Watson On: Making Bank With Classic Motorcycles

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Watson On: Making Bank With Classic Motorcycles

If you own a classic Ducati, Harley-Davidson or Indian motorcycle, now might be the time to consider selling it, as it seems that prices are on the rise for the first time in the world of classic motorcycles.

Last week in Las Vegas, international auction house Bonhams staged its fourth annual motorcycle auction specifically for collectible and rare motorcycles and more than $3.3 million worth of historic bikes went under the hammer.

Bonhams described it’s Las Vegas event as one of the most successful motorcycle sales it has ever staged. But perhaps more worryingly from a financially challenged bike enthusiast’s perspective, it also referred to the cross-section of bikes that were offered as “investment-worthy motorcycles”.

This to me suggests that many of the bikes sold on the Vegas strip were being bought not to be used and ridden but purely being acquired as assets that will be traded in the future for even more commanding figures. They’ll disappear into huge collections and never be seen by the likes of mere mortals again, except at the next international motorcycle auction.

There’s nothing new in all of this. In the car world it has been happening for years and there have been over-priced cars, record sales at auctions and then just when the next Ferrari reaches an unimaginable figure, the market crashes. It did this spectacularly in the 1990’s and then took the better part of 15 years to stabilize, and now is seriously back on track with record prices for rare cars.

But it would appear the collectors have finally gotten wise to the fact that motorcycles are a good investment. Admittedly last week’s examples that went under the hammer were pretty special but they went for astronomical prices that blew my small mind.

1978 Ducati 900 NCR
1978 Ducati 900 NCR

There were a series of important and significant Ducati racing bikes from the famous Silverman collection on offer, including a 1973 Super Sport 750 ‘Green Frame’ that went for a record breaking $137,000.

While a really nice Ducati 900 NCR from 1978 that had not been touched since it left the factory and was effectively in new condition grabbed an eye-watering $175,000. Yeah you read that right.

An unrestored 1940 Harley Davidson EL, which someone had painted green early in it’s life, was snapped up for a whopping $159,000. That too was a world record for a bike of this type. It was a nice Harley and had some interesting history too. But it was not the first one built or the last one off the line and Elvis Presley had never owned it. I think $40,000 would have been a more sensible price.

1940 Harley-Davidson EL
1940 Harley-Davidson EL

For reasons beyond me, whenever I mention the name of actor Steve McQueen to a male friend, he goes all coy and glassy-eyed and says, “That guy was so damned cool”. Clearly anything that McQueen even touched and that comes up for sale in an auction house can do no wrong either.

But if my friend wanted to own a piece of McQueen he would have had to part with $126,000 in Las Vegas for the 1923 Indian Big Chief motorcycle with Princess sidecar (perhaps the best name ever for a sidecar) that ‘Mr. Cool’ once owned.

According to the auction literature, the Indian was personally restored for McQueen by artist Von Dutch and this motorcycle and sidecar combination attracted what Bonhams described as ‘passionate bidding’ in Las Vegas.

Ultimately, it went for a world record price to a private American collector who also decided to snap up McQueen’s 1935 Indian Chief, which was also on offer, for a cool $80.500.

The head of Bonhams international motorcycle department, Ben Walker, confirmed after the auction something that I really didn’t want to hear: “Once again the season opening and highly anticipated sale in Las Vegas proved to be the place to sell investment-worthy motorcycles.”

For me this is the beginning of the rot. That anonymous auction buyers are happy to pay six figure prices for interesting motorcycles signals a change in the classic bike world. They will take them well out of our reach and into dimly lit, hermetically sealed, security guarded warehouses where over they next few years they will sit while increasing in value. Effectively they have become a commodity like an oil painting or an ingot of gold.

Pope Francis's 2013 Harley-Davidson 1,585cc FXDC Dyna Super Glide Custom
Pope Francis’s
2013 Harley-Davidson 1,585cc FXDC Dyna Super Glide Custom

Bonhams is holding another auction in a few weeks in Paris. Up for grabs will be two Harley-Davidson motorcycles donated by His Holiness Pope Francis along with several really interesting and unusual bikes. In April, Bonhams moves to England and another packed motorcycle auction with the star lot being an unmolested 1939 Brough Superior SS100 that has been in the same family since 1961. It’s going to be one crazy year.

  • ThinkingInImages

    I’m seeing a rise on the early 80′s “unique” models, those that lasted only a few years – if they are stock. Both my Honda Ascots, which dealers couldn’t give away back then, are on the rise. Yamaha SR’s are always hot – stock. Early Gold Wings, too. The point is even a mundane or oddball model will drop and bounce back up after a while. It may take decades – but keep the stock parts somewhere safe.

    • A P

      Ah yes, the “rare classic” motorcycle… often a euphemism for “bikes no one wanted when they were new”. Suzuki Rotaries, Yamaha Vision 550, and the V-twin Ascot (owned one for my wife, she decided she preferred chain drive, other wise fun bike) .

      But my experience is that only low-mile/pristine units draw the big bucks. I just junked an ’81 Gold Wing and an ’85 500 Interceptor, both running with unobtainium spares, but hi-mile. It wasn’t worth dealing with the cheapo vintage buy/flip types, much less the Craigslist/kijiji trolls. Maybe I’m just not a salesman…

      • Robert Horn

        Selling cheap bikes is a vastly bigger headache than selling more expensive bikes. One could write a book on the idiots one deals with when advertising a cheap (Yet otherwise perfectly functional) motorcycle for sale. And that was during the printed ad era – Craigslist made it even worse.

        • Piglet2010

          To me, selling a motorcycle privately is not worth the difference in money I might get and what a dealer will give on trade-in.

      • ThinkingInImages

        That’s why I put “unique” in quotes. The late 70′s to mid 80′s were the evolutionary “jump” in engine designs. Not all designs survived. That’s kind of sad, in a way, since some had potential. Many fell off the map because they didn’t look “conventional”.

        It’s never easy to sell a motorcycle privately. I have no idea if the person showing up can actually ride. That makes offering a test ride risky.

  • E Brown

    I knew we were in trouble when the early Honda CB750 crossed the $10,000 mark. My plan is to snag an early Honda 4-cylinder (ideally a CB550 or CB400F) and hang on to it.

    • Robert Horn

      At the rate older UJMs are getting vandalized by their latest owners (They call it “customizing”), I would think that surviving CB500/550s, XS650s, etc would be safe investments.

    • Randy Singer

      I’ve been holding on to a ’75 CB400F for decades now. I knew that it would be worth something someday. The problem is that by the time that it is finally worth a lot, I’ll be long gone.

      It’s best to buy a bike that you love, and then ride it into the ground. That’s the best investment. 8-)

      My Suzuki SV1000N will probably never be worth anything, but I doubt that I could find a more perfect motorcycle for myself that I might enjoy more!

      • E Brown

        “It’s best to buy a bike that you love, and then ride it into the ground.”

        I’ve already done that, when I bought my Hawk GT :). I’ve been thinking of replacing my CB400T and I suspect the early 4s will prove depreciation-proof at this point, and likely appreciate once the cafe craze passes and people start wanting original bikes again. The CB400F is already on the up and I’ve always liked the looks, and the CB550 is a nice bike that will ride the coattails of its big brother. I don’t see either crossing the $100k mark like the bikes above, but either should always be worth fixing/maintaining; the thing about my CB400 is a new exhaust and a pair of tires cost about what I paid for the bike!

        • Piglet2010

          What year and color is your CB400T – I might buy it out of nostalgia (my first moto was an orange 1980 CB400T)?

          • E Brown

            Mine’s a 1978 and was painted black with red stripes by a previous owner.

            • Piglet2010

              There are currently two CB400F’s for sale on Cycle Trader, both in the $5K range.

  • chris ordanez

    Huh. I thought the caption about the Pope’s alphabet soup bike was just going to be a joke.


  • KeithB

    It’s a shame some of these bikes will be in a “collection” and not ridded.
    Even Jay Leno drives his cars ’cause “that’s what they are for”

    • E Brown

      The difference is rich old guys can often still drive their old cars, but a 70-year old bike is a trickier proposition all around – the ancient technology (tires, brakes, engine), the age of the rider himself (Leno’s 63 – how much longer can/will he keep riding?), those factors conspire against riding old bikes.

      At least the market’s not to the point someone pays $35k for something like this:


      • Piglet2010

        What is special about this particular car, since by the time it is restored, the owner will have well over $100K in it?

        • E Brown

          Starting in 1969 until 1973, 911s came in three standard trim levels: T, the base model, E, the middle model and S, the top model. This car is a 911S, and early ones in restored condition are now going for $150k+ – about 10 years ago, you could get a nice one for the $35k asked for this car pulled from a lake. Now that the US dollar is weaker, every available car is being sold overseas to Euro-boomers for whom demand is similar to that for top 60s/70s muscle cars here.

      • A P

        “Leno’s 63 – how much longer can/will he keep riding?” Given his outlook on life, until his health prevents it. With any luck, shortly before they nail the lid down on his coffin. I’m 60 and have no intention of stopping riding my 600RR until I stop breathing. If family history is anything yo go by, that should be some time in my upper 80′s. My Dad put siding on his garage in his mid 70′s. Some of it is where you landed in the gene pool, but as much of it is attitude and a reasonable lifestyle. I’ve known people why were “old women” in their 30′s, and others who were still whip-sharp and physically active in their 90′s.

        Mid-lifers need to just worry about themselves, us old farts will carry riding on despite NHTSA hysteria and family emotional pleas.

        I ride. It’s what I do.

  • Piglet2010

    The problem is too much money concentrated in the hands of too few who were born into the positions to game the system.

    Forget the investment possibilities, and get a bike you actually like to ride instead – you will come out ahead in quality of life.

  • Larry

    Bonhams is auctioning 2 Pope Harleys? I thought it was just the one pictured. I don’t think he actually rides, the bike was just a gift from HD. He might ride a scooter…

    • Tim Watson

      You’re correct – given to the Pope in the summer of last year – two bikes that have apparently been sent off to auction to raise money for a homeless charity in Rome.

      • Larry

        I’ve only ever seen the Super glide. What’s the other one? His scooter?

        • Tim Watson

          Other one is at the HD museum – given to the pope and signed by him. Up for auction I’m told later in the year.

  • tincantroubadour

    For us plebeians, there’re always japanese bikes on ebay.. or maybe just a regular Z1 in nice shape for $10K+