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?
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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.
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.
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
Aktualisiert am 27/11/2021 von Christian