A visit to the Moto Museum in St. Louis is kind of like taking a trip around the world, if your sightseeing is focused on motorcycles.
The museum has 100 motorcycles on display, from sleek racers to sturdy dirt bikes, from brilliant colors to muted hues, from rickety remnants of a bygone era to more modern marvels of machinery. The 16,000-square-foot former printing company confines have five spacious galleries displaying motorcycles from North America, Eastern Europe (including the Soviet Union and Czech Republic), Italy, Great Britain and Western Europe (primarily Germany).
It is a mesmerizing cornucopia of two-wheeled motorized transportation.
"It’s fantastic. It’s definitely a treasure," said Alan Anderson of Edwardsville, IL, who was touring the museum recently with his son Owen, 5. "I love this place – it’s just beautiful. I could probably spend all day here if I didn’t have this guy tugging at me."
"Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, who has an extensive private collection of vintage cars and motorcycles, was similarly impressed. When the comedian visited in September 2007, five months after the museum opened, he wrote "The Best. Thanks" in the comment book the museum keeps.
The museum was opened by Steve Smith, who started his collection with a 1975 Pursang 250 cc dirt bike built by the Bultaco company in Barcelona, Spain. Smith bought the Pursang new to use in races. Like all the other motorcycles on display, the Pursang is accompanied with a sign explaining the bike’s history and how Smith acquired it.
"I rode this bike competitively in motocross races throughout the St. Louis area in the mid-70s, winning numerous times," he wrote. "After college, the bike sat in my basement and garage for over 20 years before I restored the bike to its original condition and made it the inaugural bike of my vintage collection."
Bultaco was founded by Francisco Bulto, who left a rival motorcycle manufacturer because he wanted to "participate in motorcycle competition." The Pursang models were lightweight with powerful engines, a recipe for racing success. Bultaco bikes won "numerous world championships" in off-road competitions.
Museum director Zach Smith, Steve Smith’s son, said his father wrote the text accompanying all the museum’s motorcycles.
"All of them have great stories," Zach Smith said.
Like the 1927 Bohmerland "Langtourenmodell" 600 cc, a large three-seat, bright red and yellow "long-touring" model built in Czechoslovakia. The centerpiece of the Eastern European gallery, the bike was made by a company that existed from 1925 until 1939, when it was "brought down by the German invasion at the outset of the second World War."
"That’s a very unusual bike," Smith said. "Only two of these are known to exist in the United States."
It was used, Smith said, for long-distance races on straight courses and was not something the average Czech citizen would have been able to afford. It is now worth "close to six figures" and is so eye-catching it’s the bike actor Dan Aykroyd posed with when he visited. The Bohmerland is center stage in the first gallery people see when they enter the museum.
"It’s definitely a favorite among people," Smith said. "We put it here in this room and designed the museum with the Eastern European gallery as the front gallery for this exact reason, that we wanted people, when they walked in the door, to see this guy and be like, ‘Wow.’ This is easily my favorite gallery of the entire museum, because it has the most unusual bikes."
Nearby, a 1957 DNEPR motorcycle with sidecar stands as testament to the "unusual bike" label. It was made in the Soviet Union based on plans for the BMW.
"The Soviet Union has not originated a single motorcycle design," the display text for the DNEPR said. "But they have been masterful at copying the best designs of German origin. The common belief is that Stalin acquired the designs for the BMW motorcycle during the period of the German-Soviet truce prior to World War II."
The bike has some features designed for war. The sidecar has a machine gun mount in the front and an ammo box on the outside. The motorcycle headlight comes with a cover featuring a slit that could be opened to let out just enough light to see the road without being spotted by enemy planes.
"This is early stealth technology," Smith said, flipping the headlight slit open. "At night, an airplane wouldn’t see your headlight."
The museum attracts about 10,000 visitors a year, many of whom are not motorcycle experts.
"When you go to a museum, whether it’s an art museum, a history museum or a motorcycle museum, the objective in my opinion is to educate the person," Smith said. "You want to walk out having learned something. So when we wrote the descriptions of the bikes, we wrote them in laymen’s terms, so anybody could walk in here and read it and go, ‘Oh, that’s fascinating.’ We didn’t really want to fill it with too much technical jargon."
The adjacent gallery has motorcycles made in Italy, including a bright red Maserati "café racer" made in 1956 for racing tight courses. Maserati, known more for cars, only made motorcycles for a span of five years, Smith said. Near the Maserati is a Beta 250 cc bike that is missing what most people would consider an essential piece of equipment.
"One thing you notice about every other bike in the museum, they all have seats, a place to sit," Smith said. "This guy has no seat. You stand on it. You stand on the (foot) pegs the entire time – you do not sit down."
The Beta is part of a class of motorcycles used for "Observed Trials" competitions in which riders navigate through extremely difficult terrain. The winner of the competition is the rider who negotiates the course with the fewest "dabs," the term for touching the ground with your foot. Beta’s are very light and powerful. Good riders are capable of riding up boulders, cars and more.
"It’s a technical riding sport, as opposed to speed," Smith said. "It’s extremely amazing to watch – Google it, YouTube, whatever – because the sort of stuff these guys can climb is remarkable. We had a guy here who climbed up an RV (using a Beta). It was incredible. It’s really, really, really cool to watch these guys handle these things like they’re made of nothing."
The next gallery over houses a Scott 500 cc Flying Squirrel made in 1935. The Flying Squirrel had a water-cooled radiator system decades before anyone else started using them.
"It’s a beautiful motorcycle, and technologically way ahead of its time," Smith said.
In addition to the "engineering successes in innovation," the museum also has "engineering blunders," Smith said. One of those is the Sunbeam 1951 S8, nicknamed "The Gentleman’s Motorcycle." With its glossy black finish and attention to detail, it’s a nice looking ride. But the S8's twin cylinder engine was aligned front to back instead of side by side as in many other motorcycle engines. The cooling system only effectively cooled the front cylinder, leaving its counterpart in the rear susceptible to overheating.
"So what happened, from a technological standpoint, the second piston would crack, break, fail," Smith said. "So from a design perspective, an inline two was a poor design. It was breaking down all the time."
The European motorcycles also represent a bit of a history lesson.
"A lot of the manufacturers, at one time or another, made armaments – they made weapons, they made guns, they made cannons," Smith said. "Because really, the first half of the 20th century, Europe was fighting itself in world wars. Well, in between those world wars, what did you do? You had to stay in business, so you made motorcycles, because they were cheap effective transportation – low cost, and everybody needed one. Cars were still very much out of reach for the majority of people, especially Europeans and the situations they were in."
Through the years, many motorcycle companies have been diversified. The manufacturers of the Miele motorcycle, for instance, also made dishwashers. Husqvarna, still in business in Sweden, makes rugged off-road motorcycles, chain saws and riding lawn mowers. A 1953 Adler 250 cc touring model was made by a company that also made typewriters, Smith said.
"I don’t know how that transition took place," he added.
The oldest bike on display in the museum is a 1914 AJS 350 cc, named for the initials of Albert John Stevens, one of the four brothers who made the first model of this bike in 1909. It has a leather saddle, a small carrying rack and a tank with separate compartments for gas and oil because it used both at near-equal rates.
"A very simple design," Smith said. "Not much to it."
A 1924 Terrot Type L 175 cc motorcycle is another of the oldest bikes in the museum, and with its cracked seat, rusting components and flaking paint job, it looks like the old-timer it is.
"There’s a certain beauty to it," Smith said. "It’s completely untouched for 90-some years."
A "certain beauty" doesn’t quite describe the museum’s most unique piece – a wooden motorcycle made completely out of items lying about a farm, including old farm machinery and scrap lumber.
"It’s truly amazing," Smith said. "A genuine wooden motorcycle. My father was ecstatic when they contacted him about donating it to the museum."
As the Moto Museum approaches its fourth anniversary in April 2011, the Smiths are pleased to share their treasures with people from all over the area and other parts of the country and world.
"We thought, ‘Why not make a museum?’ What better way to show people the beauty and art of motorcycling than to make a museum. So we created the museum with that in mind," Smith said.
Admission to the Moto Museum is free, but donations are accepted. Private guided tours are available at $10 per person. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The museum is also available to rent for private parties. For more information, call 314-446-1805 or see the Web site.
The Triumph Grill next to the museum offers an eclectic lunch and dinner menu and continues the motorcycle theme with photos and art.
Getting There from Wentzville
The Moto Museum is located at 3441 Olive Street at Lindell, one block east of the Fox Theatre and across the street from St. Louis University. To get there from Wentzville, take Interstate 64/40 east to Grand Avenue, turn north and drive to Lindell. Turn east (right) on Lindell and drive a block. Olive intersects Lindell on the left. The museum with its flags from around the world will be visible from Lindell.