Common Tread

Bama & Barber: Visiting the world's best motorcycle collection

Mar 07, 2014

One place in the United States that every motorcycle fanatic should visit at least once is the Barber Motorsports Park, home of the The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. It's easy to find, just off Interstate 20 east of Birmingham, Alabama. But as a firm believer in the old saying that the shortest distance between two points is a terrible waste of a good set of sport-touring tires, I mapped out a more meandering route.

That's how I find myself admiring the view at the overlook just below Little River Falls in the Little River Canyon National Preserve. Except for the glimpse of Alabama Route 35 beyond the falls and the improved trail I’m standing on, the view is one of trees, rocks and tumbling water, a scene carved by nature, not humans.

Little River Falls in northern Alabama. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Add the Little River Canyon to the list of interesting, enlightening, and just plain unusual spots I’ve discovered thanks to a motorcycle trip. This federal nature preserve in the northeastern corner of Alabama has been part of the U.S. National Parks System since 1992, but I hadn’t heard about it until I started planning this trip. What makes Little River Canyon unusual is that it’s a gorge carved atop a mountain ridge, running from 1,900 feet above sea level on Lookout Mountain to about 650 feet in altitude when it empties into Weiss Lake. What makes Little River Canyon an even better attraction for those of us who ride is Canyon Rim Drive.

Little River Canyon National Preserve. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Alabama Route 176. Photo by Lance Oliver.

For the first 11 miles, Canyon Rim Drive follows Alabama Route 176. It’s a low-speed road, full of blind rises and turns and you’ll be stopping every so often at yet another pullout for a view of the ancient sandstone cliffs plunging 600 feet into the gorge, so don’t expect to make time or drag knees. Though curvy and tight, you could imagine this road being negotiated by Ma and Pa Motorhome, crawling around 176’s turns, heaving and wallowing in their RV but making steady progress, at least. When it comes to the second 11 miles, however, Ma and Pa had best choose discretion over valor or else they’ll risk discovering the joys of a steep downhill grade followed by a 180-degree hairpin that can turn a Holiday Rambler into a smoldering roadside monument to brake failure faster than you can say “Hold on, Ethel!” It’s pretty fun on a motorcycle, however.

You've been warned. Photo by Lance Oliver.

That second 11-mile stretch, you see, consists of county roads. Route 176 peels off away from the gorge and, just before a descent that’s steep enough to jolt me out of “putting along the backroads” mode, there’s a sign warning trucks and RVs away and promising “Steep, Winding, Grades Ahead,” with every word capitalized by the National Park Service for your safety. This is still low-speed, second-gear riding, but it will keep you entertained. West Coast riders lucky enough to have turned laps at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca will have a basis of comparison in the famous Corkscrew turn. There’s about two or three Corkscrew-style drops per mile in the next several miles of road and it all ends with a steep downhill run and that 180-degree hairpin I warned you about.

Who needs a roller coaster? Photo by Lance Oliver.

Having met my minimum daily allotment of roller coaster riding for the morning, I ride some of northern Alabama's more ordinary back roads to get to the treasures on display at Barber. I'm not taking the easy way by zipping down I-20, however, because I've heard of an interesting back door, of sorts, to Barber. Some say the 20-mile stretch of Alabama Route 25 between the little town of Vincent and the town of Leeds, where Barber is located, is one of their favorite rides in the state. So I swing south and approach Barber from the other flank.

Riding north from Vincent, the first 10 miles are nice enough, but the curves tighten up as I approach Leeds. While stopped to snap some photos, I chat with Angel, a young sport bike rider who lives in Birmingham.

“Some weekends there are 50 of us out here hanging out and riding,” he says. A few minutes watching from a vantage point above a sweeping, downhill turn proves the popularity of this section of Route 25. Everything from a couple riding what appears to be a home-built custom chopper to a BMW adventure tourer and multiple sport bikes all flow past in a matter of minutes.

Route 25 between Vincent and Leeds, Ala., is a popular road. Photo by Lance Oliver.

All kinds of riders try the curves on Route 25. Photo by Lance Oliver.

The real motorcycle attraction in this region, however, sits on the other side of Leeds, where the flowing racetrack, manicured grounds and a cavernous museum have earned the Barber Motorsports Park a reputation as a high-quality facility. George Barber started collecting motorcycles in 1989 and later donated millions of dollars to create a foundation and build a top-class race track and museum, because he wanted to give his home city of Birmingham a unique facility to put it on the map.

The entrance to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. Reserved motorcycle parking, naturally. Photo by Lance Oliver.

We all have our own version of motorcycle obsession. George Barber's is buying them. All of them or any of them. His motorcycle collection now numbers about 1,200, and at any given time, 600 or so are on display in the impressive five-story building next to the race track. The building and track are works of art themselves. Many roadracing tracks in this country are strips of asphalt surrounded by weedy patches nourished only by the occasional spilled beer, so the manicured grounds of the Barber Motorsports Park, with their grassy spectator mounts, flower beds and whimsical sculptures are a welcome surprise, and testimony to George Barber's insistence on building something of quality.

Much has been written about the Barber Museum, but as I spent a few hours wandering floor after floor of stunning motorcycles, I was having a hard time wrapping my head around what I was seeing. Then I realized something that I haven't seen written in the stories I've read about the place.

The Barber Museum is not really a museum. At least not in the modern definition of that term as accepted by most people in the museum business. It’s better described and understood as simply the world’s most impressive private collection of motorcycles that’s easily accessible to the public.

Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. Photo by Lance Oliver.

What’s the difference? By mission and even by law, to an extent, museums are expected to educate. That’s why a museum mounts exhibits focusing, for example, on one moment in time, such as the era of board-track racing, or one style, make or nationality of motorcycle, such as scooters or World War II military motorcycles or Italian sport bikes. Then they try to take on the difficult task of making those exhibits understandable to everyone from the knowledgeable collector, who can spot a non-original paint job from across the room, to a bus-load of sixth-graders on a field trip.

By comparison, the Barber Museum overwhelms visitors with its scale, its sheer number and diversity of motorcycles, with nothing more than some informational plaques to help sort out what it all means. One-of-a-kind rarities sit side by side with ordinary machines you’d expect to find for sale any day of the week on craigslist (only the ones in the Barber Museum have fewer miles on the odometer and are shinier). Just to pick one example, in one area I see a stock 2009 Yamaha V-Max sitting next to a 1944 Harley-Davidson Model U next to a custom built by Allen Millyard that grafted two 1974 Kawasaki four-cylinder engines together to make a V-8. Depending on your perspective, that’s what makes the Barber Museum either the most delightful motorhead nirvana on earth or a bit confusing. You can never predict what you’ll see next, and you may have no clue what you are seeing next.

Only a fraction of the motorcycles in the Barber collection are on display at any given time. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Beyond the many labeled motorcycles on display are dozens more stacked in racks, making them look like Matchbox toys, without any identification at all. Lesser museums could put together the best exhibit they’ve ever mounted just by using these unlabeled “orphans” from the Barber Museum.

A display of board-track racers. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Still, as I ride north away from Birmingham with my head still a little dizzy from the sights, I can’t say the Barber Museum didn’t perform a museum-like educational role. One lesson I clearly learned is that you can amass far more discretionary income than I ever imagined possible by selling ice cream and those little cartons of milk for schoolkids. Just ask George Barber. And while you're at it, thank him for sharing his personal version of motorcycle obsession with us.