Wednesday 30 October 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part VI - Barber Vintage Festival

Barber Motorsports Park Leeds Alabama Race Track

Part VI of the OddBike USA Tour Travelogue. Click here for Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV, and Part V.


I wake up early and Winslow and I head straight to the Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, a short drive outside of Birmingham. The facility is located in a secluded wooded area, surrounded by pleasant little twisty roads. If you are in the area and looking for some interesting riding roads, the routes around Barber would be a good place to start.

Ducati 916 and Yamaha XS400 motorcycles

We arrive early enough to beat the traffic and nab parking near the front gate, but despite our early arrival it is clear that this is going to be a huge event. Visitors are streaming in steadily, and venues are spread out over miles of property surrounding the track and museum. I head over to the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club stand located next to the entrance to locate David Morales, builder of the 50 Magnum I featured on Pipeburn. Sure enough Dave is there, with the Magnum on display alongside a very cool CT70 he had built previously. I introduce myself and meet his wife, Jennifer, before I wander off to take in the festivities.

David Morales' Honda 50 Magnum and CT70
David Morales' 50 Magnum

I was keen to to check out the swap meet, which was supposedly one of the best in the country. I had printed a schedule that highlighted and prioritized the various events I wanted to see on each day. I arrive at the swap meet and promptly toss it out - I was in full-on kid-in-candy-store-on-sugar-high mode.

Barber Vintage Festival Swap Meet

The swap meet covers several acres and featured every conceivable component you can think of, plus a bunch you'd never guess would end up piled high in front of a camper. I wander the rows, looking over parts, project machines, accessories, clothes, books, anything and everything motorcycle related you could possibly imagine. Plenty of junk, but also a lot of good buys if you were prepared to hunt a bit. I kept my eyes peeled for a coolant union and a sensor, and came close when I discovered a guy parting out an ST2 - but unfortunately he didn't have any engine or cooling system components. So close.

BMW K1 Motorcycle Barber Swap Meet

The real shock is the endless supply of inexpensive bikes. I am in awe. Coming from Canada, where the ugliest, most common, chopped up, run into the ground, piece of crap UJM will fetch top dollar and no running bike will ever sell for anything less than four digits, the selection of cool cheap bikes before me is mind blowing. There is a running Moto Guzzi Centauro with some surface corrosion - asking 1800$. A really clean Kawasaki ZX750E Turbo - 3500$. An Aprilia Falco in good condition - 3750$. There are rare and unusual machines everywhere, and almost all up for grabs for totally fair asking prices barring a few nitwits who were asking silly money. Being a swap meet, haggling is expected - so imagine the bargains you could snag if the prices are fair to begin with. And where else are you going to see a nicely-preserved bacon-slicer Moto Guzzi single down the row from several Honda CX Turbos and a Yamaha GTS, while an old fellow puts up and down the aisles hawking a beautifully restored Indian Chief?  I vow that someday I will show up with at least 5000$ in cash and a trailer, and will leave with as many machines as I can drag home with me.

Yamaha GTS 1000 Motorcycle Barber Swap Meet

After an hour or so I am getting hungry and I locate a food truck serving breakfast near a nondescript building with a sign outside: "Auction". That sounds interesting. I wander in, and I am stunned by a fantastic cross section of rare and beautiful machines. The swap meet held the gems in the rough, the projects and daily drivers. The auction has the cream puffs, the trailer queens and the restored beauties. While the auction machines are appealing, they have a "do not touch" aura (and some actual signs to that effect) about them, too clean and too perfect to muck up by something so base as riding them. I don't like that - motorcycles, no matter how revered they might be, are made to be ridden. So says the man who thrashes a 916 as his daily driver and touring mount.

Motorcycle Auction Barber Vintage Festival

By this time the grounds are filling up with parked bikes stretching for miles at a time. Just wandering the parking areas will net you some fascinating discoveries. Never mind the festivities, the rides that the attendees show up on are interesting enough to spend a day mulling over.

I walk over to the Ace Corner, a pay-extra-to-get-in-because-fuck-you-that's-why section of the festival. I discover they are checking tickets at the entrance and I left mine in the luggage on my bike. So I backtrack a mile, retrieve the ticket, and trudge back. "This had better be damn worth it" I think to myself.

Custom Ducati Supersport

It isn't. For your extra 10$ a day you get to see a few custom chopper and café-racer style bikes - some good, some pretty mediocre. Odds are you'd find more interesting customs parked around the property. A few vendors are present hawking all your capital-R Rocker and café-racer hipster lifestyle needs, from faux vintage T-shirts, to made-in-China aftermarket parts, to branded mugs to sip your free trade soy lattes from. The so-called "Ace Café" at Barber is just another food tent, same as the ones scattered throughout the event, except here they are allowed to serve overpriced beer. Truth be told these guys look like a bunch of weenies compared to the grizzled old farts peddling barn-fresh junk down at the swap meet, and their wares aren't particularly interesting. That is the difference between authenticity and commercialization. The whole "scene" feels phony and contrived. The fact they have segregated themselves into a separate venue didn't endear me much - I felt cheated out of my tenner, and I bought the extra pass for all three goddamned days.

A colleague of mine, who isn't fond of this neo café-racer culture, had rhetorically asked me "In 20 years will we be dressing up like squids and riding around on chromed out Hayabusas and GSX-Rs?".

He has a point. A couple of decades ago these so-called "café" bikes were assembled by blue-collar miscreants who went around flaunting the law, riding like assholes, and being social misfits. Since then we've nostalg-ized Rocker culture to the point of absurdity. The same goes for the shed-built choppers that were once the mainstay of working class outlaws before they became a cash cow. While I love the aesthetics of these bikes and the idea of building your own machine, I can do without the preening and lifestyle bullshit. Maybe I'm just jealous of all their sweet beards and tats.

Brough Superior SS100 Motorcycle

There were two notable highlights at the Ace Corner, however. One was a nice selection of beautiful Brough Superiors, which looked decidedly out of place compared to what was otherwise a sea of custom Asian twins and fours ("Wow, another Honda CB with metalflake paint!"). The other was a pair of bikes presented by Analog Motorcycles, who earned my respect by showing up with two of the coolest customs in the show - one was once a Ducati Indiana, the other started as a Bimota DB3 Mantra. Both were far more attractive than you'd think those donor machines ever could be. Their unusual choice of project bikes gets my thumbs up - so does their friendly, genuine attitude.

Analog Motorcycles Bimota DB3 Mantra

Analog Motorcycles Ducati Indiana

I continue my wandering and head over to the Ducati area to say hello to the Duc guys. A modest tent is setup on a remote ridge with a row of Ducatis parked in front. I was expecting a row of new bikes, maybe a dealer display, some merchandise... Instead it is a simple venue with inflatable couches, a cooler full of water, and a decent view of the track. No pretenses, no salesmen. A quiet, shaded refuge - not that exciting but much appreciated after hours of wandering around in the Alabama sunshine.

Ducati owner's tent Barber Vintage Festival

I meet Vicki Smith, who is quite well known in the North American Ducati community and a founder of She welcomes me into the Ducati gathering and says "Oh, and Cook Neilsen is here. He's right behind you." I turn around and come face to face with a living legend. Generally I don't follow racing and I wouldn't be able to pick most famous riders out of a crowd but I am well aware of the who Cook is and the importance and his exploits aboard the California Hot Rod (aka Old Blue), as well as the work he did back in the glory days of Cycle magazine. I was a little star struck (and just plain caught off guard) and did my best to introduce myself without looking like a complete dork. I managed to give him one of my cards and told him about OddBike. Someone was needed to ferry some people around in the Official Ducati North America golf cart and Cook volunteered, disappearing as quickly as he had materialized. I sat down and met a few of the Ducati owners who were present, including a few of the guys I had spoken to earlier while hunting for that elusive coolant sensor. I also had the opportunity to meet Cook's wife Stepper. Nice folks all around, as is often the case with the true Ducati guys. It's only the young, poseur Ducati owners who are snobby assholes - the Ducati community is one of the friendliest, most supportive group of motorcyclists I've ever had the privilege to be a part of, which is probably part of the reason why I still ride one.

After a cooling-off period I head through the main vendor area to check out the commercial displays. This year's featured marque is BMW, and there is a dedicated BMW parking / show area, which is almost entirely devoid of anything noteworthy. I was quite disappointed; aside from the expected slew of 1960s-1980s airheads and a few K bikes and oilheads, there was nothing particularly interesting present. I came across a few early boxers and the odd single, but many were floating around the grounds or on display at other venues. There was an interesting antique and classic bike show-and-shine going on right next to the BMW section that featured some fascinating pieces, awkwardly juxtaposed with the vendor area filled with brand new machines and racks of accessories. Something a bit unusual about seeing a Ner-a-Car and a Brough Superior sidecar outfit within spitting distance of a rack of Triumph T-shirts. Not to mention the three dirtbikes screaming around inside a Ball of Death.

Motorcycle Ball of Death

A small Norton camp is notable for being the only group arrogant enough to have a roped-off "Private Party" event, right next door to this mind-blowing selection of vintage machines that were far more interesting than a bunch of run-of-the-mill Commandos. The scene did nothing to mitigate my irrational dislike of old British machines. Elitism would be ill advised in this environment, because aside from their little clique everything else was open to the riff raff - that included the "Vincent Hillbilly's" owner's club, who had a great selection of machines on hand, including a rare early Meteor single that stood out among the "ubiquitous" Shadows and Rapides.

Vincent Meteor Motorcycle

I stop by the Motus display and introduce myself to Brian Case and Lee Conn. It gave me an opportunity to finally see (and hear) the Motus MST in person. I was impressed with the fit and finish of the prototypes and came away satisfied that they would be a worthy subject of a future OddBike profile. But at this point my mind was wandering from the hot sun and overwhelming selection of machines I'd been perusing since about 8 am.

Motus MST R Motorcycle

Did I mention that there was racing on the track in the centre of the property this entire time? Because I didn't have a single moment to even take notice of the classic machines shrieking and thundering around the tarmac. Maybe tomorrow I'd have the chance to properly spectate. In the meantime there was so much happening around the track that I scarcely noticed what was occurring on it.

Racing motorcycles Barber Motorsports Park

Time for a break. Time to visit the museum.

The Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum is one of those pilgrimage destinations that every motorcyclist adds to his or her bucket list the moment they hear about it. The largest collection of motorcycles in the world? All maintained to the highest standards, in ready-to-run condition? Damn right I'd like to see what the fuss is about.

Barber Motorcycle Museum

I can assure you, nothing will prepare you for your first visit to the Barber museum. You will be totally overwhelmed. You will be unable to process the sheer number of obscenely rare and beautiful machines presented before you in a state of the art facility that would put many major art museums to shame. This is the motorcyclist's Louvre, and just like that palace, you cannot possibly take it all in over the course of a few hours. It's simply too much, and it is fantastic.

Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum

I could barely contain myself as I was cruising through the exhibits and taking as many photos as I could manage. I saw every machine I've ever desired, and quite a few that I've owned or ridden. I encountered many of the machines I've profiled here on OddBike. I photographed a dozen more that I had on my "to do" list. I stood in awe of machines with unequaled historical provenance, bikes straddled by the greatest riders of all time. Bikes from every period, from every continent, from the mundane to the exceptional - everything is accounted for. If Wheels Through Time was overwhelming due to its magnificent chaos, living history and provenance, the Barber museum is utterly awe-inspiring for its breadth, scope and perfection. They are perfect foils. Wheels Through Time has the market cornered for rare original survivors in a low-key environment, while Barber is the home of flawless restorations in a multi-million dollar facility.

Gary Egan's Ducati ST4 Motorcycle Barber Museum

I visit the state-of-the-art restoration department on the basement floor, an area that is normally off-limits to the public but is opened during the Vintage Festival. Little do I know I will become better acquainted with it before the week is out.

Cook Neilsen's Ducati Old Blue California Hot Rod

I wander the halls and take photos until my camera's battery dies, at which point I vow to return the next day to continue my visit. I intensely wish I could stay the entire week to study the machines on hand. I don't feel like I'm doing myself, or the museum, any justice by being present for a few measly hours. I was in the pantheon of motorcycling and my brain was melting.

Silk 700S Mark II Sabre Motorcycle Barber Museum
Silk 700S Mark II

So much for relaxing. At this point I'm buzzing and can't focus. It's late afternoon and I decide to call it quits for the day. I head back to the VJMC area and hang out with David and Jennifer while I wait for Winslow to materialize and guide me back to his house. David was a generous contributor to the Tour's Indiegogo campaign and I promised I'd buy him a beer - but seeing how the only beer tent was on the other side of the Barber property in Ace Corner, I offered to take him and Jennifer out for dinner. We make plans to meet in Birmingham later in the evening.

Kawasaki Z1R TC Turbo Motorcycle Barber Museum
Kawasaki Z1R TC Turbo

Winslow takes me through the backroads of Leeds, along a set of pleasant routes snaking through a forested area on the way to Birmingham. I get stuck behind a doddering driver in an Audi, which is a bit of blessing - I'm completely wiped out from the day's events and I'm content to just putter along slowly without testing my riding skills under exhaustion. I am familiar enough with my bike to know that it does not suffer half-assed riding or lazy inputs, and it will fight back if you aren't sharp. Whenever I start to get tired I know it's time to find a place to stop, pronto, because my riding is about to get real sloppy, real fast. You cannot ride a 916 on autopilot for long.

Gurney Alligator Motorcycle Barber Museum
Gurney Alligator

Winslow and I head over to Carrigan's Public House to meet David, Jennifer, and Matt, one of the VJMC guys who also builds custom minibikes. Carrigan's is located in an industrial area of Birmingham, framed by old factories and rail yards. It is an eerie area filled with old brick warehouses and dimly lit streets, and interesting contrast to the vibrant activity at Carrigan's on a warm Friday night. The restaurant-slash-bar is located in a fully renovated historic building and shares space with those classic signs of urban gentrification: loft condos and open-concept office space. Judging by the crowd and our attempts to desperately nab a table like a gang of vultures circling a dying animal, I'd say it's a pretty popular spot. And, gimmicky or not, the beer-dispensing Land Rover Defender behind the bar is a nice touch. We enjoy a night of good beer, good food, and lots of shop talk.

Gilera CX125 Motorcycle Barber Museum
Gilera CX 125

On the way home we pass the Sloss Furnaces, a decommissioned pig-iron blast furnace that is the only such industrial site to be preserved as a National Historic Landmark. Winslow shares a bit of the local lore, about how the Furnaces are supposedly haunted by the ghosts of workers who were mistreated by a sadistic foreman - or perhaps it is the foreman himself who continues to roam the facilities. Looking at the mass of blackened pipework framed by the glow of the Birmingham nightscape, it's hard not to picture the site as a hotbed of paranormal happenings. Lacking any nighttime lighting and in an already poorly lit industrial neighbourhood, the place looks fucking terrifying. It would be a great place to visit around Halloween, a point not lost on the locals who hold a series of horror-themed events at the Furnaces from September through to the November.

With ghost stories rattling around in my head and the nearby recycling yard clattering heaps of metal well into the wee hours, I settle in for a good night's rest. Tomorrow will prove to be the most intense day of the entire OddBike USA Tour.

Britten V1000 Motorcycle Barber Museum


  1. Great post, been loving your trip and I've been an avid reader of the site since the beginning.

    On the "contrived cafe culture": I feel much the same as you on the subject and in fact sold my cb550 retro-mod because of the fact that the market is prime for a crash in that area. So I'd like to hear what you think the hipsters are going to turn to when they finally decide that the cafe scene is too popular. I'm thinking 90's and early 2000's naked bikes maybe?

    Great stuff, thanks for the read.

  2. Makes a good read, I rode down from Burlington Ontario myself for the event, I broke up the ride there and back into a two week trip with the Barber event in the middle. Your review brought it all back it was a great event and along with the ride topped off a good year of riding before putting the bike away for the winter.

    Enjoyed it, thanks,
    Mike S.