November 17, 2014
The town of Akureyri, on Iceland’s northern shore, is so close to the Arctic Circle that polar bears sometimes float in on ice floes. It is not where you would expect a motorcycle museum, but there one is, a tribute to the thriving motorcycle culture in this country. Iceland is actually more green than icy. It is in the middle of the Gulf Stream, which makes the weather bearable, and has miles of excellent roads through spectacular scenery. There are almost 24 hours of daylight in June, which makes up for the fact that there are almost 24 hours of darkness in December. This tiny nation currently has 15,000 active motorcyclists, possibly not surprising, given that most Icelanders are descended from seafaring Vikings.
Motorcycle museums are a diverse lot. Some are built around someone’s collection, and reflect the founder’s view of what a collectible motorcycle is supposed to be. Others display bikes from a certain national origin, famous racers, or high-end, one-of-a-kind or rare machines. The Motorcycle Museum of Iceland tells the story of how ordinary Icelanders got around on two wheels in the last hundred years. Most of the bikes on display were what average people rode back in the day, although there are a few racers and rarities.
The museum, in a purpose-built two-story building just outside the center of town, opened in early 2012. It is funded and supported by the Icelandic motorcycling community, but the spark for the project came from the friends and family of Heidar Jóhannsson, a prominent enthusiast. His collection of 23 motorcycles, including a Triumph X-75 Hurricane, was the nucleus of the museum collection, which now displays 80 bikes, including 1950’s mopeds, a chopper with an impossibly extended fork (believe it or not, chopper building is a popular Icelandic pastime), and a BMW sculpted of varnished wood. In 2015, it will expand to the second story and show 120 motorcycles that formerly rode Iceland’s highways.
The museum’s extensive photo collection mostly shows Icelanders enjoying themselves on their motorcycles over the years, with racing photos in the minority. Far from being mostly off-road competitors, most Iceland motorcycle enthusiasts are street riders. Off-road riding is strictly regulated, with the result that it is far easier to ride on roads than off. Icelandic women also ride, and the museum displays a photo of an all-women’s motorcycle club complete with the members’ children.
Despite the windy and wet Icelandic climate, people started riding bikes in Iceland before World War I. One photo in the collection shows an American-built Henderson, circa 1919, with the well-dressed owner aboard. This bike still exists and is part of the museum’s collection. It is being restored, and will be on display next year. The next oldest bike is a 1928 Triumph, now on display.
Iceland never had a motorcycle industry, but Icelanders had access to motorcycles built in England, Europe and the United States. German-built mopeds were popular after World War II, and Japanese motorcycles became available in the early ’60s. The museum has examples of all of these, including German mopeds that were never on sale in the U.S. There are also displays of period garb, similar to what European riders were wearing at the time.
Other items on the walls are displays of memorabilia, patches of Icelandic motorcycle clubs (not all of which feature raging Vikings) and pieces of a 1970’s moped, found in a desert area and cast in sand as it was found, as if it were the bones of a dinosaur.
If you have decided to vacation in Iceland, the museum is well worth a stop, especially for its displays of what motorcycling was like for the ordinary biker of years gone by—a subject often passed over by motorcycle museums in other countries. The large, clear period photographs that cover the walls are fascinating. Like just about everything in Iceland, the captions are in Icelandic, with a lot of the information translated into English. Icelanders pride themselves on their public spaces being clean, well organized and easily understandable, and the Motorcycle Museum is no exception.
The Motorcycle Museum of Iceland is located at Krókeyri 2, IS- 600 Akureyri, near the bowling alley. It is open during the summer months daily from noon to 6 p.m. and the rest of the year on Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and by appointment. For more information, call +354-466-3510 or visit motorhjolasafn.is.