Harley-Davidson Knuckleheads rock the collectible motorcycle auction marketplace in Las Vegas
The collectible motorcycle marketplace snapped back into action again this month when Mecum belatedly wrapped up its annual January Las Vegas motorcycle auctions on May 1, 2021 following a four-day-sale that ran from April 28.
Mecum holds the largest single motorcycle auction in the world each year in Las Vegas in January, usually at the same time as a Las Vegas auction held by Bonhams, the world's other major collectible motorcycle auction house. Covid-19 caused considerable difficulties for the London-based Bonhams this year, forcing the company to cancel its Vegas auction. Mecum held its postponed January auctions in April/May without its main rival holding court just down the road.
Although there were just 1300 lots at this auction (half the size of previous years), we gathered enough data to get a picture of what the collector marketplace looked like at this point in time, and it looks remarkably healthy. As we suspected, demand for motorcycles was higher than before the pandemic, and with supply lower, prices went up.
This makes perfect sense, as much of America has spent a lot more time at home over the last year, and 1960s and 1970s nostalgia has risen dramatically in value across most auction genres, from sports cards, to concert posters, musical instruments and even movie memorabilia. On top of that, motorcycles offer an excellent way to social distance, and they fit nicely inside a man cave ...
Harley Strap Tank Single - top seller at the auction
The top seller at the Las Vegas motorcycle auctions is traditionally a very special motorcycle, with many world record prices in Las Vegas over the last eight years at Mecum and Bonhams, and over previous decades as Mid-America Auctions alongside Bonhams, Bonhams & Butterfields, ad infinitum.
In 2021, the top seller fetched $297,000 and was an atom-perfect restoration of Harley-Davidson’s first model, known as the “Strap Tank.” This bike has its original 440cc single cylinder four-stroke engine that was built in 1907, and was hence one of the first 150 Harley-Davidsons ever built.
The bike has a long and colorful history and due to having been pieced together with original parts that were from different bikes, it didn’t threaten the model record price of $715,000 set in 2015 at the E.J. Cole Collection auction.
No ZOPA for big ticket items
That’s not to say that there weren’t bikes that could have potentially fetched a lot more. There were four bikes that attracted higher bids than the Harley Strap Tank, but those bids were not accepted. That is, the reserve price set by the vendor, was higher than the highest bid, and there was no “Zone of Potential Agreement” established after the auction so the bike was passed in.
Two bikes shared the highest priced bid of the week, being $400,000: a 1939 Crocker twin owned by the famous Bob Ross (directly above), and a 1950 Vincent Black Lightning in near new condition (above that). Those bids were without the 10 percent buyers premium added, so they were effectively $440,000, and we suspect that the asking price was significantly higher, though it has not been disclosed in the case of the Crocker.
A second Crocker, a 1940 Crocker Big Twin attracted a bid of $370,000 (effectively $407,000) but that too was passed in.
Finally, a 1938 Vincent HRD Series A Twin attracted just $300,000 (effectively $330,000) for what many expected to be considerably more. Just 79 pre-war Vincent Series-A Rapides were built and the model record of £275,900 ($418,940) was set by Bonhams at its Autumn Staffordshire sale in 2015. This bike comprised an original 1938 998cc engine in an original 1939 frame, but the lack of matching numbers detracted from the allure of the machine and it didn’t meet reserve.
Crockers everywhere … and no sales
It wasn’t just the bikes with large expectations that failed to sell. Though sell-through rates were high for the four-day-auction, the worst sell-through rate of any marque at the auction was Crocker – six bikes crossed the block for just one sale.
We’ve already mentioned the two most expensive, but the surprise of the auction was the failure to sell of the 1935 Crocker Speedway bike which used Crocker’s first complete engine, a 500cc OHV single that ruled the roost in pre-WW2 dirt track racing across America.
Previous examples of the rare Crocker speedway bike going to auction have seen sales of $159,500 at the E.J.Cole Collection sale in 2014, $151,200 in January, 2014 (no link), $149,800 in January, 2011 (no link), and $99,000 in January, 2019. This speedway Crocker was bid to just $55,000, which history would suggest was less than halfway to the reserve price.
There were a number of motorcycles with Crocker parts that didn't sell at the auction and only one that did: a 1946 Harley Knucklehead engine in a 1936 Crocker frame, which might fit the Knucklehead-centric narrative of the auction, but doesn't fit the Crocker myth. Go figure!
The Harley Knucklehead surpasses the Vincent Black Shadow
At the beginning of 2020, at Mecum’s 2020 Vegas auction, a 1940 Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead sold for $220,000, becoming the most expensive Knucklehead ever sold at auction.
The previous record prices for the Knucklehead had been $181,500 (sold by Mecum in Las Vegas in 2014) and the $220,000 record-holding bike had previously been to auction at Bonhams in 2014 when it fetched $159,000. The previous next best price paid for a knucklehead was $132,000 at Vegas in 2019, and they were the only Knuckleheads to have ever sold for more than $100,000 at auction.
Two knuckleheads sold for $220,000 in Vegas this year, (equalling the model record - a 1943 model E and a 1946 model FL), plus a 1947 Model FL fetched $192,500, a 1936 Model EL sold for $159,500, a 1936 Model EL for $154,000, a 1944 FL for $143,000, a 1942 Model EL for $137,500, a 1941 Model F for $132,000, a 1936 Model EL for $129,250, a 1945 Model EL for $110,000, a 1937 Model was UL passed in but bid to $110,000 and a 1939 Model EL sold for $107,800. There were many more knuckleheads sold in Vegas, including bikes that fetched $95,700, $88,000, $88,000, $77,000, $60,500, $60,500, $60,500 and $57,200 plus plenty more for less than that.
Only 14 Knuckleheads have ever sold for more than $100,000 and 11 of them sold this year, so the Knucklehead obviously turned the corner as a collectible motorcycle this week, moving into the elite bracket alongside Crockers, Brough Superiors and Vincents. On the prices evident in Las Vegas, the price of a pristine Knucklehead now appears to have surpassed that of the Vincent Black Shadow, the post-war Vincent Rapide, and the Brough Superior SS80.
Harley-Davidson made 41,000 Knuckleheads between the first of the 1936 61ci E-series Knuckleheads, and the last of the 1947 74ci F-series. The supply of Knuckleheads is far greater than the Vincent Black Shadow, the post-war Vincent Rapide, and the Brough Superior SS80.
HRD-Vincent produced 6852 V-twins between the first A-Series in 1937 and the final D-Series in 1955, including all the Series C Black Lightnings (33), Series B Black Shadows (76), Series C Black Shadows (1507) and the total number of post-war Rapides is 4766 (1847 B Series, 2758 C Series and 151 D Series).
Brough Superiors are much rarer still, being older than the Vincent and hence likely to have a higher attrition rate, and in total, only 3048 motorcycles were made across the 19 models produced. Only 1086 Brough Superior SS80 were ever made (626 with JAP motor and 460 with Matchless motor) and just 383 Brough Superior SS100s (281 JAP and 102 Matchless) were produced.
This does not make economic sense so we'll be digging much further to try to understand this, though the most logical explanation would seem to be some manifestation of American patriotism combined with the pandemic - stay tuned to our auction coverage.
At this auction, Vincent Black Shadows sold for $165,000, $130,000 (high bid -passed in) and $99,000, with a Series-C Rapide fetching $66,000. Just what has catalyzed this change in fortunes for the Knucklehead, we do not know ... but the statistics show a trend that cannot be ignored.
John Kocinski's 1993 USGP-winning Cagiva 500
It’s not often that a Grand Prix winner sells for so little, particularly when it is from the highest level of racing (not one of the lesser classes), and particularly when the Grand Prix is the United States Grand Prix – America is where the majority of collectible motorcycles sell, and Americans buy way more than half of all collectible bikes. This was the bike used by John Kocinski to win in 1993 in a field that included newly crowned champion Kevin Schwanz, five-time winner Mick Doohan, Alex Crivillé, Alex Barros, Daryl Beattie and Luca Cadalora ... and was just one race after Wayne Rainey's career ended.
This Cagiva weighs under 200 pounds dry, thanks to a 185 HP magnesium V4 two-stroke motor, an aluminum frame, carbon fiber bodywork, a titanium exhaust and carbon fiber mufflers. Every component is the best available at the time, from Marchesini carbon wheels to 320mm carbon rotor front brakes with Brembo 4-piston monoblock calipers. What's more, the brand of Cagiva is alive and well and hence although Cagiva didn’t do a lot of racing, this bike will still be relevant in the future. Good buying!
Non-“Sandcast” Honda CB750 sets a new record
The Honda CB750 is perhaps the most influential single motorcycle model in history, and is naturally a collectible, with bog-stock first-year models the most sought after, and two subsets of the first year model the most valuable at auction.
When a Honda CB750 is referred to as a “sandcast model” it means it is one of the 7,414 CB750s cast in low-volume steel molds before Honda felt confident enough in the demand for its new model to invest in new volume-production die-cast molds. It seems ridiculous in retrospect to think of Honda as being unsure of its CB750, but fiscal responsibility is why it is now the largest motorcycle manufacturer in history. Anyway, it is even more ridiculous that they're called sandcast because they’re not sandcast. They are sufficiently rare however, to be the most sought after CB750, behind the original four pre-production bikes. The laws of supply and demand are equally as immutable as Newton's fundamental laws of physics.
The most valuable CB750s were the four built for promotional purposes in 1968. Two were crushed, only two are still known to exist, and none of the parts of a standard CB750 fit those two prototype machines. In 2018 one of these two pre-production Honda CB750s fetched £157,500 (US$221,561). The only other known pre-production Honda CB750 sold for $148,100 on eBay in February, 2014. Hence these prototype bikes are now off-the-board, and the most sought-after CB750s available are now the so-called "sandcast" bikes.
In 2019 in Vegas, a “sandcast CB750” sold for $35,200, raising expectations and convincing quite a few people to sell their bikes and cash out in 2020. The increased supply of many pristine CB750s saw prices fall to $27,500, $24,200, and $23,100. One sandcast model achieved a bid of $29,000, but the bid was rejected and the bike failed to sell.
This year (2021), supply waned again and a new record price was set for a CB750 at $55,000 with another fetching $33,000. When we first published this article, we thought that the $55,000 bike was a "sandcast" survivor, but we were quickly alerted that it was indeed a diecast later model of seemingly no known provenance. Then we checked with Mecum which confirmed the higher serial number.
The old adage that you always pay too much at auction (because the greater the pool of bidders, the greater the likelihood of irrational behaviour) appears to be true in this instance. As Mecum told our own Somer Hooker when he enquired, “two guys wanted it.”
So the new world record for a CB750 was set this week by a random, common-garden-variety bike with no provenance we are aware of. Hopefully, we'll find out one day what precipitated this moment of seeming madness.
Honda is the world's biggest selling motorcycle brand and can be expected to remain on the top of the ladder for the foreseeable future. The anti-Japanese "motorcycle racism" that was once incredibly strong, will eventually dissipate entirely, and Honda motorcycles will be seen for what they are – fast, reliable and very collectible! Then the bikes that have been picked up for a song over the last few decades will be worth some serious auction mumbo, and the good news is that they are SOOOO reliable that you'll have had plenty of joy riding them until they are appreciated by everyone else.
Honda’s six-cylinder CBX prices begin heading for the stars
Various experts have been forecasting the rise of Honda CBX prices at auction for a long time, but with 39,000 units sold back when they were new, we figured that it would take a few more decades to see a $50,000 CBX, and that the first-year 1978 model with more horsepower, a production racing pedigree and no fairing would ultimately be the one to break the barrier.
If Las Vegas 2020 and 2021 are any indication, we may see that $50,000 sale within a year or two, but it might be one of the Pro-Link later versions that emerges on top.
In 2020, the best examples of Honda’s magnificent six-cylinder sold for $26,950, $26,400 and $24,200 and $22,000, by far the strongest prices ever achieved for the bike, but surprisingly, the record price was taken by a Pro-Link faired latter-day model.
The highest priced CBX in Vegas in 2021 was a 1980 CBX that fetched $34,100, with a second bike also breaking the old record with a price of $27,500, and once more it was a faired CBX, indicating that collectors are more concerned with the six cylinder engine than which model it is. The first year model won every major production race except for Australia's Castrol Six Hour (a weakness in the design of the rear wheel meant a wheel change took too long – it was definitely the fastest bike), BUT ... the subsequent Pro-Link model has a fairing, better suspension, much better brakes and greater refinement ... and it still has that turbine-smooth DOHC, 24-valve 1047cc motor that can be toured like a modern bike despite being 40 years of age.
Kawasaki’s Z1 goes within a whisker of record
In many respects, Kawasaki’s DOHC four-cylinder, 903cc, 81bhp, 132mph Z1 of 1973 was equally a landmark motorcycle as Honda’s 1969 CB750 and despite 20,000 units being made before the model transitioned to the Z1A, they provided such an ideal basis for every form of performance machinery, hot rods, dragsters ad infinitum, the numbers have been culled sufficiently for the bike to now be sufficiently rare to begin appreciating.
The record price for Kawasaki’s landmark 903cc Z1 was nearly broken in Las Vegas. Bonhams set the record price for a perfectly restored 1973 (first year) Kawasaki Z1 at £28,175 ($36,792) in September 2018, with Mecum selling another perfectly restored Z1 for $36,300 last Saturday. Later model Kawasaki 900s such as Z1A and Z1B are now also cresting the $20,000 mark, with a Z1B fetching $24,200.
JRL Cycles Lucky 7
This is a Lucky 7 by JRL Cycles Lucky 7, one of only four bikes (one prototype, three production units) built using an Australian-made 2800cc Rotec radial airplane 7-cylinder engine.
The engine produces 110 horsepower @ 2,450 rpm, and when they were made, they retailed new for $110,000. Hence, when this bike hammered for $38,500, we knew someone had a bargain beyond belief.
Two-strokes getting recognition
Two-stroke motorcycles have rarely been regarded as collectible, with most of the two-strokes that have achieved high prices at auction having had exceptional provenance, and most commonly that provenance included Steve McQueen, who loved two-strokes because of their performance and owned a lot of them over the years. In the top 1000 motorcycles sold at auction, there are still only a handful of two-strokes in the mix. Thanks to the emergence and strength of classic racing, two-stroke racers are now very much in vogue again at auction, and the most valuable sold in Vegas was a 1974 Yamaha TZ750 that fetched $60,500, followed by a Honda RS250R factory racer two-stroke twin that fetched $49,500. The RS250R had placed fifth in the Daytona 250cc race in the hands of Bubba Shobert in 1988 and was presented in “as raced” condition.
Another racer rounded out the top three two-strokes with this ultra-rare 1976 Puch MC250 Twin Carb MX racer fetching $37,000. The bike is one of a batch of 97 racers built as replicas of Harry Evert’ 1975 World Motocross Championship victory and when you read the specs of the bike, you’ll see just how special it is. The Puch MC250 uses magnesium engine cases, magnesium hubs and magnesium Marzocchi fork sliders. The split single engine uses two Bing carburetors: one for the usual piston-port intake, the second using a rotary disc for a carefully timed boost charge.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the two-stroke was beginning to make its mark in competition both on-and off-road, and the most knowledgeable two-stroke constructor was behind the iron curtain - specifically MZ (Motorenwerke Zschopau) which was using wave technology developed by the Germans in WW2 during rocket development, to make the fastest and most reliable two-strokes of the day. MZ’s two-stroke dirt bikes were legendary for their reliability and speed, and they dominated the ISDT (International Six Day Trial - now the International Six Day Enduro - ISDE). This lot is quite special as it is an MZ ETS 250/1 G5 Enduro that has remained untouched in its original crate for half a century. It fetched a modest $27,500.
Behind the above bikes that will almost certainly find their way back to the racetrack are a list of the finest two-stroke road bikes of the 1970s and 1980s. The real surprise of this group was a 1985 Yamaha RZ350 in Yamaha’s then corporate yellow-and-black colors and signed by Kenny Roberts. The price of $25,850 is far-and-away a record for the Yamaha road bike 250/350 lineage.
Kawasaki H2 three-cylinder 750cc Mach IV
Finally, the Kawasaki H2 three-cylinder 750cc Mach IV was one of the landmark performance motorcycles of all time, and has been flirting with auction block superstardom for several years. In 2019, Mecum set the model record at $27,500, backed it up with a 1972 model that fetched $23,100 in 2020, and two were sold in Vegas this year for $25,300 and $22,000 respectively.
If you’re looking for an investment classic bike that will offer a high bang-per-buck rating when you ride it, the original H2 is a ripper bike that will be relatively cheap to get into. The corollary of that is that two-strokes are not regarded highly by collectors because they rattle and blow smoke, make uncivilized exhaust noises and they’re a bit harder to ride well because the power band is distinct and brutal … unless you’re a two-stroke kinda guy, in which case those attributes are desirable.
Beautiful … but slow
Personally, I find it difficult to get enthusiastic about any motorcycle that can’t tickle my adrenal glands, but some people do consider the aesthetic and design aspects to be so important that they’ll tolerate less than heart-pounding performance.
The DKW Express Tin Banana Model 115 is a legendary motorcycle, known for its beauty, and produced from 1961 to 1965 as the Zweirad Union 115, DKW Hummel 115, Victoria 115, Express 115 and Cavalier 115, all instantly recognizable because of colorful paint schemes and gorgeous bodywork. They were all collectively nicknamed the "Tin Banana," and could also be purchased as 155 models with 3.7 hp instead of the 115 model's 2 horsepower. The 155 also came with high beam and a horn though it got the souped-up version of the same aenemic 50cc single cylinder two stroke motor, which gave it a top speed roughly equivalent to a competition cyclist riding a non-motorized two-wheeler.
Until recently, when the Japanese 1970s two-strokes began to fetch $20,000+, the 115/155 models were some of the most expensive two-strokes ever sold. As hard as it may be to believe, the model record for this 50cc Art Deco German masterpiece sits at $38,500.
A word of warning for those who might wish to indulge, as this beauty is little more than skin deep: as gorgeous as the Tin Banana is, if you wish to do anything more than look at it, it can be apparent nightmare to work on, and will demand attention and dole out pain far more frequently than you will like, unless you are a flagellant monk. Apparently even a spark plug change requires a workshop and a goodly amount of effort, which is a distinct disadvantage for a 50cc two-stroke with prehistoric ignition. Gorgeous and temperamental ... I’m sure there’s a joke to be had there.
Gorgeous and quick - 1957 Aermacchi 175
A 175cc four-stroke engine is not often the basis for excitement, particularly when it is nearly two-thirds of a century in longevity, but there’s a lot to be said for the Aermacchi 175. For starters, it is one of the most important motorcycle designs in history, with its beauty landing it a spot in the famous Guggenheim Museum exhibition of 1998: The Art of the Motorcycle.
Quite obviously heavily influenced by Aermacchi’s aircraft design roots, this bike has an OHV 175 cc single cylinder engine mounted flat in the frame and the very few that sold were sold on their design, not their performance. Remarkably, the engine subsequently formed the basis of one of the most powerful OHV single cylinder racing engines of all-time, in the Aermacchi Ala d’Oro and Ala Verde 175cc, 250cc and 350cc racers. The 350 twice finished third in the world championship, behind only the MV Agusta of Agostini and the Honda of Hailwood. The motor subsequently powered the Harley-Davidson Sprint 350 too. Gorgeous and reliable and thoroughly deserving of the type of money it now fetches at auction. The model record is $24,200, with this bike fetching $17,600.
Proletarian quality at an aristocratic price
This is another machine that was honored as one of the 100 most significant motorcycles used in the Guggenheim Museum exhibition of 1998: The Art of the Motorcycle. The bike has been widely lauded for its lightweight frame-less construction and design ingenuity which enabled it to reduce the amount of raw materials used and restrict the machine’s weight to just 139 pounds. As it was designed for the impoverished populace of Germany in the immediate post-WW2 era, when the country was paying war reparations, it is a significant motorcycle.
What’s more, we’ve only seen one of these at auction previously, which fetched $16,500 two years ago. This bike fetched $20,350, which is a new model record and despite the machine’s distinctly proletarian roots, a bargain.
Has MV Agusta’s 750 S dropped in value?
While modern manufacturing means, more or less, that all bikes are created equal, once 50 years have expired, they are far from that and there is considerable variation between seemingly identical specimens of the same model. That difference amplifies on the auction block, though it seems hard to validate a bike dropping in value by 50 percent, particularly when that 50 percent represents $60,000.
During Las Vegas auction week in 2019, a sale we dubbed “The Sale of the Century”, a Green Frame Ducati 750SS sold for US$247,500, a Honda NR750 (RC40) sold for $181,500, a Honda VFR750 (RC30) sold for $121,000 and both versions of the MV Agusta 750 S set record prices at $137,500 for the original and $126,500 for the “America.”
In 2020, things played out quite differently with the original 1971 MV Agusta 750S on offer selling for $55,000 and two 1976 MV Agusta Americas selling for $50,600 and $37,400 respectively. Bonhams offered a fully-faired 1974 MV Agusta 750S America which was passed in after a high bid of $58,000. The above MV Agusta 750 S America sold for $69,300 at Vegas in 2021, seemingly following the same trend. Results were similarly soft at H&H in December, and Bonhams' last big sale in London last December saw similarly disappointing results with £55,200 ($73,008) for a 1978 MV Agusta 789cc Magni-built America and £48,300 ($63,882) for a 1978 MV Agusta 832cc America.
There’s not quite enough data to be certain, but at $70K, the MV Agusta is one hell of a buy, and it is difficult to spend $55K when restoring a bike to perfection.
Where to follow the action
One swallow does not a summer make, and the trends we can discern from the Las Vegas auction may or may not continue to play out. The next few major auctions in the motorcycle collector marketplace are all in the United Kingdom, with Silverstone's May Sale on May 22, 2021, H&H's National Motorcycle Museum sale on June 9, 2021, and Bonhams' International Classic MotorCycle Show Three-Day Auction in July.
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Respectfully, I would suggest that accolade belongs to Edward Turner's 1937 500cc Triumph Speed Twin!