Friday, November 16, 2018

What to see at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum

Capt. America motorcycle like the one in "Easy Rider" on display.
It can't be; and it's not. This Capt. America bike like the one in "Easy Rider" is a replica.
For me, classic Royal Enfield motorcycles were the stars of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Ala.

But of course the enormous museum displays hundreds of other motorcycles and cars, especially Lotus cars. It claims to have the largest collection of Lotus automobiles and they are among the first things you see as you enter.

Familiar from photographs, Lotus cars are surprising, even shocking in person. The most dramatic, for me, was a "see through" 1957 Lotus 14.

Car body lit from within shows how thin the bodywork is.
Unpainted 1957 Lotus 14, lit from inside, demonstrates how lightly built it was.
"The Museum decided not long after its purchase to leave the car unpainted to showcase Lotus founder Colin Chapman's genius design of a fiberglass monocoque," signage explains.

"Chapman was all about keeping it light and simple."

In this car fiberglass is almost the only material used. Steel frame is visible around the windshield and doors and almost no where else. The resulting car weighed only 1,484 pounds.

"Only 1,050 cars were ultimately produced as the production costs of the advanced monocoque meant the car was sold for less than it cost to build," the museum sign notes.

Large motor.
Enormous Rolls Royce Meteor motor powered World War II tanks.
Next surprise: A Rolls Royce V-12 Meteor motor. An engine from a tank! It's a relative of the famed Merlin engine that powered the Spitfire and P-51 Mustang fighter planes.

"The Rolls Royce Meteor was a British tank engine developed during World War II and was used in the Comet, Cromwell and Centurion tanks," signage advises.

Using airplane motors in tanks might seem uneconomical, but the Meteor was a bargain. It left out the Merlin's supercharger, greatly simplifying casting. Since light weight was less important (in a tank!) some expensive light alloy materials were replaced with steel.

Since reliability was less important, Merlin components rejected for poor quality could be used in the Meteor. In 1943, a shortage of V-12 blocks was met by dismantling surplus older Merlins to make Meteors.

It's still a monster 27-liter motor. It holds 25 gallons of oil!

High quality V-twin motorcycle.
Very rare, the Crocker was the best of pre-war American motorcycles.
The 1938 Crocker V-twin is famed as the Duesenberg of American motorcycles. Only about 75 were built between 1936 and 1940, so I never expected to see one. The work of Albert Crocker, who had built racing motorcycles, these were superb road machines, capable of cruising at 90 mph.

Look closely at this little Honda. Does it seem slightly stretched out? That's to make room for the extra crankcase that turns the little speedster into a 98cc V-twin.

Small motorcycle has combination of two motors.
Can you spot what makes this former Honda 50 so special?
The 1974 creation of British engineer Allen Millyard, the SS100 claims all of 10.5 horsepower. A single seater, why does it have rear foot pegs? Undoubtedly so the rider can stretch out over the long tank for streamlining.

Here's another SS100: the 1938 Brough-Superior, looking every bit as superior as it was when T.E. Lawrence favored the brand. Broughs were assembled from parts — here a Matchless motor and Norton gearbox — but only the best ones. This one has front and rear Royal Enfield brakes.

Large shiny vintage motorcycle.
Only the best bits made for a Superior Brough.
The 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmuller, from Germany, was the world's first mass produced motorcycle. Some aspects of its design did not catch on.

For instance, the piston rods operate on the rear wheel — it's in effect the crankshaft. If you want a different  drive ratio you have to fit a different size rear wheel.

Complicated looking old motorcycle.
It's complicated looking but you have to love the rubber bands.
Museum signage says that the enormous rubber bands on the sides of the machine assist starting. Maybe you push the machine backwards to tighten the bands, then lift your feet? The bands would snap the machine forward for a "push" start. Maybe. (Other sources say the bands are there to return the pistons for the next stroke, as there is no flywheel except the rear wheel.)

Who doesn't like a magnificent failure? The 1920 Militor (initially designed for the U.S. military) was both magnificent and awful. It seemed to lack for nothing. It had a sidecar, four-cylinder motor, front and rear suspension (telescopic on the front, leaf at the rear). Wheels were wagon style, with wooden spokes, and the frame was massive. A curved steel bar ran through the center of the front wheel to stabilize it.

Heavy looking motorcycle.
"Military might" never came mightier than the Militor.
At 800 pounds the few Militors sent to the front in 1918 sank into the battlefield. But part of the fascination of any museum is seeing what worked, and what didn't, what became famous and what sank into oblivion.

So I am not offended that the Barber's "Captain America" Harley-Davidson, displayed so proudly at center stage, is a replica of the motorcycle in the movie "Easy Rider."

The 1960 Vincent Black Lightning on display is a replica as well, although "a very accurate replica," signage notes. After all, the real Black Lightning (no more than 40 are reputed to have been made) was itself just a tuned version of the Vincent Black Shadow.

Big black powerful looking motorcycle.
Vincent Black Lightning was first to break 150 mph. But its looks mattered more.
Our museum guide pointed out that what made these Vincents so influential was not just their speed or mechanical sophistication. Those have been surpassed. Oddly, what has lasted is the importance of the color black. Motorcycles, before the Vincent, were black only if they had to be. Otherwise they tried to be colorful and shiny.

The "Black" Vincents made black cool.

I'd never thought of that.

Shiny bicycle with motor and whitewall tires.
At the other end of the spectrum, a Whizzer powered bicycle.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Classic Royal Enfields shine at the Barber Museum

Motorcycle on display stand.
It's fun to see a motorcycle like the one you ride displayed in a museum.
Royal Enfield motorcycles of the past are among the more than 900 historically important motorcycles on display at the Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum in Birmingham, Ala.

I was lucky enough to get to see them recently in the company of my daughter Anna and wife Bonnie. It was Anna's idea we visit the Barber museum. She knew I'd love it when she first toured it with her husband Matt and his family.

The immense and sparkling museum building holds more than 1,600 vintage and modern motorcycles and racing cars, and the largest collection of Lotus racing cars. The museum says 99 per cent of the motorcycles in the museum can be run "within one hour."

The motorcycles date from 1904 and include 140 brands from 16 countries. Signage relates their fascinating features and stories. We took a "premium" tour ($15), which gave us access to the workshop restoration shop and to the many personal stories told by the guide.

Vintage motorcycle on top of wooden crate.
Photographing a 1910 Pierce Four motorcycle. Fewer than 15 survive.
Particularly interesting was his explanation for the appearance of the various motorcycles. Some are, he admitted "over restored." In its early days Barber made them look as good as they could, not necessarily how they came from the factory. Modern paint. Better chrome.

Now the museum tries to keep the bikes looking like they were the day they were leaned against the wall in some barn and forgotten. A motorcyclist who traveled the world was delighted to see that his mount, when placed on display, "still had the bugs on the windshield."

That rider ultimately determined that the only thing the museum had done to alter the motorcycle's condition was "they emptied my water bottle," our guide told us.

Royal Enfield motorcycle with diesel motor.
A Sommer diesel Royal Enfield. Top speed: 62 mph.
Our tour started on the bottom floor, home of the restoration shop. There I spotted a Sommer diesel-powered Royal Enfield. Pre-unit Royal Enfield Bullets are frequently used for diesel conversions around the world and the Sommer, made in Germany, is probably one of the best of these. It looked like it was meant to be a diesel.

Nearby was another vehicle I've long wanted to see: a 1959 MGA twin-cam sports car and behold, the twin-cam motor was right there on a shelf in front of the car. Only 2,111 twin-cams were made. (My first car was a 1958 MGA, the far more common push-rod version.)

Twin-cam motor in foreground with sports car behind it.
MGA twin cams were produced for 1959 and '60 only.
Then it was to the top of the multi-story Barber Museum on an elevator past motorcycles displayed on towering racks.

Among these was a 1998 350cc Royal Enfield with "Super Bullet" on the tank. It was close to my own 1999 Bullet in appearance, but with the gearshift on the right as they were in the home market in India.

Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle on display rack.
The 1998 Royal Enfield Bullet at the Barber Museum is a "Super Bullet."
A 1964 Interceptor came into sight as we walked down from floor to floor past literally hundreds of fascinating motorcycles. This one had a sign, describing how Royal Enfield stayed ahead as British twins grew past 650cc in the 1960s, bringing the Interceptor to a nominal 750cc.

"For a comparatively small company, Royal Enfield was very advanced with their technical designs," the sign noted. "This U.S. market version has the high bars and small tank that was so popular at the time." It looked marvelous.

Blue and chrome motorcycle on display stand.
1964 Royal Enfield Interceptor is the stunning highlight of the museum, for me.
A 250cc Continental GT cafe racer was displayed on what could be described as a "tree" of motorcycles. This was the first factory made British cafe racer. It looked small compared to the other "ornaments" on the tree. Easy to imagine how it would have inspired a lithe young man in 1965.

Cafe racer displayed on rack with other motorcycles.
A Royal Enfield Continental GT cafe racer of the 1960s.
The Continental GT of that era was actually the result of safety legislation. With many thousands of Baby Boomers suddenly coming of riding age, Britain limited new motorcyclists to machines of 250cc or less, until they passed a riding test. By 1971 it was apparent that manufacturers like Royal Enfield had started building fast, sexy 250s for the young and the limit was dropped further, to 125cc.

Vintage Royal Enfield motorcycle on display stand.
Daughter Anna sizes up a tidy 1926 Royal Enfield 250cc Sports Model.
Far from sexy (but delightful to see) and far removed in time was the 1926 Royal Enfield 250cc, a two-stroke with two-speed hand shift. Top speed: 35 mph.

"Typical '20s commuter, probably giving over 100 mpg," its signage crowed. "These little 250s were very popular, with low running costs and easy to service, and were quite well constructed. The large diameter external flywheel helps to smooth out the characteristic erratic running that two strokes have at love revs."

It's not every day I get to show off by pointing out an external flywheel to my wife and daughter. (The motorcycles were the stars at Barber but I was happy to share in their reflected glory.)

Illustration of a Royal Enfield Sports Model of 1927.
The two-stroke Model 200 of the 1920s had cush drive in the rear hub, just like my 1999 Bullet.
I found a 1927 Royal Enfield brochure that gives a better view of the external flywheel. It also shows the appealing curve of the two-into-one exhaust pipes.

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