Birmingham, Ala. is a nice little town, but it isn’t known for having too many top-flight tourist spots.
But there is an attraction just outside of town that is unique in the world – a museum unlike any other you’re likely to find anywhere on the planet.
I’ve been to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. I’ve enjoyed a visit to the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. I’ve dropped in on countless local classic car exhibits – some featuring decent collections of classic and rare rides. But, the Barber Vintage Racing Museum just outside Birmingham is far and away the most impressive automotive storehouse I’ve ever seen.
George Barber built a southern empire on ice cream. His company sold all dairy products, but there’s something the idea of building an racetrack, car/motorcycle collection and museum on the back of soft serve that seems too perfect.
In his youth, Barber was a successful Porsche racer, winning 63 races. After selling a whole lot of milk and such, Barber started collecting classic cars in 1988. A year later, he began collecting motorcycles.
By 1994, there were enough vehicles in the collection to establish a non-profit looking to construct a vintage motorsports museum. It opened to the public a year later – a six level with floor space of 144,000 square feet, including 96,000 square feet of exhibit space.
A central elevator capable of lifting 12 tons rides a central column in the museum’s center. Just for fun, there’s a real Formula One car sitting on the elevator’s roof.
Inside the museum’s walls, you’ll find more than 60 vintage high performance and racing cars. But the real attraction is the more than 1,300 motorcycles in the Barber collection – with more than 750 of them are on display. I saw one of a kind custom bikes, messenger bikes, military cycles, prototypes, racers, cruisers and touring bikes.
Amazingly, since the museum maintains a full crew of mechanics and restorers, 99% of all the vehicles inside the complex can be fueled and started within an hour.
The museum would be enough of an attraction to bring gear-heads to Birmingham, but Barber added a 2.38 mile, 16-turn race track. It’s used by IndyCar, AMA Superbike and Porsche road testing. I myself tested out the 2013 Porsche Boxter at the track, and its tight turns and elevation changes reminded me a little bit of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
As a journalist, I also got a tour of the basement where tourist visitors are not allowed to go. They can peer down and see some of what’s hiding down there, but it’s off-limits to foot traffic because ongoing restoration work is underway on most days.
On this day, the workshop featured a replica of an 1800s early prototype motorcycle that ran on steam – and an exacting copy of a 1903 original Harley with leather belt driven wheels. There are countless Lotus and Porsche race cars gathered around the basement – along with a functioning Screaming Eagle Harley-Davidson drag racer that is started to call visitors to special dinner events. Suffice to say, the noise from that engine shakes the entire concrete structure down to its foundations.
The real gem of my tour was a special opening of the secret wearhouse where the bikes not on display are kept. There were ancient, foreign makes I couldn’t identify without a lot of closer inspection sitting side by side with 2012 models that haven’t found a spot to shine on the exhibit floor yet.
I’ve since decided that when I die, I want to be cremated with my ashes sprinkled somewhere inside this museum. If that’s illegal, just dump my body on the track.