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Common Tread

Interview: Building a marketplace for moto-exotica with Bike-urious and Iconic

Oct 01, 2019

You might know my good friend and fellow moto-writer Abhi Eswarappa from his site, Bike-urious, or from some of the articles he's appeared in on Common Tread. He likes all kinds of motorcycles, but he has a special interest in fast stuff from the 1980s through the early 2000s. 

Recently, Abhi teamed up with Iconic Motorbikes to create an auction site for special motorcycles. You might know Iconic for their uncanny ability to find, restore, and celebrate some of the finest machines to ever touch blacktop. So if you're looking to unload a Honda RC51, or you just want to gawk at some of the all-time great motorcycles of yesteryear, head over to Iconic Motorbike Auctions. All of this is right up my alley, so Abhi and I made some time for an interview to share all this radness with you.

Andy Greaser: When you started Bike-urious, did you ever imagine it growing so big that you’d become this authority on classic bikes?

Abhi Eswarappa: You flatter me – I don’t think I’d feel comfortable calling myself an authority just yet. Through Bike-urious I’ve been lucky to meet plenty of true authorities in the field that have gone out of their way to help and educate me, people like Jay Leno, Paul d’Orleans, Somer Hooker, and countless others that are less public facing. Every time I talk to them, I learn something new about bikes. And when I talk to Paul, I also learn something about my lack of fashion sense.

Abhi Eswarappa
Abhi and Paul d'Orleans. Photo by Susan McLaughlin.

To properly answer your question, no. I started Bike-urious as an excuse to teach myself how to build a website, and I figured that I’d be more motivated to see it through if I picked a topic I was passionate about. My girlfriend gets the credit for coming up with the name.

So, one day I was bored out of my mind during accounting class in my MBA program — I stopped paying attention (sorry, Professor!) and started playing around with WordPress.  Bike-urious was born, but I never really thought it would get any significant traction.

It grew organically for a few months and then I got my first big break through a chance encounter with Jay Leno. He offered to help me out by featuring one of my interesting finds on his YouTube show, Jay Leno’s Garage.  It took me some time to find a bike that I knew Jay would be interested in, but once I met Aniket Vardhan and learned about his Royal Enfield Musket V-Twins, it was an easy introduction to make.

That episode added a lot of legitimacy to what I was doing and opened many doors for Bike-urious. Now the site is a wonderful part-time gig that’s made me some amazing new friends (including you, Lance, Lemmy, and Spurgeon) and given me riding opportunities that I could have only dreamed of before.

AG: So now you’re partnered with Iconic Motorbikes to auction some of the most legendary modern classics out there. How did that connection happen? What drove you to make this project a reality?

AE: Weirdly enough, I owe it to the United Launch Alliance! A rocket-enthusiast friend of mine named Erik has a place in Venice near Iconic Motorbikes, and he’ll sometimes host viewing parties from his roof when there are evening launches out of Vandenberg Air Force Base. Last December there was a weird stretch of two weeks where the ULA had to scrub five straight attempts with a Delta Heavy IV.

Erik had already visited Iconic and told me that I had to check it out for myself, so after one of the failed attempts I went over to the shop with my newfound free time. I was already following Iconic on Instagram because their profile is amazing, so I figured I’d just poke around for 15 minutes and then head home. I was wrong.

Even though I came in 30 minutes before closing time, I ended up spending three hours with Adam Tromp, Iconic’s ringleader. He showed me around the shop as well as the “vault” upstairs, and he had a story for nearly every machine.  His enthusiasm is truly infectious, and by the end of our first meeting we were already planning out the auction site. Both of us had individually wanted to pursue such a project but we didn’t have all the pieces to do it ourselves. It made a lot of sense for us to partner up.

It took us a few months to get the tech right and line up some initial bikes, but we’ve been live for a little over a month now

AG: So how exactly does this auction process work? What strengths do you and Iconic each bring to the table?

AE: In most aspects, it’s like any other auction site — we just try to make it as easy as possible for both buyers and sellers. There are a few things in which we differ from sites like eBay, most important of which is our ability to support buyers and sellers before and after the listing. We do the heavy lifting when it comes to building the listings, and if you need help with getting photos taken of your bike, working with shippers, or even fixing up aspects of something you just bought, we can help with all of it. One thing sellers truly appreciate is that we’re able to weed out non-paying bidders because we take credit card holds from the latter to show that they’re serious. If a bike doesn’t meet reserve, we’ll also start a discussion with the highest bidder to see if we can help make a deal.

This Honda RVF400 originally did not meet reserve, but Iconic closed a sale after talking with the two highest bidders. Photo via Iconic Motorbikes.

It’s nice to have an online offering so that bikes can be bought and sold throughout the year, not just at big annual auctions. Bike-urious handles most of the forward-facing aspects of the site while the awesome folks at Iconic (Steve, Sandro, Danny, and Adam) offer a brick-and-mortar presence so that anyone can come visit, chat with us, and view bikes up close. You don’t have to send your bike to us to get it listed, but some sellers prefer that. We like to provide options!

The key is that everyone is passionate about motorcycles, and I like to think that shows when you talk to us as friends or work with us as partners! 

AG: How are things going so far?

AE: First and foremost, it’s exciting! The optimist in me will always hope for more bidders, but I know that will come with time once we’ve proven ourselves. The important thing is that we’re seeing good growth — new bidding accounts and bike submissions every day.

Iconic Motorbikes
An Iconic open house to show off some bikes.

We’re already able to offer at least one listing a day (Tuesday through Saturday) and we just had an open house where we uncrated some 0-mile bikes with anyone that wanted to join us. It was a treat to see people’s eyes light up when they saw a Ducati Supermono, Honda NR750, or Bimota V-Due in the flesh. Some of the bikes have already been sold, and there’s some fun ones in this week’s lineup: expect to see the first Aprilia RSV4 (2009, VIN#1, zero miles), a first year Honda CBR900RR with zero miles, an adorable YSR sidecar, a Mondial Piega, Hayden Gillim’s 2016 MotoAmerica Superstock Suzuki GSX-R1000, a street legal Aprilia RS50, and a Bimota BB1 Supermono that’s been converted into a road racer. There may also be a couple of no reserve bikes to make sure we hit across all price points. You heard it here first!

Bimota V-Due
Ever see a Bimota V-Due in the wild? Or... any Bimota at all? Photo by Sandro Parra.

AG: When the auction’s over, how do bidders receive their bikes?

AE: It’s entirely up to the bidder and seller. If they want to work it out, great. If they need help, that’s one of the advantages of Iconic. As you can imagine, we deal with shippers all the time so we can work out all the details with companies that we’ve used hundreds of times before and trust.

Mondial Piega
I live for the weird stuff, and I'd never even heard of this model. Photo by Nathan May.

AG: What kind of motorcycle might I want to sell through your auction? What’s the litmus test?

AE: Adam’s got a phrase that I like, which is “every bike is Iconic to someone.” Considering what Iconic specialized in before we started working together, there’s currently a preponderance of '90s sportbikes. But we don’t have any bike-specific restrictions, it just has to be cool and well-presented. Ever seen James May’s bit about the “fizz”?

That’s the idea — we want to feature bikes that give someone that fizzy feeling. Doesn’t matter if it’s a ‘20s Harley-Davidson, ‘70s Kawasaki H2, ‘80s turbo bike, or a modern adventure bike. It’s more a gut feeling than anything else, and it will be different for different people, it just has to make someone happy.

You might look at this Honda EZ-9 we auctioned and think, “well, that’s a slow, automatic scooter.” Or you might look at it and say, “that’s the perfect pit bike for when I race my Rothmans-livery Honda NSR250!” Who am I to judge? All I know is that the new owner loves it and it’s going in his gigantic dirt bike collection.

Honda EZ-9
Abhi, I love the EZ-9, and this one in particular. Photo by Sandro Parra.

AG: What used motorcycles do you feel are getting really popular right now? Any guesses at what will be desirable next?

AE: I asked Adam to answer this question, because my taste in bikes is just too weird to overlap with commercial success. He knows much better, and this is a paraphrased version of what he had to say:

Any homologation bike is going to be widely desirable. Think of the ZX-7RRs, the GSX-R Limited Edition or RKs, and the RC30. The Honda is particularly incredible — we’ve sold several between $38,000-$42,000, with one as high as $65,000. Zero-mile bikes are at a whole different level, you’re looking as high as $120,000 with those.

Honda RC30
Honda's RC series brings big demand today. This RC30 is a beautiful example. Photo by Nathan May.

We see a lot of behavior from collectors where they fell in love with a certain bike when they were young but couldn’t afford it. Maybe you were obsessed with a Yamaha OW-01 but could only afford the FZR. But over the years you’ve become successful and now have some cash in the bank, and it’s time for you to finally get that OW-01 you’ve lusted after for decades.

Certain bikes are really hitting their stride right now, like the Ducati Supermono or Honda NR750. But you probably knew those would be popular from the day they were released. I was somewhat surprised by how the Ducati Desmosedici RR fell in value, but now they’re coming back. What really blows my mind is some of the little bikes that you can’t really ride anywhere significant, bikes like the Honda Motocompo or Mini Trail. I recently saw a Suzuki GSX-R 50 with a reserve of $12,000 that sold for $15,000!

Honda Motocompo
Everybody loves a Motocompo. Photo by Nathan May.

First-year bikes are also particularly valuable such as 1993 Honda CBR900RRs, 1998 Yamaha R1s, etc. We’re selling a zero-mile ’93 CBR900RR and bidding is already approaching $20,000…it’s the pinnacle of collectability, right? We’re finding examples tucked away in basements and garages, and that’s what the ultimate perfectionist is looking for.

It’s like when someone has an action figure in a box that’s been sitting for decades, just at a different level.

AG: Sporty motorcycles from 20 or 30 years ago lived hard lives, and lots of shops don’t even want to touch them anymore. And some parts, like plastics, can be nearly impossible to find for some models. What’s the hardest part of prepping one of these bikes for auction?

AE: For me, the hardest part is bugging Sandro and Steve so they can actually do the hard work.  With that in mind, I asked Sandro to take this question on.

“As it is my duty to help inspect and prep bikes for Iconic Motorbike Auctions, I must say we are lucky to have Steve as our tech. He has over 40 years of industry experience including time with multiple racers such as Russ Collins, Aaron Gobert, and Jeremy Toye. Somehow, he’ll work on anything and find solutions that are to OEM specifications or better, if given the opportunity. We are very fortunate here that most of the bikes arrive in decent shape, but we occasionally get something in less than ideal condition. When that happens, we’ve been able to tap into a large network of friends that are always willing to lend a hand or expertise. Sometimes it can take a while to source a needed part, but we’ve always been able to make it work through friends or dedicated internet searches.  It may sometimes take longer than we want, but we’re always able to get a bike up to Iconic standards.”

AG: Sometimes, I think we see a lot of these bikes through rose-colored glasses. (I’m definitely guilty of this.) But so often, these older machines really age well. What do the modern classics you specialize in offer over new bikes off the showroom floor?

AE: Logically, nothing — and that’s part of why I love them. I think everyone’s guilty of wearing rose-colored glasses every once in a while, and I also think there’s a group of people that appreciates technology but sometimes struggles to find it tangible.

Think of it this way: when bikes have made advancements over the last few decades, it’s been in ways that even mediocre riders could feel — increased horsepower, better tires, stronger brakes, improved suspension, rigid frames with designed amounts of flex, etc. But in the last few years, especially when I’m at press launches, it feels like “progress” is found when companies tout how the traction control system has five settings instead of three.

I was at the launch of the BMW S 1000 RR with Spurgeon earlier in the year, and BMW kept throwing acronym after acronym (usually with the word “Pro” after it) at us. There’s 14 levels of traction control that you can change on the fly, multiple settings in terms of how much of the suspension is static versus real-time, and even adjustable engine braking.

On paper, the BMW S 1000 RR crushes the classics. Not everything good about a motorcycle is found on the spec sheet, though. Photo by Kevin Wing.

It’s all very impressive, and I’m definitely faster around a track with the technology assists than without, but as I mentioned in my review, it “sometimes felt like a bunch of software engineers in Germany built a video game on two wheels and I was just hanging on for the ride.” Lots of riders don’t get excited about that.

I’m not saying all tech is bad — ABS is a Very Good Thing, I’m officially spoiled by heated grips, and I’m blown away by what companies are able to do with digital dashboards. But I sure miss being able to walk by a motorcycle in a parking lot and taking a quick peek at the odometer to see how many miles that bike had covered. The grass is always greener, right?

Everyone’s got a different opinion, but my general thought is that if I want to set a lap record, I want as much technology as possible. If I want to ride for the joy of riding, I feel more connected to a modern classic. Sometimes you just want to loft a wheelie without having to hold a tiny button on the dash for ages to turn off traction control first — I’m looking at you, Husqvarna.

I’m very lucky that I get to test all kinds of modern bikes for reviews on Bike-urious or my freelance gigs, but I get just as much joy out of the Honda S90 I bought to teach my girlfriend how to ride. It’s small, it’s slow, and it’s sloppy, but it’s a hoot in its own way and I get a kick out of a 50-year-old bike that keeps on ticking. There may not be any logical advantages to the old stuff, but there sure are several emotional ones.

Honda S90
Abhi and I are both S90 owners, though his is in much better shape. Photo by These Rides.

AG: I was gutted to find out that Retro-RR, my new favorite magazine, folded recently after just a few issues. Their focus on motorcycles of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early ‘00s just didn’t bring in the readership they needed to stay afloat. Yet your auctions of motorcycles from that era seem to be doing well. Why do you think enthusiasts are so drawn to your work?

AE: I’m ashamed to admit that your question was the first I heard of Retro-RR’s closure, which is an absolute shame. They did great work.

I genuinely don’t know the answer to your question, and I don’t want to get into a dissertation about the magazine industry because you guys have covered that quite well. A lot of our early success is due to Adam’s infectious passion for motorcycles — I know I shared his Instagram account up above already but it’s worth another mention because he’s truly amazing at finding interesting bikes and sharing them as much as he can. At the end of the day, motorcycles are supposed to be fun. He never forgets that and I’d like to think we do a good job of having that come through in our work.

YSR 50 Sidecar
How could you not smile when you’re on a bike like this? Photo by Adam Tromp.

AG: Which would you rather see: bone-stock or period-correct mods?

AE: On a bike I’m riding, I love period-correct mods as long as they’re reversible. Bonus points if the mods are old, rare, and weird. If I was advising someone who wanted to maximize the future resale value of their bike, I’d tell them to keep it stock. But I don’t think of bikes that way — I just want to ride them. Give me period-correct mods and patina all day!

AG: Have you sold a crated bike yet? What are your feelings on those?

AE: Not yet, but the timing of your question is excellent! As I mentioned above, we just had a collection of zero-mile crated bikes coming in, and many of them will be going up on the auction site. It included ~zero-mile examples of the Honda NR750, Bimota V-Due, 998S Bayliss, 998S Bostrom, Ducati MH900e, Aprilia RSV4 VIN#001, and more. There’s also a Ducati Supermono, Honda RC45, and a British Superbike Red Bull Ducati 996RS. It was a good day!

Honda NR750
The Honda NR750 we just received has five miles on the odometer. If you don't know what this is, I've got two words for you: oval pistons. Photo by Abhi Eswarappa.

In general, I don’t get super excited about crated, zero-mile bikes because it bums me out to think about a bike that’s never been ridden. But I understand if someone wants a display piece to be as pristine as possible, and it’s not like they’re spending my money!

AG: Mandatory question: Of the bikes you’ve sold, which one would you pick for your personal garage?

AE: Our service is young, but there’s a RZ500 we recently sold that I adore because the previous owner made all the right period-correct mods. (Guess this goes back to one of your previous questions.) It’s a classic that’s built to be ridden, and it would always put a giant smile on my face. There aren’t enough two-strokes on the roads anymore!

Yamaha RZ500
A survivor from a bygone era.

Special mention goes to a ’06 RC51 that we just sold, as the buyer is flying down from Colorado and he’ll be riding his new bike back up. Fly-and-rides make me very, very happy.

AG: And if you could somehow guarantee no damage to the bike, which one would you most want to ride in anger around a track?

AE: Even though I know I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere close to the limits and it would be totally wasted on me, I’d want to ride a Britten V1000. I just need to know what it feels like! For now, all I’ve got are the words of my buddy Rennie Scaysbrook over at Cycle News.

Britten V1000
This is the closest Abhi has ever gotten to a Britten, thanks to an exhibit at the Petersen Museum. Photo by Abhi Eswarappa.

AG: Thanks so much for taking the time to share Iconic Motorbike Auctions with the readers of Common Tread.