Here’s What We Found In The World’s Largest Collection Of British Motorcycles
Photography by Will Broadhead
Adjectives have lost all their integrity. In a society in which exaggeration is an almost unavoidable choice in so many regards, we’ve been steadily anesthetized to the true meaning of words. Everything these days is sold to us in such a forthright manner that words like “biggest,” “best,” “unbelievable,” et al, are nothing but overused pieces of bait and often a precursor to disappointment. Thankfully though, there are still some antidotes to the unsolicited use of the dictionary, and on a cold but crisp December day I was given just such a pill. Some things deserve these words.
The National Motorcycle Museum, just outside of Birmingham, close to the airport and the NEC is—wait for it—massive! Let me clarify, I’m not talking in terms of square footage—this isn’t the Natural History Museum or the Smithsonian—it is the density of the machines on display that is the humungous bit. You can fit a lot more bikes in a space than you can cars after all. And this is a vast collection of motorcycles that spans the very first machines right up to the modern age to create the biggest physical catalogue of British bikes anywhere in the world. It is mesmerizing for a moto fan, and for those who lean toward the English stuff, there’s nothing better. The parade of two wheelers is so populous that it even spills out into the entrance lobby and the reception area.
On arrival I’m greeted by Museum Director James Hewing, and it’s clear he’s a genuine bike guy. I must admit though, I’m barely taking in what he’s saying as I am distracted every few feet by all the history around me, and never has the “kid in a sweet shop” been more applicable to my situation.
The child in me is already racing ahead, leaning over the turnstile that guards the entrance to the museum, neck craned trying to see everything all at once. The slightly more mature adult must catch up, and thankfully my guide, Macauley, shows me in soon enough. Hall One absorbs my attention first with a celebration of 60 years of the British motorcycle from the earliest days of motorized tricycles and bicycle manufacturers bolting small engines to frames, up to the big twins of the ’50s and early ‘60s.
The main protagonists—Triumph, Norton, and BSA—are of course well represented in a place like this, but this display is about all of the pieces of this big puzzle that was built when British motorcycles were at the height of their powers, a time when in the Birmingham area alone there are reported to have been around 600 different marques producing their own bikes. The geographical location of the museum then is more than just a coincidence: we are in the very heartland of the British motorcycle.
The museum tour continues along in alphabetical order with collections arranged by manufacturers like Abingdon, AJS, and Atlas, through to James, Levis, Panther, Zenith, and everything in the middle. More marques that have been forgotten than remembered for sure, thus the museums maxim: “Where legends live on.”
There are bikes that were used by famous names such as George Formby and Geoff Duke, race-winning machines like Steve Hislop’s Norton Rotary that won a certain Tourist Trophy on a certain Isle of a certain species, and nearby are land speed record crafts, jet-powered bikes, and plenty of odd prototypes. Something like 1,000 different bikes have been wedged into the space, but it isn’t until I start to try to take photographs that I grasp just how much is here. The tight rows make it a challenge to get clear shots of anything. It isn’t cramped in here—you’ve plenty of room to move and get close to the bikes—but space is at a premium, the collection is the boss. Sometimes too much is too much, but here the scope doesn’t detract from the individual pieces. Quality and quantity; that’s a pretty tough trick.
What is especially pleasing to learn, is that so many of the bikes here are still runners, and beyond that many of them do see use to this day, with restoration work being continued on all of those don’t. That work is done offsite by the museum’s dedicated restoration team. There is a constant cycle of bikes that are taken to shows, used in parades, and raced at events like Goodwood, but the general public can throw a leg over the bikes as well on occasion, for events like classic bike rider training days. And those that pay the small fee to become friends of the museum are offered places at these events to try out bikes from the turn of the century, up to the more exotic machinery from companies like Vincent and Brough.
By the time I finish photographing in Hall Five, I am punch drunk on motorcycles. My mind is a mess of carburetors, antiquated but far prettier control systems, and the beautifully engineered solutions mapping out a visible evolution of the motor-powered bicycle. In this last hall I am surrounded by hordes of classic racing machines and the biggest collection of Norton Rotaries I have ever seen.
The bikes in here are emblazoned with the names of some of my racing heroes: Haslam, McGuinness, Dunlop, and Hislop to name but a few. The previous halls contain the titles of my favorite manufacturers: Norton, Sunbeam, Vincent, BSA. I am spoilt for choice is what I’m saying, and if I’m honest, a little overwhelmed by it all by the end of the day.
Back in reception, James asks if I have enough material. He’s wearing a wry smile and knows the answer of course. Enough? You could write books on the place. Indeed, I am barely able to scratch the surface with this installment, and that’s fitting because it’s how I feel about my visit in general. I have seen so much, yet it makes it feel like you haven’t looked at nearly enough as a result. I can only imagine that this place gets better with repeat visits, and as I retrace the day on my drive home I know that I will be back here soon. If you’re into your bikes, this may be the best place you have never seen, and a remedy to the less than friendly biking weather over the holiday season in England. Take the nip out of the air with a visit here. You will not be disappointed.