If there’s one motorcycle event that has everything, it’s the annual Barber Vintage Festival, held among the rolling hills of the 880-acre Barber Motorsports Park and Museum campus near Birmingham, Alabama. Don’t plan on attending, don’t put it on your bucket list, don’t say you want to go, don’t even ask your mom, just shut up and be there. It’s in October.
After being canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, the 16th (almost) annual festival in 2021 felt even more special than it did every other year. AMA Hall of Famer Mary McGee – the first woman to hold an FIM racing license, to finish the Baja 1000, and to roadrace and race motocross in the U.S. – served as Grand Marshal.
The festival’s cornucopia of sites and activities includes the world’s best and biggest motorcycle collection housed in the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, a full slate of vintage and exotic racing around the 17-turn, 2.4-mile Barber Motorsports Park road course, landscaped grounds rivaling any Frederick Law Olmstead-designed park, a huge swap meet, vendors, both a Wall of Death and a Globe of Death, demo rides on modern bikes, an inflatable church, and more, more, more.
Yet the best thing about the event is those who attend – people of every year, make, model, gender, and ethnicity, any and all who are motorcycle people. They bring stories and questions, tall tales and truths, knowledge and curiosity. With them come vintage and antique bike clubs displaying their members’ machines, as well as a motley assortment of motorcycles from far and wide, hundreds of machines parked handlebar-to-handlebar along the track’s perimeter access road, bikes of every vintage, brand, and state of customization, ratted out or restored beyond shiny new. Bring something you love, discover new passions, find things you hadn’t known you needed, and wear comfortable shoes.
The heart of the festival is the museum, which features over 1,600 vehicles, many being the best of the best. It’s a collection in which nothing is average. A warning to all enthusiasts: Do not enter the museum unless you have a few hours to spend there. It’s a prison of our own desires. Heading for the door early requires putting your head down and looking only at your feet; otherwise, every few steps will be repeatedly interrupted by motorcycle euphoria.
The swap meet has outgrown its original location, and it alone can be the sole adventure of a weekend at the festival. By chance, this year’s swap meet included nearly the entire sordid history of Indian motorcycles, from its origin in Springfield, Massachusetts, to the Brockhouse-rebranded Royal Enfield Indians, Floyd Clymer’s era of Velocette- and Royal Enfield-powered machines, Indian-badged minibikes from Taiwan, Gilroy and Kings Mountain Indians, and even a current electric toy bike that looks like an FTR750 flat-tracker. There are always surprises, such as my discovery of a pair of vintage Honda CL350s with Honda-offered psychedelic accessory paint by Flying Dragon.
While strolling through the swap meet, I ran into an enthusiast in his 80s named Steve who was searching for water. Then I ran into him again a short while later. I asked him if he had found water, and he wanted to know why I was asking. After reminding him we had met earlier, he said his memory is so terrible that he’d taken a picture of where his car was parked. We chatted about motorcycles, and he mentioned he was selling his vintage Honda CB750 because it had become too big for him to manage. He was looking for a Honda CL90, a bike he’d wanted since he was a kid.
Continuing to navigate the rows of vendors in the opposite direction as Steve, our paths crossed repeatedly. On our next encounter I asked him if he’d found a CL90. He said he remembered me but hadn’t found one. On parting I told him I’d see him again in a few minutes, which I did. Eventually, he reported that he found a CL90, but he had waited too long to get one because he’s now too stiff to swing a leg over it. He then warned me, with earned authority, that if there’s a motorcycle I know I really want, buy it now. Don’t wait. He said he was now looking for a scooter. It was a charming exchange. Steve might not remember me, but I’ll remember him.
Be sure to cruise the swap meet on Friday or Saturday, as sellers tend to pack up early on Sunday. And don’t be shy about haggling; something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
The vending area features few motorcycle manufacturers, which is puzzling since the Barber Vintage Festival is such a large, well-attended event. There are plenty of aftermarket vendors, though, as well as food trucks and entertainment like the American Motor Drome Wall of Death and the Urias Family Daredevils Globe of Death.
Having been enthralled by walls of death as a teenager, I can never pass by their opportunity for thrills. Though, thankfully, I’ve never witnessed one live up to its name. And as far as walls go, none is more carny nor more professional than the American Motor Drome Wall of Death. Its riders live life outside of ours, and the show provides the unsettling mystery, naughty fear, and dangerous sex appeal of Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked this Way Comes.
My Sunday was devoted to watching the racing and perusing the paddock. I discovered that the Barber Vintage Festival features not only vintage motorcycles, but vintage motorcycle racers as well. Notables included Dale Quarterley, Curtis Adams, Thad Wolff, and Tripp Nobles, each with extensive pro racing credentials. They proved that they’re still far faster than you and me, particularly me.
Nobles has a history of racing sportbikes, but might be best remembered for racing Tilley-sponsored Harley-Davidsons out of Statesville, North Carolina. This year Nobles campaigned a vintage Harley XR750TT with a full fairing, a bike he said was crazy fast for what it is. He admitted, though, that he had to modify the bike for his old bones, lowering the footpegs so his knees weren’t knotted up tight and raising the bars so he didn’t have to lean so far forward, which required cutting away some of the fairing. Nobles won his two RR Formula 750 races against a grid of BMWs, Hondas, Nortons, and Yamahas, but would have had fun no matter how he finished.
Having attended this event at least a half-dozen times, there’s always been surprising things to see that are new, or new to me. Not once have I seen all there is to see, and each weekend has ended with me wanting more. Even compared to a MotoGP weekend, the Barber Vintage Festival just might be the best motorcycle event at a racetrack in America. I’ll see you there next year. For more information, visit barbermuseum.org.