2017 Barber Vintage Festival: Norton Heaven

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus
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Barry Schanberger took our Best Norton award for his painstakingly restored 1968 Norton Commando Fastback. Photos by the Motorcycle Classics staff.

The iconic Norton Commando was our featured bike at the 13th Annual Barber Vintage Festival in Leeds, Alabama, Oct. 6-8, 2017, and 18 Nortons showed up for our show, including this first-year 1968 Commando Fastback belonging to Barry Schanberger. Meticulously restored, it took top honors, winning our Best Norton award.

It was hardly an easy decision for our judges, former Norton employee and Barber staffer Brian Slark, National Motorcycle Museum special projects director Mark Mederski, and vintage motorcycle scribe and former racer Alan Cathcart. The bikes on hand ranged from stunning specials to original riders to restored machines like Barry’s, all of them worthy of attention. But in the end, only one can win, and that was Barry’s ’68.

Among the 18 Nortons at our show was James Murray’s fantastic and original 1968 Commando Fastback, fitted with a period optional orange seat like the one fitted to the 1967 Earls Court bike.

Helping us with the awards ceremony was none other than former Superbike champion Wes Cooley, who won the 1979 and 1980 Superbike Championships on a Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000S. This year’s featured guest at the festival, Wes shared stories of his career, marveling at the attention he was getting and clearly enjoying every minute of it. I got Wes to sign my vintage Wes Cooley Arai Signature Addition helmet, a piece of gear I’d somehow never lost track of, and now destined for permanent display in my shop.

And it wasn’t just Nortons on hand, as an incredible variety of vintage bikes showed up for display including a Munch TTS, two Vincents, a Bimota, an Ariel Square Four, a gaggle of Triumphs and BSAs, a perfect and original 1982 Yamaha XJ550RJ Seca and a trio of vintage BMWs with sidecars, to name just a few.

Editor Backus (second from left) discusses judging criteria with this year’s judges (from left) Alan Cathcart, Brian Slark and Mark Mederski.

We don’t have attendance numbers yet, but we’d guess the show was at least on a par with last year, when an estimated 73,000 bike fans gathered at the incredible Barber Motorsports Complex for three days of motorcycle heaven. This year’s event was forced to shutter early, thanks to the impending presence of Hurricane Nate, which was working its way toward the Gulf Coast as the festival started, finally making landfall Saturday night and Sunday morning. The shortened event was more than a little frustrating, forcing us to cancel our planned Sunday Morning Ride, sponsored this year by our good friends at Hagerty Motorcycle Insurance. That was more than a little disappointing, but there’s not much you can do when Mother Nature gets her way.

There is always more going on at Barber than any one person can ever take in, but we’ll share what we saw in the upcoming January/February 2018 issue of Motorcycle Classics. Look for John L. Stein’s incredible story of how he and 10-time pro car racing champion Randy Probst bought two vintage Rickman dirt bikes in the swap meet, prepping them on-site and then racing them in Saturday’s AHRMA off road event. Incredibly, Stein and Probst pulled it off. Cool stuff; don’t miss it in the next issue of Motorcycle Classics!

Russell Briney found this spectacular and completely original 1981 Yamaha XJ550RJ Seca on Craigslist. It won our Japanese Best Rider award.

Klaus Huenuke took home our Editors’ Choice award for his amazing 1971 Munch TTS.

Editor Backus with former Superbike champion Wes Cooley, who signed Backus’ vintage Wes Cooley Arai Signature Edition helmet.

Kawasaki W2 enthusiast Kevin Lemire let me ride his unbelievably original, 411-mile 1969 W2. It now has all of 413 miles on the odometer. What a treat.

I also took a spin on this custom 2014 Royal Enfield Continental GT that’s been scramblerized by Tony Prust at Analog Motorcycles. Awesome, and it could be yours as Tony’s put it up for sale.

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