Back in the spring, I wrote a somber story about one of the largest motorcycle museums in America. The National Motorcycle Museum of Anamosa, Iowa, will be closing its doors after September 4. The museum, as well as its collection of hundreds of motorcycles, spread the joy and history of motorcycling for 34 years. Now, there will be a void left behind. If you want to visit one of the preeminent motorcycle museums in America, here’s your final chance. And if you want to own a piece of motorcycling history, your chance is coming soon.
As many of our readers know, I love to learn about the history of all vehicles. I find that most vehicles have a story to tell. That plane parked at AirVenture may have a novel’s worth of history and that Saturn Sky? It was a legend’s dream come true. Motorcycles are no different. Throughout over a century of history, countless motorcycles have been built, all with something fascinating to learn about. If you’re interested in taking your own trip through history, you have about four days left to visit one of America’s biggest motorcycle museums.
Why The National Motorcycle Museum Matters
The National Motorcycle Museum was founded in 1989 by J&P Cycles founders AMA Hall of Famer John Parham and his wife Jill. Back then, the pair were passionate motorcyclists and wished to save what motorcycling history they could. As the museum’s website notes, the motorcyclists of today can enjoy the machines they ride today because builders, engineers, racers, tuners, and others evolved the sport. Back in the 1800s, the earliest motorcycles were basically bicycle frames with engines. Today, you’ll find motorcycles with ridiculous engines and even car-like structures.
I think the museum says it best when it explains why it existed for so long:
The National Motorcycle Museum’s goal is to present their passion, and ours, through fine interpretive exhibits built around a fine collection of machines and historical objects from around the world.
As the motorcycle industry evolves we believe it is critical that we continue to gather vintage bikes, photographs, apparel, advertising art and other memorabilia to document all eras. Likewise, presentation of these motorcycles and objects must be high quality. Enhanced exhibitions, facilities, infrastructure, media and quality staff can make your experience at the Museum what you expect and deserve. Only by making these investments and providing well interpreted motorcycling history can we really succeed in presenting the story of the industry and motorcycling culture.
Founder John Parham passed in 2017 from pulmonary fibrosis, leaving Jill as Chairwoman of the museum’s board.
The National Motorcycle Museum’s collection started off small with around 40 motorcycles. In the decades since, the museum has grown so much that it changed locations and at its peak, the museum had 550 motorcycles on display. The National Motorcycle Museum is one of just six non-profit motorcycle museums in the United States. Being a non-profit, the museum was kept open and alive thanks to the donations and sponsorships of motorcycle enthusiasts.
Unfortunately, the museum became a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Motorcycle Museum was unable to open for eight weeks during the pandemic, during which the board still had to pay bills but without much in the way of donations. The donations remained thin after the museum was able to open its doors. As the museum notes, for years it was already struggling to keep the lights on and to pay wages. Eventually, the museum just reached the end of its line.
The museum hoped that someone was going to come around and save the museum in the 11th hour. Unfortunately, the National Motorcycle Museum will not be as lucky. Thankfully, there is still time to get in some great history before the museum closes its doors for good after September 4.
What’s Happening To The Motorcycles
The other good news is that the history contained in the museum’s walls is not disappearing. The motorcycles that were on loan will be returned to their owners. Everything else is up for grabs to help the museum pay its bills. Mecum Auctions is hosting the John Parham Estate Collection at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa, an auction that runs from September 6 to 9. It’s a massive auction containing 300 motorcycles from all over history and more than 6,000 pieces of road art. These are artifacts from phone booths and neon signs to posters, artwork, vintage motorcycling gear, and other pieces that make up the museum’s displays. These pieces will be divided into around 1,000 lots.
When I first reported on the museum’s closure, Mecum did not have the lots set up, so I wasn’t able to tell you exactly what you’d be able to buy. With the auction drawing near, you can now take a peek at the awesome machines that you’ll be able to buy. Many of these motorcycles are restored and in museum-quality condition, so I wouldn’t expect to find a deal here. But if you have the cash, I doubt you’ll walk away from this auction with a frown on your face.
I’ll highlight five of my favorite motorcycles going up grabs. The prices below are estimates.
1972 William “Wild Bill” Gelbke Auto Four – $20,000 – $24,000
William “Wild Bill” Gelbke was one of those motorcycle enthusiasts who was always looking for something new to build. He constructed about 10 motorcycles and the most famous of the bunch were pretty far out. The Parham Collection includes two Gelbke creations and this Auto Four is the second:
It’s likely you know a motorcyclist or a hot rodder that is not happy unless he’s designing and fabricating his next vehicle or at least customizing his bike. Maybe that’s Gelbke. But he also sought smoothness in his bikes, which comes with mass, and he wanted dependability. Automobile engines, while heavier, are smooth, torquey and 40 to 50 years ago, probably more dependable than most bike engines of the era. Gelbke was schooled in engineering, worked at McDonnell Douglas in California and repeatedly worked to design and construct his perfect motorcycle.
Like the German designer Friedl Munch, engineer of the Munch Mammoth, Wild Bill went “automotive” for his ideal engine. For RoaDog Bill chose a four cylinder Chevy engine. Auto Four is powered by an Austin-America engine of 1275 cubic centimeters, uses an automatic transmission and a BMW motorcycle third member. Where we see a lot of nice English wheel and hammer work on today’s custom builds, Gelbke was happy to use a brake and fabricated the fuel tanks, saddle bags, headlight nacelle. But the front end and fender are from a production Harley-Davidson big twin, the seat probably an Indian Chief and the gauges are automotive aftermarket. Two fuel tanks give a combined 15 gallon capacity.
According to a story published by the aftermarket parts company REVZILLA, at one point in its life, this Auto Four sat destitute before being rescued and restored by a guy named Robert Mondo of Roselle, Illinois who has donated it to the National Motorcycle Museum. (Bob also has a Corvair boxer six-powered bike!) The Auto Four is a runner again but will sit quietly in the Museum not far from Gelbke’s earlier creation, the magnificent 17 foot long, 3200 pound RoaDog.
1982 Honda CBX Super Sport – $10,000 – $12,000
The Honda CBX Super Sport comes from an era when Japanese motorcycle manufacturers made bikes faster simply by piling on cylinders and displacement. That engine is a 1047cc inline six powerhouse making 98 HP and yes, it drinks from six carburetors. Really, there is one reason to buy this motorcycle:
1934 Steam Cycle – $10,000 – $12,000
There’s something romantic about steam. I’m not sure what it is, but regardless if it’s a steam locomotive or tractor, steam power makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. The Parham Collection will be giving motorcyclists to experience steam power under their legs.
Weirdly, there’s no information about this motorcycle that could be found on Mecum’s page or at the National Motorcycle Museum’s website. The only clue I could find is a badge that says the box labeled “HOT” is apparently a Spark oil-burning stove. Mecum says that it uses fuel oil or kerosene to generate steam. A two-cylinder steam engine turns connecting rods, which moves the rear wheel. I mean, who doesn’t want a fire burning beneath their butt?
1941 Indian Four – TBD
For half a century, Indian Motorcycle produced motorcycles that won races, broke records, and found homes in the hearts and garages of riders. One historical milestone was the Indian Four, a motorcycle with a 77 cubic inch four mounted longitudinally. It was so beautiful, so expensive, and so refined that some refer to it as ‘The Duesenberg Of Motorcycles.’
Here’s some more context from the National Motorcycle Museum:
Made only from 1929 to early 1942, smooth and sophisticated the Indian Four was perhaps Indian’s best work and is now cherished by many collectors. Unfortunately, its launch was right in time with the stock market crash of ’29, which ruined its sales potential. And 1933 was the first year in some time that Indian made a profit; a modest $76,000 according to some sources. Running only at 5% of its manufacturing capacity, fewer than 1700 motorcycles were assembled for 1933.
The early four cylinder design is not technically the work of Indian Motorcycle Company. Bill Henderson started manufacturing a four cylinder motorcycle in 1912, one of the finest machines of the era. After Henderson Company ceased manufacturing the Four, Indian purchased rights to manufacture Henderson’s Ace design in 1927. Indian renamed it the “Indian Ace,” then the “Indian Four,” and launched it in 1929. Oddly, it retained Henderson’s right throttle/left shift layout atypical of Indians.
1955 Goggo 200 Deluxe – $5,000 – $6,000
I’m a sucker for Art Deco style. Admittedly, during my search for a gearhead heaven house I’ve tried my hardest to find something with that gorgeous, classy style. Sadly, I’ve come up short. I also haven’t been very lucky with finding a vehicle in the style. Going up for an affordable price is this 1955 Goggo 200 Deluxe, and I might have to be a bidder for this stupendous ride:
In 1949 Andreas Glas, a maker of agricultural equipment in Germany, visited a machinery exhibition in Verona, Italy. While there, he viewed several new Italian scooters. Inspired, he brought ideas back home to put his German manufacturing company into the “automotive” business. Prototypes were created and studied, then production machines hit showrooms in 1951.
Using very stylish “Art Deco” derived stamped steel bodies and trim, Goggos were all enclosed, full body scooters. Features include cloisonné front fender badging, polished alloy vent ports, a clock, a speedometer with odometer, a polished alloy headlight nacelle and foot controls for rear brakes and shifting. The ample seat offers room for a passenger and treaded passenger footboards are there as well.
Those are not even really a fraction of what’s going up for auction just next week. If you’re even slightly interested in old motorcycles, scroll through the pages of the Mecum Auctions’ John Parham Estate Collection at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa.
If you want in on the auction, Mecum is hosting a preview day on September 5. The auction will then run September 6 through September 9. Bidder registration can be handled online or in person. Registration costs you $100 and if you’re in person, that gets you and a guest through the door.
If you aren’t buying a motorcycle and find yourself near Anamosa, Iowa in the next four days, give the National Motorcycle Museum a visit and take in as many motorcycles as you can before the museum becomes a part of the history it preserved.
(Images: Mecum Auctions)
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