June 27th, 2017 – Birmingham, England to London, England: ~130 miles
Missed Day 10? June 26th, 2017 – Carlisle, England to Birmingham, England: ~230 miles
Today is going to be a good day. I’m about to see more bikes in the next three hours than I’ve seen in the last few months combined. The National Motorcycle Museum in Solihull contains the world’s largest collection of British bikes. There are five halls with more than 170 manufacturers represented and 1,000 motorcycles. Here’s a few of my highlights but you’ll really need to spend a full day here.
As you enter, the free-to-access lobby gives you a taste of what you can look forward to, like this Silk 700S.
A 1912 Wilkinson TMC Series V.
A large chunk of the foyer’s real estate is consumed by a raffle for a BSA Goldie.
I buy a ticket for the museum but not for the raffle and head into the exhibits. Hall 1 is the older stuff, built between 1898-1960. The bikes are on display in chronological order, and I start with a 1898 Beeston Humber trike.
Halls 2-4 are sorted alphabetically by manufacturer name. Hall 2 simply runs from A-C, though BSA is omitted. There are some special displays for military bikes, “working” bikes (police/ambulance), a photo studio that is dedicated to a special machine, and 22 prototypes.
During my visit, the photo studio displays a 1963 Marsh MR4. It’s got a great history – a shipyard worker in Southampton named Fred Marsh decided he was sick of the Italians beating the English in 50s Grand Prix racing, so he did something about it.⠀
Obviously, not much came from this, but Motor Cycle News tested it in 1966 and was able to wring out 9,000 rpm from the motor, a 500cc in-line four. Per the museum, Marsh ended up moving on to a V8 project before he really finished this bike.
Commando fans, here’s your chance for a double take. Yes, that says 900.
One of the most absurd bikes at the museum is another Norton prototype – the Nemesis. Conceived in 1998, it featured a 1,500cc V8 that was claimed to put out 235 hp and 111 lb-ft of torque paired with a push-button transmission and F1-inspired active suspension. Claimed top speed? 225 mph. Of course, it was all just a bunch of claims, and the British rag MCN has since called it one of the greatest hoaxes in motorcycling.
1914 Clyno Sidecar. Built for WWI, this has a legendary reliable Vickers Maxim machine gun.
Another fascinating military bike is the Welbike, which was designed to be dropped out of planes in parachute-equipped containers that would fall safely to earth. That was the theory – turns out there were plenty of problems that made it impractical for wartime service.
Hall 3 is for BSA and then for D-N (but not Norton). I can barely keep myself away from the Heskeths, starting with a couple of Vampires. Just 40 were built and two are in front of me. The original V1000 had its flaws, but at least it was good looking. The Vampires (V1000s with a full fairing, if I’m allowed to oversimplify) are so ugly it’s almost charming.
In 1989, Mick Broom built a prototype called the Vortan. Eight deposits were received, which wasn’t enough to go into production. This bike also illustrates my only real complaint about this museum – there’s not enough room so all the bikes are packed together. There are lots of fascinating details that I want to take a closer look at, but it’s not possible. Woe is me.
Hall 4 is for Norton and the rest of the alphabet. Norman Hyde was a draftsman at Norton Villiers Triumph when it collapsed in 1975. He started his own shop and by ’88 he was producing his own bike, called the Harrier. The idea was that he’d take a inline triple from the Trident 160 and put it in a sport bike frame. 62 horsepower won’t throw your head back but for a select few it is the perfect combination of classic motor and modern handling. Doesn’t hurt that it looks like a ’70s endurance racer, either!
A timeline of Nortons.
All that Norton history starts here with their first bike, the Energette.
Let’s get a closer look at that motor.
The Nortons are wonderful but Hall 5 is easily my favorite. This hall is dedicated to race bikes and world record breaking motorcycles.
This is a 1929 Chater-Lea frame that became known as “Copperknob” for obvious reasons.
The tank of a ’36 New Imperial Works Racer. The NMM says it’s arguably “the most handsome machine of the thirties.” It’s definitely one of the most distinctive.⠀
As you’d expect from a museum in England, there’s a lot of love here for Norton. Here’s the first prototype Norton built to see if their rotary motor had the chops for racing.
Another one of my favorites is this 1962 Ariel Arrow modified for sprint racing. The work was done by British Sprint champion George Brown and his brother Cliff. Per the museum, George broke seven different British speed records with this bike in one weekend. In 1966, George was able to hit 122.45 mph in a flying start kilometer.⠀
George Brown also built the “Super Nero”, a supercharged sprint racer using a Vincent 1,000cc motor that was eventually replaced with a built 1,300cc powerplant.
In Hall 5 I notice a gentleman wearing an Oakland A’s cap, and he’s not speaking with the British accent that I’ve become used to over the last 10 days. He’s got a very interesting job – he builds exhibits at museums like the Exploratorium in San Francisco and he’s currently on vacation with his family, showing them some of the exhibits he’s built at museums in Europe! He just had to stop by this museum for fun, though I think at this point his kids were pretty much ready to go.
The Velocette Venom was famous for being the first bike to average over 100 mph over a 24-hour period. This bike is the actual one that set the record back in March of 1961.
I save the fastest for last. This is the Gilette Mach 3 Challenger, the fastest motorcycle of the 20th century thanks to a 330.639 mph run at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Unfortunately, to set the world record the bike had to run in the opposite direction within an hour and that proved impossible due to tire issues and salt condition. Still, it must have been quite a sight:
The photos above show you a small fraction of what the National Motorcycle Museum has to offer. The most incredible aspect of it all might just be that in 2003, a cigarette started a fire that destroyed 380 bikes and caused over £14 million in damage. The museum responded with a £20m investment and within 15 months they were open again. 150 of the damaged motorcycles were restored for the re-opening. It’s all very impressive, but there’s only so much time I can spend here before Vy will presumably murder me. We head south.
A decade ago, Vy did a semester abroad at Oxford University so we stop by her old stomping grounds.
Our tour of Oxford includes some bikes we don’t get in the US, including a Honda Varadero:
Hotel reservation confirmed, we make our way towards London.
Our lucky streak with the weather ends and we are forced to deal with a torrential downpour to make up for the fact that we haven’t had any real rain all trip.
One of my best friends from high school happens to be in London at the same time, so Vy and I meet her for a drink at her hotel.
Amanda is intrigued by the NUVIZ system that I’m testing.
Our time in England is about to come to a close – tomorrow we return the Explorer to Triumph. But first, we get to have a good night’s rest and actually sleep in for the first time all trip!