The race to collect vintage motorbikes

Nostalgia is driving up the value of classic motorbikes, as a new class of collector vies for the models that eluded them in their youth. Simon de Burton reports

A Honda CBX1000 – an original 1978 model, worth about £25,000, is predicted to soon reach £100,000
A Honda CBX1000 – an original 1978 model, worth about £25,000, is predicted to soon reach £100,000 | Image: Gary Freeman/Action Library

Way back in 2004, I interviewed a 41-year-old civil servant named Eamon Maloney for the “Past Masters” column of this magazine. The subject was “classic Japanese motorcycles”, and Maloney explained that he’d already been collecting them for a decade and had amassed around 80 machines with a combined value “in excess of £250,000”. “I made a conscious decision to put any spare money into Japanese motorcycles,” Maloney told me. “They are both a hobby and a pension.”

If Mr Maloney is reading this, I hope he will accept my congratulations on his wisdom and his foresight because it is a fair guess that the Maloney motorcycle pension pot now stands somewhere between £1m and £1.5m – or higher if, as likely, his collection is even larger. But Maloney wasn’t buying just any machines. He had observed that the Japanese bikes of the 1960s and 1970s represented an entire culture of design and style, and that many of the people who lusted after them as impecunious youngsters had amassed the financial means to buy them in middle age. Instead of ogling a Honda CB750, Kawasaki Z1 or Suzuki GT750, they could at last throw a leg over one. 

The 1951 Vincent Black Lightning, ridden in 1953 by Jack Ehret to an Australian speed record of 140mph, and sold for a record $929,000 at Bonhams in 2018
The 1951 Vincent Black Lightning, ridden in 1953 by Jack Ehret to an Australian speed record of 140mph, and sold for a record $929,000 at Bonhams in 2018 | Image: Courtesy of Bonhams

Maloney realised, too, that absolute originality and completeness were key, and that certain landmark models – such as those just mentioned – would come to be regarded as cornerstones of any serious collection. Take, for example, his 1969 Honda CB750. It was the very first production example of a machine widely regarded as “the original superbike” to be imported into Britain. Maloney’s was in pristine condition and had cost him, he told me, “less than £10,000”. Last year, auction house H&H consigned one of two surviving pre-production versions brought into the country as demonstrators. Offered with a pre-sale estimate of £35,000 to £40,000, it was ultimately hammered down for £161,000, setting a new auction record for a Honda motorcycle and establishing such early versions of the CB750 with “sand cast” engines as blue-chip classics and good future investments.

But the enthusiasm of motorcycle investors is not confined to Japanese classics. Last year, Bonhams set a new auction-price record for any motorcycle when it sold the British-built Vincent Black Lightning ridden in 1953 by Jack Ehret to an Australian speed record of 140mph, for $929,000 at its annual Las Vegas bike auction; and, in March this year, H&H achieved £425,500 for a 1930 Brough Superior originally raced – and crashed – by FP “Gentleman” Dickson, one of marque founder George Brough’s closest friends. Such sums come as no surprise to Paul Jayson who, having trained and worked as a Shakespearean actor during the 1980s, moved into the motorcycle business in 1993 as a grey market dealer. He subsequently began importing affordable, small-capacity Chinese motorcycles to sell to city dispatch riders before using his knowledge of the two-wheeled world to bring classic Japanese, German and Italian machines into the UK a decade ago to serve an already growing demand.

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In 2010, a friend approached Jayson with savings of £30,000 and asked him to use the money to acquire a portfolio of investment motorcycles. Jayson spent £27,000 on five bikes – among them a Laverda Jota, a Ducati 900SS and a “sand cast” Honda CB750 – and now believes the collection to be worth “in excess of £250,000”. Making such an investment on behalf of someone else led Jayson to set up in business and, in 2012, he established The Motorcycle Broker as an end-to-end service that offers to identify, locate, verify and purchase investment-grade machines on behalf of clients in exchange for a percentage payment from buyer and seller based on the selling price. He has since found more than 100 motorcycles for clients, and spent thousands of hours researching technicalities, tracking down rarities and crunching numbers to create comprehensive – and compelling – ROI graphs that suggest buying bikes could be one of the world’s best-kept investment secrets. It is not, however, simply a case of buying whatever seems popular. 

“Out of every 100 bikes I look at on behalf of clients, I would say I reject 92,” says Jayson, when we meet at a remote and windswept location somewhere in southwest England, where he stores machines sourced for clients and employs a small team of craftsmen engineers to meticulously check them over and, if necessary, return them to as near as possible the exact condition in which they left the factory.

The 1930 Brough Superior once ridden by FP “Gentleman” Dickson that achieved £425,500 this year at H&H
The 1930 Brough Superior once ridden by FP “Gentleman” Dickson that achieved £425,500 this year at H&H | Image: Courtesy of H&H

“The profit margins are potentially huge, but only if the machine in question is absolutely right,” opines Jayson, pointing to a pristine-looking Kawasaki Z1 still fitted with the same number-stamped exhaust pipes, wheels and other key components that it was originally built with 46 years ago. “If a bike is not original, its value diminishes considerably – and it is becoming extremely difficult, and expensive, to locate original components. It is also necessary to know the number made of a particular series of machine, whether the bike in question is a common version that has been faked to look like a rarer model, and whether its history and provenance stands up.”

According to Jayson, some of the machines that currently offer the best investment potential include Honda’s mighty, six-cylinder CBX1000 from 1978, Ducati’s “green frame” 750SS sports bikes from the 1970s, limited-production models of the marque’s 1990s 916, 996 and 998 series, and MV Agusta 750S and America models made between 1974 and 1978. “An immaculate, original Honda CBX is currently worth about £25,000, but I’m confident they will go to £100,000 relatively soon. Likewise, ‘green frame’ Ducatis that are now around £140,000 could, in my opinion, become the Ferrari 250 GTO of the motorcycle world and will be worth seven figures within five to 10 years.”

This 1936 Brough Superior is listed for £85,995 at Anthony Godin
This 1936 Brough Superior is listed for £85,995 at Anthony Godin | Image: Courtesy of Anthony Godin

Jayson does, however, emphasise that anyone who chooses to invest in two wheels needs to look at the long game. “I can say with confidence that I know what will rise in value and I can suggest to a potential buyer what he or she should consider, in terms of acquiring a machine that they will enjoy owning and that will also appreciate – but it is important to understand that this is a five-to-10-year investment plan.”

One man who has seen classic motorcycles surge in popularity of late is Anthony Godin, whose eponymous Kent-based business is one of the few to specialise in collectable cars and bikes in equal measure. “I have been a dealer for more than 30 years, and for most of that time 75 per cent of my turnover has come from cars and 25 per cent from bikes. Lately, however, I would say it is about 50-50,” says Godin, whose motorcycle stock list of 40-plus machines currently includes a 1936 Brough Superior at £85,995, a 1976 Suzuki GT750 (£12,995), a 1980 Laverda Jota (£14,995), a 1980 Ducati Mike Hailwood Replica (£24,995) and a 1975 BMW R90S (£12,995). “I’ve noticed a large number of classic car owners coming to me who have motorcycle licences of old but haven’t really taken advantage of them. Now they see these bikes as being complementary to their cars and, because of their relative affordability, decide to buy one or two to go in the garage and possibly to use occasionally.

The 1970s “green frame” Ducati 750SS models – now worth about £140,000 – could potentially reach seven figures
The 1970s “green frame” Ducati 750SS models – now worth about £140,000 – could potentially reach seven figures | Image: Action Library

“The whole image of motorcycling has changed,” he adds. “Bikes used to be regarded as utilitarian transport. Now they are a lifestyle thing and, in the classic market, they have become a sort of accessory that enables access to a whole range of social activities and events.”

Ben Walker, worldwide head of Bonhams motorcycle department, undoubtedly concurs. When we spoke, he was putting the finishing touches to the firm’s annual Spring Stafford Sale motorcycle show which, this year, is the largest Walker has seen in his 20 years at Bonhams. “When I look back to the early 2000s, relatively few people really cared about classic motorcycles – they were very much the poor relation to cars. But helped by a more academic approach to research, a greater understanding of contextual history and a changing buyer demographic, values have suddenly increased rapidly.

A Honda CB750 – a 1969 pre‑production version, with an estimate of £35,000 to £40,000, sold for £161,000 at H&H in 2018
A Honda CB750 – a 1969 pre‑production version, with an estimate of £35,000 to £40,000, sold for £161,000 at H&H in 2018 | Image: Gareth Harford/Action Library

“As more – younger – buyers move in, the number of machines proving popular is constantly increasing, and because people understand the importance of waiting for bikes that are absolutely ‘right’, those that appear for sale tend to attract very strong competition and high prices,” says Walker.

And, according to Hugo Wilson, editor of Bike magazine since 2012, and editor of Classic Bike before that, the opportunity to put one’s hard-saved money into something that is attractive to look at and fun to own while providing a heady shot of nostalgia and a good return on investment is proving increasingly difficult for his readers to resist. “It is now very common among our readership to own more than one motorcycle, and that is often down to the fact that people have surplus cash in the bank that is earning very little interest, so they decide to take it out and spend it on the machines they lusted after in their youth,” says Wilson. “We recently ran an article by one journalist who, having reached the age of 55, took advantage of the option to start drawing down his pension and used the money to buy five motorcycles. He only bought machines of a value that he felt comfortable with and didn’t spend more than £8,000 on any particular one. It’s highly unlikely that his investment will fall in value – and, even if it does, he will have had a great deal more enjoyment from his bikes than he’s likely to get from looking at his annual pension statement.”

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