A ride through time at the National Motorcycle Museum

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There are more than a thousand reasons to visit the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham if you’re a motorcycle enthusiast travelling to the UK

Words & Photography Aninda Sardar
 

It takes about a couple of hours if you drive, give or take a quarter, and about two and a half to three by train, to get from London to Solihull. Plenty of time to stare at what’s passing outside the glass panes of the coach or the car you’re in. Although I’m travelling in a group, my thoughts are somewhere else. At a different time and place. Calcutta, it wasn’t Kolkata yet, on a wintry January morning in 1989 to be precise. I was a little boy at the time, staring in awe and wonder at shiny old motorcycles parked in a neat row at the Indian Army’s Eastern Command stadium. The occasion was the annual Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally. Not a single example before my nine-year-old eyes was less than 40 to 45 years old. The three that really had my attention however were a 1930 Harley-Davidson that had been brought from Ranchi while the other was an immaculately maintained Matchless and a slightly less immaculate but no less regal AJS.

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I have never stopped loving vintage British motorcycles since. A trip to the UK without paying a visit to the Brooklands Museum, which also has a half decent collection of vintage bikes and the National Motorcycle Museum in Solihull, Birmingham seemed like an idea that didn’t sound complete. Frankly, I didn’t have the kind of time that I’d ideally like to spend at a place like this but half a day didn’t seem too bad either. So here I am on the bus to Solihull armed to the teeth with my adult admission ticket that I have bought off the Net for just under ten pounds.

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There’s a slight shiver of excitement as I reach the glass doors of the museum. More than 170 marques and over 1,000 exhibits, including rare ones that you didn’t even know existed. Truly, if you’re a motorcycle aficionado then you won’t need more to rush off to the UK and take the fast train to Birmingham from Heathrow itself. But there’s a lot more to the National Motorcycle Museum than meets the eye.

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There are five separate but inter-connected display halls packed to the brim with two-wheeled delights. The first of these deals with the theme of ’60 Glorious Years’, which covers the period 1898 to 1960. Then there are halls 2, 3 and 4 that deal with road going motorcycles classified alphabetically. Practically, every brand of British bike I have ever dreamed of is here – Vincent, Brough Superior, Sunbeam, Matchless, AJS, Ariel, Triumph, Norton and Royal Enfield being the more well known ones. You will also find military machines, an exhibition of sidecars and prototypes. For those who like competition bikes, the most interesting part of this place is Hall 5 where all British competition bikes are displayed, again in alphabetical order in typically British fashion.

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For me, it’s like being armed with a free pass in candy-land. I just don’t know where to lay my eyes, which bike to focus on. Should I spend some time on the Brough Superior that was retro-fitted with a 800cc four-cylinder petrol engine lifted off an Austin Seven? Or perhaps I should learn more about the Flying Flea, the Royal Enfield that paratroopers carried into battle in WW II. Maybe the WW I spec Triumph with the sidecar and the machine gun for my commute each day? Would certainly part the traffic like Moses parted the Red Sea.

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Three hours go by in a flash and I haven’t even seen like a third of the collection properly. I toy with the idea of coming back tomorrow but it’s just that Birmingham is too far to come back to. So, somewhat dejected I do the only thing sensible, head to the gift shop. From scale models to apparels to British memorabilia to reprints of rare books and even original motorcycle literature from manufacturers. I settle for a fridge magnet and a mug before I head to the railway station for my journey back to London.

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