Motorcycle Authentication

Motorcycle historian and Ducati expert Ian Falloon shares his tips on motorcycle authentication.

motorcycle authentication

1974 Ducati 750SS “Green Frame”

Photo by Ian Falloon

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Driven by nostalgia and a desire to own something unique, the collecting game has become a big business, with buyers facing big risks when a bike isn’t all it seems.

A combination of increased affluence and more disposable income has seen the prices of rare, older artifacts skyrocket in price in recent years. With many high-end collector cars now out of reach for all but the wealthiest, certain motorcycles are now attracting attention from serious collectors and investors. Motorcycle collecting may still be on the periphery for many, but there are plenty of seriously cashed up collectors fueling this phenomenon.

The collecting game

Motorcycle collecting mirrors that of cars, but on a much smaller scale. Just as American car collectors favor Detroit muscle cars, much of the U.S. motorcycle collecting business centers on American motorcycles, ranging from extremely rare Crockers to Harley-Davidsons, Hendersons, Indians and the like. And just as in car collecting, there is a smaller, but extremely high-end market for rare Italian products. While certain Ferraris are now amongst the most coveted of all classic cars, on a lesser scale some Ducatis, MV Agustas and Laverdas have become the two-wheeled equivalent. As many collectors don’t even ride motorcycles, these machines have moved beyond leisure products and into the realm of works of art.

In the world of Ducati collecting the Holy Grail is the 1974 750 Super Sport “Green Frame.” Built for one year only as a replica of Paul Smart’s 1972 Imola 200-winning racer, the 750SS has all the credentials that make something desirable for a collector; rarity — only 401 made — and the mystique of being a hand-built factory production racer. As collectors became more aware of their rarity and status in the Ducati world, these bikes have gradually risen in value over the past decade. At the 2014 Bonhams Las Vegas motorcycle auction, a 1974 model Ducati 750SS “Green Frame” sold for a healthy $137,000, and they have increased significantly since, with reports of extremely original examples hitting $200,000.

Ducati 750 Super Sports are really heavily modified 750GTs, and fabrication has been going on for years. But no one really cared too much when an SS cost $10,000 and a 750GT was $5,000. With the prices now at previously unheard of, almost stratospheric levels, the notion of fabrication is making some collectors nervous, and when the engine and frame numbers don’t appear in any of the published indexes, even more questions are asked. This is leading some collectors to wonder, is their expensive SS genuine, or a fake?

To underscore this, awhile back I was contacted by Claudio Scalise, a serious collector based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, regarding a 1974 Ducati 750 Super Sport he was looking at buying. Although the provenance seemed secure, Claudio was concerned that the bike with the engine and frame numbers it bore did not appear in any indexes. I assured him that not every 750 Super Sport ever built was listed even in my own database, only those I knew about when I published my book on the 750 Super Sport, this numbering 239 of the 401 manufactured. After a thorough examination of a series of photographs it was obvious this bike was the real deal, it was simply one I didn’t have in my database.

Claudio subsequently purchased the bike, but he then commissioned me to provide an authenticity report. This would endeavor to trace the known history and provide an opinion on the authenticity and provenance of the machine.

Authentication reports are common in the car world, especially for vintage Bentleys and Ferraris where dubious recreations are rife, but this concept is relatively new for motorcycles. It was something that I never considered until I was talking to car and bike collector Peter Hageman of Seattle, Washington, one day. Peter had reports provided for various cars in his collection, and as certain motorcycles were approaching $200,000, he felt it was time for motorcycle authentication reports.

Authentication

When it comes to determining the authenticity of bevel-drive Ducatis (and most motorcycles) it is always best to start with the engine and frame numbers. Not only does the 750 Super Sport feature a different engine and frame number sequence to the standard 750GT and Sport, the stamps and fonts are unique to the era. If you know what you’re looking for, it is relatively easy to determine if a 750GT engine number has been ground off and a new number stamped. The same applies to the frame number, as the fonts are very specific for this model. And if the engine still includes a factory lead seal underneath the crankcase, this indicates the engine has never been apart. A further indication of originality is a 40-year-old faded blue paint mark on the front cylinder head.

As for general equipment, while the 750 Super Sport is ostensibly a factory-modified 750GT or Sport, there are a number of specific components that are extremely difficult to find or replicate. This applies particularly to the wheels, brakes and front fork, all components specific to this model and this year. For instance, the Borrani wheels are the early type with flared flanges and have specific stamps for this year only, while the Marzocchi front fork is unlike any other fitted to a Ducati. While you can buy a modern version of the Lockheed rear brake they have different inscriptions, and the genuine Scarab front brakes are almost impossible to find. Even the Dell’Orto 40mm “pumper” carburetors are specific to this model. Then there are the little giveaway items such as the specific rear brake lever return spring, impossible to find and missing on many, even original, examples.

In the case of the 750 Super Sport in question, authenticity wasn’t a problem. Still wearing its original paint and decals, this example is one of probably fewer than 10 in existence in this condition. The taillight bracket still has the thin silver paint with evidence of the original black 750GT paint underneath and hadn’t discolored green as it does on the fiberglass. The 1,191 kilometers (740 miles) since 1974 on the clock is undoubtedly genuine, supported by the original Metzeler Block C7 Racing tires, unavailable since 1976. So with authenticity confirmed, it came down to documenting the small number of incorrect parts that had been added over the bike’s lifetime, things like the fairing screen fasteners (obviously lost at some stage when the screen had been removed) and hand grips.

Documentation

While production motorcycles are generally reasonably straightforward regarding authorization and originality, racing bikes are a different story. As the Argentinian Kawasaki importer, Claudio’s collection centers mainly on racing bikes, primarily Kawasakis, but also Hondas, Yamahas, MV Agustas, Gileras and Ducatis.

Looking for an NCR Ducati to add to his collection, he found one in Japan, but was uncertain as to its provenance. With NCR Ducatis there isn’t a plethora of data available, and as there is a lot of misinformation out there Claudio asked me to look at the bike and provide an authenticity report. I have also studied NCR bevel-drive racers, over the years building up a database of engine numbers and specific details.

As it transpired, this NCR900 was exactly as claimed, one of approximately 20 TTF1 versions produced in 1978, the most famous being the Sports Motorcycles-prepared Mike Hailwood example. This was the only example imported into Japan and was astoundingly original. Unlike most race bikes, it didn’t actually have any race history, as it had spent its life in a collection. Most people expect the NCR to be the red/white/green Castrol sponsorship colors of Hailwood’s bike (and the subsequent production Mike Hailwood Replica), but this was still in the original NCR red and silver.

With the NCR confirmed, Claudio subsequently requested confirmation for several other motorcycles, including an ex-John Surtees MV Agusta 500 Grand Prix racer of 1957. This was more difficult, as it is one of maybe two or three pre-1965 4-cylinder 500s in existence and was built from parts acquired after MV closed its racing department in 1986. In this case it was impossible to say who actually rode the bike and at what particular race, but the MV was so rare and historically significant that this became immaterial. It wasn’t as if another identical bike was going to appear with the same engine and frame numbers. Yet while this engine was slightly earlier specification than 1957 (probably 1955 or 1956), we were able to determine the bike’s general authenticity through the study of a number of period photographs.

The market for high-end motorcycles is relatively small, as is the number of serious collectors, particularly for European motorcycles and especially racing models. While the prices achieved at auction sometimes seem extraordinary, in most cases only a handful of bidders are genuinely serious buyers, and in some cases ill-informed naysayers can seriously hinder a sale. Complementing other documentation, an authenticity report is a useful tool, adding value and credibility to a rare and valuable motorcycle. As prices continue to rise, it’s certain we’ll see more collectors asking for authentication reports when they purchase high-dollar collectible motorcycles. MC


Authentication gone wrong: The Captain America bike

Ridden by Peter Fonda in the epic movie Easy Rider, the Captain America bike is probably the most famous — and infamous — motorcycle in America. The bike made headlines when it sold at auction in 2014, but it wasn’t just the price — $1.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a motorcycle at auction — that made headlines, it was the basic question surrounding it: Was it the real deal?

According to published reports, two Captain America bikes were constructed. One was crashed in the movie in the scene where Fonda and co-star Dennis Hopper are shot by a redneck in a truck, and the other was stolen from film stuntman Tex Hall. Actor Dan Haggerty of Grizzly Adam’s fame acquired the crashed bike from Hall, restored it, and then sold it at auction in 1996 to Texas collector Gordon Granger. He later supplied a “Certificate of Authenticity” to Granger.

The bike that sold at auction in 2014 was formerly in the collection of the National Motorcycle Museum before being sold to Los Angeles collector Michael Eisenberg. Haggerty sold that bike as the real Captain America to museum founder John Parham in 2002, and Fonda authenticated it, signing the gas tank. After learning of the Granger bike, Fonda retracted his authentication.

The Granger bike was reportedly destroyed in a 2010 fire, but Haggerty, who passed away in January, had admitted authenticating both Captain America bikes. Even so, he claimed the Eisenberg bike was actually the real Captain America bike. The buyer of the Eisenberg bike reportedly backed out on the sale after learning of the authentication issues.

An obvious issue is the “authentication” of the bikes. Neither of the certificates were backed up by independent research, but were instead crafted by Haggerty, both owner and seller of the bikes.

If nothing else, the Captain America story underscores the importance and challenges in getting proper authentication on high-end collector bikes. To have any real merit, the source of an authentication is as important as the authentication itself. — Richard Backus