barber museum

Barber’s Shop

Birmingham, Alabama, is famous for its warm subtropical climate, lush green hills, Southern hospitality and, of course, the magnificent Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. The extraordinary museum, on the eastern edge of Birmingham, is home to the world’s preeminent motorcycle collection and a remarkable automobile collection – and nearly all exhibits are masterfully restored and operational.

“Mr. Barber was a Porsche driver back in the ’60s,” explains Executive Director Jeff Ray. “He started collecting cars back in 1989; we now have the largest Lotus collection in the world. Mr. Barber also caught a love for motorcycles, and set out to put together the world’s finest motorcycle collection.” The vehicle to achieve that dream became the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

And the motorcycle collection is incredible! The splendid $70 million museum complex houses examples of motorcycle history from Ariel to Zündapp, and almost everything between. The museum is home to a growing inventory of more than 1200 expertly restored motorcycles, with about 700 always on display.

barber museum

Restoring motorcycles and automobiles is time-consuming, meticulous work. Some arrive at the museum well cared-for and in running condition, while others are delivered in multiple boxes, requiring piece-by-piece scrutiny. Often, replacements for worn or broken parts are unavailable, and must be manufactured.

“We try to repair the original parts, if we can,” explains Assistant Manager Lee Clark, who is responsible for the Automotive Restoration Department and the Machine Shop. “Or we try to replace it from old stock, so it will have the original patina, the proper look. If we can’t do that, then we’ll make a new part.”

That’s where the Haas Exhibit at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum comes in. A unique partnership between the museum and the local Haas Factory Outlet (a division of Jeffreys Manufacturing Solutions), the exhibit comprises four Haas CNC machines – a VF-3 vertical machining center, an SL-20 turning center, a TL-1 Toolroom Lathe and a TM-1 Toolroom Mill. The HFO uses the exhibit to demonstrate high-tech Haas CNC machines to potential buyers, and offers training classes in the museum’s distinctive surroundings. In return, the museum restoration shop has access to up-to-date, high-tech machines capable of virtually any restoration task.

barber museum

Often, the only way to get an essential restoration part is to manufacture it, and the Haas exhibit serves that purpose well. “We can reverse engineer and make an identical obsolete part in-house,” Clark points out, “and that allows us to extend the life of our exhibits.”

The process can be quite a challenge, however. Measurements to make a new part can be obtained from the old part, but only if there is enough of the old part left to measure – if there’s an old part at all. Sometimes the part is missing, requiring a global search for a replacement. If none are found, the restorers carefully study and analyze photographs and drawings in order to design and manufacture a workable replacement. The replacement must look and operate like the original, as nearly as possible.

“If the car or motorcycle model has a history of a defect that doesn’t show, sometimes we will go ahead and update that, as long as it is not irreversible,” Clark continues. “With the Haas machines, we can make a better valve or valve seat using modern materials, and maybe eliminate an inherent problem. If no replacement is available for a visible part, like a frame or suspension piece, we can usually make an exact duplicate. That allows us to share the car or the motorcycle with the public. That’s what really drives us: we take a ‘snapshot in time.’ We want to present the car or motorcycle as it actually looked in its time period.”

And the museum truly brings the exhibits to life. Adjacent to the complex lies the Barber Motorsports Park – a two-and-a-third mile European-style road-racing course set into an exquisitely manicured park that would make the Augusta National Golf Club jealous. It was originally built to exercise the motorcycles and cars on exhibit at the museum. Visitors can still hear the heartbeat of a 1959 Lotus Type 16 Formula 2 car going through its paces on the track, or watch an MV Agusta whining through a couple of turns.

The track schedule now includes SCCA and Grand-Am championship road-racing events, along with WERA and AMA Superbike motorcycle racing. In 2010, Barber Motorsports Park will hold its first Indy Racing League (IRL) race of a three-year contract – the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

“This is a true European-style motorsports park,” Ray explains, “and people like to move around and get different views. We invite the public to bring a blanket, folding chairs and a picnic lunch, and enjoy the races and the art.”

But the superbly restored bikes and cars are the focus art at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. On race days, the public is invited to the Restoration Department and the Haas Exhibit to see the technology, effort and painstaking care that bring these exquisite restorations to life.

They truly are works of art, worthy of display with the masters. Proving the point, the Guggenheim Museum borrowed several bikes for their Art of the Motorcycle exhibit. “Mr. Barber gave them what they wanted,” says Ray, “and The Art of the Motorcycle remains the best-attended exhibit for the Guggenheim to date.”

barber museum

Story by Brad Branham
Photos courtesy Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum