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The man behind 'world's finest motorsports museum'

by John Surtees

George Barber is a straight talking son of America's Deep South. He was born and bred in Birmingham, Alabama, and that's where his roots and allegiance have remained.

It takes only a modicum of research to discover he is one of the city's more prolific patrons. Beneficiaries include the state university, children's services, health care…and a museum. And for the latter, the good people of Birmingham and the world's vast army of motorcycling enthusiasts have much to thank him for.

Cities all around the globe benefit from higher education and well-funded public services but no other - as a result of the vision and generosity of one of its benefactors - is able to boast the finest motorcycle museum in the world. Birmingham, Alabama, can and does with pride…and it's all down to former dairy magnate George W Barber Jr.

In his younger days, George was more of a car man. He'd ridden a 'bike in his college days but his passion was four-wheel motorsport. Throughout the 1960s - with his father safely at the helm of the family dairy business - he modified and raced Porsches, collecting over 60 first place trophies along the way.

Classic sporrts cars

But the heady days of competition came to an abrupt end in the early 1970s when his father passed away. Overnight, keeping the dairy business on track shunted racing off the agenda…until the end of the 1980s, that is, when the milk enterprise that drove George Jr and motorsport apart actually brought them back together again.

The re-connection came about as a result of the company's fleet refurbishment programme. One by one, as the years and mileages clocked up, the Barber ice cream and milk distribution trucks were stripped back to their chassis and re-built. "We had the only brand new 20 year-old trucks around," George recalls. "But then we couldn't get the parts for them and the operation had to be wound down."

Around that stage he had begun collecting classic sports cars and suggested the fitters turn their hand to restoring his new acquisitions instead. "The only trouble was they were truck mechanics and their idea of a perfect restoration was not quite the same as mine," he added.

Small beginnings

"Dave Hooper, manager of our delivery fleet and a real good friend, suggested 'bikes might be a better bet for the guys. He'd been a motorcycle racer in his younger days and gave us a couple of his old 'bikes to get us going.

"I bought two or three as well and I began to think: 'If we really get stuck into this we can build the best collection in the world'."

And that's precisely what George, along with Dave Hooper and his crew have done. From small beginnings in 1988 - and that handful of restored motorcycles - the private collection has grown to become, without doubt, the largest and finest motorcycle museum in the world.

Between 1988 and 1994 the acquisitions and restorations increased to the point where it made sense to open up to the public. Charitable status was sought and the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum was born.

It was around that time that George and I became acquainted and it was a meeting of like minds. We shared a love of 'bikes, cars and racing. And I suppose we saw in each other the same mindset that dictates anything we do, we do to the utmost of our ability.

World's best motorcycle collection

I remember asking him at the time why a 'car man' was devoting so much of his spare time to building up the best motorcycle collection in the world. His response was that a restored car was little more than a classy paint job with a shiny set of wheels whereas a 'bike was something altogether more personable and involving. Everything was on show without having to lift 'a hood' or scramble underneath - engine, suspension, frame, the lot. Again we were of a like mind - admirers of the simplicity and purity of a 'bike's form and function.

As a result of that initial contact I was pleased to give what assistance I could in advising the museum on restorations and acquisitions and actually sourcing 'bikes for the collection. I've also had the pleasure of riding with members of the museum's all-conquering vintage motorcycle racing team in the States, here in the UK and as far away as New Zealand. And over the years I've watched the collection grow and eventually outgrow its original, modest home in downtown Birmingham.

It's now housed in a futuristic, five-storey, steel and glass clad structure within the 740-acre motorsports park that George and his team have created from a tract of strip-mined terrain to the east of the city. I have seen it grow from the first sketch into the world class facility it is today. The hugely impressive complex features an undulating 2.4 mile circuit (the design of which I was proud to have an influence on), high class banqueting and hospitality facilities, corporate meeting rooms and classrooms, a state of the art medical centre, landscaped camping and viewing areas and much more besides. Silverstone should pay the place a visit and take note. It's that good.

$54 million project

The ambitious project drained $54 million from George's personal fortune. His vision had been to create motorsport's equivalent of Augusta in Birmingham - a facility that would attract worldwide attention and investment to his hometown; a place in which visitors could track back in time and see motorcycles and motorsport as they used to be. I doubt anyone could disagree that he has succeeded on all counts.

Certainly there's no doubting that the Barber creation was one of the reasons for luxury motorcycle manufacturer Confederate investing heavily in the city. It moved in after its New Orleans factory was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and credits Barber as a prime reason. As Confederate founder and MD, H Matthew Chambers, put it: "The major catalyst for our decision to move the Confederate Motor Company to Birmingham was George Barber and the remarkable museum he created. Mr Barber is a design genius and his commitment to motorcycles is second to none."

That commitment is reflected in the collection that's on show today - over 1,000 'bikes from all corners of the world, 500 of which are on show at any given time. It includes road machines and coveted racing 'bikes in displays that chart the history of motorcycling from the early 1900s through to the present day. Also on show is a large collection of racing cars including Porsches, Lotuses and a pristine Ferrari 158, the type in which I won the F1 World Championship in 1964. Almost all the bikes and cars have been restored to full working order and are used either competitively by the Barber Vintage Motorcycle Racing Team or for on-track displays at events such as the Vintage Festival staged at the motorsports park each October.

The complex also houses a vast collection of motorcycle literature ranging from 'bike magazines to service manuals. The purpose-built library is used by restorers and enthusiasts from all over the world.

You will have guessed the place - with its superb museum, race circuit and associated facilities - is a place that really enthuses me. So, if you're heading towards America, make sure you key it into your programme. You won't be disappointed.

1) George Barber Jr in discussion with John Surtees at the Motorsports Park
2) An modern MV Agusta on show at the 'finest motorcycle museum in the world'
3) The impressive, new, five-storey museum
4) On track in the museum's beautifully-restored Ferrari 158

14 May 2007