On previous occasions, we have commented on the tendency to locate impressive museums in nondescript industrial warehouses (see hidden treasures). In the UK, the equivalent is a nondescript country road in the middle of nowhere. In this case, the middle of the New Forest in southwest England. There, near the town of New Milton, you will find the Sammy Miller Museum. Sammy Miller is a famed British motorcycle racer on dirt tracks, grass tracks, trails, and road racing! Something that would never be possible today. He also started a successful business producing racing parts bearing his name. For his efforts, he is an AMA Hall of Famer and has been awarded an MBE.
What started as a small collection of his own former racing bikes, developed into a much larger world-class collection of machines that is among the most impressive that I have seen. There are over 350 motorcycles in the collection, and although they span the globe, the vast majority are British. They also span over 90 years beginning with the early 1900s, but the vast majority are from 1910 to 1970. There are several broad distinguishing features in this museum. The first is the number of extremely rare machines. There is a surprising number where the placard reads “The only one known to exist”, or “One of two existing. The other is in the factory museum”. These are marques I was never even aware of, much less seen. It is a reminder that there were hundreds of British manufacturers that were around for a few years but did not make it. The innovative (if ultimately impractical) ideas for valve actuation, levers, and controls, engine layouts, etc are fascinating. The second unique facet is the presence of a disassembled engine right below or next to the assembled motorcycle. It is incredible to see thimble-sized pistons, and attempts at overhead cams, going back well before they were in routine production. It is also incredible that the museum could find a second engine for 100-year-old machines where only 30 were made in the first place!
The motorcycles themselves are obviously the stars of the show. The staff suggested a route through the museum, and we followed it. You don’t get 10 feet before you are stopped in front of a 1902 Bouton engine, a Clamil sprung wheel hub from the early 1960s, and a cutaway of a BMW R engine and a K engine. If you get beyond that, you can view several great examples of Ariels, including a Golden Arrow. There is also a magnificent 1929 Scott Pullin, which was probably my favorite motorcycle in the museum for its styling. Off to the side on the first floor, there are several rooms dedicated to a theme or a few marques. One contains a number of Vincents. Most think of Vincent as a producer of high-end sporting machines, but the 1953 Vincent Firefly on display was a 50cc two-stroke moped that cruised along at 20 mph! For someone with minimal knowledge of British bikes, it seems like there are innumerable marques that I was encountering for the first time, or had only seen mentioned in books. NUT (Newcastle Upon Tyne), Rex Acme, Haythorn, Ratier, etc.
Other special rooms include the Norton room, a tribute in examples, to the rich storied history of the marque. My favorite in there was the F 350 racer with oil in frame, which was unfortunately never raced. However, many examples from military machines to a rotary were on display. It was easily the best quality display of Nortons that I have seen. Sammy Miller was a racer, and the racing room was as impressive as his racing records. Win after win, after win on many different machines. Highlights once again include a 1954 BMW RS54 Rennsport, and an NSU Sportmax (see Of silver dolphins and blue whales). Regular readers will know that when we encounter a place as rich as this museum, describing it in detail in words is not adequate. Even pointing out the highlights leads to an impossible mission, as there are too many notable items to fit within our typical format. To give you some indication, the museum publishes a book that captures a good chunk of the collection. Even so, you would need to experience the museum to get a good sense of how superbly they have fit that many rare and special motorcycles, and memorabilia into a compact space. Brilliant.