Words & Pics: Ian Falloon
According to Ian Falloon, the National Motor Museum at Birdwood, SA, takes an appealingly different approach to displaying its impressive motorcycle collection…
The National Motor Museum at Birdwood in South Australia is special because it can’t be dismissed as “just another motorbike museum”. This museum values portraying the history of motorcycling in Australia above showing a pristine collection of perfectly restored motorcycles in a sanitised setting. Its focus is on preserving that history rather than recreating it. For example, Birdwood gives pride of place to a genuine ‘barn find’ 1937 Norton ES2 with Dusting sidecar, instead of honouring a glistening restored classic. And one of the most impressive exhibits is a recreation of a 1920s Australian country garage, complete with patina and memorabilia.
The museum was established in 1964 in the then derelict steam-operated flour mill built in the 1850s. It might have faded into oblivion, its collection dispersed, but for the Dunstan State Government’s purchase of the museum in 1976. More recently it has become the National Motor Museum, concentrating on preserving Australia’s motor transport history. As such there is a concentration on early vehicles, and you would be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive collection of pre-war motorcycles anywhere.
Although there are cars and trucks also on display, the museum’s display clearly demonstrates the dominant role of motorcycles over cars in the early 20th century. As only the wealthy could enjoy the luxury of four-wheeled travel, there were many more motorcycles than cars on Australian roads until 1910.
The oldest motorcycle on display is a Belgian Minerva of 1904. At a time when motorcycles were very much bicycles with an engine attached, Minerva was primarily an engine manufacturer. In addition to building complete motorcycles it supplied engines to British manufacturers such as Triumph, BSA and Royal Enfield.
As in the US, the introduction of the Model T Ford changed the motoring landscape in Australia. By 1915 almost half the cars in Australia were Model T Fords and during the 1920s more and more Australians began to own cars. But motorcycles were still a less costly option, and with preferential tariffs for British vehicles British motorcycles became extremely popular. With a sidecar attached a motorcycle was a realistic alternative to a basic car and there is a wide and eclectic display of British motorcycles of this era. This not only includes the familiar names of Triumph, Norton, AJS and Matchless, but also the lesserknown Rudge, Rex Acme, Levis and Coventry Eagle. Even a rarity such as the 1921 German 75cc two-stroke Orionette has survived.
However, despite preferential tariffs, American Indian motorcycles built up an enviable reputation in Australia. Indians not only set record-breaking runs between capital cities but the large-capacity V-twins proved eminently suited to Australian conditions. Excelsior and Harley-Davidson motorcycles were also extremely popular during the 1920s, not only the Harley Model J V-twins but also the BA 350cc single and WJ 550cc sport twin. The 1920s also saw the establishment of motorcycle speedway racing around an oval track, this Australian sport soon proving popular worldwide.
One interesting feature following the end of World War I was the growth of Australian car manufacturers and coachbuilders, and a few entrepreneurial enthusiasts attempted motorcycle manufacture. Between 1900 and 1975 over 30 different manufacturers produced motorcycles in Australia, including Elliot, Healing, Lewis, Malvern Star and Tilbrook. One of the rarest is the Waratah, produced by the Williams Brothers in Sydney between 1914 and the mid-1950s. The Waratah used predominately British Villiers twostroke engines, but in the latter years were rebadged Excelsior motorcycles. In 1949 Rex Tilbrook of Adelaide decided to build a motorcycle using a 125cc Villiers two-stroke engine and gearbox. As he already had a business building sidecars, Tillbrook reasoned that racing would provide the most publicity. Throughout the 1950s Tillbrook raced and developed three versions, eventually producing his own rotary-valve four-stroke engine. Ridden by Alan Wallis, the Tillbrook won the South Australian 125cc Championship between 1957-59. The only remaining functional example is here at Birdwood.
One of the last Australian-built motorcycles was the Alron off-road racer of 1973. Designed and built in Perth by Al Hayes and Ron Lyon, these were initially derived from British Sprite Scramblers. Later versions were fitted with Spanish Ossa engines but by the mid-1970s the expensive handbuilt Alron simply couldn’t compete with the new Japanese imports.
After the buoyant decade of the 1920s, motorcycling suffered during the Depression-hit 1930s. But this didn’t deter enthusiasm for motorcycling and competition.
One of the more significant displays celebrates female Irish dirt track racer Fay Taylour, an unusual woman for her time as she chose a career as a motorcycle racer and never married. After learning to drive a car when she was 12, Taylour began riding motorcycles while still at school. Her first motorcycle was purchased with a prize she won at school for domestic science and her 28in-wheel dirt track motorcycle ridden in Australia is on display. Taylour switched from racing motorcycles to cars in 1931 and lived a colourful life until her death in 1983. Interned as a fascist sympathiser during the World War II, she still raced a 500cc Cooper during the 1950s.
Alongside the usual Vincent, Velocette, BSA, Manx Norton, Harley and Indian suspects, the 1940s is strongly represented by a display of wartime motorcycles, many later enjoying a long life in civilian use. As expected, moving on to the 1950s sees a strong representation of British motorcycles. Although motorcycle sales declined during this decade as cars became more affordable, Australia became Britain’s largest export market for bikes. By the 1960s the Japanese were beginning to assert themselves but only some of the more unusual Japanese machines are featured, such as the shaft-drive Lilac. This decade finds motorcycles that were more significant to Australian history, such as Kel Carruther’s worldchampionship- winning Benelli four, and a 1965 BMW R60/2 that had spent several years riding around the world. With a gradual proliferation of motorcycles appearing during the 1970s, there is only a small selection on offer, the standout a 1971 Norton Commando production racer. The 1970s also concentrates on the new generation of dirt bikes such as the Honda Elsinore.
As we move into more recent times the emphasis changes to some motorcycles of significance in Australian history, notably John Vevers’ BP Bullet streamliner built to capture the world land speed record at the Lake Gairdner trials in March, 1991. Powered by twin supercharged 1000cc Yamaha fours and designed to reach more than 550km/h, it was fitted with a parachute braking system – but the attempt was cancelled due to severe weather conditions at the time.
The most recent exhibit is the KTM of David Schwarz that finished 43rd out of 188 starters in the 2012 Dakar.
Although this collection is designed to chronicle the growth of motorcycling in Australia until the present day, the emphasis is very much on the pre-war era. Here the display is extremely comprehensive. You won’t see much exotica from more recent times, but if your interest lies in early motorcycles, generally in original, unrestored condition, the National Motorcycle Museum in Birdwood is a ‘must see’.
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