It had been a few years since I last attended the annual vintage motorcycle auctions in Las Vegas, and returning home from the January 2015 event, I found myself ruminating over what constitutes a “classic” motorcycle and what drives interest and prices for old motorcycles.
As you can read in our Vegas auction report, hammer prices for what we loosely call classic or vintage motorcycles were all over the place. I say "loosely" because you’ll be hard pressed to convince some people that a 1974 Honda CL360 is a classic motorcycle, much less a 1996 Buell RS1200 (which — and particularly in the spectrum of Buell motorcycles — certainly is).
That begs the question of what “classic” means. The answer, of course, is that it means different things to different people. The vintage bike stewards at the Antique Motorcycle Club of America (AMCA) have for decades lumped motorcycles 35 years old or older into the “antique” category, which is to say neither classic nor vintage, just old. I personally draw a distinction between “classic” and “vintage,” with the former denoting bikes from the Fifties to the present and the latter bikes from the pre-World War II era. As in, really old bikes.
Following the AMCA model, bikes in the 35-year-old category include everything from a 1980 Moto Guzzi V50 to a same year Honda CX500, neither of which strike me as antique, but both of which fit my definition of classic. Yet the AMCA model leaves out bikes like the 1982 Honda CX500 Turbo, the first production turbocharged motorcycle (ignoring the Kawasaki Z1R-TC, a highly specialized, low-volume model) and clearly a classic in my eyes.
The market would seem to agree with me: Witness the 1985 Kawasaki ZX750E Turbo that Mecum sold for $10,450. That’s a fair piece of change for a motorcycle that failed to find solid market footing when new, yet today inspires two-wheeled lust in the hearts of many motorcyclists. On the other hand, a 1974 Honda CL360 at the same auction commanded a winning bid of $4,400, a high price for what, to me, is only an ordinary motorcycle. I love Honda’s little twins from the Seventies, but built by the hundreds of thousands, I don’t consider them hugely collectible, which gets me into another point of distinction: Collector bikes versus collectible bikes.
In my view, collector bikes include museum-worthy machines like Vincents, Flying Merkels and Brough Superiors, motorcycles whose status and value has stood the test of time. They were special when new, special when used (even if briefly ignored as they passed through that awkward phase of simply being “old”), and are even more special today. Their market value is guaranteed to increase over time, a fact borne out in Las Vegas, where Vincents commanded the highest prices at both the Bonhams and Mecum auctions.
Collectible bikes, on the other hand, are machines you buy for the simple satisfaction of riding them, enjoying them for what they are and the era they recall. The Honda CL360 fits that category for me, while a CX500 Turbo falls into a gray zone; almost too valuable to use regularly and rare enough to deserve preservation.
I’ll admit it’s a question of semantics, and a highly debatable one, at that. In the end, I think we all have our own definition of what makes a bike valuable, and it’s not always its dollar value. It’s what it means to us and how it makes us feel.