The 2017 Las Vegas motorcycle auctions combined Mecum's four-day auction (January 25 to 28) with Bonhams' one day January 26 event to give the collectible motorcycle year a major kickstart. Almost 1000 collectible motorcycles changed hands over four days, offering enough data to identify a few trends that portend what will happen over the coming year.
As we have touched on several times in our recent coverage of collectible automobile auctions, the marketplace for both automotive heritage genres (cars and bikes) is in flux due mainly to generational change. The baby boomer generation that gave us both the Peace Movement and the Digital Revolution is still flexing its society-changing muscle on the auction block. Just last week we reported on the astonishing rise in prices of the Volkswagen Kombi van and a world record price of $302,500 for a mass-produced van.
The babies of the post-war baby boomer generation, comprising Generation X (born 1965 to 1976) and Generation Y (1977 - 1995) are now creating a new generation of collectors with a different perspective on what constitutes a nice bit of kit, and Ducati will be one of the beneficiaries. It started winning in the early 1970s, and has been doing so since – a period that coincides with many collectors' lifetimes.
Ducati's 750 V-twin and MV Agusta's 750 four have long been the most expensive bikes of this era to buy at auction, but many others are now starting their climb from a much lower base price (due to mass production) as the watermark rises. It was inevitable that the prices of Japanese motorcycles would rise on the auction block, and it is finally starting to happen.
Japanese cult bikes
Japanese motorcycles have always had a strong following bordering on cultish in places, and like Volkswagen, they are set to defy the gravity of mass-production with prices on the auction block. They delivered customers what they wanted in all the areas that encourage loyalty. Endearing qualities such as a low cost-of-ownership, easy maintenance and by comparison to the bikes made until that time, total reliability. They also blew non-Japanese motorcycles into the weeds, offering superior performance and superior reliability, no oil leaks, electrics that worked, brakes that worked ... they were better and cheaper. The weakest point of these bikes was the frame and suspension, and thanks to modern technology, the internals of the suspension units can now be rebuilt invisibly, meaning they can now be persuaded to handle better than they did when new.
As a bastion of the four-stroke engine (four-strokes always sell for more than two-strokes), Honda will do best over the next decade with its marquee models of that time now thrust into the spotlight. With the limited production RC45 and RC30 production racers already well recognized for high prices at auction, Honda's six-cylinder CBX, first model four-cylinder CB750, flat-four Goldwing and the transverse v-twin CX500 Turbo look set to become the next level of champions at auction.
More than anything else, buying a collectible costs one or two orders of magnitude less money if you like two wheels and not four. An unprecedented number of quality motorcycles sold in Las Vegas this year and although many of the more fancied lots didn't sell, the strength of the marketplace was clearly evident by the turnover and the strength of motorcycle prices for bikes built in the 1970s and 1980s.
Museum-quality Henderson fetches $539,000
Watching something like this bike go to public auction is a bit obscene in many ways because it should be in a museum. It is a 1912 Henderson Four, which is quite similar to another two dozen examples of the famous American marque and its descendants that sold in Las Vegas last week, with one minor difference: it is exactly as made a century ago, all the way down to the original paint and the original tires. Authenticity counts for more than anything else in collector circles and while most of us will never have a lazy half million dollars or the climate controlled garage necessary to safeguard that priceless patina, it only seems fair that more people should get to see an item this well made. The 57 cubic inch (934 cc) F-head in-line four-cylinder Henderson sold in completely original, unrestored and unmolested, 115-year-old condition for $539,000.
Authenticity is key for very valuable items
Authenticity is the key brand value for this audience. Steve McQueen is the tribe's idol for exactly the same reasons. Unrestored reality trumps restored perfection. The second highest priced bike of the week, the above 1914 Feilbach Limited 10HP V-twin, fetched $195,000 and was also in original condition. This 1130cc v-twin is one of just a handful known to exist and this bike was the personal motorcycle of company founder Arthur Feilbach.
And then there were contradictions. "Big Bertha" (above) was a championship hillclimb racer that was formerly part of the E.J. Cole Collection that set multiple world records in March, 2015. Two years ago at that auction, Bertha fetched $143,000 for a place in the top 100 motorcycle sales of all-time, while this time around at auction it only managed $129,250. It was one of the top sellers of the week, but should probably have fetched more based on prior data and the health of the market. It has provenance and it is unrestored, and presents with complete congruence in "as raced" condition. Hence, despite the drop in value on the block, and counting the buyers premiums, the owner effectively paid $1500 a month to have his own Mona Lisa in the garage, which I thinks translate to a very cost-effective, worthwhile and uplifting life experience.
Let's compare this tale with a car of similar standing in the hierarchy of automobile sales (86th place on the all-time list), the Mercedes-Benz 540 K Special Roadster that sold last week in Scottsdale. It has sold previously during Monterey Car Week in 2011, fetching $4,620,000, then again in Monterey in 2013, appreciating 62 percent in two years to sell for $7,480,000. That owner made better than bank interest on his investment, turning $4.6 million into $7.5 million in 24 months, though roughly 25 percent of the $7.5 million sale price would have disappeared in costs. The next time it sold was in Scottsdale last week for $6,600,000. The owner for the last two years prior to this sale had spent large amounts of money fettling it even closer to perfection, picking up a host of silverware along the way and having wonderful experiences at concours events across the land. At the end of a 42-month ownership of significant achievement, taking into account the auction premium, we calculate the cost of ownership at around $100,000 a month.
American motorcycles dominating British motorcycles
The American Henderson marque led the way with the top sale of the week at $539,000 with another four Henderson fours selling for over $100,000, and a further five selling in the $50,000 to $100,000 range. The usual suspects, Indian and Harley-Davidson, also populated the upper end of the sales charts with the ultra-rare Feilbach taking the second highest spot of the week and when you throw in Comet, Thor, Flanders and more than a few Flying Merkels, the numbers of the red, white and blue are overwhelming. Confederate now seems to be regularly selling its wares into the upper echelons, too. As the American motorcycle collector market is the biggest and most robust, American bikes will logically become the most sought-after by a largely partisan audience and the rise of the American-made motorcycle in auction prices has accelerated over the last five years to the point where they have now overtaken British marques in total.
On the British front, five v-twin Vincent variants sold for more than $100,000. The BSA/Triumph three-cylinder engines of the late sixties and early seventies are leading the charge as several Formula 750 racers, the BSA-engined Triumph Hurricane and a straight BSA Rocket III road bike all did well.
Beyond that, the sixties and seventies were a barren time for the British industry, and there are but a few likely candidates: a few Velocette Venom singles, Ariel Square Fours and a Montgomery.
$77,000 | The world's second most expensive motocross bike
Former World Motocross competitor Gerrit Wolsink took five bikes from his collection to Las Vegas, (three of them dirt bikes he had ridden extensively) but just one of the bikes captured the imagination of the buying public: the Suzuki 500-class factory motocross racer on which he won the 1977 United States Grand Prix. The bike is a mix of metallurgy – the engine cases are magnesium, as are the wheels hubs and triple clamps, and there are lots of titanium bits too.
This bike is a time capsule of state-of-the-art engineering for motocross bikes of a golden era when European riders were still the best and motocross bikes had two rear shocks. Motocross became big business in this era and the United States Grand prix became the most visible event on the calendar.
Suzuki's team in the World 500cc MX championships comprised Wolsink and five-time world champ Roger De Coster, while Yamaha had two-time champ Bengt Åberg and three-time champ Heikki Mikkola.
American riders were emerging quickly from the dirt bike boom of the seventies, and Brad Lackey would be the first American of many to challenge for a world championship the following year (1978). Both of the Japanese factories knew that winning on Sunday meant selling lots of bikes on Monday across the globe.
It is very difficult and costly to create a global brand, and winning world championships in front of a large and receptive audience was one of the cheaper promotional strategies (compared to ongoing global advertising) that fed customers to a worldwide bricks-and-mortar network of dealerships.
Hence the factories were throwing everything they had at winning, buying the best riders, and substituting small items (levers, sub-frame items, hubs), manufactured at great cost from what top class racers of the day referred to as "unobtainium," just to save a few grams here or there in the weight of the bike.
Do not let the capacity of the two-stroke single-cylinder motor fool you. Though an extra 80cc of capacity was available for extra horsepower before the capacity limit of 500cc was reached, Suzuki's engineers considered 420cc was about right for a motor that would spin freely and combine with massive-mid-range grunt to offer excellent engine flexibility.
This bike won the United States Grand Prix in 1977 and it is entirely authentic, in that it "as raced at the end of the 1977 season". Wolsink didn't really need to save the kilo or two the lightweight bits offered, because he really liked the Carlsbad track and of his 14 career Grand Prix wins five of them were at Carlsbad, the home of the USGP.
It is not the most expensive off-road motorcycle ever to sell at auction. That honor goes to a 1930 Harley-Davidson Factory Hillclimber that fetched $181,500 at the E.J. Cole Collection auction in March, 2015.
It isn't even the most expensive motocross bike, as that honor has long since been claimed by another Steve McQueen bike and we don't think it will be broken any time soon.
McQueen's cred with the motorcycle crowd was guaranteed after the success of the film On Any Sunday, and his use of Husqvarna two-stroke competition bikes in that film didn't hurt their sales. Steve prized outright performance and the bike that holds the record price for a motocross bike is believed to be one of the bikes Steve rode in On Any Sunday – it sold for $144,500 in 2011.
McQueen's presence is never far away at a motorcycle auction. Former McQueen bikes sold in Vegas for $110,000 (1923 Indian Chief with Princess sidecar ), $93,500 (1917 Henderson Four), $82,800 (1912 Harley-Davidson X8E Big Twin), $66,550 (1940 Indian Four), $66,000 (1935 Indian Chief), $55,000 (1914 Pope Model K), and a 1974 Yamaha YZ360 which was passed in. You can browse the entire top 150 sales of the week here.
Man cave decorations
There's nothing quite like getting the perfect piece to set the tone for your man cave and some awesome items sold for very reasonable prices during the week. The Harley-Davidson leather couch and two chairs above fetched $7,700 and the Harley engine coffee table fetched $1,250.
You need to be a certain vintage to remember these coin-operated kiddies rides, and they obviously bring back fond memories for some, because the restored original at above left fetched $27,500. The HRD game room light above right fetched $3,500.
Auction clusters such as the Las Vegas motorcycle auctions also attract the unusual and beautiful. This set of prints from Robert Carter comprised the first four lots at Bonhams' sale and though none of them sold (mainly because of reserve prices approaching $10,000 a pop), they are very beautiful and in the right environment ...
One of the treats of this year's event was the sale of the Guy Webster collection of motorcycles. Guy Webster, for those who don't know, was one of the key celebrity photographers of the last few decades, having photographed virtually everyone in entertainment. Mecum was able to supply imagery of Guy's collection as it was displayed in his home, and the next few images show the gorgeous Italian lightweights he collected in situ.
Above is Guy's 1957 FB Mondial Super Sport Production Racer with Guy's images of Rock & Roll royalty in the background. The Mondial fetched $33,000.
This bike is one of five Ceccato 75cc Grand Prix twin-cam machines, even more remarkable in that it first motorcycle designed by was Fabio Taglioni who went on to F.B. Mondial and then Ducati, where he was the father of the Ducati v-twin dynasty. The bike had a high bid of $40,000 but didn't reach reserve. The background to the bike gives an indication of the home museum created by Webster and his life journey.
"Go big or go home" goes the saying, and if you want go big on your personal museum, Vegas is the place to do it. Our pick of the litter this year is this cutaway display of a 1942 military Harley-Davidson WLA (750cc), which cost the buyer $37,400. It's not often you find museum quality at this price.
A lot of big ticket items didn't sell
So many big ticket items failed to sell in Las Vegas that it was a bit embarrassing adding up what might have been. Great things were expected at Bonhams of the above Crocker. The 1936 Crocker "hemi head" was expected to fetch between $500,000 and $600,000. Bidding started at $150,000 and reached $360,000 before failing to advance any further.
Big things were also anticipated of the Indian-Vincent prototype above. The 1949 Indian-Vincent prototype might have changed the two-wheeled world if history had run a slightly different course, but Indian went out of business before the initiative got any buy-in.
The stillborn cooperation between the great British marque Vincent and the great American marque Indian is captured perfectly in this one-off, and was expected to sell between $250,000 and $300,000. Bidding started at $100,000 but only reached $180,000.
Others that didn't sell included the 1912 Flying Merkel belt-drive 1000cc v-twin and a brace of Ducati racers. None of them achieved the reserve price set by the vendor.
So many really fabulous two-wheelers failed to sell that we feel duty-bound to mention a few of them, like the above 500 hp V8 motorcycle. It was was once the world's fastest motorcycle, as listed in the 1973 Guinness Book of World Records. In fact it probably wasn't the world's fastest motorcycle, but it was probably the world's quickest, having traversed a quarter mile from a standing start in 8.68 seconds with a terminal velocity of 172 mph ... with that monstrous rear tire spinning all the way. It could be sitting in your lounge room for around $70,000, but no-one bid that high and it went home again.
Two-stroke prices might be beginning to move
Each category had its highlights and two-strokes showed more than a few – could it be that we're about to see a repeat of two-stroke domination? As things stand, collectors really don't like two-strokes. Only a few two-strokes appear in the top 250 motorcycles ever sold. Now I might be going out on a limb here, but I reckon it's because they're smelly and sound tinny. People who formed their opinions in one era are doomed to fail to understand the next era, and though it's doubtful, there's some chance that the four-stroke-only era might be ending.
Millenials are more concerned with the performance of a motorcycle rather than its sound and perceptions of value appear to be changing as a new layer of collectors comes through. A large capacity two-stroke motorcycle from the seventies will either challenge your perspective on life, or rip your arms off ... at a bargain price. The above Yamaha 500 four-cylinder two-stroke is a prime example, selling for $12,650. This is a bargain basement superbike at the same time as being one of the most civilized two-strokes ever made.
Another two-stroke we believe is destined for respect at auction is the original Suzuki "Waterbottle" GT750. The first understressed water-cooled two-stroke motor in this series offered incredible low-range torque and great reliability and longevity. This one sold for $12,100, and I can't wait to see whether people begin swapping the original four-leading-shoe brake back into these bikes before they sell them. There are apparently quite a few of the original 4LS brakes in spare parts shops, because everyone who had one of these bikes realized it was too much bike for the ornamental drum and swapped in a set of disks at the front.
Another bike that has always had a devoted following is the Yamaha XS650. It is a prime example of what can be done to capture the spirit of the British vertical twin, with none of the frailties, and there are thousands of happy XS650 owners across the world to this day. The holy grail for this fraternity is one of the 30 Factory OW 72 Yamaha Racing engines built to homologate a competitive machine for Kenny Roberts to ride in the 1976 AMA flat track races. That bike, ridden to four wins by Roberts, went to auction in Vegas. Based on the XS650 road bike, the previous factory race machine was capable of only 70 hp, so a new cylinder head was created and by enabling 90 hp became the deciding factor in making the OW72 model competitive. More than 25 and less than 30 OW72s were built. This bike was a steal at just $44,000. Find one of those cylinder heads and you'll have a very fast XS650.
When it comes to impressive motorcycles, you cannot go past a six cylinder model and the granddaddy of them all is the Kawasaki Z1300. You can still get them for around $12,000 to $15,000. The bike at right is Honda's later model CBX, which sported six cylinders and 1000cc of turbine smoothness but with less peak power and more weight than the original. You can still pick up a CBX like the one at top right, in pristine condition, for $5,000 to $8,000.
The CBX is my ideal bike. As a motorcycle magazine road tester at the time it was released, I tested one new and was astonished at how much better it got if you set it up correctly. Buoyed by this, I purchased one and had the suspension rebuilt and it transformed the bike into a balanced sublime rocketship. This model has sold as high as $19,500 but usually struggles to fetch more than $10,000 in restored condition at auction. The above red CBX sold for $10,500 in Vegas 2017.
The most sought-after six is the Benelli's 750 and 900 Sei. Though they have sold for a lot more, one sold for $13,200 during Vegas.
The collectible motorcycle market has quite a few gems in this range, and it will be an interesting journey watching which ones become the champions in this new league.
One that caught my eye in Vegas was an original unrestored Harley-Davidson XLCR changing hands for $12,100. That represents excellent long term value in my book.