Bike Auctions Go Wild

War of the worlds

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courtesy of John L. Stein
Exhibited at the 1962 Earls Court Motor Cycle Show in London, this one-off Norton Manx auctioned for $56,000.

Earlier this year, a Honda CL450 outperformed a Manx Norton at auction. But why?

When that nasty asteroid slammed into the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago, the ensuing clouds and darkness crippled photosynthesis and extinguished 80% of animal species, except for Keith Richards, of course. Fast forward to 2022, and an equally tectonic classic motorcycle event occurred at a pair of January auctions. And it went like this: A one-of-one 1962 Norton Manx 500 race bike, specially prepared by the factory for that year’s Earls Court Motor Cycle Show in London, sold on Bring a Trailer for $56,000. And then, three days later, at Mecum’s annual Las Vegas bike auction, a 1972 Honda CL450 with the rare “Flying Dragon” paint scheme sold for … wait for it … $58,300! Everyone knows that Manx Nortons are special. But while the Flying Dragon paint scheme is unusual, it’s simply that — paint atop an ordinary CL450.

So, what in the Royal Order of Dual Overhead Camshafts happened? Let’s look.

close up of motorcycle tach

The Magic Manx

The Norton seen here is a one-of-one unicorn that marque authority Ken McIntosh calls “the most unrestored Manx I’ve ever seen.” After its English show days, the bike was imported to the U.S. by Berliner Motor Corporation of New Jersey, which used it for display. Subsequently, Offenhauser racing engine specialist Vince Conze purchased it — once again for display, in California — before donating it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum in 1983. And there it remained until auction. It simply was never used — except on a startup basis — and it even retains its original Avon racing tires, now quite convincingly cracked.

In all, only 1,963 Manx Nortons (in both 350cc “40M” and 500cc “30M” models, like this one) were ever built. Handmade in Norton’s Birmingham, England, race shop from 1951-1962, the “Featherbed” Manx production racer was nicknamed for its inventive double-cradle frame with swingarm rear suspension, which replaced earlier single-downtube frames and relatively primitive “plunger” rear suspension that was typical of the period.

close up of motorcycle wheel

With magnesium engine cases, dual gear-driven overhead camshafts spinning in a magnesium cam-box, a bronze-welded frame made of high-tensile steel, and magnesium hubs, the Manx was exotic, light, fast and robust. Designed by Irishman Rex McCandless, the double-cradle frame set a new benchmark for motorcycle handling upon its debut on the 1950 works race bikes. The highly accurate handling made the Manx a force on European circuits, with the likes of John Surtees and Mike Hailwood racing them into the record books. So effective was the Manx, that it won its first Grand Prix in 1950 as a works bike, and its last in 1969 in privateer hands. This means Manx Nortons won GPs over a period of 20 seasons, an incredible run by any measurement.

Further, the 1962 Manx was the best of the line, with a unique four-shoe front brake and the highest performance in model history. Uniquely, on this Earls Court bike, Norton switched the engine color scheme to silver crankcases and a black cylinder and head, making it even more visually exciting. How many unused 500cc Manx Nortons exist? At best a tiny handful, and maybe only this one.

close up of motorcycle dash

Value-wise, Manxes trade in the “40s” today, which made the BaT sale price seem strong — yet not as strong as is conceivable given the rarity and provenance of this example. Nevertheless, the market spoke that day, and the Manx headed to its new home in New Zealand following the auction.

The Flying Dragon

Prior to the creation of the CB750 Four, the CB450 was Honda’s “big bike.” Introduced in America for 1965, it ran for 10 model years and sunsetted in 1974, two years after the arrival of the CB500 Four. During the 450’s early-Sixties engineering phase, 4-cylinder motorcycles were a rarity in the market and nonexistent from Japanese companies. Triumph, Harley-Davidson and other heavy hitters of the day were married to twins for their image models. This in part explains why Honda would invest heavily to move up-market from its lightweight Super Cubs, Benlys and the like with a twin.

left side view of a motorcycle with a purple and yellow swirl paint design

Joining the CB450 for 1968 was a production scrambler version, known officially as the CL450. An opportunistic model intended to mine sports-minded “scrambler” buyers, it weighed over 400 pounds and thus was clearly a “street scrambler” more than an actual off-roader. But with its slim gas tank and high pipes, fitted to the left side of the machine for maximum appeal, it absolutely expanded Honda’s clout in an exploding off-road orientated market.

Like the CB450, the CL450 benefitted from Honda’s racing acumen, in specific with its dual overhead camshafts, inventively using torsion-bar springs instead of typical coil springs — or the Manx’s hairpin springs. It made the CL and CB engines high-revving alternatives (boasting a stratospheric 9,700rpm redline — higher even than the Manx Norton’s) to competitive pushrod twins of the era, adding to Honda’s growing advantage in the market. Despite the CL450’s built-in engineering and Honda quality, scrambler sales were below expectations, and so a bedazzling paint scheme — later dubbed “Flying Dragon” by enthusiasts — was devised to boost excitement and help dealers move units. Wildly out of character for the conservative Japanese, the paint was nonetheless ripe socially, as in 1972 psychedelic designs were peaking. Produced in Japan, the gas tank and side panel sets were available through Honda dealers as official factory parts, and carried their own special part numbers.

motorcycle dash top down view

“Dealers could order the tank and side covers at a bargain basement price (about $50),” explains George Duncan, a former Honda district sales manager. “I personally sold dozens of these kits to my dealers back then.” Only Dozens? “Yes,” he confirms. “Dealers were highly skeptical and the public rejected this attempt at adding some excitement. Those who did buy these kits had trouble selling the bikes that were outfitted with them, and so many took them off and put the stock tanks back on.”

Honda built hundreds of thousands of CL450s and CL350s, and with only a tiny fraction converted to Flying Dragon spec, this explains why genuine examples are in high demand today. Even so, the final bid amount surpassed pre-auction estimates by some 400%. Tectonic, indeed.

Our Takeaway

close up of the purple and yellow swirled paint on a motorcycle

Whenever I’m trying to get my head around the hammer prices for various auction lots, I remember that at their core, classic motorcycles are emotional purchases. Although they are still useful for transportation and recreation, on a broad societal level these essential duties are handled by modern machinery that’s reliable, fuss-free, and well supported with parts and service at local dealerships.

As a result, the key driver of classic motorcycle prices isn’t the practical value of the machinery; it’s their inherent emotional pull, their representation of history, their historical context, and their tie to a certain moment in time. Such matters of the heart are never concerned with math, which explains why, on a given day in auction-land, one machine may soar while another lies fallow.

In the case of the ’62 Manx and ’72 Flying Dragon here, it’s clear that the standout result was for the Honda, not the Norton. The outcome parallels other recent strong results for Japanese cars and bikes of the 1960s and 1970s. This doesn’t mean that bikes like the Norton Manx — or Vincents or Bonnevilles or Gold Stars — are underappreciated. But it does show that the Rising Sun is rising fast. MC

close up of the side of a motorcycle with yellow and purple swirl paint

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