The Barber Museum — a Lotto fantasy come true

Caption: Now THAT is a bike collection. Former dairy magnate George Barber started collecting bikes and, well, couldn't stop. He's reportedly spent "tens of millions of dollars" pursuing his bike fantasy. A visit to the Barber Museum in Alabama is on our bucket list. Note the Britten V1000 (it's the blue one) on the top floor. Photo courtesy Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

Bucket list holiday destination in the USA

IMAGINE for a moment that you woke up on this New Year’s Day morning to the news that you had won Lotto.

And not just a measly million or so (ppffft), but so much money that you could afford to entertain some of your wildest dreams.

What if, having squared away the mortgage and the kids schooling and all the wife’s Myer-card shoes and make-up, you still had twenty or thirty million dollars left over? What would you do with it?

Maybe you’d start collecting motorbikes …

This is a story about a truly extraordinary collection of old and not-so-old motorbikes.

It’s also a story about an American bike-related travel destination, a visit to which is on our bucket list.

But mostly, it’s a story about a guy with petrol in his veins and the ability and the passion to pursue his own “what if” motorcycle fantasy.

Businessman George Barber never won Lotto, but his financial capacity — created over three generations in the dairy industry and more recently in real estate — has placed him in a position that most of us would need a Lotto win to replicate. OK, several Lotto wins.

CAPTION: This is George Barber and a couple of his bikes. He has others.

George was running his family dairy business in the 1980s when a decision was made to decommission a dairy truck workshop. One of the company’s employees, a chap by the name of Dave Hooper, suggested that the workshop could be used to restore cars. You know, just for fun like.

Even at this stage, George was a bit of a petrol head. He’d raced Porsches in his 20s (as one does) and had spun his own spanners on his way to 60-odd race wins. So he was no slouch behind the wheel or under the floorpan.

And so it was, that a bunch of dairy truck mechanics had a crack at restoring cars.

CAPTION: How nice is that Indian in the foreground? There are cars, too. Photo by Benjamin N Smith.

Sadly, the skills required to rebuild a Chevvy engine are not the same as those required to perform a concourse restoration of a Lotus.

Undaunted, Dave suggested they abandon the car thing and turn their efforts to bikes.

In 2008, George told the imaginatively named American motorcyclists’ magazine ‘American Motorcyclist’ that he and Dave had then bought a few bikes each. And then a few more. And then a few more.

Next time they looked, they had a couple of hundred.

It was about then that George’s dream crystallised. He wanted to build the best motorcycle collection in the world.

And he did. The accumulation continued. I read somewhere that, at one stage, George single-handedly bumped up the global price of historic motorcycles. The story goes that everyone in the classic bike world knew that George was buying up, so everyone bumped their prices to get a bigger slice of his budget. (Probably nonsense, but nice tale …)

Cool tyres. Photo courtesy Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

Today, George’s five-storey glass-and-steel museum in Birmingham, Alabama, has 2.3ha of floor space, and is home to more than 1,000 bikes (somebody counted 1,398 bikes in March 2014), although they’re not all on show at the same time. You’ll only (!) see 700 or so on any given day. Outside the museum is the 335-hectare Barber Motorsports Park,  home to a whole bunch of artworks, magnificent gardens, and a 3.8km, 17-turn racetrack that hosts motorcycle and car racing events throughout the year.

Every man needs a shed full of bikes. Oh, and a racetrack. Photo courtesy Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

It’s also home to the Porsche Sport Driving School and the Barber Proving Grounds, where Mercedes-Benz hosts the Mercedes Brand Immersion Experience for its employees. American online motoring magazine Jalopnik has named Barber Motorsports Park one of the “10 Prettiest Racetracks in the World”.

As well as accumulating bikes, the Barber effort has accumulated vast amounts of knowledge.

The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum Research Library and Archives has grown to contain one of the largest collections of motorcycle literature in the world, with more than 8,000 books. The library also includes back issues of more than 480 motorcycle and car magazine titles, parts catalogs, auction catalogs, service manuals, photographs, and over 700 video titles. The library is home to interesting memorabilia from the Barber Museum Collection, such as trophies, awards, toys, models and art.

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George sold the dairy business in 1998 (we haven’t been able to find a sale price, but apparently the company had a turnover of $200 million a year when it was sold), freeing up some time and money for George to spend on his bike habit.

Photo courtesy Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

By 2002 his bike collection had outgrown its original premises. The museum and motor park opened late in 2003.

George was elected to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2014, and fair enough too. His ambition was to build the ultimate bike shed, and he’s done that in spades.

Without a single powerball …

A West Aussie who’s been there

Perth bike buff Matthew Mckenzie visited the museum last October. He was on his way from Los Angeles to Milwaukee (you might guess he’s a Harley fan) and took a detour just to see the Barber extravaganza.

“I’ve been riding bikes for about 35 years and have always liked old bikes,” Matthew told us.

“I have a small collection of Harleys and old Japanese bikes here in Perth, and like to spend my holidays looking at bike museums in Australia and the USA.

“It was a long drive but well worth it. Put simply, they have everything as far as bikes go. About 1450 on display plus a few cars too. My favorites were all the American bikes, but all of them were amazing. Many were rare and priceless. It was good to see a few bikes I had only previously seen in magazines or photos. The Barber is the biggest motorcycle museum in the world, so if you like bikes then you have to go there!”

They look like toys, but they’re real. Photo courtesy Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

Photo courtesy Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

Also see:

The Britten V1000

Travel stories

 

1 Comment on "The Barber Museum — a Lotto fantasy come true"

  1. I was there about two years ago. Un-freakin believable. My brother and I got pretty excited and couldn’t see it all in a day, and asked to see Mr Barber to tell him how much we appreciated the collection on day two. He wasn’t there, but we were taken down to the workshop where restorations and preparations went on. I was talking to the technical director and put my hand down on a Red and Green bevel-driven Ducati. As I checked this bike, I noticed the name “Hailwood” on the left side of the fairing screen. Yes, I’ve touched the real one…

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