Classics: The National Motorcycle Museum

Just one year after the devastating fire, classic bikes are back on show, says Tim Luckhurst
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When Colin Wall arrived for work on 17 September 2003, he was distraught. "I was totally broken up. It was like the Blitz. I cried like a baby. Then Roy said 'There's no room for sentiment. We just start again.' And we did." Mr Wall is in charge of restoration at the National Motorcycle Museum, of which Roy Richards is the owner. On the night of 16 September 2003, a cigarette end, tossed into a heap of air-conditioning filters, burned the building to the ground.

When Colin Wall arrived for work on 17 September 2003, he was distraught. "I was totally broken up. It was like the Blitz. I cried like a baby. Then Roy said 'There's no room for sentiment. We just start again.' And we did." Mr Wall is in charge of restoration at the National Motorcycle Museum, of which Roy Richards is the owner. On the night of 16 September 2003, a cigarette end, tossed into a heap of air-conditioning filters, burned the building to the ground.

Of the 800 classic British motorcycles on display, 397 were saved. Mr Richards says, "We rolled them into the car park while the flames were licking around Hall 2. A couple of brave chaps went in to Hall 3 to rescue really important machines, but the record-breakers, the race bikes and bikes that set land-speed records, were in Hall 5."

Pictures taken after the blaze show the Triumph race bike Slippery Sam, winner of five consecutive TT races between 1971 and 1975, reduced to a pile of scorched and twisted metal. The same fate befell the 1955 Triumph Streamliner, on which Jack Wilson of Dallas reached 214mph on Bonneville Salt Flats in September 1955.

Fourteen months after the blaze, Slippery Sam and the Streamliner are back on display in showroom condition. "We were able to persuade certain elderly gentlemen to come out of retirement to help us," Mr Richards explains.

One was Arthur Jakeman, a mechanic who joined Triumph in 1946 and worked on British racing motorcycles from 1950 to 1995. Mr Wall says: "The people who really know what they are doing are in their 70s and 80s. A lot of the skills are dying." Inside the restored museum, amid sparkling examples of Ariel, Brough, BSA, Douglas, Enfield, Frances-Barnett, James, Matchless, Norton, Triumph, Sunbeam and Velocette motorcycles, it is easy to imagine the British Empire intact, the Goon Show playing on the Home Service.

Mr Richards' lovingly re-assembled collection celebrates not only the machinery but the men who made it and the England in which they lived. A single modern motorcycle, the Triumph Rocket III, stands testament to the revival of a great British marque. Everything else is calculated to provoke nostalgia. The museum is a festival of craftsmanship, chrome and plucky men risking their necks to lap Mallory Park, Bray Hill or Silverstone at lunatic pace.

To restore it, Mr Richards even offered kitchen staff and employees at the conference centre work on the project. Many agreed. "We are bloody proud of what's been done," he said. "People said it would take two and a half years. We did the work in 11 months... Thirty years of my life went up in smoke in that fire. [I spent] years of week-in-week-out scouring the country for wrecks to restore." The original moulds for the cigar-shaped faring that allowed Streamliner to set a land-speed record were found as far away as Dallas, Texas, by the mechanics who built it.

There are 650 motorcycles on display this month. Ninety have been fully restored and 160 have been added to the collection. The result is a glorious reminder of the time when policemen across the world rode Ariel Square 4s and DMW (Dawson's Motor Works) was as famous a name as BMW.

The National Motorcycle Museum isin Bickenhill, near Solihull, West Midlands, 0121-704 2784

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