Viva España, and the Spanish Motorcycle Industry | CRANKED

A Museum of Strange and Wonderful Motorcycles In Barcelona, Spain

Bikes like this charming post-war Derbi are typical of what you’ll see at Barcelona’s Museu Moto: classic, slightly quirky, utterly unfamiliar to American eyes.©Motorcyclist

Turn off La Rambla and the walls close in while the blue sky rises to form narrow, geometric lanes. Doorways emit the aroma of meaty leather goods: purses and belts that seem cured, not tanned. Cigarette smoke is everywhere, along with the sound of shattering glass as last night’s bottles crash into trash bins. Befuddled tourists step over wooden thresholds trimmed with brass strips worn smooth by centuries of commerce. Countless cobbles slope inward toward the alleyway groin, punctuated occasionally with wrought-iron drain grates that carry away the busy city’s never-ending seep.

This is Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, a claustrophobic, 1,000-year-old warren that also contains a small, medieval motorcycle museum, The Museu Moto Barcelona, ensconced on the ground floor of the old Sant Felip Neri Convent. Nuns on motorcycles—talk about an irresistible juxtaposition.

For most of the last century, it seems like Spain took the wrong path at every historical crossroad. Yet through all the constant turmoil, Spain’s fanatical motorcycle industry, numbering well more than 80 different marques from Aleu to Villalbi, just kept on pumping out bikes. And when the Iberian brands weren’t busy designing their own motorcycles, they stayed occupied building licensed copies of Ducatis, Moto Guzzis, Hondas, and Yamahas.

It’s easy to walk past the Museu’s discreet glass entrance, a black arch holding tons of stone overhead. Inside, the Museu is divided into three display rooms all connected by a long, L-shaped hallway. A clockwise stroll begins with Spain’s earliest motorcycles, charmingly crude machines with crankcase castings so rough you’d think the foundry used coarse gravel instead of sand.

The tail end of Franco’s dictatorship corresponded with the golden years of Spanish motorcycle racing, when brands like Derbi, practically unknown in the US, ruled the 50cc, 80cc, and 125cc GP classes in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Spanish motocross bikes—which were slightly better known on our shores—won many races too, and Museu Moto catalogs this world-beating era completely.

"Nuns on motorcycles—talk about an irresistible juxtaposition."

More interesting to me, however, are the dozens of other Iberian motorcycle manufacturers who were not so successful—bikes that never won races and were never sold in the US but that are still fascinating, like the Arisco twin-crank roadracers. How did we miss out on an entire food chain of Latin moto technology?

Good luck learning much about these bikes, however. The Museu’s displays would benefit greatly from a bit more information. Horsepower or performance figures of any sort would be nice, and the bikes are obscure enough that an impromptu smartphone search turns up little.

Of the “Big Three” Spanish brands that achieved any notoriety in the US—Ossa, Bultaco, and Montessa—only Ossa survives today. Spain has not given up on motorcycle production, however. Newer Spanish makes such as Gas Gas, Beta, and Sherco coexist happily alongside Rieju and Derbi, all strange and wonderful motorcycles still built and ridden largely under our American radar.

Re-emerging into the mazelike Gothic Quarter it can be hard to tell where the Museu Moto ends and real life begins. Two-stroke scooters buzz down every street. This city of 4.5 million people runs on premix, baby. Tiny, 50cc Supermotards park beside classically beautiful, daily ridden Metrallas. You’ll be disoriented, directionless, maybe even pickpocketed, but if you’re a motorcycle nut it’s impossible not to fall in love with Barcelona.