For a motorcycle enthusiast, the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, in Birmingham, Alabama, is mecca. Touting the largest collection of motorcycles in the US, and possibly the world, the Barber museum houses something like 1500 motorcycles, less than half of which are on display at any given time.
This list is an attempt to whittle down this massive and beautiful collection to the 10 must-see motorcycles visitors easily miss. It’s easy to do, considering the enormity of the facility. We wish we could expand the list beyond 10, but that’s not the way this game is played. However, if you’ve been to the Barber Museum, feel free to share your favorite bikes from the collection in the comments section below.
Here’s a bit of a bombshell to start things off: the incredible Britten is not on the list. Remember, this is a hidden gems compilation. The Britten’s prominent location on the top floor attracts many eyes. Each motorcycle at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum has a story. The following 10 stories have either influenced motorcycling today, or left us wondering what could have been; and they’re all motorcycles you could walk right past and not notice. The next time you visit the Barber Museum, be sure to set some time aside to appreciate these often forgotten pieces of moto history.
10. 1938 Crocker
The story of Albert Crocker is an interesting one. In the first half of the 1900s, hundreds of motorcycle companies fought for attention. By the 1920s, many fell by the wayside, but Harley-Davidson, Excelsior-Henderson, and Indian were among the giants also known as the Big Three. Albert Crocker first worked for Thor motorcycles, honing his craft before moving to Indian and becoming a distributor in the Los Angeles area.
From there he decided to take his skills and make his own motorcycles. Speedway bikes were first, but focus shifted to a premium, hand-built luxury motorcycle to challenge the Big Three. This was the result. Powered by a 986cc, 45-degree air-cooled V-Twin, Crockers were able to cruise at high speeds with ease and comfort. Approximately 75 examples were built between 1936 and 1940, of which half are accounted for.
9. 1925 Bohmerland
Made in Czechoslovakia and powered by a 600cc single, the Bohmerland was a rather sophisticated motorcycle for 1925 standards. It features a leading link front suspension and cast wheels, which didn’t become standard fare on motorcycles until the ’70s.
Obviously, what sets the Bohmerland apart is its sheer size. Three different wheelbases were offered, the longest spanning over 10 feet and able to carry four passengers! This particular 1925 example fits three. Bohmerland had a relatively short existence (1924 – 1939) due to the outbreak of the war, but in that time around 1000 examples were made. Not many are still around, and this is the oldest one known to exist.
8. 1923 Scott Sprint Special
A 596cc, liquid-cooled, twin-cylinder two-stroke with automatic oil injection and rotary intake valves would still be considered relatively modern even by today’s standards. Now imagine these technologies being employed in 1923. The competition wouldn’t stand a chance.
Alfred Angus Scott was so ahead of his time, his machines were outlawed in numerous racing organizations. All told, the Scott name would be responsible for over 60 motorcycle patents.
7. 1960 Honda RC161
Honda motorcycles are synonymous with performance and reliability, but there was a time when that wasn’t the case. Before the 1960 Honda RC161, the Hondas could last an entire race but were at a serious power disadvantage. When the RC161 arrived, Honda’s fortunes started turning. This 249cc, four-cylinder Grand Prix racer had six transmission ratios and could rev to 14,000 rpm — impressive even by today’s standards.
When 1961 came around and the RC162, based heavily on the RC161, was introduced, Honda won 10 out of 11 races that year and claimed the top five spots in the constructor’s championship also. Soichiro Honda’s dominance in racing can be traced back to this moment, while many of the technologies developed would eventually trickle down into production motorcycles.
6. 1954 AJS E95
The AJS E-95 was a fast British Grand Prix motorcycle powered by an air-cooled 499cc parallel-Twin, designed to be the factory’s first post-war competitor. Unfortunately, it was unreliable and eventually scrapped from competition. But these two particular bikes are on this list for a few reasons: first is the immaculate — and award-winning — restoration job performed on the bottom AJS by the highly skilled Barber staff.
The second, more interesting, reason is the story of the partially dismantled E-95 suspended above. In the early 1960s, this bike was stored to the side of the AJS shop, collecting dust in retirement. Local dealer Tom Arter convinced the factory to give the bike to him on loan. Little did the factory know Arter planned to race the bike again.
He modified the suspension to accept the modern tires of the time, hired Canadian Mike Duff to ride, and gave racing a go. Apparently Arter didn’t remember the reasons the E-95 was retired in the first place; it was fast but unreliable. The bike was finally retired for good after this comeback attempt.
5. 1924 Moto Guzzi Normale
Moto Guzzis are quirky, odd and charming at the same time. The Guzzi fan base is a similar set with a deep devotion to the brand. And it all started right here. The 1924 Moto-Guzzi Normale was the first motorcycle designed and manufactured by Carlo Guzzi. It features a horizontal, 498cc air-cooled single-cylinder engine with an external flywheel, making just eight horsepower.
Guzzi stuck with the horizontal Single and external flywheel design for more than 50 years, in both touring and racing machines. The iconic transverse Twins were introduced in the meantime, but when the final 500cc Guzzi Single rolled off the production line in 1976, it still retained the same bore and stroke (88 x 82mm) of the Normale above.
4. Morbidelli V8
Perhaps best known for his factory-beating Grand Prix racing machines, in 1997 Giancarlo Morbidelli had dreams of building a production superbike. What’s more amazing is the choice of engine: a liquid-cooled, 32-valve, OHC, 847cc V-8. This is one of just four prototypes ever to exist.
On paper and in person, the V-8 “super” bike was more suited to touring duties, with its relatively upright position, quirky styling and shaft drive, but ultimately any aspirations for mass production were dashed when public interest in the bike was lackluster at best. The project was scrapped and Morbidelli has been relegated to its obscure position in moto history.
3. Kawasaki KZ2600 V12
Look closely at this Kawasaki KZ1300. Notice anything odd? You’re not supposed to, and that’s exactly how master builder Allan Millyard sets out to do in his builds. However, astute gearheads and KZ1300 enthusiasts will notice the V-shape of the engine. Indeed, Millyard has taken a standard KZ1300 and grafted another set of cylinders and heads to create a V-12!
British enthusiast Millyard is famous for his Kawasaki specials, creating five-cylinder H1 and H2s, as well as a V-8-powered Z1. All of which are housed at the Barber museum. The beauty with this V-12, along with all of Millyard’s creations, is his attention to detail while keeping the motorcycle looking as close to stock as possible. Power numbers aren’t known, but we’re sure this bike is a handful.
2. 1953 Honda
The first Honda motorcycles arrived on U.S. shores in 1959, but Soichiro’s early two-wheelers came into existence a decade earlier. This 1953 Honda is one of a few remaining models of the time and features an air-cooled, 145cc Single pumping out 5.5 hp and borrowed heavily from German engineering of the time, particularly N.S.U., which were dominating the contemporary racing scene. As we know now, Honda intensely studied the leading manufacturers of the time, engineering better, more reliable machines based on the lessons learned.
It’s extremely rare to find early examples of Honda motorcycles like this one, especially here in America. Some were shipped back by returning servicemen, but because there were no spare parts to be found, most ended up in salvage yards. However, the Honda brand as we know it now can trace its roots back to this machine.
1. Buell Motocross Mockup
This one is truly a hidden gem as it’s not for public display, tucked away in the museum’s massive warehouse. However, its significance is no less important. When Buell was forced to close its doors after parent company Harley-Davidson shut down operations, it liquidated everything from office chairs to factory machinery. The company also had to figure out what to do with its existing prototypes and mockups. Enter the Barber Museum.
The museum acquired some of Buell’s remaining motorcycle inventory, including this clay model of a motocross bike the company was rumored to be bringing to market in 2009. Those plans were eventually scrapped to focus on the 1125R, but the MX-er was more than just design sketches on Buell’s patent, as this early prototype shows.
In typical Buell style, the frame would serve double duty and store fuel, with the bulk of it resting low in the frame, behind the engine. The forward portion of the frame would house the airbox as well, with the filter located under the seat. As it did with the 1125R, Buell turned to Rotax for a 449cc Single to compete with the top dogs in the class.
Alas, Buell Motor Company is no more, but as we now know, Erik Buell Racing has taken its place. Without the shackles of The Motor Company tying him down, it’s plausible that Erik Buell’s MX aspirations may one day see the light of day after all.