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Vintage Motorcycles in Birmingham

The National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham is a treasure trove of British motorcycle manufacturing, from its inception to the present day. Why is it worth a visit?

Approx. reading time: 5 minutes

Insider’s tip: National Motorcycle Museum

For a change, today’s post is not about actually riding motorcycles, but about looking at motorcycles – hundreds of them, in fact! What to do on a dreary, rainy, windy November weekend in an industrial city like Birmingham? Sure, there’s an abundance of cultural events on offer, and industrial history buffs can pursue their hobby to their heart’s content.

Yet the sightseeing highlight for any motorcyclist and technology enthusiast is, without a doubt, the National Motorcycle Museum. Admittedly, the West Midlands and its major city, Birmingham, may not exactly be on your list of preferred destinations on a motorcycle tour across England. But the museum’s location southwest of the city, right by the M42, near the airport and Birmingham International Railway Station, makes it easy to reach from any direction; either as a detour from your planned motorcycle tour or directly en route.

National Motorcycle Museum Birmingham, UK: Name und geflügeltes Rad

As the museum’s name indicates, the word ‘national’ – in typical British fashion – means that the collection ‘solely’ comprises motorcycles manufactured in the UK. Based on the striking multitude of brands to ever have existed, it soon becomes clear why this geographical curation is necessary. A similar distinction applies elsewhere: The highly recommended National Technical Museum in Prague almost exclusively features Czech bike brands, and the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow houses only Russian two-wheelers.

 A sprawling array of exhibits

For a low fee, a cab takes me the short distance from the train station by the airport to a flat building off the shoulder of the motorway that, architecturally speaking, is oddly reminiscent of a McDonald’s grub hub: the National Motorcycle Museum.

As soon as I enter the foyer and shake my anorak dry, I take my first glance inside the museum’s foremost showroom and can hardly believe my eyes. ‘No, that can’t be…’, I mumble to myself. What I see unfold in front of me takes my breath away: five huge display halls, each tightly packed with every type of vehicle the British motorcycle industry has ever launched since its inception in 1898. All neatly arranged in alphabetical order by manufacturer.

National Motorcycle Museum Birmingham, UK: Showroom

The Norton collection

Being from the Continent, I could be quick to find fault with what appears to be this collection’s utter disregard for modern museum didactics. Yet this institute adopts an altogether different approach; one centred around materially documenting a cohesive collection in the form of an alphabetised, chronological presentation. Similar to the way literary works are arranged in a library. Except that here, instead of being displayed side by side on shelves, the individual exhibits are parked closely together in family clusters.

Sincere congratulations are in order to anyone who believes they can view the vast collection in its entirety in a single day and truly engage themselves in the 900 vintage and modern motorcycles, all beautifully and expertly preserved, including the respective texts detailing the history and technical features of each individual item. A further 60 vehicles are currently awaiting restoration following the museum’s devastating fire back in 2003. A huge catastrophe for anyone with a passion for motorcycles and the technology they comprise.

Incredible range of brands at the National Motorcycle Museum

Visitors may be somewhat overwhelmed not just by the sheer number of motorcycles on display which makes this museum so unique, but also by the incredible range of brands to have made their debut in British motorcycling history.

And ‘history’ certainly seems to be an apt term here, considering that of the once 170 manufacturers, only two have survived to the present day: Triumph in nearby Hinckley and, less than 8 miles further down the M42, the new plant (to be fully operational in early 2022) of the reanimated brand Norton in Solihull. But even these two survivors are facing increasingly tough times: Triumph is relocating the production of its high-volume series to Thailand, and Norton is currently entering into administration following bankruptcy proceedings.

What remains is a list of names, some more well-known than others, several of which are featured in my photo series at the end of this post: from A like Ariel to Raleigh to Z like Zenith. Tempi passati.

The technology and aesthetics of motorcycle manufacturing

In light of such a highly competitive landscape, it is only natural that each of these companies needed to devise unique selling points in terms of technology, design and use value to set themselves apart. After all, cars were prohibitively expensive for the majority of Britons back then. Motorcycles thus literally became the ‘driving force’ for mobilisation among broad swathes of the population. They were popular with blue-collar workers for commuting to the factory or with villagers for driving to the nearest town, even with gentleman drivers wishing to complement their lavish car collection with an outrageously expensive luxury motorcycle.

Regardless of the motorcycles’ respective price range, their design clearly reveals a concerted effort to produce aesthetically pleasing vehicles, as evidenced by the playfulness and passion for detail put into all those chrome-plated, nickel-plated and polished little levers, springs and vertical shafts. Form follows function. Every single element is worked out to the last detail. From the fishtail exhaust and the holding fixtures of the universal shaft to the instruments on the headlamp housing. While we cannot actually drive the exhibits, of course, they really are a beautiful sight. That’s when I imagine myself hopping in the saddle and, just as the machine’s former owner may have done, winding down those narrow country lanes.

How I learned to better understand my British motorcycle colleagues

As I strolled through the exhibition, I noticed numerous elderly gentlemen beholding the motorcycles with great interest and taking a trip down memory lane. Occasionally, one or the other would use his cane to point to a certain technical element and explain it with the same assured expertise as he had when he was young.

The memories these endearing vintage bikers recount get an extra flair thanks to their local ‘Brummie’ dialect, which typically drops off towards the end of a sentence or sounds like it goes down an octave. When you’re from further afield, it takes getting used to this habit of omitting the ultimate syllables. Yet the sound of their speech is just as likeable as the people I encounter here.

Apart from learning more about the specifics of British motorcycling history and technology, my visit to the National Motorcycle Museum helped me gain a better understanding of the pivotal role motorcycles played in the evolution of mobility in this island nation: Come rain or shine, wind or fog – no matter; time to hop in the saddle, get moving and show what this ride has got! Café Racer? Sunday driver? As if! Because here in Britain, it’s all or nothing. How else could a nation come up with such iconic races as the Tourist Trophy on the Isle of Man – with all its peculiarities along the side of the track.

I hope the following pictures will inspire some of my readers to visit the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham. Enjoy!

Coventry Road, Bickenhill, Solihull B92 0EJ, United Kingdom


Photos of vintage motorcycles in the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham

British motorcycles for use in World War II

Like the Germans, the most important British manufacturers also produced motorcycles for war use.

2 motorcycles Brough SS 100 at the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham

My absolute favourite: the Brough Superior SS 100. The most powerful and expensive luxury motorcycle of its time was ordered in the basic version and technically and optically upgraded according to the customer’s wishes.

Vintage motorcycle Brough Superior SS 100 in partial view

Technically and visually a dream: The last Brough Superior SS 100 was sold at an auction in 2012 for 309,000 euros.

Vintage motorcycle Brough Superior Golden Dream: Partial view cardan and exhaust pipe

Cardan and exhaust elegantly designed: Brough Superior Golden Dream, the successor of the SS 100

Vintage motorcycle Vincent Black Lightning (partial view engine)

The Vincent Black Lightning with 72 HP was the fastest production motorcycle in the world until the 60s. These machines had the reputation of being the fastest, most expensive and most exclusive motorcycles available.

Wooler four-cylinder boxer engine with cardan drive from 1954

No exclusive BMW or Zündapp domain: An air-cooled Wooler four-cylinder boxer engine with cardan drive from 1953. Only 5 were built.

Royal Enfield motorcycle engine

When Royal Enfield was still British … with the slogan „made like a gun“

Triumph motorcycle engine from 1903

Clarity of construction: The mother of all Triumphs with 2 1/2 hp from 1903

Tank of a vintage Raleigh motorcycle

When Raleigh still built motorcycles …

Vintage Motorcycle Panther M 50 (1930) partial view of the tank

A dashing road racer: Panther M 50 (1930)

National Motorcycle Museum Birmingham, UK: Museum name on carpet

Always stay on the carpet. Custom-made floor covering for the National Motorcycle Museum

Aktualisiert am 27/11/2021 von Christian