Collecting Motorcycles : Classic, Collectible, or Just Old ?

Ride long enough, and you’ll notice something about motorcycles : No one can own just one. Becoming a motorcycle collector is an insidious process. It starts when you buy a better bike but can’t quite bring yourself to sell your trusty old one. Then you’ll decide to explore a different aspect of riding, like off-road riding or touring, so you’ll buy a bike suited for that purpose. But you still won’t be able to part with the other two. Then you’ll run across a pristine example of a classic bike you’ve always wanted, and you’ll just happen to have enough money to buy it, so …

classics motorcycles

By this time, you’re too far gone to turn back. Like it or not, you’re a collector. But it could be worse. Peter Egan, who writes for Cycle World magazine, once wrote that everyone needs at least four motorcycles: one for touring, one for sport riding, one for riding off-road, and one classic bike to keep it all in perspective. So go ahead and indulge yourself. Motorcycles have gotten much more expensive in the past 15 years, but they are still cheap compared to cars. And they take up less space. You can park up to six bikes in the space of one car, with some careful packing.

Collector’s Choice

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some investors decided British motorcycles were going to rapidly appreciate in value, and overnight, the price of Triumphs, Nortons, and BSAs skyrocketed. Many of the people buying these bikes were not motorcyclists : They were investors out to get rich.

Some people got rich off of the entire debacle, but for the most part, it wasn’t the investors—it was the people who sold the motorcycles at inflated prices. The Brit-bike boom lasted a few years, and then prices declined. British bikes still cost more than they used to, even when their prices are adjusted for inflation and appreciation, but they’re back down to somewhat reasonable levels.

The lesson to be learned from all this is that you shouldn’t buy a bike solely as a financial investment. It’s a risky proposition at best. Even if you get lucky and buy a bike that does increase in value, it probably won’t increase enough to cover the expenses you incur while you own it.

If you’re interested in a particular type or brand of bike, you can look for a particular model or year that may someday be worth more than other models or years, but that is a secondary consideration. When deciding what to collect, your first concern should be collecting bikes you like.

What Do You Like?

Before you start collecting bikes, ask yourself what you like. Do you like classic Japanese motorcycles ? Do you like the brutal efficiency of BMWs ? How about the fluid style of Italian sportbikes ? Or the simple elegance of British bikes? Perhaps you like classic American motorcycles. Whatever your style, your individual preferences are of key importance when you begin collecting bikes.

What’s Your Mechanical Skill Level?

How much time and energy are you willing to devote to the upkeep of your bikes? An American or British bike will require a lot more work to keep running than a Japanese bike or a BMW. Italian bikes will fall somewhere in between. Know your abilities before you start buying bikes with maintenance requirements that you are unprepared to deal with.

What’s Your Budget?

You also need to ask yourself how much you’re willing to spend. With the exception of Japanese bikes, any of the motorcycles mentioned in this chapter will take a serious bite out of your bank account. You can still pick up a decent British bike or a BMW for under $4,000, but if your taste runs toward Italian or American bikes, you’d better have considerably more cash available.

You can still find nice, older Japanese bikes for fairly low prices, though. The prices of a few early models, like Honda’s Benley Super Sport 125, have shot through the roof, but you can still pick up a very nice mid-1970s CB 750 for under $1,500, and you can find clean examples of other Japanese bikes for a lot less than that. Few of these bikes will ever have any serious investment value, but they’re fun to ride, easy to maintain, and make great projects for café chops.

What Constitutes a Classic?

japanese classics motorcycles - honda cbx1000

Classifying a bike as a classic is an almost mystical process. To be a true classic, a bike needs to have just the right combination of rarity, competence, and charisma to tickle collectors right in their reptilian stems.

Some bikes are firmly established as classics. No one questions the status of bikes like Moto Guzzi’s V7 Sport, Ducati’s Round Case 750SS, Honda's CBX1000, Mike Hailwood Replicas, Harley’s Knuckleheads and Panheads, Indian’s Chiefs and Fours, any Brough or Vincent, BMW’s R60s, Ariel’s Square Fours, Norton’s Commandos, or BSA’s Gold Stars. But to get one of these bikes, be prepared to shell out some serious cash. And be prepared to wait, because there are only a handful of these bikes on U.S. soil, and most of those are owned by collectors who have little interest in selling them.

If you decide to fork over the big bucks to buy a classic, make certain that you’re getting the real thing. For example, earlier Triumph Bonnevilles are much sought after by collectors, while collectors tend to show little interest in the later models with drysump oil reservoirs in their frames. And if you invest your life savings in a Round Case Ducati SS, make certain that you’re getting the real thing, since other Ducati models can be converted into convincing SS replicas.

One way to tell a true Round Case Ducati 750SS from a fake is to check the frame. Most SS models didn’t have provisions for mounting a centerstand, and on most fakes, the mounting lugs will have been ground off. But some very early race bikes did have some mounting lugs, and these are the most collectible of all Ducatis. Compounding this confusion is the historically shoddy record keeping of the Ducati
factory. Given the complexity involved, your best bet is to hire a recognized expert to authenticate the bike, like Phil Schilling. Such a service won’t come cheap, but if you have enough money to purchase this particular bike, you can certainly afford to authenticate your investment.

How can you tell if a bike is for real ? Read all you can about a particular bike before buying one. If a bike’s really a classic, there will be a plethora of books about it. If you’re interested in collecting classic bikes, get in touch with your local antique motorcycle club. Members of such organizations can provide you with more knowledge about classic motorcycles than any other source. And these people love motorcycles. You’ll find no shortage of advice, and you may even be able to find someone who can help you locate the exact bike you’re looking for.

Future Classics ?

Given the scarcity and cost of true classics, collecting might seem out of most people’s reach. And it can be a real gamble. Your odds of losing money are much greater than your odds of making money. That’s why I recommend only buying bikes you like and bikes you will use.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a lot of fun, and possibly even make some money someday. There are useful bikes that qualify as great buys right now that might become classics sometime in the future.

Say, for example, that after you’ve become a proficient rider, you decide to buy a hard-core sportbike. You can buy any of the Japanese sportbikes.

Or, for about the same price as a 600cc Japanese Sportbike, you can buy a used Ducati 900SS. The 600cc might be a bit faster than the Ducati, but the Ducati is faster than you’ll ever be able to ride on public roads. And it’s easier to ride fast than most 600cc. In other words, it’s more sportbike than you’ll ever be able to use in the real world. It will require more maintenance, and you’ll need to know a mechanic skilled in adjusting its valve gear, but down the road, it may be worth the bother.

Hang on to the Ducati for 10 or 20 years, and then compare its value to the value of a 20-year-old Japanese 600. The 600 will be worth less than a steaming bowl of jack, while the Ducati will be worth what you paid for it, provided you’ve taken good care of it. And if that particular model appreciates, as some people speculate it might, you could come out ahead. (If you factor in your maintenance costs and inflation, you still would have done better to invest in the stock market, but a Ducati is much more fun to ride than a few thousand shares of Archer Daniels Midland.)