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Vintage motorcycles find traction in soft economy

Some rarities fetch six figures at auction, yet the market remains more affordable than classic cars. Compared with securities, a Curtiss V-8 is looking more and more like a solid investment.

May 09, 2009|Susan Carpenter

They leak, shake, rattle and spark -- and sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The rarest of rare vintage motorcycles, these decades-old machines are challenging to start and difficult to ride. Yet they are becoming more expensive to purchase despite -- and some say because of -- the down economy.

For years, ultra-obscure bikes such as a 1936 Crocker Twin or a 1907 Curtiss V-8 were collected by a small handful of moneyed gearheads. They had such deep appreciation for the unique designs and temperaments of these machines that they'd willingly use their shins as heat guards, repurpose their feet as brake shoes and consider it a deal to pay tens of thousands of dollars to experience such evolutionary technology.

Now, they're paying six figures. And the price increases are happening even as the market for new motorcycles is tanking.

More collectors are getting into the market and driving up prices for rare motorcycles, many of which have doubled or tripled in value in as many years. They're fueled by a sputtering stock market that has investors putting their money into hard goods, a weak dollar that's drawing European buyers and vintage car collectors who see historic bikes as a significantly less expensive fulfillment of their multimillion-dollar desires for ancient pistons and camshafts.

"Good machines have been performing well over the last few years, and prices are still on the ascent," said Mark Osborne, head of the motorcycle and motorcars division at Bonhams & Butterfields. The English auction house is offering about 70 vintage motorcycles at this weekend's Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Carmel, Calif. The event will offer an additional 115 bikes for show on the lawns of the Quail Lodge.

Osborne noted that the most expensive bike ever auctioned through Bonhams -- a $383,400 supercharged Vincent Black Shadow -- was sold in October, just as the worldwide economy was diving.

"We put it down to the fact that people like to buy something that they can touch, smell and enjoy," he said. "They can get out and use these things. It's not like paper held in a bank that's sort of disappearing on a daily basis."

This weekend's show is the two-wheeler version of a car show called The Quail, a Motorsports Gathering, which takes place in August. It's the first of two esteemed car-centric events that are branching into bikes for the first time in their long and rarefied histories. In August, the Pebble Beach Concours will also include motorcycles for the first time in the event's 59 years.

"I've been with the Concours almost 25 years, and I don't think there's been a year that's gone by that somebody hasn't requested a motorcycle class," said Sandra Kasky Button, chairwoman of the Pebble Beach event. "We've always resisted the pressure and stayed focused on cars. It really is time."

The market for new motorcycles is down 30% so far this year, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. And sales of high-production vintage bikes such as Harley-Davidson panheads from the '50s, '60s-era Triumph Bonnevilles and '70s Honda CB750s have softened along with the economy.

But the market for motorcycle manufacturers of the long-ago, lesser-known and mostly defunct variety has seen dramatic increases. Prices for Crocker, a Los Angeles-based marque from the '30s that's known to have produced a mere 39 bikes, have quadrupled in the last five years. Others that are bringing top dollar include the British manufacturer Vincent, original-condition bikes from pre-World War II American manufacturers and anything with a racing pedigree.

The 1957 Manx Norton ridden to victory by Brit Derek Minter is expected to fetch as much as $100,000 this weekend. The Vincent "Gunga Din" crashed in defeat by racer George Brown in 1948 could bring more than $200,000 at Pebble Beach.

"The factory race bikes, these seem to be the bikes that get people's attention and seem to draw the most amount of money right now," said Jeff Ray, executive director of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Ala.

The museum, which owns 1,100 motorcycles, is on the hunt for more but is waiting for the market to settle.

"There's a saying in collecting motorcycles: 'You never pay too much, you just buy too soon.' If a 1915 Harley-Davidson twin was offered 10 years ago at $150,000, people would have thrown rocks at the guy and told him he'd lost his mind. Well, one just sold for $165,000 in January," Ray said. "We're putting our hands in our pockets and standing on the sidelines and watching."

Don Whalen, a collector in Monrovia, is taking a similar stance.

"My partner and I used to buy 10 to 12 bikes a year," said Whalen, 63, who for the last 40 years has been collecting primarily pre-1920 motorcycles from the dozens of American manufacturers that existed at that time. "Now we buy two or three or one, if it's an important one."

Of the 160 bikes in Whalen's collection, about 30 came from Otis Chandler, the former Los Angeles Times publisher who was an avid motorcyclist and collector of exceedingly rare, high-end motorcycles. After his death in 2006, the auction of his dozens-strong collection provided momentum to a market that was already gaining speed.

The current craze has its seeds in the Guggenheim's Art of the Motorcycle show that toured the world in the late '90s. Showcasing hundreds of bikes from motorcycling's history, the exhibit broadened the public's view of a sport that, at the time, was dominated by Harley-Davidson cruisers and Japanese sport bikes.

The Art of the Motorcycle was also the inspiration for Legend of the Motorcycle, an annual showcase and auction of premium vintage bikes that started in 2006. The event further raised the profile of exotic, two-wheeled machines that founder Jared Zaugg said have been "giving men instant sex appeal since 1869."


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