Passion collecting: investing in classic motorbikes

Words by
Simon De Burton

4th January 2017

The classic motorcycle market is rising on a tide of nostalgia, but these investment-grade dream machines still offer reasonable asset options – if you act fast

In terms of collectability, classic motorcycles have travelled from the tradesman’s entrance right around to the front door, so machines that could have been bought for £25,000 a decade ago can now realise six-figure sums. As with many investment-grade collectables, the growth in the market can partly be attributed to tangible assets being favourable at a time when cash in the bank is earning next to no interest. Yet there’s more to the classic bike boom than simply the promise of profit.

In many cases, people (mainly men) of a certain age have found themselves with the funds to secure the machines they lusted after in their youth. For others, motorcycles represent a more accessible route into classic vehicle ownership than old cars, while some buyers have simply fallen in love with the design, engineering and history that make a bike transcend its status from mere means of transport to one of rolling work of art.

In the league table of collectable British marques, the Brough Superior sits on top. Famously favoured in its day by luminaries such as George Bernard Shaw and TE Lawrence (who died on one), its reputation as “the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles” prevails today. Production lasted from 1919-1940 and the best can now command up to £300,000.

Telaio Rosso (red frame) 1971 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, with a transverse V-twin engine
Telaio Rosso (red frame) 1971 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, with a transverse V-twin engine, sold for £20,700 at Bonham's spring classic motorcycle auction

Bonhams’ annual spring classic motorcycle auction in April saw eight Broughs come under the hammer, all of which were incomplete, ravaged by rust and in need of restoration from the ground up. That didn’t prevent them from making £752,625 between them after bidders from around the world competed for ownership.

Dubbed “the Broughs of Bodmin Moor”, they were unearthed in Cornwall at the end of last year following the death of their 94-year-old owner, Frank Vague. Yet their unloved condition belied the important fact that what was left of them was known to be genuine — each bike still bearing the original frame and engine it had left the factory with up to 90 years earlier.

“Whether or not someone is interested because they are a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast or simply because they are an investor, today’s higher-end classic motorcycle buyers all tend to approach the subject from a point of knowledge ,” says Bonhams specialist Ben Walker. “They read, research, check and compare. As a result, authenticity and correctness are more important than ever. A motorcycle in poor condition, but still with its genuine components and matching frame and engine numbers, will usually fetch far more money than one that has been restored using pattern parts.”

In many cases, men of a certain age have found themselves with the funds to secure the machines they listed after in their youth

Apparently insignificant nuances in certain of the most sought-after models can also cause values to rocket. Ordinarily, a White Shadow might fetch around £100,000 at auction, but last year when Bonhams offered a 1951 Vincent White Shadow at its annual Las Vegas sale, the price soared to £303,291 as this was the only one to have left the factory in a colour scheme of Chinese Red (as opposed to the more usual black).

 Vincents, built from 1928 to 1955 — the first “superbikes”— are among the most sought after of British classics. Regular production models start with the 500cc Comet, examples of which can be had for less than £10,000, rising to £18,000 -£25,000 for the 1,000cc Rapide and £50,000-plus for its higher-performance stablemate, the Black Shadow (the White Shadow being a rare variant with engine cases that were polished rather than painted).

Perhaps surprisingly, motorcycles built in the first decades of the 20th century by makers such as Henderson, Scott, Clement, Indian and AJS are also proving remarkably popular among collectors, who favour their engineering simplicity, vintage looks — and the fact that they are eligible for increasingly well-subscribed rallies such as the Vintage Motorcycle Club’s Banbury Run and the Sunbeam Motorcycle Club’s Pioneer Run.

Quintessential British classics, such as the Triumph Bonneville, the Velocette Thruxton and BSA’s Gold Star and Golden Flash still offer a relatively affordable way into classic bike ownership with values ranging from £7,500-£25,000 depending on model, condition and whether a bike has a notable provenance or impressive race history.

Anyone who has an urge to own one should buy now. In my opinion, prices can go only one way.

These days, however, a classic bike need not be so old in order to be sought after. The market for machines made by Italian firms such as Moto Guzzi, MV Agusta and Ducati, and Japanese marques such as Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha as recently as the late 1990s, is also proving strong. Japanese bikes helped to cause the demise of the British motorcycle industry when they were first imported during the 1960s thanks to their higher levels of sophistication and the fact that they offered greater reliability.

Those attributes stand today, making classic Japanese machines popular with those who want to ride more often and for longer distances. Especially sought-after models include Honda’s legendary CB750-Four, Kawasaki’s Z900 and Suzuki’s GT750, an unusual touring bike with a three-cylinder, water-cooled, two-stroke engine. Excellent-condition examples of all three can still be bought for less than £10,000.

According to Walker, we are also set to see a hike in values for certain machines from the late 1990s and early 2000s: “There is no doubt that people are recognising the significance of machines such as Honda’s SP-1 and SP-2 sports bikes, built from 2000-2006, and the already iconic Ducati 916 series, which ran from 1994 to 1998. They are modern, great looking and great sounding motorcycles that can be used every day, yet they can definitely be considered as classics.”

And Walker advises not to wait: “Anyone who has an urge to own one should buy now. In my opinion, prices can go only one way.”