Behind Bars - Australia's National Motorcycle Museum


In a big tin hut on a flat lot, down a long driveway off a quiet street in a sleepy little town, resides a publicly named, privately owned collection of more motorcycles that you've never seen than anywhere in your hemisphere. I refer, of course, to the National Motorcycle Museum in Nabiac, an otherwise undistinguished swelling in the artery of Highway 1, New South Wales, Australia. Or, to better frame that for you, 28 kilometers south of Taree.

You won't find Guggenheim-style displays here, no carefully planned lighting. The bikes are jammed in row by row, so tightly packed and seemingly endless that married attendants Steve and Betty never really finish cleaning up. According to Steve, a former speedway racer, it's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge: They start at one end and when they get to the other, they start dusting and sweeping again from the beginning.

I asked how long it would take to go through. Steve raised an eyebrow scarred by mid-century dirt clods.

"There are 780 bikes in there, mate."

O, brave new hemisphere, that has such bikes in it! Twelve bucks AUD (tax included) buys entrée to all kinds of bikes we carport folk can't afford to keep around our petting zoos: Matchless G50s, Krauser-headed and framed BMW endurance racers, a louche yet luscious Ner-A-Car. But these are the least of them.

It's a universal and triumphant, catholic buffet of every brand you've heard of and many, many more. Owner Brian Kelleher, 61, still races (several of his vintage racers are on display under a colorful flock of ceiling-hung leathers) but is far from fixated on competition bikes.

Nor does he stop at today's collectible vintiques. He proudly exhibits unrestored, sling-nosed, candy-floss Honda kit choppers; plebeian, disc-wheeled mini-bikes; a child-sized promotional sidecar racer and a pile of knackered dirtbikes still crusty with dried mud-including a '77 Yamaha IT175 identical to the one that nearly took my leg, so cute I wanted to tuck it into my riding gear and sneak it home. Six feet from a Britten poster signed by John himself is a bored-out BMW R80GS sporting a for-real dually rear end, emblazoned "Bush Pig."

Still yawning? Okay ... but wait, as a hundred late-night commercials insist, there's more. The grain-like fields of Excelsior, BSA, Calthorpe, AJS, Triumph, Yamaha and Ducati bikes are joined by a legion of the unexpected. Brands and models I'd never heard of, let alone seen, include Francis Barnett (known as the "Fanny B"), the James "Captain," Oz's own Waratah, a 499cc supercharged two-stroke Dunelt, and fully two of the six or eight Byron Specials ever built-in Australia, natch.

In another room, the list grows to include a Marusho Lilac longitudinal V-twin (praised as "the weight of a triple with the power of a single"), DKW-knockoff Minsk Wildcat, Bocxca (pronounced "vósh-kod") and a rusty Planeta bestridden by a mannequin in dirty jeans.

Somewhere between Steve's speedway bike and the Suzuki DR350 on semi-permanent loan from a German tourist until he or a family member shows up to ride the outback again, I tumbled to the nature of Kelleher's obsession. Every bike in his harem-and every peeling sticker, dingy helmet and antique rally pin-tells a story.

Tragedy is writ spangled across the wall memorializing Dale Buggins, a stunting prodigy who out-jumped Evel Knievel at age 17 before succumbing to his own demons three years later. Dale would have been 50 next year-old enough to get the joke behind it all.

Quiet triumph is pasted across the grungy brownish fairing of a Yamaha Virago ridden by a feisty Aussie lady across every continent but Antarctica. That bike's on loan, so don't count her out of a polar tour someday.

Best of all, it's got a pile of my own personal stories in it.

"Look, sweetie! It's..."

"Another bike you used to own?"

Yours, mine and some we've never even heard of. A whole world of stories, only half a world away.