As I shared with the Hooniversiat in my earlier posts from the Commercial Vehicle Show, I spent last week in Birmingham, England. Birmingham is (or was) the “B” in BSA, and the city and surrounding Midlands area were home to a plethora of British motorcycle marques throughout the previous century. Birmingham is to the British motorcycle what Detroit is to the American car. It’s also the site of the National Motorcycle Museum.
As most of you know, I’m a certified bike freak, so after traveling 4,500 miles, I couldn’t be within a mile of the National Motorcycle Museum and not visit it. I not-so-secretly took an extended “lunch break” (wink, wink) from staffing my employer’s corporate booth at the exhibition (which was the primary reason for my trip’s existence) to tour this shrine to Britbike history.
The museum consists of five successive exhibit halls, each jam-packed with motorcycles, plus another bunch of bikes on display in the reception/gift shop area. (I only took pictures in the first couple of halls, for reasons I’ll explain in just a moment.) The collection is a bit overwhelming, and many remarkable bikes are lined up in tight rows, like so much cordwood. As a result, it is very hard to take in much of what you’re looking at. Despite an informative placard by most machines that provides some narrative background and context, my eyes tended to skim over some noteworthy and impressive bikes, simply because there were two others of equal beauty and importance on either side of it.
Oh, look — there’s the very last Gold Star ever built; hmmm. There’s a pre-WWI belt-drive Triumph; gee. There’s yet another Manx single…. I quickly became intellectually numb to it all. But then, as I stepped through one of the hallway doors midway through my tour, something profound happened, something deeply personal: I came face-to-face with the Quadrant.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise; I was aware that the lone prototype Triumph Four still exists, and that it was housed at the NMM. But it almost startled me, sitting on a small raised platform right inside the doorway. I can’t recount the Quadrant’s convoluted, controversial genesis without turning this post into a 12-point tildeer (I’ll leave it up to Ed Youngblood to inform the interested), but suffice to say that the Quadrant is a hugely poignant symbol in an epic tragedy of talented, visionary craftsmen casting about in panicked desperation as they watched twin tsunamis — a quantum-level rethinking of manufacturing processes from Japan and socio-political myopia in corporate and governmental boardrooms in Britain — combine into a perfect storm that quickly and unexpectedly dragged every existing British motorcycle maker to its death. Unlike the other bikes I’d been looking at, I didn’t see just a machine, a collection of gears and castings and rubber and sheet metal. The story of the Quadrant is the story of people. For thirty years I’d heard and retold the Quadrant’s story. It had, in my mind, become a morality play, a Bible story. It was mythical; it was legend. But now, in the blink of an eye, it was very, very real — I was Bob Ballard in Alvin, face-to-face with motorcycling’s RMS Titanic.
I snapped a few more pictures, but by the time I’d arrived in the last hall, full of history-making, utterly unique racers I’d read about all my adult life, I decided that my cameras were useless. This was not an experience I could relive later or share with others through photos. I’d seen pictures of most of these bikes before, and the museum itself has photos and stats of all its collection online. No, I was meeting with ghosts. I was visting with Edward Turner, who penned the very first and last Triumph twins to be designed at Meriden. Doug Hele, who frantically tried to cobble worldbeaters out of spare parts as the money and customers’ good will dried up in the early ’70s. Hyde, North, Williams, Tait, Irving…
I also met one more ghost — me. Me as a grade-school student, flipping through the few outdated motorcycle books on the shelf of the local public library, staring longingly, curiously at black-and-white images of amazing machines that wizards built in a far-off fantasy land called England. Thirty-five years later, many of those bikes still only existed as memories of blurry halftones in old books. Until last Wednesday, that is.