The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham Alabama is an amazing destination. Located on the sprawling 830 acre motorsports park is a twisty 2.38 mile race track, and what must be the most comprehensive motorcycle museum in the world. Started in 1988, the private collection of Birmingham native, George Barber, has swollen to just over 1200 vintage and modern motorcycles. If that’s not enough, there is also an incredible display of 43 Lotus race cars and a full restoration facility in the “basement”. The operating room inspired shop boasts floors painted with white epoxy and collectible Persian rugs. I guess you know your shop is something special when you are standing on wool. You can observe the mechanics working on bikes through endless glass windows. It reminds me of the way you might watch a chef cooking a gourmet meal at a 5 star restaurant.
Johnson was keen on having his picture taken with the “Captain America” bike
I went there with my friend, and design leadership colleague, Johnson Li from the Beijing operation. I suggested we make the pilgrimage not so much to ogle motorcycles, but to immerse ourselves in design. Don’t get me wrong, I like to stare at motorcycles with the best of them. Years ago I visited the landmark exhibit The Art of the Motorcycle at New York’s fabulous Guggenheim Museum. Think of that experience as Frank Lloyd Wright meets Willie G. Davidson. Motorcycles are one of the most design centered products/experiences ever created by man. Everything on a motorcycle is exposed and was designed to be seen, heard, felt and ultimately experienced. The motorcycles that have done this the best are said to have “soul”. Cycle World magazine once published an article on this topic titled 10 Bikes with Soul and Character. In the article they describe “soul” as an elusive quality that goes far beyond typical performance claims and technical specifications. You feel it in your heart. This reminds me so strongly of the world of personal computer design. It was time to be inspired.
Once inside the shimmering aluminum clad building, we were instantly overwhelmed by 5 floors of vintage and nearly modern motorcycles. They’re on custom racks stretching to the ceiling, displayed on beautifully crafted wooden crates, hung on steel structures like Christmas trees, and suspended from the ceiling on aircraft cables like Calder mobiles. Everywhere you looked there were marvels of beauty and functionality. My biggest concern was how were we ever going to see it all, and where do we start?
Motorcycle designers experimented with the multi-mode idea decades ago
We took the museum attendants advice and went straight to the elevator to work our way down from the 5th floor. She cautioned me to not be distracted as we walked to the elevator; she was right .Over 4 hours later, we were back where we started. Groggy eyed from sensory overload, Johnson and I were in awe of what we had just experienced. Johnson had seen some of the best motorcycles ever created and more importantly learned the meaning of a new word; soul. I struggled to explain the use of the word in this context until I touched my heart with my fist. Johnson got it. It continued to be a topic of great discussion during the entire trip.
This gorgeous 1910 Pierce four cylinder is about far more than a spec sheet
The bikes that caught our eyes were those that not only drove an emotional response from us as designers, but also showed strong passion by the creators. You could tell making something that satisfied their creative spirit was of extreme importance to the motorcycle designer. It showed in everything from the sensuous form of a gas tank to the clear geometric shape of a frame. Nearly everything we saw had purpose, it wasn’t just decoration. Additionally, no two designers approached the problem in the same way. They seemed to celebrate innovation and creative thinking as a way of life. They were in the business of making art. Perhaps Paul Rand’s definition of art says it all, “Art is an idea that has reached its perfect form”.
Johnson and I had a great experience at the museum. We’re both interested in planning another trip with more people. It needs to be shared. I would love to get Richard Sapper there and discuss the relative merits of design for hours. Johnson is even talking about buying himself a new Ducati Multistrada for use in Beijing! His creative batteries are fully charged and he’s anxious to create the next great thing for the Lenovo consumer brand. I can assure you, it will have “soul”.