Vintage motorcycles: What's after British iron?

Publish Date: 
Jun 27, 2012
By Mike Vaughan

THE VINTAGE MARKET, like the rest of the motorcycle industry over the past four years, has undergone significant change. Though hard numbers aren’t readily available given the number of auction companies which have entered the field, it would appear that vintage has been growing even as the mainstream market declined. How much it has grown and whether it will continue to grow is anyone’s guess; the more important issues are pricing and value, both very hard to track given the number of brands, the range of models and their condition being offered at any given auction.

One thing for certain: As labor costs increase, the expense of doing a concours competitive restoration for some classes of motorcycles doesn’t make much economic sense. A restoration of even a popular model, like a ‘60s Triumph Bonneville, can easily run to $30,000 to $40,000 — and in the end, all you have is a $15,000 - $17,000 motorcycle, unless the machine is unique and/or has some documented history.

A partial restoration, or freshening, with used and replica parts along with some paint and polish, can be done for much less, and while the effort doesn’t create an award-winning bike, it makes a good option for a person who just wants to have that specific bike as a rider and for an occasional local show. Many such bikes can be purchased in the $5,000 - $12,000 range.

At the high end of the spectrum, that part occupied by Broughs, Vincents, Crockers, along with any number of long defunct American brands from the 1930s and earlier, prices and values continue to rise — with several bikes making the half-million-dollar mark.

According to Glen Bator of Bator International Auctions, many restorations of American vintage bikes and, in particular, board track racers are accomplished through the inclusion of parts and sometimes complete frames and engines sourced from manufacturers of replicas. This diminishes the value of the original motorcycle and takes it out of the serious collector market. Counterfeiting these motorcycles, even to the extent of reproducing the patinas of old paint and bright work, can be highly profitable, and without some expert advice it’s easy to be led astray.

The issue of totally restoring motorcycles of significance is being called into question by some elements of the vintage community. Mark Mederski, special projects director for the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa, is adamant on the subject of originality and documentation. His advice is if you’ve got a bike with a history, make sure you document it. Restoration? “It shouldn’t be restored or even cleaned without a great deal of forethought. Even dead bugs on a race bike add authenticity and attest to the bike’s racing heritage. Originality and documentation are the key elements in defining a bike’s value,” he says.