Vintage bikes are increasing in value, but that’s not why you should buy one
I took my best girl out on the back of my motorcycle last week. On an unseasonably warm autumn day, we roared along British country roads lined in early fall colors to enjoy an early supper at The Bricklayers Arms in Midhurst. My 1974 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport felt strong and sounded peachy, the beat of Lafranconi Competizione exhausts spalling off the high Sussex banks. I felt 17 again, to be honest, especially so when on the way home all the lamps failed on my 45-year old machine and Mrs. English stood patiently at the side of the road while I prodded and poked around by torchlight. Some things never change…
Despite their occasional failure to proceed, these 1970s Italians are fast becoming highly collectible, along with contemporary German and Japanese bikes. Pick of the crop are names such as Ducati and MV Agusta, plus early BMWs, but early Guzzi twins like mine are gently bubbling up. Add in the rare Japanese stuff from super bikes such as the Honda CB400 Four, Kawasaki Z1, and Suzuki GT750 water-cooled two-stroke nicknamed “Kettle.” There’s also a market for the smaller off-roaders, such as the Honda Africa Twin (or XL250S), Kawasaki KE100, Suzuki TS250C, and Yamaha DT250S. Containers filled with battered examples of these trail machines are coming over to Europe from the U.S., and whatever their condition, they’re fetching what one collector described the other day as “insane money.”
Even the most pedestrian machines are becoming sought after. As Rod Kerr puts it in the introduction to his Classic Japanese Motorcycle Guide, “There are those [machines] that struggle to earn classic status even when they’re relatively ancient… Honda’s CB250N SuperDream comes into this category; so many were sold that familiarity bred deep-seated contempt. Eventually, however, the time will come when the model is sufficiently rare for nostalgia to take hold and as if by magic, the SuperDream will transmogrify into a valuable classic.”
Um, Rod, it already has…
“Like everything else, we move on,” says Ben Walker, director for collectors’ motorcycles at Bonhams. “It’s the same enthusiasm for motorcycles but just for later machines…”
This rise in the market for 1970s, ’80s, and even ’90s machines is a relatively new phenomenon and is running parallel with a slight cooling in the market for 1950s and ’60s British machines. Walker says Baby Boomers are now reaching early old age and have realized they are no longer capable of kicking over a 500cc BSA Gold Star, no matter how desirable it is. As a result, he says, “Collections are being rationalized. Prices haven’t dropped away much, but the old Brit market is reduced in size with more wanting to sell than there are buyers. So now it’s men [and women] in their 50s and 60s. They’ve paid off the mortgage, they have independent means (perhaps an inheritance), and they’re looking at machines from their youth.”
In all likelihood, they’ll also remember that ’70s and ’80s Japanese bikes were pretty reliable; most had electric starters and few left puddles of oil everywhere they were parked.
But there are some strange stars in this new order of collectables. New two-stroke engines are now banned from sale in many countries of the world, and as a result, used ones are getting very hard to find—and valuable. The market for these “stink wheels” is toastily overheated, with machines such as Kawasaki’s 500cc H1 Mach III triple “the widowmaker,” Yamaha RD, and TZ models, with the liquid-cooled variety and equivalent Suzukis particularly sought after.
Walker says that some of the rarities from the ’80s are also gaining a following—“stuff that was hard to sell back then, like the turbo bikes.”
Really? If you like putting your legs astride the two-wheeled equivalents of a Saturn V rocket, then the machines to look for are the Honda CX500T, Yamaha XJ650L Seca Turbo, Kawasaki GPz Turbo (as well as the 1970s Z1-R Turbo), and Suzuki XN85. The turbo “thing” was fun, stupendously dangerous, and didn’t last long, but neither did the bikes.
I’m pretty happy with my Guzzi, though; it’s quick, absurdly easy to ride, and for most of the time, reliable—actually, the only unreliable bits are the electrics, and most are from Bosch, a German company. Its fiery, air-cooled vee-twin was first designed in the 1960s by Giulio Cesare Carcano and initially saw service in a weird army trike, the Autoveicolo da Montagna, then the V7 Special, a shaft-drive plodder for the Italian police. It wasn’t fast enough for the American police requirements so the longitudinal-crank, transverse-vee was heavily revised by Lino Tonti, and he and the Guzzi team (including world champion Mike Hailwood) set a load of 750cc speed records.
Tonti then heavily revised the machine’s frame and the engine still further for use in the first V7 Sport. Launched in the middle of a slump in big bike sales (and Moto Guzzi’s near bankruptcy) the firm conducted extensive market research with the help of Milan University, dipping deep into the Pantone catalogue as a result and painting the first machines an extravagant green with red frames—telaio rosso. Mine’s a later black-framed machine and has the worthwhile optional Brembo twin front disc set up, which means it stops.
Perhaps the biggest reason for owning it, however, is that I have something to do with it, even if that’s only going out on lovely roads at home to meet friends on similar machines and eat bacon and eggs—or take Mrs. English to the pub.
And there lies the rub. As Walker says, “You should never buy a motorcycle with the intention of making money on it; you should buy it because you love it. I’ve seen people bidding up a Honda CB125 at auction, which when new was a completely underwhelming machine, but they will have ridden one when they were young and just want to relive those moments.”
So don’t lose all hope in your ’60s Brit, as like the music industry, what goes around in motorcycles eventually comes around. For example, in addition to the ’70s and ’80s boom, Walker reports a renewed interest in Edwardian and 1920s machines.