Museum Classics: Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum



The AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum, the motorcycle museum of the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), is home to a display of biographies and motorcycles of AMA Hall of Fame members and rotating displays of historic machines.  Located in Pickerington, Ohio, outside of Columbus, the museum has the access and influence to obtain some of the most noteworthy historic bikes for its permanent collection and on loan.  It displays an array of machines ranging from early motorcycles to noteworthy race bikes to milestone machines of numerous types, offering something for almost every aspect of the motorcycle enthusiast world.  The following is a sample of only a small fraction of the bikes on display.

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The museum’s exhibits begin with a local Ohio-made reproduction of a pioneering gasoline powered two wheeled vehicle, the Reitwagen (“riding car”) built by Gottlieb Daimler in 1885 as a test bed for one of his early internal combustion engines.  A primitive motorcycle with a wood frame, rigidly mounted wood wheels with thin rubber strips for tires, a steering tiller, outrigger wheels, and a simple upside-down-U-shaped saddle, it looks like a steampunk device for torturing the male anatomy more than it does a rideable motorcycle.

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Some century old motorcycles line the outer glass walls of the museum.  This Cleveland with its bicycle-like frame with simple front suspension, single cylinder engine, and fuel tank hung from the upper frame tube looks like something that a high school shop class could cobble together from an old bicycle and junk sitting in corners of the shop, but it was more complicated than it appears.  It appears to be the first model Cleveland introduced in 1915, which had a 220cc two-stroke single cylinder engine, a two speed transmission, and chain drive.  An unusual feature is that it had a longitudinal crankshaft, requiring a worm drive to turn the axis of rotation 90 degrees to the transmission.

Another unusual feature is that this Cleveland appears already to have had a mostly modern control layout, with a foot shift, hand clutch (by the long metal lever on the rider’s left – the sole handlebar control appears to be a spark advance lever), and a pedal for the rear wheel brake.  This layout became the norm in Europe by the 1930s, but did not become common in the U.S. market until after the Second World War.  A rider with experience only on modern motorcycles probably could swing a leg over this classic and ride away almost immediately, albeit very slowly.

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A well-accessorized early Triumph resides near the Cleveland.  It had no plaque identifying it, and I do not know enough early Triumph history to identify it precisely, but it is from 1914 or earlier based on it having pedals as well as an engine – a feature eliminated in the 1915 Model H, the first Triumph that was a true motorcycle rather than a moped by modern standards.  This machine has both engine final drive by belt to a large diameter sprocket and bicycle pedal drive by chain to a smaller sprocket.  With its well padded seat, rear cargo rack, and squeeze bulb horn, it looks ready for a carefree pre-Great War jaunt through the streets of London or down English country lanes.

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One of the earliest Harley-Davidsons in the museum is a relatively recent machine, this 1926 Model BA “Peashooter.”  It was a 21 cubic inch (350cc) single cylinder machine, created in response to a new AMA 21 cubic inch racing class and named for the popping noises made by the exhaust of race models.  It was sold mostly overseas, since it was small by American standards but a normal mid-displacement machine in Europe.  The museum displays it as an example of Harley-Davidson’s early focus on exports, equipped with a speedometer marked in kilometers per hour and modifications to the controls to suit European rider preferences.

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A skirted fender Indian Chief and an ACE Four would stand out in any motorcycle collection in the world, but in this one, they are almost mundane and are tucked away in a quiet corner.

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Historic competition bikes are a major focus of the museum, and the earliest on display is this 1914 Harley-Davison Model 11K factory race bike, often called the “pocket valve” racer for its inlet over exhaust F-head valve layout.  It was one of the earliest dirt track and board track racers, and it sold for $1,500 – three times the $500 price of a Ford Model T Runabout in 1914.

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One of the all-time classic competition bikes, the Manx Norton, is well represented with this 1949, with a 495cc four stroke single with bronze/aluminum head, “Garden Gate” plunger frame, and “Road Holder” fork.  This bike was part of a 1-2-3 Manx Norton sweep at the Daytona 200 in 1949, but curiously, it is unknown which bike finished in which place, because there are no records of which bike belonged to each of Norton’s three works riders.

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This 1961 Honda RC161 is labeled “The Bike That Put Honda On The Racing Map,” and it is a well-deserved title.  Honda first ventured into international competition in 1959, with an entry in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, and the RC161 debuted in 1960 and produced Honda’s first big victories.  A 250cc four stroke four cylinder with 16 valves, the RC161 also set the pattern for Honda’s future four cylinder road bikes that established Japanese dominance over the U.S. motorcycle market during the 1970s.

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Harley-Davidson had limited success on racetracks (other than dirt tracks) with its relatively heavy and slow machines, but in the hands of Cal Rayborn, its iron-barreled XR750 became a world-beater.  A winner of 11 AMA National events in seven years, he then went to the 1972 Trans-Atlantic Match Races in the U.K. to represent the U.S. in a match between the best riders from each country.  In a six race series, he won three and finished second in the other three.  Unfortunately, he died the next year in New Zealand in a crash on a Suzuki, when not competing on a Harley-Davidson for the first time.  This XR750 is the one that he rode in the 1972 TransAtlantic Match Races.

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The juxtaposition just now of Honda and Harley-Davidson, with the latter in the normally Japanese territory of road racing, is a good segue to mentioning the prominence of Honda in the museum and describing a display of Honda movement into a normally Harley-Davidson territory of motorsport.  Being a giant in its own right and with its U.S. factory in Marysville, Ohio only 50 miles away, Honda has a major presence in the AMA Hall of Fame Museum, with a large display about Honda’s Ohio factory and an entire section about Honda and Harley-Davidson dueling on dirt tracks.  This 1983 Honda RS750 dirt track racer with its 750cc air cooled V-twin was used by Bubba Shobert to win three consecutive championships from 1985 to 1987.  It emulated the basic layout of the Harley-Davidson XR750 with the addition of overhead cams and four valve cylinder heads in place of the XR750’s pushrods and two valve heads.

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Although Honda had more advanced engineering, Harley-Davidson continued to produce successful dirt track racers, the most successful of which was this XR750.  It was the race bike of Scott Parker, the most successful dirt track rider with nine championships and 84 wins in 21 years, and his tuner Bill Werner.  Originally intended for Harley-Davidson’s own museum, it instead ended up being given as a retirement gift to Werner, who loaned it to the AMA Hall of Fame Museum

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The most famous enduro bike and Husqvarna of all time may be the 1971 Husqvarna 400 Cross that Malcolm Smith rode in On Any Sunday.  Among well-remembered movie motorcycles, it rivals Peter Fonda’s “Captain America” bike in Easy Rider and Arnold Schwarzneggar’s Fat Boy in Terminator 2.  This bike is it, loaned to the museum by Malcolm Smith.

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Speaking of enduros and Terminator 2, this bike is an enduro prominently featured in it.  It looks like a Kawasaki KZ1000P police model but is actually a Honda XR500 enduro modified to look like one, with extra dummy exhaust pipes and a downsized police fairing, saddlebags, and other accessories.  You saw it as the police motorcycle that the liquid metal Terminator stole and rode in Terminator 2.  Using a smaller and lighter enduro-based motorcycle was necessary to enable Arnold’s pursuer to ride his motorcycle up a staircase and perform other stunts more handily.

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The most famous show business motorcyclist of all time was Evel Knievel, and the museum has one of his Harley-Davidson XR750 stunt bikes on display.  The museum appears to have prepared the display for period-authentic extensive oil leaks, since Evel Knievel’s Harleys were products of the era of AMF ownership

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The many contributions of Craig Vetter to the motorcycle industry are prominently displayed.  The X75 Hurricane designed in 1969 for BSA’s U.S. importer as a styling exercise for the new BSA Rocket 3, one of his most famous creations, is one.  It ended up being a one-off, since the BSA name disappeared by the 1973 introduction of the Rocket 3, which ended up as the Triumph Trident, with the X75 Hurricane produced in limited numbers as a Triumph.  A Vetter Windjammer fairing, an equally or more famous Vetter design, is visible behind the X75.

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Another Vetter-designed sporting machine on display is this 1980 Mystery Ship.  Designed as a streetable road racer based on the Kawasaki KZ1000, it had a stiffened frame, laydown shocks, box section swingarm, Dymag wheels, rearset controls, and an angular fairing.  It was a forerunner of the modern sportbike, a fully faired super sport machine versus the earlier touring-oriented BMW R100RS.  Only 10 were built at a price of $9,995 each, compared to $3,500 for a standard KZ1000, each with its production number prominently displayed on its side.

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Ultra high fuel efficiency was another interest of Craig Vetter, and several Vetter-made or inspired high mileage bikes from 1980-85 are on display.  Vetter held a high mileage contest from 1980 to 1985 that produced winners ranging from a 98 mpg 1,000cc Harley-Davidson in 1980 to a 470 mpg fully faired special with a Honda XL125 motor in 1985.  This Vetter creation from 1982 used a 250cc Kawasaki single in a feet-forward design designed to slice through the air.  It appears to presage large-displacement, feet-forward scooters that entered the market two decades later, such as the Honda Silver Wing.

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This Vetter contest entry later achieved additional fame for its own coast to coast high mileage achievement.  Designed by Jerry Greer and Chuck Guy, it used a 185cc Yamaha engine and full enclosure, including a sliding canopy.  It made a California to New York run in eight days on less than 15 gallons of gas, averaging 196.5 mpg.

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After that digression from classic street and race bikes to 1980s hypermilers with odd bodywork, I will end with a more classic example of unconventional bodywork, this Velocette LE.  The LE, whose name was said to stand for “Little Engine,” was an innovative design introduced in 1948 that Velocette, renowned for its sporting single cylinder motorcycles, designed to serve as universal basic transportation.  Identical in purpose to the Honda Super Cub introduced a decade later, it had a far more advanced design.  The engine was an entirely new 149cc four stroke horizontally opposed twin, water cooled and rubber mounted, giving exceptional smoothness and quietness.  The drivetrain had a three speed gearbox with a hand shifter (usable by women in high heels, unlike a foot shifter), and low-maintenance shaft drive.  The frame was made of pressed steel instead of welded steel tubes, very stiff and lined with felt to quell vibrations.  Suspension was by telescopic forks in front and a coil sprung swingarm with adjustable hydraulic dampers in the rear, one of the most sophisticated systems in the world then.  The radical aluminum bodywork was only the icing on the LE’s mechanical cake.

The machine’s layout made it unusually easy to handle.  Its low center of gravity from the flat twin engine and light weight (260 pounds wet) were optimum for easy low speed handling.  Seat height was a low 28 inches, making the LE manageable for very short riders.

Rider comfort and convenience were highly advanced, so much so that they are infrequently surpassed over 60 years later.  Built-in leg shields for wind and splash protection, which also created warm air pockets heated by the projecting cylinders in the winter; extra-long footboards for flexible foot positioning; sprung seat for additional bump isolation; built-in saddlebag frames with quick release bags; and a glove compartment/toolbox with hinged cover in front of the fuel tank made the LE comfortable to ride and practical for everyday use commuting or shopping.  Full-dress tourers and many sport-tourers have equaled or exceeded these features, but nothing remotely in the size class of the LE has.

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The LE lasted until 1971 in three distinct Marks, but it never sold in the numbers Velocette had hoped.  More than half went to police forces in the U.K., which found them satisfactory for low speed urban patrolling and had high praise for its ease of handling, serviceability, and longevity.  The commercial market was less happy with the LE, though, finding it low powered and high priced.  The 149cc Mark 1 of 1948 produced 6 horsepower and a top speed of only 50 miles per hour, although with approximately 95 miles per gallon fuel consumption.   The 192cc Mark 2 of 1950 and Mark 3 of 1958 produced 8 horsepower and could struggle up to 60 miles per hour under optimum conditions.  Meanwhile, the sophisticated engineering led to a price of £126.00 for the Mark 1, far higher than the £76.00 price of the U.K.’s most popular commuter bike, the BSA Bantam with its 125cc two stroke single cylinder.  The LE ended up lasting for 23 years but being a dead end, a sophisticated and expensive design in a market segment dominated by simple single cylinder two strokes and then by the Honda Super Cub.

The Velocette LE is the most likely by far to be seen curbside on the street (if only in the U.K.) among the bikes shown here and the most impressive as well in my opinion.  The LE was a design from a clean sheet of paper and far in advance of anything in its class that already existed, all for the purpose of basic everyday transportation.  It was a commendable although not commercially successful effort by the British motorcycle industry, not generally known for being innovative after the Second World War, to advance the state of the art.  Along with the other machines listed here, it thoroughly deserves inclusion in a motorcycle hall of fame.