Thursday, October 27, 2011


It's a pilgrimage to a messy shrine, the quintessential English shed grown wild with money, but the shed-mind remains, and the hallowed relics within overwhelm visitors in a nearly-stacked jumble.  The National Motorcycle Museum, phoenix risen from its own-damn-fault ashes, warehouse of glistening talismans, entombing shrine of Speed and a glorious, vanished industry.
Can you spot the...?  Neither can I.
Anyone who loves British motorcycles simply must make the trip to Birmingham, and spend a few hours soaking in the oily ambience...not that the pyramidal halls are anything but clean, and their 'NMM'-logo carpet well vac'd.  The bikes are fantastic, some of the most historic British prototypes, racers, and roadsters anywhere, a cornucopia really of the stuff you want to see, because the collection is just amazing.
Double Trouble Twins; Brough SS100 with JAP and MX engines
As with every time I've stopped in, the halls were nearly pedestrian-free when I visited this week, which is shameful for such a fantastic collection of machinery.  But, some basic rules of museum management are roundly ignored at the NMM... imagine if MOMA or the Tate stuffed every artwork in their collection to their walls in a vertical paintstorm, some pressed into corners, far away from their roped-off viewers. Things may have been done that way in the 1800s, but in the century since, Museum Studies has emerged as a discipline, and people get advanced college degrees in curation and display, studying ways for museums to attract viewers, and properly display their wares.
The Triumph zone was better accessible than other areas...
The NMM ignores most of this accumulated wisdom and pursues a used-moto-lot aesthetic, bikes jostling handlebars in long lines, with terrible sightlines and an utter impossibility to gain any detailed visual information from most of the displays.  A few sit on plinths, arranged so timing and primary sides can be examined close-up, but these are the exception, and if you're interested in figuring out how a 1908 Humber sorts out its magneto position, you'll have x-ray through several similar-era Triumphs and other words, impossible.
Collection as a numbers game; a lineup of the Norton rotary racers
Because the motorcycles themselves matter, it would be a revelation if we were actually able to see them in the round, well lit and fully visible.  I reckon that if the NMM held back part of its collection to give breathing space, and rotated themed 'blockbuster' exhibits like any other museum, visitors would find reasons to return, and the halls wouldn't be empty.  Better still, we'd be able to actually see these fantastic machines.
'Nero' and 'Super Nero' Vincent sprinters (one supercharged, one not)...would that I could have taken decent photos of the whole machines...
The incredible AJS ohc 1000cc v-twin one-off record breaker, which never really set records, but was stuck at around 130mph.  Note long induction tube from the blower, with blowoff valve at the top, and super large magnesium cam chain (and magneto chain) covers...
 Second primary chain drives the blower, atop the gearbox.  Bronze heads, hairpin valve springs, that crazy teardrop tank; simply stunning.
The placard claimed this BSA Rocket 3 with Gold Star bodywork was a suggestion from a US dealer for a potential big seller...I want one too!
Vincents don't look so bad now...this is the TRUE plumber's nightmare!
Bronze head on a semi-radial valve Rudge TT Replica racer
A short row of Brough Superiors of all varieties; an early MAG-engined Mk1 in front
Now those are Brooklands cans...on the back of a McEvoy 1000cc racer
Cutaway Triumph cylinder head
Italian sauce, English-style.  Lovely home-built 125cc dohc racer, the 'LCH', built by Leonard Clifford Harfield of Hampshire. Gear-driven double overhead camshafts, he based the engine on Rudge 250cc crankcases, and cast up the rest.  The engine would reliably rev to 11,000rpm, making 18hp, good enough for 95mph, and first privateer home in the 1957 Ultra-Lightweight TT.
The front brake of a 1950 Douglas 90+ racer
A much earlier Douglas, this is Freddie Dixon's 1928 Isle of Man TT racer, with wet sump under the engine, and an oil pressure gauge just behind the oil filler. He made 18th in the Junior TT that year, and fell off in the Senior (same bike apparently, with different cylinders and heads), injuring his hands and ending his bike racing career. Dixon, a gifted development engineer, switched to racing cars, and won the 1935 and '36 TT Auto races...the only man to have won TTs on two (1927 Junior TT), three (1923 Sidecar TT), and four wheels! 
The Brough Superior 'Dream', with 4-cylinder flat-4 engine, shaft drive, and groovy gold paint job.  Basically two Triumph twins on a common crankcase, it never ran properly as GB didn't have the cash for development work, and realized the market for such a machine was too small to justify the expense...
The 'Dream' cylinder head and exhaust manifold...grace in alloy.  The cylinder barrels were cast into the crankcases - one less joint to leak.  As far as I know, only Wooler and Brough attempted an ohv "H-four" motorcycle of this configuration.
New Imperial v-twin 500cc racer
Martynside v-twin, with their own-make engine
The McEvoy with big JAP KTOR racing engine, fed by a Binks 'Mousetrap' carb
Were they ever really like that?  Montgomery 4-pipe big Anzani twin with lots and lots of nickel...
Morgan 'Beetleback' Sports with big Matchless MX engine
Another failed Norton revival...the Nemesis, with special V8 engine
More successful were the Norton John Player-sponsored racers of the 1970s
Lovely old Norton 16H racer from the early 20s. Note the AMAC sports carb.
CTS (Chris Tattersal St.Annes) sits protected from English weather...
Lots of prototypes at NMM; this Royal Enfield triple is 3 cylinders from their 220cc two-strokes on a common crankcase
Another gem; the one-off Rudge 250cc v-twin prototype racer


Anonymous said...


Congrats on taking such great photos. After two visits to the NMM, I had given up on getting any worthwhile shots. But you have shown that it can be done!


Ed Kunath said...

More photos.

Anonymous said...


Your acute observations of the National are right on the money. its absolutely pathetic the way everything is displayed on top of each other. And taking a close examination of a machine of interest to a restorer is near impossible if its hidden behind 6 or 7 John Player Nortons. Such a a cavalier attitude to display does much to switch people off. Perhaps its a not- so-clever ploy to lower the price of British machines to the point where they can all be bought and displayed in the fire barn that is the National. Maybe their real agenda is to destroy all British motorcycles.

Any failings of the National Motorcycle Museum lay directly at the feet of the people running the joint. Themed displays with accurate written history and commentary by an erudite wordsmith such a Cyril Ayton and put together by the visually literate is the way forward. These people are as far removed from the romantic ideals espoused by Ixion as Ronald McDonald.

That's the trouble with motorcycles. They attract numbskulls. The most important feeling a museum (or art gallery for that matter) should leave you with is wanting to see and know more. Museums should engage not drown. Its gobsmackingly stupid to cram so much into such a limited space to the point where people are switched off (as evidenced by the lack of numbers). I applaud your comments. More Chanel, less Pearly King and Queen. The people running it have been charged not only with preservation but also engendering interest.


GuitarSlinger said...

In spite of the extreme space limitations ( calling the NMM crowded is an understatement ) great photo essay

Making the best of what you've got , all whinging put aside .

Geordie Biker said...

I heartily agree with you Paul, and Mitchell's comment; there is absolutely zero curatorial work here. Such a shame one of the finest collections is presented in an overcrowded ad-hoc style. I missted 'The Art' exhibit at the Guggenheim; and saw it's passing through Chicago where it was crammed in a corner of the Filed Museum, another poorly exhibited presentation of motorcycles. Oh we're spoiled by places such as Barber! But at least that's a goal for these other museums.

Anonymous said...

I've visited the NMM recently, like you say it is a bit of a jumble.
I'm not a british bike enthusiast but WOW it's a hell of a place.
While i was there a 'flat tanker' was being extracted by staff so someone could measure parts to replicate them, if you need to look closely, i'm, sure you only have to ask nicely.
Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
I've been a half a dozen times at the least,I have found that getting off the plane in Birmingham and going straight to the museum gives you access to the cleanest restroom you will see for the rest of your
stay in Olde Blighty.A great relief after the trans atlantic flight.If you ask,I have found they will round up an old gaffer who is happy to move stuff around or pull bikes out for picture taking.Some years ago they
pulled up the old carpet,which the replacement carpet matches,and sold off squares of it.Afriend and I were there that year ,he bought a few,now they carpet his bike space.I've been reading your blog for years
now ,enjoy it quite alot,keep doing what your doing.
Sam J

The Vintagent said...

Hi Sam,
don't get me wrong, I think the NMM has the best collection of British bikes in the world. And of course, if you had a reason or strong interest, 'some old duffer' would indeed make it possible to see anything you like - they're very accomodating that way.
I would simply like to see about half the collection put away, and themed shows installed perhaps twice a year... you know, 'Brooklands Winners' or 'Isle of Man Wannabes' or 'The Genius of British Shed-builders'. Like any decent museum... then there's incentive for people to return, and hopefully, you'd be able to really see the bikes. Its currently very unfriendly to anyone who isn't a dedicated biker, ie, spouses and children of mesmerized enthusiasts.

Motorcyclists deserve a museum on par with the Tate or National Portrait Gallery. It can be done!

Grandpa Jimbo said...

In 1962 a friend and I went to Cummerfords Motorcycles in Thames Ditton to buy 2 bikes and tour the continent. Their used bikes were jammed into a basketball sized hall and looked exactly like your first photo! The had everything at every price. A '55 non-runner Ariel 500 for less than one pound. I paid 21 pounds for a '52 BSA 350 and my buddy got a '55 AJS 500 for 50 pounds.They both lasted all summer and we had a ball! Mine even then made it half way across the US before I ran out of money and had to sell it for the price of a bus ticked back to LA. Those were the days!

Jim A., Tucson, AZ

rudgerudge said...

Speak to "em Paul, sow the seeds. They need dragging into the modern world. It could be so much better.
A dormant attraction waiting to be raised up to world standard, at present it's pretty uninspiring.

Bodger said...

Went to the NMM last year and had a great time visting it. Got to see some absolutely beautiful machines there and some that I never knew existed such as the Rocket 3 Gold Star variation which was stunning.

Until reading your comments, I hadn't realized how close in they were to each other, making it a little difficult to get decent up close pictures.

Need more places like this, with better accesibility.

Anonymous said...


Just to say how much I enjoyed three items on the latest Vintagent.

1. An excellent analysis of the Museum; I go there so often I hadn't fully appreciated just how old fashioned it must seem. It is of course a unique and an amazing creation, but after reading your appraisal I agree it could be so much better...and better attended.

2. A nicely scripted Brough feature.

3. And an excellent report and pics on Staford, although your figures are a bit inflationary. It is reckoned that about 35,000 paying visitors attend over Saturday AND Sunday put together.

I will now look on your index and see whether ye've yet visited
Sammy Miller's Museum, ditto Brooklands.

Best regards,

Old MJ

The Vintagent said...

MJ, I've visited both many times, but lag in my posting the visit to Sammy Miller. Put 'Brooklands' into my search bar and you'll find many visits posted, usually during events.

I'm making a global tour of to post is the Barber Museum.

Chris Hunter said...

I recently stumbled across the National Motorcycle Museum in Australia, in a small town called Nabiac in New South Wales.

It has around 700 amazing motorcycles — including a Vincent Black Knight — crammed into a glorified shed. Some bikes belong to the museum owners, others are on loan.

It's pretty obvious that the museum is run on a shoestring, and apparently it has never received governmental assistance. Which is a real shame, because it's an incredibly significant collection.

I don't think we can expect old-school moto enthusiasts to also be museum curators; the fields are poles apart. But it'd be good for private enterprise or even national government to step in with curation and display skills.

The Vintagent said...

Hi Chris,
A small, local museum the NMM is not...there's a huge amount of money invested here, in the building and the collection. They need a kick in the butt to make the exhibits visible and generally take a cue from modern curatorial practice. Otherwise its just a glorified shed.

Phill said...

You need to get to South Australia and visit the National Motor Museum in Birdwood. Granted, it's not just bikes but their motorbike display is definitely worth a visit. Tie it in with a trip to next year's Bay to Birdwood run.

Cris, you should head over too. You'd love it.


Jeremy Melling said...

Actually I like the fact the place is crammed out. I'm completely fed up with museums that are full of style but have little content, are designed to ensure maximum footfall and the theme follows through into the shop to ensure maximum spend. The NMM is privately funded so it doesn't need to make a profit and doesn't need blokes with degrees to decide what's important, the visitor can do that for themselves. The Science Museum has warehouses full of engineering gems that will never be displayed again because they will not bring the footfall that government funding requires. Well, I think sometimes we should be shown stuff that might not look very interesting at first glance because that way we start to make connections and really understand how engineering develops. The NMM provides that, if I want to I can spend a day just looking at Amal carburettors, what could be better. Museums are about exhibits not exhibitions.

The Vintagent said...

Hi Jeremy,
I like the NMM too, but I would prefer being able to See what's on display. Exhibitions are a way for museums to place their exhibits in context; its about education, conversation, enlightenment. At their best, museums change how people think about their exhibits, and more importantly, they get people thinking and talking about what's on display, which keeps the objects alive in the culture.

Jeremy Melling said...

Thanks for the reply. I must agree with everything you say and yet, for exactly those reasons I think the NMM is so perfect as it is. It's interesting that we appear to have very different opinions for exactly the same reasons. Maybe we should meet there one day and discuss this further. I'll get the tea and cake.

klooz said...

I am a museum curator and moto-enthusiast (humbly learning old-school from this blog mostly). Open storage, where the display area is the storage room as well, is usually due to a lack of space behind the scenes. Ideally the NMM would have about 70% more non-public space than exhibit space. Perhaps they lack the room and / or the funding to either expand the building or rent off site storage?

Anonymous said...

Your description of the Golden Dream as 'two Triumph Twins on a common crankcase' is a bit wide of the mark. A better description would be a copy of the Velocette Model 'O',turned on its side with an extra pair of cylinders added on to what used to be the bottom, to make the boxer-like engine.

Stewart Ellinson said...

I quite agree - I've been going to the national motorcycle mausoleum for 25 years and it never changes, save when it catches fire.

As you so rightly say, it's impossible to see anything. It also completely fails to capture the context of the industry. A suitable next step could be to buy the rmaining bit or armoury road which, i believe, still exists. this would allow a display of BSAs "in context" and would alos allow people to understand how these things were made and who made them in what conditions. there is so much space for better display - the racing workshop and the story of the tuners; on the island, the isdt and it's riders and so on and so on and so on. Equally, the museum needs to be more active in the field of education, using the industry to reach into schools to teach about the 20th century and the changing lives of workers and the fortunes of the british economy.

The bikes are lovely; everything else is diabolical.

Clare Westby said...

Oh yes, I agree that NMM needs some breathing space. Those are all wonderful bikes, and each of them needs their own spotlight. It would be great for enthusiasts to be able to spot their favorites well. But, I’m still amazed at how you put together this post along with the amazing photos. Great job!

Clare Westby