A welcome addition to this year’s classic motorcycle auctions in Las Vegas was a panel discussion on motorcycles as collectibles. Hosted by Las Vegas new-comer Auctions America by RM and moderated by SPEED commentator Dave Despain, the panel brought together an interesting and diverse group of enthusiasts (Cycle World’s Mark Hoyer, Walneck’s Classic Cycle’s Buzz Walneck, collector Joe Bortz and motorcycle photographer/author Doug Mitchel) whose challenge was to draw from experience and look into their crystal balls for clues to the future of motorcycle collecting.
The conversation covered the usual issues, including who collects, why to collect, what to collect and when to collect, but one question from the audience particularly grabbed my attention: Who’s going to collect in the future? As modern motorcycles get farther and farther away from their forebears in looks, use and technology, will modern riders have the same pull to the classics as riders reared on bikes built in, say, the 1970s and 1980s — or before?
This is a hot topic in other collector areas. In addition to Motorcycle Classics, I oversee two other collector magazines, Farm Collector and Gas Engine Magazine. Where the former is broad in scope, looking at just about anything old and from the farm (including, once, an article on collecting outhouses!), the latter is highly targeted and fairly esoteric, honing in on collectors and restorers of gas engines built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The future of collecting, or rather who’s going to be collecting, is a big issue in both of these groups, particularly at Gas Engine, where it’s hard getting kids reared on Toyota Camrys to get interested in a 1917 Fuller & Johnson 3hp hit-and-miss farm engine.
People become motorcycle collectors for a variety of reasons. They can be drawn by an interest in riding, by an interest in motorcycle mechanics, by historic interests, by the notion of motorcycles as art or simply by the promise of monetary gain; the most oft-repeated comment at this year’s auctions was that if you want a return on your investment, forget stocks and bonds, put your money in classic motorcycles and cars.
But people who collect just for money tend to be a bit dispassionate about the machines they own. It’s the value, and the promise of more value to come, that drives their collecting. Certainly there’s appreciation for the thing; I don’t think it’s possible to own a Brough Superior and not appreciate what it meant to motorcyclists yesterday, and what it still means to motorcyclists today.
However, I think the heart and soul of the collector community is bound up and represented by hardcore enthusiasts, the riders and lovers of motorcycles who collect out of passion. And what they collect is more often than not driven by simple relevance. Rarity really only matters to the cognoscenti. For the average collector, the bikes they want are the bikes they remember from their youth, available before they had any money and gone once they got some. If not that, it’s something their father or their grandfather owned and prized, a kind of mechanical heritage that gives them direct linkage to their past. You may not have been born early enough to have bought a 1956 Triumph Thunderbird new. But if Dad had one, you can buy and ride one today, and lose yourself imagining dear old Dad rolling down the same country road you’re riding right now, enjoying the same sensations you’re feeling right now, even if it’s decades later. — Richard Backus