The word Motorcycle is nowhere to be seen in the Audrain Automobile Museum’s official title, but that doesn’t mean powered two-wheelers don’t play a critical role in their collection. In fact, of the over 400 vehicles in the Newport, Rhode Island collection, approximately 70 are motorcycles – and powered three-wheelers, such as a Harley-Davidson Servi-Car. Seven years after the museum first opened its doors to the public, it was time, according to Audrain CEO Donald Osborne and Executive Director & Curator David de Muzio, to put motorcycles front and center.

A little TE Lawrence history with your 1929 Brough Superior SS100? He owned six after all. [Audrain Automobile Museum]
‘Balance & Power: The World on Two Wheels, 1885-1995’ is the Audrain’s current exhibition, running through 16 May 2021. Donald Osborne explains, “Motorcycles have always been a part of the collection, but this is the first show we’ve done that has no automobiles in it at all. We have put some of the motorcycles in other shows that were largely automobile, but this is the first time that the two-wheeled wonders get to shine on their own.” David de Muzio adds, “I was very happy to do this, it’s something we talked about doing from the very beginning, but it took this long on our busy exhibition schedule to get critical mass and feel it was the right time to do it – so, here we are.”

Audrain Automobile Museum CEO Donald Osborne and Executive Director & Curator David de Muzio. [Audrain Automobile Museum]
Where we are, specifically, is the Audrain Building on Bellevue Avenue in downtown Newport. Designed by architect Bruce Price of New York for merchant Adolphe Audrain, inspiration was drawn from the 15th century Florentine Renaissance period of architecture, noted for its inclusion of Roman elements such as arches and domes. When the two-story Audrain Building opened in 1903, it featured high arched windows and polychromed terra-cotta façade and roof balustrade complete with lion finials. The first floor was home to six retail businesses, while the second floor had 11 offices. Over time, elements such as the balustrade and finials were lost, and the building eventually fell into disrepair. However, in 2013, the entire structure was given a makeover, with the second level office space restored and, in 2014, the lower level completely redesigned to house the automobile museum.

The musuem inhabits a spectacular building in Newport, Rhode Island – the Audrain building. [Audrain Automobile Museum]
To support the weight of vehicles, the floor was reinforced and, to provide clear span floorspace, new steel trusses replaced interior load bearing walls. Using period photographs for reference, many of the original exterior design elements were replicated by artisans and re-installed. The building is stunning, and David says the museum sees more than 30,000 visitors a year. Spanning more than a century of two-wheeler and three-wheeler transportation history, ‘Balance & Power’ includes seven themes, starting with ‘The Beginning – Velocipede to Bicycle to Motorized Bicycle to Motorcycle’. Two of the earliest wheeled exhibits include an 1886 Rudge Coventry Rotary tricycle and an 1885 Columbia ‘Ordinary’ high-wheel bicycle.

A pair of Pierces: a 1900 women’s safety bicycle, and a 1910 Pierce Four, both using a shaft-and-bevel final drive. [Jonathan Porter]
“The story of motorcycles parallels that of automobiles,” David says, “in that you went from horse drawn carriages to horseless carriages to automobiles. And, in the case of motorcycles, you went from the earliest velocipedes to bicycles, and in this case, we have five or six bicycles and tricycles in the exhibition that really talk about the Victorian era and the popularity of being under your own power and pedalling a bicycle, and how the manufacturers of those bicycles quickly go to motorized bicycles and then motorcycles in a very short period of time. It’s also a story of the development of technology; the modern motorcycle could not have existed without the technological work that was done in developing the bicycle from the velocipede and the high wheeler to the safety bicycle and some of those things carried over into the auto world, and the technology of chains and direct drive led to the motorcycles we know in the 1920s. Our story goes on to tell how motorcycles developed through World War 1 and people’s exposure to it in the first mechanized war and then World War 2 and, afterwards to a place where the motorcycle eventually integrated into everyday life in America in the 1960s.”

The Postwar exhibit includes fast bikes of the era, like a Velocette Venom, Triumph Tiger 100, BSA Gold Star and Vincent Black Shadow. [Jonathan Porter]
‘Balance & Power’ carries the narrative forward in ‘Between the World Wars’, and includes important machines from the era, including a 1929 Brough Superior SS100, a 1930 Rudge Ulster and a 1930 Indian 101 Scout. ‘Post-War Power Through the 50s & 60s’ is followed by ‘Scooters & Small Displacement and Scrambler & Dirt Bikes.’ Most fun, however, might be the 1970s ‘Superbike Shootout’ display. “In the 70s, Cycle magazine published their shootouts,” David says. “Now, we’re all used to comparative performance stories about cars and motorcycle, but back in the early 70s it was really a new thing, the idea of picking British, European, Japanese and American bikes and comparing them directly. We have a nice presentation of Kawasaki, Ducati, Honda, Triumph and Norton that really speak to that moment. We actually reference two main Cycle supberbike reviews from 1970 and 1972, and then we go beyond that to early superbikes with a Bimota, Ducati and MV Agusta — showing what was becoming prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s: a 1995 Ducati 916 is the newest bike in the show”

Machines from the 1970s and 80s include a Kawasaki and Triumph triples, a Ducati 750 Sport, MV Agusta America, and Honda CBX. [Jonathan Porter]
The curatorial team had difficulty narrowing their wish list of bikes down to the 65 that ultimately appear in the show. Their initial list quickly ballooned beyond 100, but with only so much room for the display, some of the machines have been left to appear in a future motorcycle exhibit. They intentionally stayed away from too many race bikes, and have focused more on the everyday rider and consumer. That’s not to say there aren’t references to the importance racing development played in the overall industry – there is a 1913 Indian board track racer and a 1925 Moto Guzzi factory racer on display. “We’re starting to plan our exhibitions a couple of years in advance, and there’s definitely room for a motorcycle race theme show,” David says.

Indian vs Harley in the late 1920s, with an Indian 101 Scout and Harley-Davidson Model JD. [Jonathan Porter]
Opening during the covid pandemic hasn’t slowed down response. Seventy-five people are allowed in the gallery at any one time, and the museum has been managing to move visitors through without having a line outside the main door. “We’re seeing over 100 visitors a day on weekends, and we’ve been able to function pretty normally during covid,” David explains. The Audrain was closed for two months at the start of the pandemic, however, and that gave the museum time to ramp up digital initiatives, including posting videos on their YouTube channel. Motorcars and motorcycles, by their very nature, offer an aural and visceral experience. “Curatorially, one of the biggest challenges we have when we’re in the gallery is, you’re looking at a wonderful object, but it does not get people to understand the visceral experience of riding or driving – and that’s behind the idea of producing more videos so people can learn what they sound like and look like when they’re being ridden,” David explains.

How much is that doggie in the window? Don’t ask: a ‘Teens Indian 8-valve board track racer is a very rare and desirable machine. [Audrain Automobile Museum]
The Audrain is always exploring ways to connect with the riding and driving public and, as an example of how they interact with the community, the museum serves as the starting point for the annual Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride. Since its inception, the ride has taken place in September. To accommodate riders living in northern locations, however, beginning in 2021, the date of the ride has moved to May – the next ride takes place on Sunday, May 23 – a week after ‘Balance & Power’ closes its doors. For those not able to visit Newport prior to that, an extensive preview of ‘Balance & Power’ is online at audrainautomuseum.org. Follow the museum on Instagram @audrainautomuseum.

Something for everyone, including BMW’s first factory cafe racer, the R90S in Silver Smoke. [Jonathan Porter]

 

 

Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics