Harold Daniell's 1932 Racing International Norton after an extensive restoration. Courtesy National Motorcycle Museum.
Grabbing a notebook and squeezing into some leathers, Joe Norman made his way to Solihull to see the newly restored National Motorcycle Museum.
The National Motorcycle Museum, which was gutted by a devastating fire just over a year ago, has re-opened.
Located near Birmingham’s NEC in Solihull, the museum was home to over 800 historic motorbikes before last September’s fire, but after 15-months of hard work its £20m restoration is complete.
The driving force behind this remarkable rebirth is owner Roy Richards. "My initial reaction was ‘what on earth are we going to do?’ 35 years of my life had gone up in smoke, but we’ve got it back," he told the 24 Hour Museum.
"Its amazing what you can do if you try hard enough. We set ourselves a target of reopening at the start of December and we’ve achieved it."
It's hard to believe this is the same bike - the Norton among the ashes after the fire was put out. Courtesy National Motorcyle Museum.
Not everyone was convinced the December deadline was possible, including Development Manager Nick Hartland.
"I have to say I had my doubts as to whether we could do it, I think everybody did," said Nick.
"The only people who thought we could do it were Roy Richards and Martin Byrne, who’s the brains behind the rebuilding," he added. "It’s all come together in the last couple of weeks, even the structural engineer was telling the boss, ‘you’ll never be ready’."
It’s the largest motorcycle museum in the world and attracts 250,000 visitors a year. The fire destroyed three of its five halls, with half of its bikes being damaged.
"We had 800 bikes before the fire and 400 were damaged to varying degrees," recalled Mr. Hartland.
"Since then 90 of them have been restored and returned. We’ve been able to replace some with new acquisitions, but all the one-off historic bikes that were damaged will be restored."
The newly restored Slippery Sam was returned to the museum in mid-September, a year after it was nearly detroyed by the fire. Courtesy National Motorcyle Museum.
The museum now has a collection of 650 bikes and aims to be back up to 800 by 2007.
The rebuild started in January with many of the museum’s staff helping out: "The reconstruction has been undertaken by the museum itself with no outside main contractor," said Mr Hartland.
"We employ about 50 people, mainly in catering and admin, and they worked as labourers, fork lift drivers or looking after goods inwards, alongside specialist subcontractors."
One of those employees was Head Banqueting Waiter Miguel Pinto, who became an electrician’s mate.
"A great sense of team spirit came over us all and even though we just wanted normality back we kept up our spirits and just got on with things," he said.
The Slippery Sam before the restoration. Courtesy National Motorcyle Museum.
"Even when the novelty of doing different jobs began to wear thin the thought of the museum being back to normal and the return to our normal daily routines kept us going."
The fire, on September 16 2003, was started by a discarded cigarette end, which resulted in a pile of air conditioning filters and cardboard boxes catching fire, the blaze then took hold rapidly and the 120 fire-fighters who attended could only limit the damage. Not surprisingly the restoration includes a new £1.2m sprinkler system.
All of the museum, even the parts unaffected by the fire, has been given an overhaul, with the results getting the thumbs up from bike enthusiasts.
Thomasina Gillespie travelled up from Watford for the opening: "We were here before the fire and to be back here now and to see it open again is amazing."
Her husband Fred was also thrilled to be back: "When I saw the photos of how badly it had been burnt down I was devastated, it was a national treasure," he said. "But it’s back from the dead and that’s amazing, it’s excellent."