers of a freeway interchange.

Oldest known (1925) Bohmerland from Czechoslovakia, built to seat three.
Oldest known (1925) Bohmerland from Czechoslovakia, built to seat three.

Mr. Barber, said Jeff, wanted the museum to be utilitarian and industrial to really bring out the chrome and color of the motorcycles. Natural light flows through floor-to-ceiling windows to illuminate the concrete interior. In the center atrium, bikes are stacked 50 feet high in "aging racks" -- like fine wine, said Jeff. Most of the motorcycles in the galleries are showcased on pedestals surrounded by lots of open space. Visitors can walk around the bikes and study them from many different angles, just like sculptures in an art museum. For George Barber, who views motorcycles as mechanical art, and who became passionate about them as an adult, not as a teenager, it makes perfect sense.

World's cleanest 1920s gas station is just part of George Barber's ultra-tidy collection.
World's cleanest 1920s gas station is just part of George Barber's ultra-tidy collection.

Jeff said that roughly 650 motorcycles (and several dozen rare cars) are on display at any given time, and we didn't see a single one with a drip pan. George Barber may have the only motorcycle museum in the world that doesn't smell of motor oil. "We have a cleaning staff; we clean constantly," said Jeff. If this is a garage, it's the cleanest one in the world.

Jeff told us that the museum has a devoted following among motorcycle enthusiasts, but to reach a wider audience, tourism industry consultants have told him that the museum must 1) install video screens, 2) move out of Birmingham, and 3) "get rid of all these motorcycles." The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum has no interest in doing any of those things. "Mr. Barber's vision is to preserve and exhibit a significant motorcycle collection for those who can appreciate and understand it," said Jeff. "What kind of motorcycle museum is going to convert someone who isn't already interested in motorcycles?"

We wondered: what kind of vehicle does George Barber drive? "A little Honda minivan," said Jeff. "Sometimes he'll pull up at random, pull a visitor out of the parking lot, and they're off for a ride around the track."

World's Largest Motorcycle Museum

Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum

Address:
6040 Barber Motorsports Pkwy, Birmingham, AL
Directions:
Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. 13 miles east of Birmingham International Airport on I-20. Exit 140 (Leeds), then follow the signs.
Hours:
M-Sa 10-6, Su 12-6 (Call to verify)
Phone:
205-699-7275
Admission:
Adults $15.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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In the region:
Miss Electra, Power Goddess, Birmingham, AL - 11 mi.

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