Tragic news is spreading across America’s motorcycling communities: The National Motorcycle Museum, known for its massive collection of curated motorcycle history, will be closing its doors after September 4. Its motorcycles will be finding new homes and its legacy of educating people about the wonder of two wheels will hopefully live on. If you’re keen to take a road trip this summer, you will be able to visit the National Motorcycle Museum. But if or when the museum shutters, there are still plenty of places to get your motorcycle history fix; here are three that are worth a visit this summer.
Yesterday we learned that the National Motorcycle Museum, a beloved 36,000 square foot trip through motorcycle history, will be closing. Opened in 1989 in Iowa by J&P Cycles founders John and Jill Parham, the museum is home to about 550 motorcycles that tell the story of over a century of motorcycling. Many of the motorcycles are from the late John Parham’s personal collection, and the space is professionally curated. The National Motorcycle Museum has machines that you won’t see anywhere else, and the museum is said to be fun even if you don’t care about motorcycles.
Sadly, the non-profit museum was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and as museum Chairwoman Jill Parham said, the museum was already struggling: “We have struggled for several years to cover wages and utilities partly due to low visitation.”
If you have a hankering to learn some motorcycle history this summer, the National Motorcycle Museum will remain open until the end of the day on September 4. If you won’t find yourself near Anamosa, Iowa, or want to visit multiple museums, there are still plenty of motorcycle museums all over America spanning coast to coast. I could probably write several thousand words about them, but I’ll focus on just three of them today.
Harley-Davidson Museum – Milwaukee, Wisconsin
I have always lived within two hours of the Harley-Davidson Museum, yet I’ve never been through its doors. I plan to change that this year and I’m thinking about hosting an Autopian meetup there when I do it.
Harley-Davidson has a negative reputation among many riders. Some feel that a Harley is too slow, too loud, and vibrates enough to work as a substitute for a Hitachi Magic Wand. I’m sure you’ve all read some sort of joke about Harley riders being retired dentists.
If you, dear reader, are one of those people, I would encourage you to look past all of that and give Harley a chance. As a lover of all things two and three wheels, I’ve had great fun on Harley-Davidsons. Last year, I even got to take King of the Baggers-inspired bikes around a racetrack and had the time of my life.
And if chunky cruisers aren’t your speed, Harley has a competent adventure bike, a thrilling electric motorcycle, a new flat track-inspired electric motorcycle, and even the Sportster is pretty darn cool nowadays. The Motor Company has some new clothes and I’m digging them.
Many riders have recommended a visit to the Harley-Davidson Museum and they didn’t even ride Harleys. I think the museum is a great place to start a journey learning about Harley. Harley-Davidson decided to make its one and only museum a grand experience. The museum sits on a 20-acre property that you could spend your entire day doing things on.
Weather permitting on Saturdays, Harley hosts demonstration rides from the museum campus and a bunch of events. Every Thursday night, the museum hosts a bike night and concert. All motorcycles are allowed and the concerts are free. Just show up and enjoy the jams from local Milwaukee bands. On Saturday nights, the museum campus transforms into a venue for blues music and all-you-can-eat BBQ. Harley-Davidson also has a vintage motorcycle rally on its calendar and in July, the company is celebrating its 120th Anniversary with the Harley-Davidson Homecoming Festival. The festival will have a concert, bike shows, stunt shows, and so much more.
In fact, Harley’s Homecoming is so big that the Motor Company has published six fun riding routes to get riders from all over the States and Canada to Milwaukee.
I’m still not done yet and we’re not even talking the museum itself yet. The 20-acre property has a river walk, a greenspace with native plants, a statue, and even a replica of the shed Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson built when they started Harley-Davidson in 1903. The museum is also the site of Harley’s other efforts. Every year, it hosts a Pride ride that originates at the museum before hundreds of riders embark on an escorted ride around downtown Milwaukee, flying all colors of the rainbow. I took part in one of those a few years ago (above)!
The Museum Itself
Alright, now we’re getting to the museum itself. The design for the Harley-Davidson Museum was announced in February 2006 and the space finally opened its doors on July 12, 2008. The museum campus sits on land previously occupied by Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works, the Lakeshore Sand Company, and Morton Salt. Apparently, the Motor Company had to import a 4 foot thick layer of soil to deal with contamination from the site’s prior industrial use. The museum project cost Harley $75 million, or about $114,158,000 in today’s money.
Once you go into the museum, you will get to experience a collection of over 300 Harley-Davidson motorcycles through the entire history of the Bar and Shield. And since this museum is supposed to tell the whole story of Harley, it’s always gaining new motorcycles as time progresses. You’ll also be right there at the company’s archives, which the company says holds “hundreds of thousands of documents and objects that range from marketing materials and company memoranda to 3-D objects; everything from clothing to toys.”
One featured exhibit at the museum is Harley’s contributions to off-roading. The company says:
In the decades before America paved its highways, early riders had to be prepared for all sorts of terrain: sand, clay or dirt – and wandering those makeshift byways were Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Today, it’s called off-road or adventure touring; back then it was just called riding. Since 1903, Harley-Davidson motorcycles proved their toughness by riding over wooded hills, through stone-choked creek beds and up mountain sides. “Off-road Harley-Davidson” tells the history of motorcycles designed for rough roads, the people who rode them and the adventures they shared.
Another exhibit is a bit of a wonder. It’s a motorcycle that drifted over 4,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to end up in British Columbia:
A Harley-Davidson motorcycle was recovered in May on an isolated beach in British Columbia. The bike had drifted over 4,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean after being washed away in a storage container during the devastating tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011. The remains of this 2004 Harley-Davidson Night Train are on display at the Harley-Davidson Museum as a memorial to the tragedy that claimed more than 15,000 lives.
If you’re as baffled as I am, I’ll explain. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Honshu on the Japan Trench. Within 30 minutes, a devastating tsunami struck the coast, overwhelming infrastructure and washing away both people and debris. Some 18,000 people lost their lives in the event, 123,000 houses were destroyed, and a million more were damaged. It’s estimated that the economic impact was $220 billion. The Japanese government estimated that some 20 million tons of material got washed out into the sea. One object was a large container, and inside of it was a Harley-Davidson. Since the container was sealed, it floated around the Pacific for a full year, traveling over 4,000 miles to make it to Canada. The container eventually washed back out to sea, leaving the motorcycle embedded in the sand.
Harley-Davidson was able to track down the owner and initially offered to restore the motorcycle. Upon realizing that the company would have to rebuild 99 percent of the machine, the Motor Company instead offered the owner a new motorcycle. The owner declined, instead requesting the motorcycle to be displayed in the museum as a remembrance of the tragedy.
Harley’s museum isn’t just a place to learn about Harley-Davidson history, but a place where you can learn how motorcycles can link to human lives and events. The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Tickets are free for children under 5 years old. From there, tickets range from $8 for children to $22 for adults, $18 for seniors, $18 for military, and $16 for students.
Barber Motorsports Museum – Birmingham, Alabama
If you’re looking for both more variety and the largest motorcycle museum in the country, the Barber Motorsports Museum is likely your spot. Here are some staggering facts about Barber. The museum has 97 Harleys, more than 950 motorcycles on display, and over 1,600 motorcycles in the total collection. Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that Barber says 99 percent of its motorcycles can be made to run within an hour of time. The museum says that is collection represents 220 manufacturers from 22 countries.
Many people, including perhaps a swath of our readers, perhaps knows Barber best for its racetrack. There’s a lot of history here, and it starts with racer and enthusiast George Barber. How does a collection get so huge? I’ll let Barber explain:
George Barber’s zeal for speed ignited his vision for today’s museum. Having raced Porsches in the 1960s, Barber held an impressive track record—63 first place wins. A thriving business executive, Barber rediscovered his motorsports passion in 1988 and began collecting and restoring classic cars.
Since the world’s best and largest car collections had already been established, Barber heeded some wise advice. His longtime friend Dave Hooper – a motorcycle enthusiast as well as the person who ran Barber’s delivery fleet for 27 years – suggested that Barber shift his focus from cars to motorcycles. Being a man of big dreams, Barber seized the opportunity to accomplish what no one else had done – build the world’s “best and largest” motorcycle collection.
To help jumpstart Barber’s collection, Hooper suggested a trio of Honda V-Fours. He then gifted Barber with two of his own motorcycles. One of these bikes—a rare, exquisitely detailed 1952 Victoria Bergmeister—instantly won Barber’s affection. The quest for more was on.
Barber says it currently holds a Guinness World Record for being the largest motorcycle museum. Some 368,000 visitors descended on Barber last year, apparently more than 3,000 of them came from other countries to see it. You can search the Barber’s collection online and the museum highlights a few bikes with some history blurbs about them.
1926 Royal Enfield 200 Sport
Royal Enfield has one of my favorite slogans in the industry: Made Like A Gun. This slogan is powerful and traces back to Enfield’s origins in making firearm parts. You’d expect a firearm to be sturdy, dependable, and built with some precision. Those are attributes that would make for a great motorcycle, too.
The 1915 Model 200 was Enfield’s first of a long line of 225cc two-strokes. Enfield’s small displacement machines were popular among learning motorcyclists in the UK. From Barber:
The 1926 Royal Enfield Model 200 was equipped with a 225cc single cylinder engine, rated at 2.25hp, and capable of 35mph, if road conditions allowed. This 2-speed, tank mounted hand-shift bike was designed with basic transportation in mind. This commuter bike employed a 3 port (1 Intake, 2 Exhaust) 2-stroke deflector piston engine with a large external flywheel to minimize low rpm off-idle stumbles. The “naked” edition of no-frills transportation came without headlamp, turn signals, and only a single tail lamp. Lightweight and simple in design, the Model 200 had a long and successful lifespan.
1995 Britten V1000
Barber calls this motorcycle one of its most-asked about and it’s easy to see why. It looks like a functional sculpture. Here’s what Barber has to say about it:
One of the most asked-about exhibits at the Barber Museum, the Britten V1000 was a radical departure from conventional racing motorcycle design. Its popularity is due to its creator, John Britten, an engineering genius who—together with a talented team of craftsmen—built the bike from scratch on a shoestring budget in his backyard workshop in New Zealand. A total of 10 Britten V1000s were created.
The Britten V1000’s unconventional style and pink and blue colors make it a natural standout. Another distinctive feature of the Britten is its streamlined, lightweight carbon fiber body.
John Britten lived life fully and fearlessly. After fighting a short battle with cancer, Britten died on September 5, 1995, at the young age of 45.
The Barber Motorsports Museum is currently open from Monday to Saturday from 10am to 6pm and Sunday from 12pm to 6pm. Adults pay $18, children $12, and military $15.
Wheels Through Time Motorcycle Museum – Maggie Valley, North Carolina
The last museum on this list is for fans of rare, quirky, custom, and one-off motorcycles. Barber and Harley-Davidson may have tons of popular and obscure brands, but Wheels Through Time learns hard into weird wheels. What do I mean? Well, last year, I wrote about a new acquisition at the museum. Take a look at the KennyBilt 9-Wheel Harley Rig, a 9-wheel big rig-inspired camper that weighs 4,000 pounds. It was finished in 1989 by Kenny Kilpatrick of Huntsville, Alabama and the Harley camper was a dream realized. Kilpatrick somehow even managed to get Harley-Davidson’s blessing on the project.
The camping rig consists of a Harley-Davidson FLT of the era and a 1340cc Evolution V-twin housed in the middle. Inside of the cab are switches to control various functions of the vehicle. Notable features include air horns and air brakes, just like a real semi-tractor. Inside of the trailer is a couch and a large bed. The walls are lined with photographs and the awards the rig has gotten. It even has a wraparound skylight. The KennyBilt was functional, too, as the 30-foot motorcycle creation toured the United States going to different shows, even crossing the Atlantic for motorcycle shows around Europe.
Wheels Through Time got the Harley truck because the museum’s founder Dale Walksler was friends with Kilpatrick. Dale passed in 2021, as did Kilpatrick. His widow decided to send the creation to where it would be appreciated the most. Today, Wheels Through Time is run by Dale’s son, Matt.
Here’s the story of how the museum came to be:
The collection was started by Museum Founder Dale Walksler in 1969 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. In 1977 the collection moved to Mt. Vernon Illinois where it was housed at the Harley-Davidson dealership founded by Dale. As the collection matured it became obvious the potential for a truly incredible museum was at hand. In 2002, the collection moved to its present location in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. A 501c3 not-for-profit status was attained, and Wheels Through Time was on its way to preserving forever a most unique aspect of our American history.
The museum further explains that it’s a 38,000 square foot facility dedicated to American motorcycle and transportation history. Wheels Through Time says that the museum is designed to feel like an old garage. So it’s more than just peering through over a century of transportation history, but it’s an experience. The museum says that it gets thousands of visitors from all over the world and as I said, it’s not just about rare and obscure motorcycles. Wheels Through Time also houses rare cars, too:
The automobile collection is equally as interesting as the two-wheeled marvels. A pair of ’32 roadsters, Packard and Lincoln from the classic era are surrounded by distinctive “one off” autos such as the 1949 Veritas and the massive 1915 Locomobile built during the gilded age of American history.
I’ve already shown you one awesome vehicle in the museum. Let’s take a look at another!
This motorcycle has once been called the rarest motorcycle in the world and the question of just who built it remains a mystery. From Wheels Through Time:
Found behind a brick wall in a Chicago apartment building in 1967, the Traub was discovered during the building’s renovation. To this date, the machines origin remains a mystery. Its builder, and its history may never be known, making the Traub one of the rarest motorcycles in the world.
According to Dynojet Research, a previous owner of the residence was contacted, where it was learned that the owner’s son had stolen the motorcycle in 1916. As punishment, the father made his son elist in the Army, where ge got shipped out to fight in World War I. Presumably, the son hid the motorcycle so that he could ride it upon his return, but he would not survive the war.
There has never been a confirmation of who built the Traub, but the best guess is one Gottlieb Richard Traub, who ran the Richard Traub Motorcycle Shop in the area. In 1907, Traub reportedly wrote to Motorcycle Illustrated describing a motorcycle with similar specifications as the Traub. Further complicating things is the fact that if this motorcycle was indeed built by Traub and later stolen from him, nobody seemed to have filed a police report. At any rate, the mystery is still technically unsolved.
Wheels Through Time is open Thursday through Monday from 10am to 5pm. Kids pay $7, seniors pay $12, and adults pay $15.
Museums Across America
These three museums obviously aren’t an exhaustive list of all of the bike museums in America. There are probably hundreds and all of them are likely great places to visit. But these three give you a peek into what awesome history you can find out there. When September rolls around, America will lose a beloved museum. So, pay these places a visit, you never know when they might disappear.
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You def want to have your hook up coincide with Summerfest this summer. The Harley Museum is very cool and even though I have not ridden in decades, it is a point of honor for our fair city. At the 100 year anniversary we had folks from as far away as Australia, a ton o f Europeans and of course North and South America were all here. My oldest brother (RIP Fred, I miss you every day) came with friends from Connecticut, and he was on his Harley that time. ( he had 6 or 7 bikes)
I was lucky enough to see Dale walking around Wheels Through time. Good guy and he took some bikes to Concours events. My Favorite Bike is the black and yellow stripped Harley, from Easton PA. Theres also some LD motorcycles and Cannonball motorcycles. Barber is next on my list, and Ive heard good things about the Curtiss Museum in New York.
If you’re already in the Austin area, this place is worth an afternoon visit. My dad bought a survivor Yamaha RD from them, super nice people.
Hill Country Motorheads Motorcycle Museum
I count myself among the “don’t care much about motorcycles” crowd, but I visited the Harley Museum with my son’s scout troop a few years back and found it a great afternoon out. The museum is very well done and interesting with all kinds of different exhibits from engineering to history to design to the self-expression of Harley owners. I especially liked the section they had on how the engine design influences the sound that motorcycles make. Highly recommend.
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I did the Harley factory tour proudly wearing my Moto Guzzi tee shirt. They convinced me to buy a HD factory tee shirt to wear when I visited Lake Como.
Based on your user name, is the next trip to Barcelona?
“Harley has… a thrilling electric motorcycle, a new flat track-inspired electric motorcycle”
I’m amused at this praise for H-D as a whole but LiveWire is a mistake. Your typical Harley owners are never going to move electric, and those who want electric aren’t going to tend to want a Harley.
That said, the LiveWires are legitimately very nice bikes.
Since you’re in the region Mercedes, I hope you get to go to the Mama Tried show in Milwaukee next February. And yes, the Harley Museum is all right. Spent a pleasant, quiet Sunday with my brother-in-law there last fall.
Maybe not a full fledged museum, but Donelson Cycles in St Louis has a couple of “museum rooms” that are definitely worth the visit if you are in St Louis.
and previously mentioned: the Moto Museum. Tuesday thru Saturday. Pretty cool
Lastly from us midwestern plains folks, in Topeka KS is the Evel Knievel museum. Lots of EKs cycles, including his Sky Cycle. A great history visit. And below a Harley dealer with some nice displays of their own.
Well this made me Google “Canadian Motorcycle Museums” and there are a bunch in this country too, I may have to do some exploring.
Barber has always sounded interesting in the US, but I’d have to renew my passport to take that in and that is not a high priority at this time, the sad thing is at one time I could cross the border with a Drivers License, but that was prior to the paranoia of 9/11 and I once crossed fairly regularly.
If you do come to Alabama to see the Barber Museum, come down on a race weekend such as the Superbike weekend coming up in May or to the Minibike race weekend in June. If you can do it on a superbike, a drag bike or on a motocross bike, these people will show you how to do it on a minibike.
As mentioned in another comment Vintage Festival weekend in the fall it is the ultimate festival for vintage motorsycles.
The Children’s Hospital Indy Grand Prix is this weekend so it might be hard to make it this year, but come on down next year. It is a great race and benefits the local Children’s Hospital.
I was lucky enough to go to the Art of the Motorcycle exhibit at the Guggenheim in the late 90s. It was a fantastic experience. Captain America (the bike, not the guy with the shield) was there, along with dozens of other historical and generally cool iron.
Mercedes if you do the meetup at the HD Museum, count me in!
I remember that exhibit, it was pretty awesome!!
And another solid Kansas motorcycle museum https://www.twistedoz.com
There is also https://www.ksmotorcyclemuseum.org/index.html
Is the AMA museum (I think in Ohio) any good, or is it just a “we have to have one, so…” affair?
I’ve always hoped given its racing sanctioning body role, it’s got some famous competition stuff.
As for motorcycle museums, there is also the Motorcyclepedia in Newburgh, NY. It got some pretty cool stuff. And is right here, in my town. It’s worth checking out if you find yourself in the Hudson Valley (although it can be a little musty at times).
Or for the Vintage Festival that happens every fall. 🙂 One of these years I will get there!
@Mercedes – apropos of this piece and the other one about the Pontiac museum, would it make sense to compile a user-contributed list of motorsport museums? There are a lot of readers and I suspect we could come up with a few suggestions.
That is a brilliant idea! I’ll see if we could maybe create a page like that. Plus maybe a calendar for cool events happening around the country. More opportunities for reader meets!