What one never wants to see: a relatively new motorcycle museum atop a private mountain in Austria, totally engulfed in flames.  Photos of the disaster on January 17, 2021 at the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum reached me in minutes, so I could watch almost in real time a precious collection of the world’s rarest and most interesting motorcycles simply evaporate.  Some of those motorcycles had been subject to Road Tests on The Vintagent, and included the ultra-rare sister of the 1925 Sunbeam OHC Grand Prix racer I had ridden only a few months prior at the Auerberg Klassik hillclimb event.  It’s difficult to convey the utter bewilderment and deep upset these images caused: I did not know exactly what was inside the museum, but knew who had loaned their machines, as well as the owner of the venue, and could only imagine how they felt at the news.

The fire and its aftermath at the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum on January 7/8th, 2021. [Mark Upham]
The devastating fire at the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum brought back memories of the equally disastrous fire at the National Motorcycle Museum almost twenty years prior (2003).  Are motorcycle museums doomed to burn?  Why do they build them with wood? How could this have happened?  Terrible speculation ran rampant on social media: it must have been incompetence by the architects, or maybe insurance fraud by the owners – the whole gamut of paranoid speculation and rumor-mongering when the inexplicable happens.   And none of it was true.  It’s hard to imagine a stricter permitting, building code and inspection system than in Austria.  The Top Mountain Museum was totally up to code and recently inspected, so what went wrong?  Simply put, it was an electrical fire from a faulty large-screen TV display that gamed the system.  There isn’t a fire suppression system anywhere that’s 100% foolproof, and sprinklers can be overwhelmed in the wrong situation.  The result was catastrophic: a total loss of the mostly wooden upper floor of the museum, while the concrete lower floor and adjacent gondola barn were unscathed.

A disheartening scenario: hauling precious history like scrap metal. [Top Mountain Museum]
Author Stefan Knittel is a curatorial advisor to the museum (and a Vintagent Contributor), and explains, “Why didn’t the fire stop?  Everything was planned, inspected and tested and passed the test for fire safety.  The commissioner for fire safety lives ten miles from the museum, and was in charge of the qualifications and tests; he had to report to the police, detectives, insurance, and state attorneys, for technical faults.  He said nothing was wrong, that the museum was built to the highest possible standard.  The problem is wooden construction takes longer to burn than a steel hall.  This is a safety aspect; if the museum would have been open the time for escape is 20 minutes instead of a few minutes.  The sprinklers are designed to pour water on particular spots, there is not a sprinkler system that drowns a space in water, but now there are better sprinklers.  It was built to the best standards at the time, nothing failed, it was a terrible loss.  The only good thing is the fire was during the night and nobody was harmed.”

The Scheiber brothers, Attila and Alban, who own the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum in Austria. [Fabio Affuso]

The Building and the Collections

While the ashes were still smoldering, the co-founder of the museum, Attila Scheiber, said ‘we will rebuild immediately.’  That seemed ambitious in the middle of a global pandemic, and the middle of Winter.  But the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum is located in the Ötztal valley in the Autrian Tyrol, near the Italian border, and the Scheiber family (the museum is owned by brothers Attila and Alban) have deep family connections in the region.  The brothers were planning to build an extension of the museum in 2021, and thus had full plans, the necessary permits, and the construction bids in hand and ready to go before the fire struck: thus one hurdle was already gone, and the rebuilding project was greenlighted immediately.   Stefan Knittel noted, “All the contracts were valid to build the extension already, and all the builders  – wood, concrete, technical – is contracted to local companies in the valley.  The Scheiber family has a 4th generation skiing business, and is the largest employer in the valley, and is more or less a team of family contacts and contractors.  To rebuild the museum quickly would have been impossible anywhere else! In Germany, just to get the permissions would take a year.”

A nearly inconceivable task: to quickly provide an insurance value for 360 rare motorcycles. [Top Mountain Museum]
But first, the site had to be cleaned up, and the bikes sorted out for insurance, with the accompanying triage of which machines might be saved, and which were simply scrap.  That job fell to Mark Upham, long time motorcycle dealer through his British Only Austria emporium, and owner of Brough Superior Motorcycles (meaning the 1919-40 originals: he is no longer associated with the current French production model).  “I had to do the insurance estimates for all the bikes that burned. It took about 4hrs per bike on average, for 360 bikes, to arrive at the insurance value. Without The Vintagent’s ‘Top 100 Most Expensive’ list this would not have been possible.  I can find all sorts of evidence for particular machines, but to have the top prices documented was very helpful.  If bikes were under-insured the Scheibers had to pay the margin between the agreed value and the current value; in the case of loaned bikes the Museum had to pay the owners out of pocket.”

Mark Upham, Attila Scheiber, and Stefan Knittel meeting at the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum in November 2021 [Fabio Affuso]
Who insures such a collection of priceless machines?  Upham puts it in context: “Remember the total value of all the bikes in the museum was nothing compared to a ship stuck sideways in the Suez canal!  I was dealing with Unica, under Reifeisen Bank, and 10% was offset with a Munich insurance company, and 70% by Lloyds of London.  It took some research with these companies to sort the situation.”  Unlike with the National Motorcycle Museum fire, most of the motorcycles at the Top Mountain museum were on loan from collectors across Europe.  It was a very complicated situation, and the valuation process takes considerable time, as ‘comparables’ of extremely rare machines are hard to find, or simply non-existent in the case of unique motorcycles, so reasonable estimates from similarly unique and historic motorcycles had to be suggested, and justified.  “People should insure their bike for market value, that’s all the insurance companies will pay.”

The sweeping banked wooden board track display was a feature of the original Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum, and has returned to the reborn museum. Bikes visible are a Harley-Davidson JDH racer, a Moto Guzzi C4V, and a Brough Superior SS100 Pendine. [Fabio Affuso]
Then there is the question of what happens to the remains of motorcycles often worth half a $Million?  Any motorcycle can be rebuilt or replicated by skilled craftspeople, and the fact that many of these machines were extremely historic and desirable – Grand Prix winners, Land Speed racers, Brough Superiors of all stripes, etc – drew unwanted attention from speculators.  The twisted hulks were still smoldering when the owners of the museum, and the owners of the collections known to be on loan there, were approached about selling the remains of this or that motorcycle.  The ambulance-chasers all expressed condolence over the disaster, but their motivation was pure greed, masquerading as a concern for History (read ‘Death, Taxes, and Old Bike Fever’).  It’s a situation seen many times in the old motorcycle scene, as greed is evergreen.  But, to answer the question: what happened to the damaged motorcycles?

The 1930 Brough Superior-Austin BS4 ‘three wheeler’ that was the subject of a Vintagent Road Test, currently awaiting its Phoenix resurrection at the workshop of Brough expert Sam Lovegrove in England. [Sam Lovegrove]
Mark Upham explains, “What are the bodies worth after the fire?  That was a big question.  We thew away over 250 bikes, all low-value machines, mopeds, etc.  For a few bikes there was nothing left, only parts of the frame.  Any aluminum, magnesium, plastic, or ceramic was all gone.  Once the insurance was paid out, all the motorcycles were sold in one lot to a salvage company, after a bidding process.  They own all the bikes now.  Let’s hope some phoenixes come out of the fire.”

A Museum Reborn

The reconstruction of the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum seen in moments from February through November of 2021. [Mark Upham]

Amazingly, the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum was completely rebuilt in 10 months.  It took the tireless efforts of hundreds of people to achieve the nearly impossible. Mark Upham notes “we got the whole museum together and open, it has been exactly ten months, a major feat!  Attila has 250 employees, and I counted 80 people working on the museum before they opened it.”  Plus, all the local contractors, suppliers, and tradespeople who lent their efforts in the midst of the pandemic, and the midst of winter, working between occasional lockdowns.  Stefan Knittel observes, “The rebuilt museum now has an extension, the side hall was ready to build a year ago, and all the concrete was in place before winter.  The architecture is the same, by the same architect, of the same manner – adjusted to suit the mountain slopes.  From the front the museum looks the same, and you don’t see the extension as it’s off to the side from the entrance.  Inside, the board track is the same, with podiums.  It’s fully wood-paneled inside and out, but now with concrete walls.  It was built with absolutely modern standards, up to the minute fire security, specified and tested by the authorities, with fire walls installed.  There were some changes beyond the originally planned addition: most significantly, the walls of the museum and now all concrete, with wooden panelling.”  The wooden paneling  lends the same Tyrolean vibe of the original museum, while providing peace of mind after the trauma of the fire.  The Scheiber family has built up four generations of goodwill in the area, and the whole region immediately expressed support to rebuild the museum after the fire.  Stefan Knittel notes, “The whole area said on the night of the fire, we are ready to build when you are.  All the exhibitors and loaners, the owners of KTM, etc, said on the night of the fire, we are ready to rebuild when you are.  An interview on the smoldering remains with Attila was broadcast on TV and moved many Tyrol politicians.  A major German collector was already planning to send 100 motorcycles from the now-closed Hockenheim Museum, so all those bikes went straight to the Tyrol.  Nathalie from Deutsches Zweirad and NSU Museum offered that museum’s reserve bikes, so we took 70.  Plus KTM offered some contents of their museum, and some simulators, on which your mother-in-law can ride the Timmelsjoch pass in winter!  They lean and everything.”

A stunning location at the top of the Austrian Tyrol, now fully functional and open for business. [Fabio Affuso]
The opening party for the reborn museum was held on November 21, 2021.  A full re-opening party will have to wait until 2022, when restrictions are lifted from the pandemic, but it’s currently possible to visit the museum and see the remarkable collections. The grand, sweeping banked board track that was a feature of the original museum is back on display, now with an even more rare collection.  Machines include the earliest of banked track racers from the Noughts, like a pair of Alessandro Anzani-designed 3-cylinder W-triples from 1903 and 1905; motorcycles like that can be seen nowhere else.  Early racers from Indian, Harley-Davidson, Moto Guzzi, Brough Superior, AJS, Clément, and Magnat Debon are displayed in proximity to contemporary factory KTM racers from MX to MotoGP (the KTM Motohall).  A few classic and rally cars are also on display (the Porsche Heritage collection), as is the Rausch Collection of round-the-world Steyr-Puch machines – barring Max Reisch’s 1933 Puch 250 ‘Indian Dream’, which is still on display at our ADV:Overland exhibit at the Petersen Museum.  The rest of Max Reisch’s two- and four-wheeled expedition vehicles are on display, with all their original equipment and traveling gear.

Priceless machines on display include this factory NSU Rennmax DOHC racer, a machine that dominated GP racing in the mid-1950s. [Fabio Affuso]
The grand opening is planned for March. What’s there now?  Stefan Knittel sees “ten cars ten or so, 450 motorcycles, mopeds, scooters.  It will be thinned out a little, the expressions of support and the loans were overwhelming.  KTM is still bringing MotoGP and other products.  The Museum will be open again once the current lockdown is over in Austria, and the official opening is in March, date TBD but in connection with the MotoGP race in Austria.  A huge motorcycle festival is planned for the new extension.”  It’s an event to plan for, and The Vintagent will spread the news once the date is fixed.  Until then, the local tourist board has great info on how to get there and where to stay: check out their site here.

The museum’s cafe is adjacent to the exhibition space, so you’re never far from amazing motorcycles. [Fabio Affuso]
Installing a pair of unique, home-built British four-cylinder DOHC racers: the Jones Four and Ron Philips Four. [Fabio Affuso]
A rare Paton twin-cylinder GP racer in the competition hall, during installation. [Fabio Affuso]
Mark Upham wheels a a still-radical ELF-Honda two-stroke GP racer with hub-center steering and extravagant exhausts (see our ‘Two Wheeled Icons of the 1980s’). [Fabio Affuso]
The Max Reisch collection of round-the-world and overland vehicles from the 1920s-40s are all on display: the 1933 Puch currently at our ADV:Overland exhibit in Los Angeles will move directly to the Top Mountain Museum in April 2021. [Fabio Affuso]
A Burt Munro streamliner that survived the fire in the concrete basement is now displayed in the main hall. [Fabio Affuso]
Attila Scheiber wheels a Max Reisch Puch, the 1929 250cc model he rode to Africa in 1932. [Fabio Affuso]
Situated at the top of the Timmelsjoch alpinestrasse, the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum is simply extraordinary, and deserves a visit by any motoring enthusiast. [Fabio Affuso]



Fabio Affuso is an Italian photographer based in London and his native Naples. He photographs motorsport and fashion around the globe. Find him at his website and Instagram.


Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


Related Posts

Top 100 Most Expensive Motorcycles

Our Top 100 World's Most Expensive…

The Vintagent Trailers: Motorcycle Man

Racing legend Dave Roper is hardly an…

Book Review: ‘BMW Rennsport’

Author Stefan Knittel publishes another…

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter