It was touch-and-go in the days leading up to the 2021 edition of Barber Vintage Festival. On the Wednesday before the event, thirteen inches of rain drenched Birmingham, Alabama. But by Friday, Mother Nature had relented, fans began swarming in and the three-day par-tay was underway.
The fifteen-year run of annual Barber Vintage Festivals was interrupted in 2020, another casualty of the pandemic. The event bounced back full-strength in 2021 with more than sixty-thousand motorcyclists congregating for the 16th Annual (Except-For-Last-Year) Barber Vintage Festival held October 8-10, 2021.
Yes, we were still fighting a pandemic and yes, it was a large gathering of people but, hey; we ride motorcycles and we’re OK with a bit of risk. Was it worth it?
Hell, yeah! Two years is a long time to go without seeing old friends, smelling race gas, drooling on immaculately restored motorcycles, and foraging through other people’s junk in a giant swap meet.
The Barber event is the Big Enchilada of vintage motorcycle festivals. Other events have racing, swap meets, and bike shows but they come up short when compared to the Barber Vintage Festival, which stands out as the premier event of its kind and is a “bucket list” item for anyone who loves classic and historic motorcycles.
Only the Barber event can offer fans the largest motorcycle museum in the world (certified by Guinness in 2014). The museum, originally opened in 1995 in downtown Birmingham, moved eight years later to its current location on 880 acres of rolling hills a short distance out of town. There are approximately 1,800 bikes in the collection with close to 1,000 on display in the 240,000-square-foot, 5-story building. The staff claims that 99% of the restored bikes can be started with less than an hour of prep work. In addition to the motorcycles, the museum also contains the world’s largest collection of Lotus cars. It’s proved a huge success with over 360,000 people visiting the museum in 2019.
The odds are good that no matter what bike(s) you own or are restoring, the museum has a pristine example on display for your scrutiny.
Motorcycles by Moonlight
An annual feature of the festival weekend is the Friday night “Motorcycles by Moonlight” benefit dinner in the museum honoring the Grand Marshall for the event. Past honorees include John Surtees, Denis Manning, Cook Neilson, Kevin Schwantz, Paul Smart, Gene Romero, David Aldana, Pierre Terblanche, Miguel Galluzi, Erik Buell, Colin Edwards, Wes Cooley, Colin Seeley, John Penton, and nine of the ten Britten motorcycles made. This year’s Grand Marshall was the pioneering motorcycle racer, Mary McGee.
She was the first woman to hold an FIM motorcycle racing license, started road racing in 1960 and was known for her distinctive helmet with pink polka dots. Mary was the first woman to finish the Baja 1000 and the first person to finish the Baja 500 riding solo (her friend, Steve McQueen, talked her into that feat). She preferred riding in the dirt and switched from road racing to become the first woman in the U.S. to race motocross.
Mary didn’t get her license to ride motorcycles on the street until 2011, when she was 75 years old. In 2018, she was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Hall of Fame. Mary continues to act as an ambassador for motorcycling and she’s an inspiration to generations of motorcycle racers who’ve followed in her tire tracks.
The benefit dinner included two auctions: a silent auction before dinner and a live auction after dinner. A replica of Mary’s famous polka dot helmet was auctioned for $1,000 and the winning bidder donated it to a young woman racer at the dinner who had given a heartfelt impromptu testimonial about how inspirational Mary had been to her. Of course, the gracious Ms. McGee was happy to sign the helmet for the young racer.
A new addition to the museum
The newly-built Barber Advanced Design Center on the fifth floor of the museum was revealed during this year’s Festival weekend. According to the museum: “The Barber Advanced Design Center (BADC) was created to inspire new generations of creative thinkers. It will function as a high-tech workspace for Industrial Design exploration that includes a multimedia hub for visiting designers to collaborate with other designers from around the world.”
The 11,000 square-foot Center was designed by Brian Case, Director of the BADC, who was tasked by Mr. Barber with proposing ideas for a new educational component at the museum. Case said about the Center: “No other design studio in the world has this kind of access to study and be inspired by machines of the past.” Readers of this magazine may remember Brian as the designer of the built-in-Birmingham Motus V-4 motorcycle.
For the Center’s first project, named “Mono”, Brian worked with Pierre Terblanche, who has designed motorcycles for Ducati, Norton, Moto Guzzi, Royal Enfield and Confederate. Pierre collaborated remotely with Brian via Zoom from his home in South Africa.
Mono was inspired by the original Ducati Supermono designed by Terblanche. The Supermono was a lightweight single-cylinder bike of which fewer than 70 were made between 1993 and 1995. The design emphasized improving performance by maximizing the power-to-weight ratio and minimizing the frontal area/drag. Supermonos are crazy expensive these days but, not surprisingly, the museum has one in its collection.
The new bike also features a horizontal single-cylinder but began with a clean sheet of paper. It’s being created using computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) and additive manufacturing methods (3D printing). Even components such as brake calipers and the suspension are custom-made. For example, the front suspension utilizes telescopic forks but, rather than relying upon coiled metal springs, it uses a hydropneumatic system à la Citroën cars.
Currently, there are no plans to commercialize the bike — it’s purely a design exercise.
Vintage racing takes center stage
For many attendees, the weekend’s main attraction was the racing. There was road racing as well as off-road competition. Road races ran clockwise on the 16-turn, 2.38-mile paved circuit while the motocross, cross-country and trials events were held in a wooded area a short distance from the track.
The American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) was the sanctioning body for the weekend’s racing activities. There were about two dozen classes of road racing bikes including everything from hand-shift side-valve bikes to more modern Ducati Superbikes. Access to the huge paddock was free and only required signing a liability waiver.
The circuit is unique and beautifully landscaped — there are no permanent grandstands. Spectators sat on grass slopes or in the shade of fragrant pine trees. There are large pieces of fanciful artwork around the circuit — a giant spider, man-sized ants, an anaconda, a Sasquatch, bronze lions, an inflatable church, etc. Free trams ran all weekend, shuttling fans to various viewing points around the track.
Viewing vintage bikes in the museum was a rare treat but hearing them roar and watching them race was a visceral thrill!
Other things to see and do
The swap meet was enormous with hundreds of vendors spread over two main areas. Everything from bikes in varying states of completeness to vintage spark plugs, old magazines, tools, advertising materials, etc. was on offer. The yin and yang of swap meets is that the best selection/highest prices are on the first day (Friday) and the best prices/worst selections are on the last day (Sunday). It comes down to how badly you want that bike/part.
The Fan Zone showcased various vendors and organizations with BMW, as the festival title sponsor, having a large presence. The twin spectacles of the “Wall of Death” and “Globe of Death” added an exhilarating dash of carnival buzz. The Zone provided shaded tables for cooling off and enjoying something to eat and drink. Live music performances were featured in the Fan Zone on Friday and Saturday evenings for those who hadn’t had enough excitement for one day.
New for this year was an “Overflow” auction of bikes and parts from the museum. There were more than 100 lots on offer with no reserve and no cost to register to bid. The auction took place at 2 p.m. on Sunday with no viewing of lots before 10 a.m. that morning.
Many of the bikes had been donated to the museum and there were no plans to restore or display them. The lots were a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly with only one bike in the auction having been on display in the museum — a 1946 Matchless G80 that sold for $5,500. There were race bikes, touring bikes, small displacement bikes, frames, piles of parts and bikes that were in serious need of TLC. In addition to freeing up space in the museum, putting the overflow bikes and parts back into circulation helps others who are working on restoration projects. If you were still on-site Sunday, were ready to pounce and had a way to remove whatever you won from the premises, you might’ve gone home with a good deal.
The free tech seminars from industry experts were well-attended. This year’s offerings included sessions on pinstriping (Michael Swann), spoked wheel building (Kennie Buchanan), metal forming (Evan Wilcox and Gary Braun), “Treasures from the Barber Vault” (Wayne Carini and Jeff Ray) and the restoration of rare Yamaha RR250 “Yellow Tanker” Racers (Guy Reynolds). Generally, each seminar was presented once a day in the museum during the weekend.
Festival attendees could sign up for demo rides on new bikes from BMW, Royal Enfield, Indian and Yamaha. The roads surrounding the Barber facility are curvy and not too crowded and provided a good opportunity to sample the capabilities of modern machines.
The nuts and bolts: Planning your weekend
Costs for the Festival included: $60 for a 3-day general admission, premium on-site car parking for $35, a 3-day museum pass was $25, and, if you’re feeling philanthropic, the “Motorcycles by Moonlight” benefit dinner was $150. The dinner seats about 300 people and sells out every year.
Bring cash for the swap meet. Motorcycles can park on-site for free. If you drive a car, you’ll either need to purchase an on-site parking permit or ride a shuttle up to the track. Bring earplugs — race bikes are LOUD, especially 2-strokes. Don’t forget sunscreen, a hat, comfy shoes and a poncho/folding umbrella. Plan your weekend around things that occur at specific times (seminars, autograph sessions, etc.). Accept that you can’t do/see it all and set priorities.
Print out the schedule beforehand and bring it with you — there were no hardcopy fan guides this year. Attendees could scan posted QR-codes to see the daily schedules which showed up as single-page tables containing 25-30 rows and four columns — a bit hard to read on one’s smartphone.
Looking forward to next year
Brian Slark, Technical Advisor for the museum, said this about the festival: “What makes it special is that we don’t focus on one activity. There are so many varied events that there’s something of interest for everyone.” Brian continues: “The Festival started 18 years ago and has since grown beyond our original vision. The amazing thing is that we’ve done virtually no advertising over the years, relying solely on word-of-mouth. People attend, have a good experience, tell their friends and it snowballs. I have friends in Europe, Australia etc. who are saving hard to make a lifetime visit to this event.”
Regarding future events, Slark says: “We’ll strive to continue offering new and interesting features. We’re always thinking ahead to see what we can do better. We like to see anyone who attends leave with a smile on their face. Our primary aim is not to be the biggest but the best and, so far, it seems to be working.”
I’ve attended fourteen of the sixteen Barber Vintage Festivals. It’s my annual Fall pilgrimage and provides the opportunity to reconnect with longtime friends, meet new kindred souls, recharge one’s spiritual batteries and be reminded of why motorcycles play such important roles in our lives. Isn’t it weird and wonderful how the joy of riding a motorcycle, which is often a solitary activity, can tie groups of disparate people together so tightly?
The absence of the festival in 2020 left a big void. Total immersion in the 2021 event was just what we all needed to hit the recharge button. Here’s hoping that 2022 will bring blue skies, better days and the full return of all our favorite tribal gatherings. See you in Birmingham at the 17th Annual Barber Vintage Festival on October 7-9, 2022! MC
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