Through the Back Pages of Motorcycle History
Every day Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin had planned a media introduction of the exhibit “Life and Times of the Motorcycle,” I was lying, chest shaved, on a cold piece of stainless steel at Foothills Hospital in Calgary, in the middle of an emergency triple bypass. Needless to say, I missed the tour.
When I arrived two months later in late July, I was met by RAM’s marketing promotions coordinator Jenny Baker and design services coordinator Dave Ponech who together led me through a private tour of the museum that brought this amazing showcase of unique motorcycles to western Canadians.
Reynolds-Alberta Museum says Life and Times is the “most ambitious feature exhibition” ever to be to be presented here. Its purpose is to “Explore the history and impact of motorcycling from 1900 to the present,” through the presentation of more than 150 motorcycles.
More than just simple static displays of mounted iron and rubber, the exhibit features some 14 separate topics including: Origins of the Motorcycle, Pioneers, Motorcycles at Work, Customizing, Racing, Off-Road, Advertising Through the Century, Fashion, and “My First Bike.”
It’s a whole multi-media package that includes audio-visual presentations, special event weekends, a “museum quality” restoration of a vintage motorcycle and even a live theatre show.
WHEN REYNOLDS SAYS THAT IT’S “WORLD CLASS,” LET ME TELL YOU … that isn’t stretching the truth! Being a motorhead, I’ve been to several famous museums; the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles comes naturally to mind. Other than somewhat subdued lighting, RAM is every bit as good, and with this two-season display of nearly 150 significant motorcycles, surges ahead big time if you’re a bike enthusiast. In addition, they have a tremendous collection of cars, trucks, agricultural equipment, and a vintage aircraft display rivaling the national museums in Ottawa. The pieces are displayed with great aesthetics and forethought. A huge entrance foyer greets you with a virtual silent roar of riderless bikes led by a handshift 1948 Indian Chief on loan from Joel Pollard of Calgary. The immaculate 74-cubic inch V-Twin dominates the “roadway” leading a pack that includes the likes of Triumph’s legendary Craig Vetter- designed X 75 Hurricane; a gorgeous green Panther Redwing sloper single, Honda’s mighty “in your face” CBX, and even Lord Hesketh’s famous attempt to build a modern classic Gentleman’s Express, the V1000.
What grabbed my attention during our leisurely guided walkthrough—and the single major difference to my eyes between this display and the one previous—was the obvious planning that went into the integration of these bikes with the museum proper. Reynolds-Alberta Museum ’s last attempt, although fabulous, placed the motorcycles in a wing of the building isolated from everything else, leading riders to bypass many of the appealing permanent pieces. By creating a roadway to follow, and through strategic placement of the bikes and assorted memorabilia, this time ‘round there is a much broader view of what Reynolds has to offer. Without a doubt, it’s a veritable feast for your eyes and emotions.
This current project took two years to pull off. Dave and Jenny said that Reynolds had the desire and will to smash the barriers during Alberta’s Centennial anniversary year. They had been looking for a splash and what lends itself better to the uniqueness of RAM than motorcycles? Deciding which motorcycles to feature, finding them, contacting loaner donors and transporting the bikes—not to mention the effort put into the building of the fixtures and the physical set up—was a heroic effort from the small museum staff, the selection committee, and countless volunteers.
Especially when you consider that when you place ten motorcyclists in a room, and give them a question to ponder, there are likely to be eleven opinions. The end result is worth a ride from Saint John’s Newfoundland to experience. Be sure to pick up a copy of the official bible of the display titled appropriately, Life and Times of the Motorcycle. The John Dean catalogue photos are magnificent! There were so many people who significantly contributed to bringing this together it would be impossible to list them all. But as a long time motorcycle enthusiast, let me thank them all on your behalf.
Surprisingly, most of the machines on loan came from local owners. Certainly the spirit of early western Canadians and their drive to explore and settle an untamed land can still be seen in our motorcycle enthusiasts. Isn’t it thrilling to find that your neighbour has a vintage bike parked in his or her basement?
Like all motorcyclists throughout the century, you will have an opinion, good or bad, concerning the Rune’s styling. My opinion? While visually stunning, it’s no Bonneville!
RAM is adding some refinements to the exhibit as we speak. You’ll find audio and visual special effects and all motorcycles, even the legendary 1929 Brough Superior from the Fred Deeley collection, within touching distance. (Don’t!) The Brough was immortalized by none other than T.E. Lawrence, an English gentleman adventurer who organized the Arab tribes in harassing the Turks during the First World War.
Deeleys has contributed the lion’s share of the machines on display but many, like the 2000 Honda XR650R Paris-Dakar rally bike, came from private owner/enthusiasts, like Lawrence Hacking of Georgetown, Ontario.
SOME OF MY OWN MOTORCYCLE COLLECTION FAVOURITES? WHERE TO BEGIN?
Perhaps the 1948 Ariel Red Hunter VG. This is basic, single-cylindered, classic transportation from the pre- and immediate post-war years. Or perhaps Ron Trettler’s 1960 Honda Super Cub, a bike you met the “nicest people on.” A later version of which I have sitting in my own garage. My knees knocked at the sight of the hand-painted, Silver Smoke 1975 BMW R90S that belongs to Calgary’s Doug MacRae. It’s a sweetheart! The ’52 Harley Hydra Glide with its bicycle pedal kick starter was the bike I drooled over at the Edmonton Public Library when I was a boy scouring the only motorcycle reading I could find; it was under “M” in the World Book Encyclopaedia.
If you read about my travels to Spain a few years back, (See, “Warm Spring in Iberia,” Dec. 2002) then you’ll know that, even unrestored, Bob Wylie’s ’67 Metralla had my newly improved heart rate pumping hard. I had to sit down for five minutes after spotting that. In fact I was actually thinking that Bob might not miss the bike if I were to spirit it out the doors.
And of course my own first bike, Honda’s Super 90—tiny, horizontal cylinder, four-speeds and SOHC. These were letters I didn’t even know the meaning of back in 1966. That little thing meant absolute freedom for a misunderstood Hungarian refugee kid. It’s from Byron Reynold’s private collection.
Here’s the deal. You find your way to the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta before Sept. 17, 2006 and I absolutely guarantee that long-forgotten memories stored away in the back corners of your brain will be stirred and touch emotions that only motorcycles can reach. Don’t be surprised if you find a tear trickling down a cheek or your lips turning into a stupid grin. That’s what this Life and Times of the Motorcycle did for me. After all is said and done, aren’t they really our Life and Times?
If you get a chance, ask Steve Williams to tell you the story of Mable.
This is a archived story. For recent information about the Reynolds-Alberta Museum and the motorcycle exhibit visit: https://reynoldsmuseum.ca/our-collection
By Frank Simon Canadian Biker #216