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Common Tread

Why the prices of vintage motorcycles keep going up

Apr 20, 2015

Last month, a 1915 Cyclone board-track racer that was once part of Steve McQueen's collection was sold by Mecum Auctions for $775,000. One data point does not make a trend. But it is true that over the last decade, through the Great Recession and the real estate bust, through the slow economic recovery and wide fluctuations in other assets, the value of vintage motorcycles has steadily risen.

Cyclone board track racer
Rarity and being formerly owned by a celebrity really enhance a vintage motorcycle's value. Mecum Auctions photo.

That begs the questions: “What is driving these outrageous prices?” and “How long will it last?”

To start, let’s “go inside the numbers” and see what’s happening at the top auction houses. The folks over at Gizmag have spent hundreds of hours compiling a list of the top 100 most expensive motorcycles ever to sell at auction. While half or more of valuable vintage bikes still change hands privately, auction results give us a good look at the cream of the crop, when it comes to vintage motorcycles. The first thing you’ll notice (besides all the Crockers and Brough Superiors), is that all the entries, save one, are from 2006 onward. A deeper investigation yields an upward trend in average sale price starting in 2006 and continuing on through 2014. Obviously, there is not yet much information from 2015, but considering that Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1959 Harley-Davidson just sold for $385,000, I think it’s safe to say the trend is continuing.

While Gizmag's list represents the upper echelon of motorcycles, price increases have also trickled down to the more modest machines you can find on eBay or Craigslist. It’s not uncommon to find asking prices of $60,000 for Knuckleheads, which were selling for a mere $40,000 in recent memory.

Crocker motorcycle
Every Crocker motorcycle was built to order and guaranteed to be faster than a Harley-Davidson or Indian. Examples have sold at auction for $350,000. Photo by Simon Clay for RM Sotheby's.

What is fueling this upward trend in prices? One factor is the age distribution in this country. More than 25 percent of the population is over the age of 55. Not all of those people are doing well, but a significant number have probably paid off their homes, put their kids through school and now have a big chunk of disposable income burning a hole in their pockets. Add to that our society’s fixation on "buying back your childhood," and things begin to get clearer. Ever since the first Chewbacca figure was purchased on eBay, Americans have been paying exorbitant prices for those things they wanted when they were kids. With a quarter of the population growing up during the heyday of vintage motorcycles, it’s no wonder that old bikes are getting snapped up and money seems to be no object.

1913 Thor
At auctions or swap meets, vintage motorcycles are selling for impressive prices. Photo by Bill Andrews.
Add to this the mass adoption of online auction sites, like eBay, and now every motorcycle and every part that you ever wanted is just a few mouse clicks away. Gone are the days of hunting the want ads or searching old barns for bikes. The internet brings it all right into your living room and you don’t even have to get your hands dirty.

eBay has also opened the U.S. motorcycle market to the entire world, so we are no longer just haggling with other Americans, but also with Europeans and Asians who have an appetite for vintage Americana.

A few years ago, when the U.S. dollar was not as strong as it is today, I met a fellow from Australia who was traveling the United States by motorcycle. He wound up buying a vintage car and a vintage motorcycle, which he shipped back to Australia for less than he could have bought either back home. If you think this is an isolated case, take note next time you are at a major rally. It’s not too hard to pick out the foreign buyers scooping up machines to ship back across the ocean.

The last bit of pressure on the vintage motorcycle market comes from something I wholeheartedly support, which is actually riding your vintage motorcycle. Events like the Kickstart Classic and the Motorcycle Cannonball Run are inspiring more people to get out and ride their old bikes, and that inspires others to buy a vintage bike and join in. Not to mention that all this riding means more breakdowns and the need for replacement parts, which drives up the prices of all those old parts that have been collecting dust on shelves for the last 50 years.

gas tanks on eBay
Would you pay $7,000 for gas tanks? RevZilla illustration.

Like they say though, "all good things must come to an end," and I think the same is true for the rise in vintage motorcycle prices. As the Baby Boomers start to fade, we’ll see more and more bikes coming onto the market and prices will stabilize. I don’t think they’ll ever drop significantly (as long as there is gas), but the demand will certainly begin to taper off. The younger generations will be more interested in the motorcycles of their youth, which are more common.

If you are like me and you long for machines that are twice your age, I have one bit of advice. Don’t waste your time trying to buddy up to that old neighbor with the Panhead under a sheet in his garage. He’s not going to give you the bike.

Instead, get to know his wife. She’ll need someone to get that leaky piece of junk out of the garage after he dies, and you’ll be the first one she calls.

On the other hand, if the bike turns out to be a Crocker, you'd better just play it safe and marry the woman…