The New Faces of Vintage

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The market for vintage motorcycles relies on buyers who had, or at least wanted to, own a specific motorcycle from the past. For the pre- and early-Boomers, this typically was a British marque: a Triumph, Norton, BSA, or any of the other bikes that dominated industry sales in the '50s and '60s. That generation however, is fading. A new face is emerging: mid- to late-boomers who lusted after the Honda CB, CL 305s and 250, the Yamaha RD, Suzuki Hustler, and the Kawasaki Mach III.

This isn't to say that the market for Brit and European vintage bikes has disappeared (although according to some sources, it has softened at the lower end of the price spectrum), but it's definitely being superseded by the emerging Japanese vintage market.

According to Glen Bator, president of Bator International, a firm focused on sales, restoration and the import and export of higher-end motorcycles, business hasn't dropped off all that much, but activity on the lower end of the market, mid-60s Triumphs and Velos, is "just about dead."

Bator goes on to say that the past year has seen a lot of very good bikes "coming out of the cobwebs," and prices for grade A motorcycles — Vincents and Broughs for example — are good with prices staying strong. He cites a recent auction held overseas where B-grade Vincent Shadows were selling for over $100,000 and Broughs in the $350,000 to $400,000 range.

"With the stock market tanking, people who have money are pulling out of the market and putting their money into collectibles," Bator says. The people contacting him now are serious buyers, he notes, but it's difficult to predict the future and notes that it varies from day-to-day.

Bator, who also owns the El Camino Vintage Motorcycle Show and Swap Meet, said the recent show was one of the best, with 240 vendors and about 2,000 attendees. Ninety-nine bikes were up for sale, but only one sold that he was aware of.

Randy Baxter, of Baxter Cycle, deals in a much wider price range of vintage product than Bator, but his comments support much of what Bator has to say. "Overall, vintage is off a little bit, partly due to the dollar being so weak. Overseas sales are good, and I recently shipped four containers-full to Europe. Here, the cream-of-the-crop stuff is bringing in good money ... people who have money are continuing to make purchases," he says. He also notes that activity on the less-expensive product is sliding.In addition to restorations and bikes, Baxter also has an extensive inventory of parts. He reports that parts sales are "very good, but that there's less and less inventory available and a lot of Ma-and-Pa shops are going out of business and parts inventories are being consolidated." A recent example is Moore's in California selling out to Klemp's in Minnesota, and Baxter's recent purchase of Cycle Hub of Portland's vintage parts inventory.

Ian Kennedy and his wife Lorna run The Cycle Depot, a wholesale vintage parts business in Mableton, Ga. Kennedy says that "parts sales are about where they were last year. I'm trying to focus on fast moving parts, because dealers usually want it now." While Kennedy inventories and sells a lot of NOS and used old parts, he's also working with manufacturers to provide reproductions, particularly of fast moving parts like brakes and cables. He said he tries to source locally, but that prices have forced him to source some parts overseas.

For a number of years, Kennedy also performed restorations on an assembly line basis, producing motorcycles that were not show quality, but mechanically and cosmetically acceptable as a rider. These bikes sold from $7,500 to $8,000 apiece. He's since gotten out of that restoration business, but notes that the supply of "core bikes" was drying up pretty fast and that a restoration that might have cost $5,000 a few years ago was now around $20,000, even for a pretty mundane motorcycle.While Kennedy's focus is on British bikes, he has a 140-page catalog of parts. He's also working on acquiring vintage Japanese reproductions as well.

One bright spot that Kennedy notes is the bobber market, a growing mainstay for the V-Twin builders as demand for "custom Brit-bikes is picking up." The positive side of this, from his point of view, is that unlike restoration owners, "who just want to look at [their bikes], custom guys want to ride 'em."

Mitch Boehm, long-time editor-in-chief of Motorcyclist magazine and current editor of Motorcyclist Retro, notes that Japanese vintage bikes are coming into their own as guys who lusted after these bikes are getting into their 40s and are able to finally buy the bike that got them excited in their youth.

According to Boehm, the trend spans all product segments, from motocross to street, and across many brands including Hodaka, Bridgestone and, of course, the Japanese Big Four. Unlike the British vintage bikes, there are plenty of restoration candidates available and parts aplenty to get them running.

Boehm points out that at this year's mid-Ohio Vintage Days, much of the product for sale in the swap meet section — maybe as much as two-thirds — was Japanese, and covered the entire range from big-bore street machines to Honda Elsinores.

Bator supports Boehm's assessments and adds that the Japanese bikes will become more and more prominent in the future. "It's the fastest growing segment in the world. For $3,000 to $10,000 a guy can have a really nice classic, in contrast for the $60,000 or more you might pay for an American or European bike."

Bator says the trend is similar to the current popularity of muscle cars from the same era and adds that they represent great value for the money. "I like this trend. It's bringing new people into the market, the money doesn't play such a large part in it, and it's more about the fun," he says.

The growing trend in the vintage market to Japanese bikes bodes well for many dealers in the U.S. Many dealers have parts squirreled away, along with the technical know-how to get these bikes up and running. As we've stated in the past, this is an opportunity that should be considered. Restorations can keep your mechanics busy during the winter months and if these bikes are being used regularly, additional profits can come from parts sales and maintenance during the riding season.