Is it possible that too much utter perfection can become boring?
I suppose it’s theoretically possible.
In my case, bliss was indeed fleeting.
After about an hour of watching boxers and Guzzis and TZs oh my, I though that it might be tad too cool and cloudy to be exactly perfect to watch racing. Since my compulsive weather watching showed warmer and sunnier times ahead, I figured that visiting the museum was as well done now as any other time I could think of.
So, I galumphed my way back down the hill, extricated my LT from it’s Grom and Scooter neighbors, and headed back around the perimeter road until I hit the entrance to the museum parking lot. A nice gentleman directing traffic waved me in, and I crossed in front of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. I loved the sculptures out in front of the building — just the largest examples of metal sculptures to be found in every wood and clearing of the entire Park.
Yeah, we had come a long way from the original Dairy.
Funny thing, was when I was rambling around another area of the racetrack, later, I looked up unexpectedly, and I’m pretty sure it was this AJS that I saw fastened to the top of fairly tall tree trunk.
Looks like everybody had made the trip, though.
After parking Darkside out in the furthest reaches of the museum parking lot — flatter ground and less likely to squish nearby Groms and Z50s — I saw yet another impromptu bike show happening in the circle right in front of the Barber’s front door. These were stock motorcycles in Concours shape, and even in a brief circuit there were clearly some beauties.
There was a beautiful small bore twin Honda Scrambler. It was tagged and looked as nice as the day it rolled off the line. My new rider son, Finn, would be beside himself with glee if we could find one like this for him to buy.
Next to that was a Harley-Davidson badged Aermacci Sprint.
Its hovering owner emerged smiling, as I sucked a little whistle at the sight of it.
“Maaaan, that’s pretty, ” I told him. “These things were really the best handling things ever made with Harley badges, even if it was kind of a fib.”
“Sweet, right? I bought this bike when I was in High School. Can you believe my girlfriend at the time left me for a guy with a bigger bike?”
“Dude, I’m thinking you ducked a bullet with that one. You’re likely much better off with this sweet bike than you would have been with any girlfriend with that kind of decision-making criteria.”
“Yeah, hadn’t thought of it that way before.”
Widespread chuckling ensued.
I’d been on a trip to get back to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum since 2002.
Finally, in October of 2015, after one more swipe of a credit card, I was standing inside the front door and drinking in the amazing vista that spreads out from there.
I’ve been to a fair share of motorcycle museums and car museums. Most of them try to create the impression that you’ve gone to that great garage in the sky.
The Barber, however, is different. Rather than cling to an ‘oily rag and rusty wrench’ aesthetic, The Barber takes a decidedly different tack.
Every visible inch of the Barber facility, whether inside the museum, out on the racecourse, in the many wooded and grassy areas scattered around the Motorsports Park, wants to treat motorcycles and the entire motorcycling experience as if it was a beautiful work of art.
Something as simple as the road into the facility — Barber Motorsports Parkway — which, with its wooded areas, hill and corners, wants to stand in the place of every beautiful winding county road that you’ve ever ridden — is an unmistakable statement about the beauty of motorcycles and the motorcycling experience.
Go just a few miles up the road to Talledega Superspeedway, and look at their entrance drive. At Talledega, the road into the track is arrow straight, ten lanes wide with white lane dotted lines and fluttering flags that line the edges. It’s a paene to just dropping the hammer and taking the pedal straight to the floor.
Talledega is an engineer’s solution.
The Barber is the artist’s.
And Motorsports Parkway is just the beginning. From the sculptures that adorn every area of the park, to the landscaping, the lighting, the architecture of the facility’s buildings and the curation of display areas and organization of the collection, the vision of the Barber Collection is a total reverence for the art of these elemental machines and the passion they inspire.
In a museum continuum that has the scorched and shattered fragments of one of the Wright Brother’s early failed engines at one end, and Michelangelo’s David on the other, The Barber Vintage motorsport collection’s subjects feel a great deal closer to the master’s marble than to the fractured alloy.
Right inside the door of the museum are a cluster of various Triumph motorcycles — a road racing Trident, a Trackmaster-framed dirttrack Bonneville, and a bone stock Trident. Like almost every bike in the Museum — with certain deliberate and notable exceptions — the Trident looks like the day it rolled off the line (maybe better), and like it had never turned a wheel on the street.
The Museum building has a central core with a very large elevator to take visitors and both cars and motorcycles to the various levels of the facility. The elevator shaft has storage racks that run up and down the full height of the shaft which contain many more motorcycles than will fit in the display areas. Do not for a second assume that the motorcycles in the storage racks are any less interesting than the ones which are on formal display.
Each side of the museum has a spiral ramp that allows pedestrians to walk between the five levels of the facility. Each of these ramps — like the Parkway — manage to suggest a winding country road without actually trying to represent one.
Despite the fact the Barber is primarily a motorcycle museum, my eye caught sight of some Lotus race cars off to the right on the entrance floor — there were F1 and Indianapolis open wheeled racers, and sports racing cars from the 50s that just drew that eye, and so the rest of me followed.
Mr. Barber apparently loves Lotus automobiles. Given Lotus’ engineering principles — weld up triangulated space frames and skin with hand-made aluminum bodies — an approach not far removed from motorcycles — I can see how one enthusiasm led to another.
His collection, were that all there was — and it by no means isn’t — is nothing short of spectacular. The Lotus Mark VIII — clearly the inspiration for Speed Racer’s Mach Five — except that the British have always preferred bare aluminum over paint, and that preference was at work here. The John Player Special F1 car — one of my favorite racing cars. The Camel-sponsored winner of the 1989 Indianapolis 500. Mario Andretti’s Ford V8 powered 1969 Indy Racer — built after USAC outlawed the Lotus Turbine car.
Ok, I’ll cede that having car reverie in the midst of the world’s foremost motorcycle museum is a tad perverse. I’ve comfortable with that, though.
All that was swept aside as soon as I looked up, though.
Oh yeah, that’s why we’re here.
For some reason, I felt another perverse urge. As always, I went with it. I took the elevator down to the museum’s basement.
There was more cool stuff down there, unsurprisingly. There were the maintenance and restoration shops. A collection of lovingly restored Johnson outboard motors dating back into the 1920s. One of Don Vesco’s Land Speed Record Bonneville Streamliners.
As I headed towards the rear of the building, I instantly realized what had been drawing me down there. There is a race maintenance shop that opens out onto the track. It’s a sweet facility, with proper tool drawer equipped workbenches, fantastic task lighting, and lots of metal signage of historic racing motorcycle marques.
But it wasn’t the shop, it was what was in it.
I had heard some talk in advance of my trip of a planned New Zealand invasion of Alabama. Those rumors were true. Set up on the workbenches and being readied for combat were six of the ten Britten Motorcycles even made. Thrown in just for flavor was a Britten engine powered Bonneville Land Speed Record Streamliner. The underside of the canopy had been signed by all of the Pilots who had aimed her down the Black Stripe.
The story of John Britten, the New Zealand born engineer who decided that in a world filled with 70 years of winning Japanese, Italian, British and German road racing motorcycles, that he could do better, is well known. That after deciding this, he promptly went into the shed behind his house with a few mates and did, is one of those stories that is a proper testament to the strength and determination of the human spirit.
Add John’s story to that of Burt Monroe, and New Zealanders clearly can lay at least some claim to being the perpetual World Champions of Motorcycling.
If you don’t know the story of John Britten and the motorcycles he created, you owe it to yourself to find out. The bikes were a clean sheet of paper design that took almost nothing from what came before. Carbon fiber monocoque construction, including the front suspension and wheels, that led to overall machine weight and power to weight ratios that were unheard of at the time of their construction. Shock absorbers that worked in extension — later adopted by Eric Buell. Extreme mass centralization to aide directional changes. John Britten’s motorcycles looked like nothing else, and went and sounded like nothing else, too.
That, in another one of nature’s little surprises, that John would be taken from us by an extremely aggressive form of cancer at age 45 before ever having the opportunity to build version 2.0, is one of the great tragedies of our enthusiasm.
The majority of his motorcycling children were here, and I spent more than a few minutes trying to drink it all in, the echos of that metallic bark of an exhaust note ringing inside my head.