Thursday, April 21, 2011

Entrepreneur #9 - How 'the ice-cream man from hell' built the world's coolest museum

The Morbidelli V-8 is tucked away in a corner; the Britten gets a little more limelight. The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum houses what can, at least arguably, be called the best motorcycle collection anywhere. There’s absolutely no doubt that it’s the best motorcycle museum. The 140,000 square foot facility, set in the middle of a 720 acres ‘motorsports park’ was built between 1999 and 2002, and cost George Barber about $60 million.

What’s striking about the story of Barber’s collection is that it all came together quite recently. He was no Sammy Miller, who’d been on the scene for donkey’s years. Barber only bought the first bikes for the collection in 1988. The fact that it’s now grown to over 1,200 bikes reflects another side of this white-haired gent with a honeyed drawl; he’s also fiercely competitive.

Barber’s dad operated a large commercial dairy in Birmingham, after WWII. He wasn’t necessarily a spoiled rich kid, but he was pretty rich. As a young man in the 1960s, he raced Porsches at Daytona and Sebring. He didn’t treat it like a hobby; his rivals called him ‘the ice cream man from hell.’ When I interviewed him, forty years after he’d hung up his helmet, he still took pains to make sure I wrote down the number of wins he racked up: 63.
The 'ice-cream man from hell' in one of his Porsches.
 When his dad turned over the company to him, George channeled his competitive instincts into the business and, over the next 30 years Barber Dairies’ annual turnover reached $300 million. With no time to race, he started to acquire a few collectible cars.

Funny story about how the collection took shape: Barber had a fleet of delivery trucks for the dairy business, and a garage where the company maintained them. One of the garage employees, a guy named Dave Hooper, was due to retire. Barber worried that Hooper was the type who, without anything to do, would just wither and die, so he asked Hooper to restore a couple of cars.

It turned out that experience beating delivery trucks back into shape wasn’t that transferable to aluminum race-car bodies, and those first restorations didn’t go too well. It was Hooper who suggested that they try restoring a couple of motorcycles, and George went out and bought a 1953 Victoria Bergmeister and a ’59 Panther for his pensioner to work on.

At the museum, when they tell this story they emphasize that, at that point, George had a minor epiphany. He’d always worked on his own race-cars, and he fell in love with the way the bikes’ working bits were not concealed behind bodywork; he could see the suspensions, frames and motors. Talking to him, I could tell that was true for what it was worth, but something else also came out: that old competitive streak.

Even with his substantial resources, by the late '80s, the price of desirable collector cars meant that George would never have the world’s best car collection. He couldn’t even afford to assemble the world’s best Lotus collection; that was billionaire territory, and he only had, oh, hundreds of millions.

“But I realized,” he admitted to me, “that I could have the world’s best motorcycle collection.” He sold off his cars, and set out to do just that, and as quickly as possible.

He bought a warehouse near the dairy. In a year or two, all the floor space was filled and Barber built 20-foot racks to store them several bikes high. Although it was nominally open to the public, the collection was in pretty sketchy neighborhood and few people visited; it was one of American motorcycling’s best-kept secrets. I had friends who sought it out, and came back awe-struck. He was collecting and displaying motorcycles on shelves, the way other people displayed toy bikes. Around the world, collectors and curators grumbled about an upstart American – ice cream man from hell, indeed, who’d upset the collecting apple-cart. He was accused of single-handedly inflating the market for vintage bikes. 
Barber, more recently, with an ex-Surtees MV. He did have enough money to acquire the world's very best motorcycles...
Rival curators just didn’t get it; it was a competition and George was winning. The rest of it was only money. In 1998, Barber sold his company. That meant he had even more cash to spend on bikes, but that he had to move his collection out of the old warehouse, which went with the business. That’s when he bought an abandoned gravel pit on the outskirts of town, and decided to build the best motorcycle museum in the world, to house the best collection. If there was a downside, it’s that with the collection’s small staff fully occupied, he withdrew from AHRMA racing; for years his rivalry with Rob Iannucci’s Team Obsolete had defined AHRMA’s premier classes.

When his park – trust me, it doesn’t look like a quarry any more – and his track, and his museum were finished and his collection was installed, he gave it all to the city of Birmingham. Talk about your gracious southern gentleman, eh? George Barber maintains an office at the museum, but he doesn’t spend too much time there. He’s the kind of guy who’s always looking to the next challenge, and he’s busy with other things. The last time I talked to him he was preoccupied with some big real estate development projects. That’s the competitor coming out, again. After you win, you celebrate one night, and then focus on the next race.

If you haven't been, you owe it to yourself.

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