This list is comprised of the motorcycle manufacturers which command the highest prices at auction and are most populous among the top 100 – the distillation of activity in a marketplace which has existed for just over a century.
The golden heritage of the American motorcycle industry is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this analysis. The United Kingdom would reasonably have been expected to dominate the results thanks to the well publicised auction values commanded by Brough Superior and Vincent motorcycles. Those marques are the most heavily represented but in total, British motorcycles make up just 46 of the top 100 motorcycles ever sold at auction, and beyond those two marquee names, there is little else – there are only eight other British motorcycle brands in the top 100 (and one of them only produced one motorcycle).
Brough Superior and Vincent-HRD the most prominent marques
Brough Superior is the most prominent marque in the top 100 with 24 motorcycles, and Vincent is second with 14 motorcycles, though a further 11 Vincents occupy the list between #101-125. As the list expands over time, we expect the most popular marque will become hotly contested between the two brands, mainly because there are more Vincents than Brough Superiors.
No one marque dominates the list as is the case with the top 100 auction cars list, where more than half the top 100 most valuable cars ever to sell at auction are from one marque – Ferrari.
Illustrious British names that might have been expected to be on this list such as BSA, Douglas, Matchless, Norton, Royal Enfield, Triumph and Velocette have not appeared. Beyond those names, the nearest another British marque gets to the top 100 is a Manx Norton race bike.
Beyond the 24 Brough Superiors and 14 Vincents, the top contains just one bike each from Ariel, Coventry-Eagle, McEvoy, Montgomery-Anzani, Zenith-JAP, Scott, AJS and we've attributed the sole Ferrari on the list to the U.K. because it's not really an Italian Ferrari, but a British-designed and British-built tribute bike to the Ferrari brand.
Indications of the once–glorious American Motorcycle Industry
The American industry accounts for 35 of the top 100 motorcycles sold at auction, but a remarkable 12 different American brands are represented on the list, with a thirteenth brand (a 1916 Pope sold for US$121,000 as part of the Gooding auction of the Otis Chandler Collection in 2006) just outside and the historically-significant Roper Steam Cycle (above) would also be on this list if it had sold when it was auctioned in 2011. A high bid of US$425,000 failed to meet the reserve, but had it been accepted, would have propelled the bike into the top ten of all-time.
While the expected big-name American brands of Harley-Davidson (ten bikes), Crocker (seven bikes) and Indian (four bikes) are represented in number, the overall American showing is due to the number of brands which made an appearance – an indication of the depth of the industry and, perhaps to some degree, the nationalism of the world's richest country.
Other Made-in-the-USA motorcycle brands to make the top 100 include Flying Merkel (four bikes), Henderson (two bikes), Iver Johnson (two bikes), with one bike each from Marsh Metz, Pierce, Curtiss, Cyclone, Winchester and Minneapolis.
Overall, 46 of the top 100 bikes (46 percent) are British-made and 35 bikes/percent are American-made – if you'd been asked to guess those percentages, we suspect you'd have opted for far more British brands and bikes (currently ten brands and 46 bikes), and far fewer American brands/bikes (than 12 brands and 35 bikes).
It suggests that however badly the British motorcycle industry lost its way during two World Wars and a depression and against the overwhelming excellence of the Japanese motorcycle industry, so too did the once great American motorcycle industry.
Germany takes out third place amongst the most prolific motorcycle-manufacturing nations with 10 bikes (six BMWs, two Hildebrand & Wolfmullers, a Windhoff and a URS), nudging out Italy's eight bikes (four Ducatis, plus one each from Gilera, MV Agusta, Mondial and Benelli).
Only one other country is represented in the top 100 manufacturers, (one bike from Sweden's now German-owned Husqvarna), and the presence of that bike is more attributable to having been ridden by celebrated movie-star and petrolhead Steve McQueen than its own merits.
No Japanese bikes in the Top 100 ... yet
Not a single Japanese bike makes an appearance, though at some point it seems inevitable that the world-beating technologies of Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki will force their way onto the list and given their dominance for so many decades, populate it significantly. That will most likely be when one of the few world championship-winning Japanese race bikes which are in private hands come up for auction.
The first Japanese bike to enter this hallowed ground might well have been Jim Redman's ex-works 1964 Honda 250cc RC164 Grand Prix motorcycle which went to auction in 2006, but failed to meet the seller's reserve price. If it had met reserve (auctioneers Bonhams estimated it would sell for between £380,000 and £420,000 (US$715,711 – 791,049 at the exchange rates of the time), it would have created a world record. In retrospect, it would have been "well bought" if it had sold. A decade from now, it will be worth millions as our analysis also concludes that the collectible motorcycle marketplace is significantly undervalued in comparison to almost all the traditional "investments of passion."
The aforementioned 1964 Honda was producing more horsepower from its 250cc swept volume 50 years ago than the current Moto3 bikes do from the same capacity. If you're in any doubt about the distilled technological heritage contained within this bike, read this. Honda's engineers have not yet been fully recognized for the remarkable feats they achieved during the sixties and it's little wonder that Honda decided to deploy those resources toward more fruitful commercial endeavors when it pulled out of motorcycle racing at that time. It's easy to think of the RC race bikes as the work of an almighty company, but it was in fact the work of a small band of dedicated engineers performing numerous engineering miracles on an annual basis.
As historical perspective aligns, and further bikes such as this reach auction, Honda's immense contribution to the development of the motorcycle will eventually be recognized and Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki will also enter the top 100.
"Extinction events" create rarity
We looked closely at the decade the top 250 machines were created and didn't come up with anything interesting or conclusive, but when we broke down the year the top 250 motorcycles were created, we saw some interesting patterns.
With the advent of WW1 and WW2, numerous motorcycle manufacturers quickly had their manufacturing capacity diverted towards creating weapons of war and at the cessation of hostilities, many of those manufacturers either ceased to be, or moved into other areas of manufacture. As such, these "extinction events", along with the Great Depression, saw many great motorcycle marques cease to exist and the most advanced specimens available of each manufacturer were created just prior to the extinction of the marque, and have hence become the most sought after. That's our initial reading of the data, and we're particularly interested in hearing any other theories.
Particularly so in the case of the fourth grouping on the above chart which covers the period 1949 to 1955. One suggestion was that the coming of reliable, cheap Japanese motorcycles caused the extinction of the British motorcycle industry, but a closer look at the bikes sold of this vintage shows they are largely Vincents, and Vincent famously closed its doors in December 1955.
Steve McQueen - the man with the "midas touch" owned seven of the top 100
Terence Steven "Steve" McQueen was once the world's highest paid actor, but is earning far more in death than he did in life.
The "King of Cool" still ranks amongst the top earning celebrities a third of a century after his death, thanks to brand ambassadorship, endorsements and image licensing deals with the likes of Persol Sunglasses, TAG-Heuer, Dolce & Gabbana and Tommy Hilfiger. Unlike many screen heroes whose world-beating antics were entirely restricted to celluloid, McQueen was the real deal. He represented America in the International Six Day Trial (now ISDE - the world's oldest international off-road competition) and was an international class car racing driver.
McQueen was scheduled to start in the Le Mans 24 Hour Race in 1970 with four-times World F1 Champion Jackie Stewart as his co-driver before the film studio insisted that he pay attention to the film he was shooting (Le Mans). As a racing driver/rider, he had genuine speed, something that cannot be learned or purchased. He also performed all his own stunts when the film studios allowed it and his premature death from cancer at the height of his popularity seems to have frozen his brand attributes in time, something that those idols that live on cannot hope to emulate. As a race driver, he won't get slower. As a heart-throb, he will not grow old and wrinkly, or get involved in the many scandals which have befallen others in the limelight.
McQueen had what the movie studios call "star quality" and if you are in doubt as to why certain people attract such enormous sums for their celebrity endorsements, then this analysis puts it in stark perspective.
The value of McQueen's brand, which posthumously nets his estate more than US$10 million a year, is even more visible when it directly influences the price of the cars or motorcycles (or indeed anything else) which can demonstrate McQueen in their ownership.
McQueen owned seven of the top 100 motorcycles ever sold at auction: a 1929 Scott Flying Squirrel 600cc, a 1934 Indian Sport Scout, a 1937 Crocker "Hemi-Head," a 1931 Brough Superior SS80, a 1920 Indian Powerplus "Daytona" Racer, a 1971 Husqvarna 400 Cross, and a 1946 Indian Chief. With recent additions to the list, an eighth McQueen bike, a 1923 Indian Big Chief and sidecar, has recently been pushed out of the top 100. There's also a ninth McQueen bike just outside the top 100 – 1938 Harley-Davidson WLD Sport which Mecum sold for US$125,000 in November, 2013.
McQueen also owned or drove a number of the top 100 cars ever sold at auction. The 1968 Ford Gulf GT40 used in the McQueen film Le Mans (1971) is the most expensive movie car ever to sell at auction (fetching US$11,000,000 at an RM Auctions sale at Pebble Beach in 2012), and the Porsche 911S which he drove through the French countryside at ballistic speed for the first three minutes of the same film makes number six on the same top 10 movie car list, having sold for US$1.37 million at a Pebble Beach auction by RM Auctions in 2011.
Original in every respect, the 911S commanded a significant premium for its fame, given that identical cars can be had for less than one tenth of that price.
McQueen is one of the very few human beings to have ever lived who has a demonstrable "midas touch." Irrefutable proof can be had by comparing the prices of bikes he has owned on this list with comparable bikes which he hasn't owned.
Only two two-stroke bikes made the top 100 list and McQueen is responsible for both of them. The first is a Husqvarana 400 dirt bike. Without McQueen's ownership in its resume, the US$144,500 1971 Husqvarna 400 Cross would be worth closer to one hundredth of that value. The other, a Scott Flying Squirrel, achieved many multiples of the price of similar Scotts which hadn't been graced by McQueen's ownership.
If that doesn't convince you, then perhaps the sale, at auction of the racing suit he wore in Le Mans for US$984,000 (pictured above) is compelling evidence. If that doesn't convince you, then this will.
Finally, if you fancy having a good cry, take a look at the prices some of McQueen's motorcycles sold for in 2006, and wonder what a few lazy grand and a bit of foresight might have turned into today.
Most top 100 motorcycles are sold in America
The United States of America has more high net worth individuals than any other country, so it's not surprising that 54 percent of the top 100 motorcycles have sold in America. The percentage of the top 100 cars sold in America is much higher and it is logical that as the undervalued motorcycle market corrects itself, more top 100 bikes will be sold in the United States.
If there's a bike coming up for sale somewhere other than the United States, it's likely you'll buy it cheaper there than if it were to go to auction within the United States. There seems to have been a trend developing for some time of the best bikes from around the world being brought to America for sale. The same unquestionably has been happening for some time with valuable cars. The United Kingdom is the only other country which sells a significant proportion of the world's rare motorcycles – 42 of the top 100. Ninety six percent of the motorcycles in the top 100 were sold in either the United States and United Kingdom, two were sold in Monaco, one in Germany and one in France.
Two thirds of the top 100 are V-twins
Whilst it might not be difficult to guess that the V-twin is the most popular engine configuration, the dominance of the V engine configuration surprised us – a full 69 of the top 100 motorcycles use a v-twin engine configuration, and if you add the V4 Ducati race bikes, the V–configuration makes up more than seven in every ten of the top 100 bikes.
Though four-cylinder engines might offer smoother engines with better primary balance, and have been around for more than a century, four-cylinder bikes make up just eleven percent of the top 100 (five in-line, four across-the-frame and two V-four Desmosedici Ducati MotoGP bikes), perhaps indicating that engine character and the ripping sound of a V configuration are more important than smoothness and civility to an enthusiast.
Single cylinder engines account for nine percent (eight four-strokes, one two-stroke), flat twins (all BMW) make up six percent, and parallel twins account for five percent (four four-strokes, one two-stroke). The first six cylinder to make this list will most likely be a Honda race bike from the sixties.
In the two-stroke versus four-stroke battle, it's a "no contest" – two-strokes might make more horsepower but they are largely unwanted by elite collectors unless they have been owned by Steve McQueen. Two-strokes would not be represented on this list but for McQueen's midas touch and there are no others we've found that have come close. Once more, the most likely contenders will be the Japanese two-stroke racing bikes which banished the four-stroke from Grand Prix motorcycle racing and dominated until regulation changes reversed its fortunes.
The elite auctioneers
Bonhams dominates the sale of elite motorcycles with 55 percent of the top 100 sales, followed by Mecum, combining its own sales and those of its recent acquisition of Mid-America to bring up 13 percent of top 100 sales
Gooding & Company (12 percent) is third, largely thanks to its auctioning of the Otis Chandler Collection in 2006.
1 - Brough Superior
Brough Superiors in top 100 – 24
Years of production: 1919 – 1940 Total production Brough Superiors – approx. 3000 Most expensive Brough Superior at auction: US$492,973 (GBP£315,100)
George Brough established Brough Superior in Nottingham, England in 1919. The most prestigious motorcycle publication of the day, The Motorcycle, soon dubbed the Brough Superior as "the Rolls Royce of Motorcycles" partly because they were the most expensive motorcycles in the world, but mainly because of the build quality of the motorcycle and the ride experience. Brough soon began advertising its wares as exactly that – "the Rolls Royce of Motorcycles". Rolls Royce naturally was concerned about this comparison to it's automobiles and dispatched a representative to the Brough factory who observed workers assembling motorcycles wearing white gloves in pristine surroundings. Whether the use of this comparison was ever officially sanctioned is unclear, but it continued.
Brough Superior's most famous brand ambassador was Thomas Edward Lawrence, who came to be known across the world as Lawrence of Arabia due to his writings and a film in which Lawrence was played by by Peter O'Toole. Lawrence owned seven Brough Superiors upon which he was known to often ride 500 miles or more in a single day, just for the joy of it. He had an eighth on order when he suffered fatal injuries riding one of his beloved Broughs. If that bike ever appears at auction, it will certainly become a top ten bike. The most notable Brough Superior aficionado other than Lawrence was philosopher George Bernard Shaw. Most modern company's would die to have a pairing like that hawking its wares - both did it in an honorary basis because of their love of the products.
The Brough Superior was manufactured from 1919 through to 1940 with 19 different models offered during this time. Each motorcycle was built to the customer's specifications and consequently, rarely were any two motorcycles alike. Brough considered that quality and performance were paramount, and to ensure each bike met stringent standards, it was first assembled to check all components for fit & function before the bike was disassembled for paint, polish and plating then reassembled in final finish.
Once complete, each Brough Superior was road tested prior to delivery to ensure it was capable of the performance commensurate to the model. The S80 was ridden to 80 mph and the S100 to 100 mph before being individually certified by George Brough. If any motorcycle did not come up to par, it was returned to the factory floor to diagnose and rectify the inhibiting performance issues.
Brough Superior also produced a range of Super Sport (SS) models such as the SS100 which utilized either J.A.P. or Matchless 1000 cc overhead valve V-twin engines. The SS80 was also powered by J.A.P. or Matchless 1,000 cc side-valve V-twin engines and the SS680 O.H.V. ran the J.A.P. 680 cc overhead valve V-twin engine.
In the 21 years of production just over 3000 Brough Superiors were produced and approximately 1000 of these bikes still survive today.
Like so many of the revered marques of yesteryear, Brough Superior has been reborn. British motorcycle enthusiast Mark Upham began manufacturing vintage British motorcycle spare parts nearly two decades ago and purchased the rights to the Brough Superior name in 2008, developing the business initially as a manufacturer of replicas using authentic period manufacturing techniques.
In 2014 Bough Superior unveiled a new 1000 cc V-twin SS100, the first new model to bear the name for 75 years. The new SS100 will only be available in limited numbers, and it won't be cheap, (expect it to sell between US$65,000 – US$85,000), but you can own one for substantially less than those featured in our Top 100 most expensive motorcycles article and like other bikes bearing the Brough Superior name, it can be expected to hold its value well over time. It can also be expected to hold its value well in comparison to other new motorcycles in the elite price category.
Brough Superior now offers atom-perfect replicas of the finest period models made to your own design and exact specifications, such as the 1283 cc, 1930's Basel Brough below, which was purchased by Ralph Lauren Paris for advertising purposes. Lauren is a collector in his own right, and his collection includes the hyper-rare 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic. Only two are known to still exist, and the "other one" recently changed hands for a price reported to be "more than US$30,000,000."
There is no price list for Brough Superior's newly-created bespoke period wares, but count on spending upwards of US$150,000 for the privilege. That's much less than you'd pay at auction for one made 80 years ago.
Brough Superior is hence in the enviable position of having its bespoke, limited-edition, globally-renowned, finest-quality period Brough Superiors available alongside a world-class modern motorcycle. No other company has ever offered such services, and only perhaps Crocker, Harley-Davidson, BMW and Indian are in a position to dream of such. In the automotive world, it's akin to the successfully reincarnated Bugatti suddenly offering bespoke period Atlantics alongside the Veyron.
Mark Upham, as custodian of motorcycling's most revered brand, has taken an almighty gamble in attempting to recreate the brand values of yore in a modern machine and we adore such boldness at Gizmag. Bravo!
2 - Vincent-HRD
Vincent-HRDs in top 100 – 14 Year of production: 1928 – 1955 Total production Vincent V-twins – approx. 6872 Most expensive sold at auction: US$383,317 (GBP £221,500)
Initially established as HRD Motors by former British RFC (a forerunner to the RAF) pilot, Howard Raymond Davies and E J Massey in 1924, HRD produced various models of motorcycles generally powered by J.A.P. engines. Whilst their motorcycles were successful on the race track, the business was not and went into voluntary liquidation in 1928. Ernest Humphries purchased HRD Motors primarily for the real estate and quickly placed the HRD name, patterns and jigs on the market.
Philip Vincent had designed and built his own motorcycle in 1927 and in 1928 he registered a patent for his cantilever rear suspension. Wanting to build on the success of his creation and venture into motorcycle production, he was urged to acquire an established name under which to manufacture. When HRD became available Philip Vincent purchased HRD from Ernest Humphries in 1928.
The Vincent-HRD Company Limited was born and a new trademark was designed which featured "The Vincent" in tiny letters above the HRD logo. Powered by JAP or sometimes Rudge-Python engines mounted in Vincent designed cantilever frames, the first bikes rolled off the assembly line in 1928.
Vincent HRD would continue to source outside engines until, fed up with mechanical issues being the weak point of their otherwise advanced motorcycles, Australian engineer Phil Irving who had joined Vincent in 1931, set about designing a new line of 500cc OHV singles for the 1934 Vincent Meteor. Much has been written about the unique head design of the Vincent 500 which saw each valve fitted with two valve guides actuated by a forked rocker arm to a shoulder between the guides to eliminate sideward forces on the valve stem, particularity at high revolutions. The innovation worked and the Vincent 500cc engine was able to achieve over 90mph!
According to folklore, Phil Irving designed the Vincent Rapide V-twin engine almost by accident when by chance, he placed two tracings of the 500cc single cylinder engine atop each other in such a way that when he looked down he saw they had formed a crude V-twin. Inspired by this discovery, and utilizing his 500cc single as the basis, Irving created the first 47.5 degree 994cc V-twin Vincent engine which was introduced in the Series-A Rapide in October, 1936.
The Series-B Rapide was released in 1946 and Series-C Rapide in 1948 including the most famous Vincent Motorcycle, the Black Shadow. Capable of 125mph, the Black Shadow was the world's fastest production motorcycle and could only be beaten by its race version, the Black Lightning which had heavy steel components replaced by lighter aluminum, could reach speeds in excess of 150mph!
"The most famous photograph in motorcycling" is that of Rollie Free, Vincent-land-speed record holder, lying prone on the bike wearing just a bathing suit in 1948 at Bonneville. In a last ditch attempt to reduce aerodynamic drag and take the record which was just out of reach, he stripped and risked the unthinkable to take the record on the highly abrasive salt flats.
In 1955 Vincent Motorcycles was forced to close due to heavy losses. One week before Christmas, the last Vincent came off the production line. Vincent's cantilever rear suspension was used on all Vincent motorcycles from 1928 until the end of production, and very similar rear suspensions were subsequently used by many of the world's manufacturers, albeit many decades after Vincent closed.
3 - Harley-Davidson
Harley-Davidsons in top 100 – 9 Years of production: 1907 – present Total production of Harley-Davidsons – more than five million and still counting, though the highest priced collector Harleys were produced in much smaller numbers, e.g. 9812 Knuckleheads Most expensive sold at auction: US$1,620,000
William S Harley made his first step towards what would eventually become the world's best recognized motorcycle brand in 1901 at age 20 when he designed a small engine to be attached to a bicycle frame.
It would be 1903 before Harley and longtime friend Arthur Davidson would complete their "motor-bicycle" with an engine capacity of just 7.07 cubic inches (116cc). They soon discovered the engine did not produce enough power to climb the Milwaukee hills and went back to the drawing board. Around this time they were joined by Arthur Davidson's brother Walter.
The motorcycle widely considered to be the first true Harley Davidson made its debut in September 1904 taking fourth place in a Milwaukee motorcycle race. This time Harley and Davidson had produced an engine with a displacement of 24.74 cubic inches (405cc).
Later that year the first Harley-Davidson Dealer, C.H. Lang of Chicago, sold three of the first five production Harley-Davidson motorcycles ever built. In 1906, Harley and the Davidson brothers built their first factory in Milwaukee, the site of Harley-Davidson's corporate headquarters to this day.
In 1907, William A. Davidson, brother of Arthur and Walter, quit his job as tool foreman for the Milwaukee railroad and joined the fast-growing concern. Harley-Davidson Motor Company was incorporated on September 17, 1907 and shares in the company were split four ways between William Harley and the three Davidson brothers.
Production numbers continued to escalate from 450 motorcycles in 1908 to 1,149 machines in 1909. Competition was fierce in those early years, as there were more than 150 American motorcycle brands prior to 1910.
In 1913, Harley-Davidson produced some 16,284 motorcycles and the US military took delivery of around 15,000 Harley Davidsons during WWI, beginning a long association with the military and police forces of the world. By 1920, annual production numbers had leapt to over 28,000 units and Harley-Davidson had become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, with outlets in 67 countries.
In 1929, Harley-Davidson introduced its 45ci Flathead or WL, V-Twin engine. The Great Depression began just a few months later and consequently Harley-Davidson's sales fell from 21,000 in 1929 to just 3,703 in 1933. In efforts to endure the Great Depression, the company turned to manufacturing industrial power-plants based upon its motorcycle engine design. By 1931, Harley-Davidson's only remaining American competition was Indian. In 1936, the Knucklehead overhead valve engine was introduced and manufactured concurrently with the WL engine.
Harley-Davidson, was already supplying the US Army with a military version of its WL line, called the WLA, (A denoting Army) when WWII broke out. Like most American manufacturing companies, Harley-Davidson shifted its focus to war manufacturing. In excess of 90,000 military motorcycles were produced throughout WWII. Despite winding up production of the WLA motorcycles after WWII and ceasing production of the Flathead engine in 1947, the WLA was put back into production from 1950 to 1952 for the Korean War.
The Panhead engine was released in 1947 followed by the Shovelhead in 1966. In 1969, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) purchased Harley-Davidson. The workforce was slashed, expenses cut, quality and sales suffered. In 1981 they were on the verge verge of bankruptcy when a group of thirteen investors led by Willie G. Davidson, Grandson of William A. Davidson, purchased the company.
In 1984 Harley Davidson released the Evolution engine which had been in development since 1977 and is widely regarded as the engine that saved the company. Quality, power, reliability and sales increased exponentially and within years the "Evo" was the engine of choice for many Harley enthusiasts. Harley-Davidson was back in business with gusto. The Evolution engine was replaced by the Twin Cam engine in 1999 which is still in production now having undergone several changes in displacement.
Harley-Davidson is still going strong in 2014 and with the release of a new range of smaller displacement models, targeting a wider audience than ever before.
Compared with Brough Superior and Vincent, the diversity of collectible Harley-Davidson models is much broader. Of the ten Harley-Davidsons in the top 100, there are two of the original 'Strap Tank' Singles (a 1907 model sold for US$352,000 and a 1908 model sold for US$198,000), three V-twins from Harley Davidson's first decade (two 1911 7Ds which sold for US$283,400 and US$187,000 respectively and a 1915 model for US$169,600), two Knuckleheads (1936 model which sold for US$165,000 and a 1940 model which sold for US$159,000), Cal Rayborn's 1973 Harley-Davidson 750cc XRTT (which sold twice within the top 100, the second time for US185,500), a 1929 Peashooter (US$125,800) and Pope Francis' 2013 Harley-Davidson Dyna Super Glide (US$330,938).
4 - Crocker
Crockers in top 100 – 7 Years of production: 1936 – 1942 Total Production of Crocker V-twin motorcycles – believed to be in the vicinity of 100, with around 72 still known to exist Most expensive Crocker sold at auction: US$302,000 Average price of top 100 bikes: US$266,786
Crocker Motorcycles was founded by Albert Crocker, a motorcycle enthusiast and racer, who through his racing endeavours became close friends with Oscar Hedström, President of Indian Motorcycles and Charles Hendee, Indian's Chief Engineer. Crocker purchased an Indian dealership in Kansas City before eventually moving to Los Angeles where he purchased another established Indian dealership named Freed Indian.
In 1931 Crocker released a single cylinder speedway bike with around 30 machines produced, but it was not until 1936 that the big V-twin motorcycles for which the company would become famous began production. In the ensuing years Crocker sold his Indian Dealership and launched Crocker Motorcycle Company in downtown Los Angeles.
In 1936 the first Crocker Twin motorcycle was released to resounding success and much to Crocker's astonishment an joy, he found himself with more orders than his small factory could produce. The power plant of the Crocker (small tank) Twin was a 96 cubic inch (1000cc) overhead valve hemispherical head V-twin.
The Crocker Twin soon gained a reputation as "The Fastest Thing on Two Wheels" and testing proved it to be capable of speeds up to 100mph. Each bike was tailor made to the customer's specifications and they could select colour, proportion of chrome plating, gear ratio and even engine displacement. Consequently some Crocker's were built with engines up to 100 cubic inches – 1640cc! Such was Crocker's confidence in the power and speed of his bikes that he offered a full refund to any Crocker owner who was beaten by a stock Harley Davidson or Indian. No bike was ever returned for refund.
1939 saw the release of the more advanced Crocker "Big Tank" however America was in the depths of The Great Depression and by 1942 Crocker was forced to abandon motorcycle production completely.
In 1997 the new Crocker Motorcycle Company commenced production of Crocker components for the restoration market. The parts were received enthusiastically enough to prompt incorporation of the new company in January 1999. Using many of the old-school fabrication technologies, the Crocker Motorcycle Company set about re-creating all Crocker components such that new Crocker Big Tank and Small Tank motorcycles could be assembled, resulting in remarkable recreations of the originals. Crocker began taking orders for its very limited production in 2012 and now builds complete Crocker motorcycles to customer specifications as Albert Crocker did over 70 years before. Albert Crocker was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.
5 - Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW)
BMWs in top 100 – 6 Years of production: 1923 – present Total Production of BMW motorcycles – millions Most expensive BMW sold at auction: US$480,000
In March of 1916, companies Rapp Motorenwerke GmbH, and Gustav Ott Flugmaschinenfabrik, combined to form BFW or Bayerische Flugzeuzwerke AG. Max Friz, a German mechanical engineer specializing in engine design had originally joined Rapp Motorenwerke, Friz was charged with developing an aircraft engine which could achieve great altitudes.
In 1917, the company was renamed Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (English: Bavarian Motor Works) or BMW as it is most commonly known and continued to produce aircraft engines until the end of WW I. As a result of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended WWI, Germany was forced to disarm, cease production of aircraft components and seek new avenues for growth. Endeavours included air brakes, industrial engines, agricultural machinery, furniture and many other components before turning to motorcycle engines.
Legend has it that BMW's foreman, Martin Stolle, had a 1914 Douglas 500cc flat twin motorcycle which Max Friz reverse engineered to produce the celebrated M2B15 engine. Named the Bavarian Light Engine, the horizontally opposed twin cylinder engine had a displacement of 494cc's developing 6.5hp at 2800 rpm and was mounted "fore & aft". The new BMW engine was sold to numerous motorcycle manufactures of the era including Bison, Corona, Victoria, SMW, and SBD as well as being used in the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke produced Helios. As Bayerische Flugzeugwerke later became BMW, the Helios could be argued to be the first BMW motorcycle.
In 1923, Friz combined years of knowledge and practical experience to produce the first motorcycle under the BMW name, the R32. Mindful of the overheating issues of the Helios, Friz turned the M2B15 engine 90 degrees to mount it transversely in the frame. The shaft-driven R32 would become the platform on which all BMW boxer engined motorcycles would be built for the next century. In 1925 BMW would release its first racing bike, the R37, the first bike with aluminum alloy cylinder heads. One of the rarest of BMW motorcycles, only a handful of R37s are believed to exist today.
In 1928 Ernst Henne purchased a BMW R37 and stripped it down, only retaining the most essential components. He then set about building one of the most successful record-breaking motorcycles the world has ever seen. Henne, using the fundamentals of the 494cc boxer engine, increased the bore and stroke to achieve a substantial displacement increase to 749cc before adding a supercharger to the high capacity motor.
Estimates place the output at upwards of 100hp, more than most high performance road cars of the time. In 1929 Henne set the fastest recorded motorcycle speed at a tire smouldering 216 km/h or 134 mph. In total, Henne would take 76 world records with his blown R37 and bravely earn his place in the history books and motorcycle folklore alike.
Whilst many brands of motorcycles were built for use in WWII, it was the BMW boxer engine which would prove to be the superior engine for North Africa's desert due to its advanced cooling properties. The shaft drive also coped far better with the fine grains of sand which eroded and destroyed chain drives on other brand motorcycles.
The end of WWII in 1945, found BMW all but obliterated. The Munich production facility had been destroyed by allied bombs and the second plant in Eisenach was badly damaged. Thankfully, most of the vital equipment had been stored securely elsewhere however once again BMW found itself facing manufacturing restrictions as a result of war.
BMW has produced millions of motorcycles, but it's only the marquee older models with very small production runs (e.g. only 3090 units of the original R32 were produced and just 152 units of the R37) or factory race machinery which command $100,000+ prices to date.
6 - Indian
Indians in top 100 – 5 Years of production: 1901 – 1953, numerous failed attempts from 1955 to 2011 then 2013 onwards Total Production of Indian motorcycles – hundreds of thousands, with peak annual production of 32,000 in 1913 Most expensive sold at auction: US$177,500
Like many motorcycle companies in the early nineteenth century, Indian started out as a bicycle manufacturer. George M Hendee, founded Hendee Manufacturing Company in 1897. The company's first bicycles were known as Silver King and Silver Queen before the "American Indian" bicycle name was adopted in 1898.
In 1900, Hendee was joined by Carl Oscar Hedstom, the two shared much in common as they both had backgrounds in bicycle racing and manufacturing. Together they designed what would be the very first Indian motorcycle. A single prototype and two production "Diamond Frame Indian Single" bikes were built and tested. The first Indian motorcycles were sold to the public in 1902, featuring a 1.75 hp, single cylinder engine. The bikes were well received by the general public and orders began to flow. In 1904 Hendee was manufacturing around 500 Indian motorcycles per year which rose to peak of 32,000 machines in 1913 when it was the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer.
This success led to the US military purchasing almost the entire stock of Indian's Powerplus line in 1917 and 1918 as it tooled up to enter WWI. Whilst no doubt the company would have celebrated the sales and nationalistic pride in selling their motorcycles to the US government, this would have a detrimental impact upon domestic sales as dealers were deprived of stock and consequently customers turned to other brands. Harley Davidson sales surpassed Indian's and Harley took the throne as number one motorcycle manufacturer in the USA.
The Indian Scout was debuted in 1920 and production ran though to 1949 in various formats. The first Indian Chief was revealed in 1922 and by 1923 featured a 73 cubic inch (1200cc) engine. Despite producing thousands of motorcycles under the Indian brand, it would not be until 1923 that Hendee Manufacturing Company changed its name to Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company.
Despite the power and speed capabilities of the Chief, it was 1928 before a front brake was added! In 1940, the Indian Chief adopted the company's hallmark skirted fenders and the introduction of a sprung frame which offered superior comfort to that of its main competitor Harley Davidson with their rigid frame design. The Scout and the Chief were without doubt Indian's most significant motorcycles. Production of the Indian Chief continued until 1953 when the company was declared bankrupt.
The value and recognition of the Indian name has resulted in many attempts to relaunch the iconic brand, but it would not be until 2011 when Polaris Industries purchased the name that any sustainable long term future for the brand has been achieved. Meet the new Indian Motorcycle Company here.
7 - Ducati
Ducatis in top 100 – 4 Years of production: 1946 – present Total Production of Ducati motorcycles – millions Most expensive sold at auction: US$325,430 (EUR€251,550)
The Ducati Motorcycle lineage commenced in 1946 with the Cucciolo, a small engine designed to be fitted to bicycles. By the time the Cucciolo was produced, the Ducati Brothers had already been in business together for 20 years designing and manufacturing industrial components used in radio transmissions. The Cucciolo engine was a worldwide success and it soon became evident that a designated frame was needed. For this the Ducati Brothers turned to Caproni a famous brand in the aeronautical field who patented a frame design. The Cucciolo Motorcycle was born!
6 years on, in 1952, Ducati released a 175cc cruiser motorcycle with revolutionary electric starter and automatic transmission. It was 1954 when things really began to change when famed motorcycle engineer Fabio Taglioni joined Ducati. Taglioni had a background in designing technically-advanced performance motorcycles and applied his vast knowledge and experience to developing Ducati motorcycles. Within two years of Taglioni joining Ducati, it was producing three new models in Tourist, Special and Sport versions with the latter able to achieve 84 mph (135km/h).
The Ducati Mach 1 rolled off the production line in the 1960s and at the time was the fastest 250cc motorcycle in the world, rumored to be able to achieve 100 mph (160km/h). Ducati had secured its place in motorcycling folklore. The late 1960s saw the emergence of the Superbike era and Ducati released the first of its large displacement V-twin motorcycles, announcing itself on the world stage with the legendary 1-2 win in the 1972 Imola 200. Desmodromic valve actuation was already the company's signature, but as the big V-twins won races around the world, it quickly progressed from a technological curiosity to competitive advantage. Mike Hailwood's famous comeback win at the Isle of Man further fueld the legend and when the World Superbike Championships emerged, the company took to the global stage with vigor, dominating proceedings and developing a global following with its Desmoquattro engines.
Now the marque has been purchased by the powerful Volkswagen Group, we can expect to see much more from Ducati in the future.
7 – Flying Merkel
Flying Merkels in Top 100 – 4
Years of production: 1911 – 1915
Total Production of Flying Merkel motorcycles – unknown but only around 50 still exist
Most expensive sold at auction: US$201,250
Joseph Merkel began building motorcycle engines in 1902 in Milwaukee and by 1903 was producing his own motorcycles powered by a single cylinder 316cc engine.
In 1908, Joseph Merkel merged with Light Manufacturing and Foundry Company and moved the Merkel production to their facility in Pottstown Pennsylvania. The "Merkel Light" motorcycle was born. Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company, had been building bicycles and then motorcycles since 1895 under brand names such as Raycycle and Miami. It took control of the Light Manufacturing and Foundry Company in 1911, with the acquisition of the Merkel name intended to give it the high end product it felt was needed to be considered a top-level manufacturer. Joseph Merkel hence relocated to Miami's production facility in Middletown, Ohio.
Merkel motorcycles were subsequently re-branded again, this time as the Flying Merkel. The bikes were finished in a brilliant orange paint scheme which would go on to be known as Merkel Orange. The "Flying Merkel" logo was emblazoned in large black script lettering on the arched orange tank and white wall tyres capped off a distinctive appearance. Merkel's slogan became: "All roads are smooth to The Flying Merkel".
The Flying Merkel engine was an 884cc V-twin producing 6hp via a two-speed transmission. With a hand-operated rear brake it could achieve top speeds of around 60mph. A Racing version was produced with a 997cc engine, Bosch magneto ignition, and Schebler carburetor.
In 1914, Joseph Merkel left the company he had founded and though production of Flying Merkel motorcycles initially continued, it ceased in 1915.
Many of Joseph Merkel's component designs were widely copied. He used high quality German-made roller bearings in a time when other manufacturers were using brass bushes. Merkel designed cam-operated intake valves and famously designed and patented his own "Truss Fork" for the Merkel which was seen as the predecessor to telescopic forks. His Truss Forks would be used on racing motorcycles of various brands for years to come. Another Joseph Merkel innovation was a throttle-controlled engine oiler that was copied by both Harley Davidson and Indian.
Whilst only manufactured for a relatively short period, the Flying Merkel is widely recognized as one of the great marques of the early American motorcycle industry, with Joseph Merkel inducted into the Motorcycling Hall of Fame in 1998.
9 – Henderson
Hendersons in Top 100 – 2 Years of production: 1912 - 1931 Total Production of Henderson motorcycles – unknown but only around 50 still exist Most expensive sold at auction: US$148,500
Brothers Tom Henderson and William Henderson founded the American Henderson Motorcycle Company in Detroit, Michigan in 1911. Their first motorcycle was a belt driven prototype built in 1911 but it was an in-line four-cylinder 934cc (57 cubic inch) motorcycle delivering 7hp which became the motorcycle for which the marque became famous. The Henderson Four went into production in 1911 and was made available to the public in January, 1912.
Upgrades and modifications such as better brakes and changed seating position continued to appear on subsequent Henderson models such as the Henderson Models B and C.
Carl Stearns Clancy riding his Henderson Four, became the first person to circumnavigate the globe on a motorcycle. Sailing from New York to Dublin in October 1912 to commence his trip, he covered 18,000 miles on his 1912 Henderson before arriving back in the United States in August 1913. Around this time, Henderson also developed the Heath Henderson B-4 engine for use in the Heath Parasol, an American single-seat, open-cockpit, parasol winged, home-built monoplane.
The 1915 Model E was the first to have more than one gear courtesy of a 2-speed rear hub. The bike had a reduced wheel base which would become standard on 1916 F models as did a kick-start and cam-driven mechanical oiler.
For the 1917 Model G, a 3-speed transmission was debuted along with better clutch and new wet sump lubrication system which combined, resulted in substantially increased sales.
In 1917, the Henderson brothers sold the business to Ignaz Schwinn of Schwinn Bicycles. Schwinn also owned the Excelsior Motor Manufacturing & Supply Company (not to be confused with the British based Excelsior Motor Company) and Henderson production was moved to the Excelsior plant in Chicago Illinois. Tom and William Henderson accompanied the business and joined the management team at Excelsior as did Arthur Lemon who had joined Henderson two years earlier as a salesman.
Successive Henderson models included the Model H in 1918, Models Z and Z-2 in 1919 powered by 70 ci (1147cc) engines developing 14.2hp and adorned with the red Excelsior "X"
1919 would prove to be a watershed year as Tom Henderson left Excelsior and joined Melchior, Armstrong and Dessau to concentrate on exporting Henderson and Excelsior motorcycles to Europe. Numerous Henderson motorcycles were exported to international markets throughout the Schwinn ownership years and consequently there are many surviving examples of Henderson motorcycles around the world.
William Henderson disagreed with the direction in which Arthur Lemon was taking the motorcycles, towards larger-heavier bikes. He resigned in 1919 to form the Ace Motor Corporation where he continued to pursue the design of smaller, lighter motorcycles.
Ironically, when William Henderson was killed in a collision while testing his Ace Sporting Solo in 1922, Arthur Lemon would be appointed Ace Motor Corporation's Chief Engineer. In 1927, Ace Motor Corporation was purchased by Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company. Arthur Lemon was once again on the move and the Ace was rebranded as the Indian Four. The Henderson motorcycles continued to evolve with each new model release. The 1920 Henderson Model K with its larger engine, reinforced frame and its advanced engine lubrication system featured an optional reverse gear designed for use with sidecar attachment. The 1922 Henderson Deluxe brandished performance improvements including enhanced induction and carburetion.
The Deluxe was discontinued after 1928 when former Harley Davidson Chief Engineer, Arthur Constantine joined the team and instigated a radical overhaul to the existing design. This would result in the launch of the Henderson Streamline Model in 1929 to strong sales despite the resounding impacts of the stock market crash. The final Henderson model would be the Special or KL Solo, capable of achieving 110mph which would be widely purchased by law enforcement agencies across the country.
By 1931, the influence of the Great Depression was undeniable and the astute Ignaz Schwinn forecast it could easily continue for eight years. Despite standing orders for motorcycles, he is famously quoted as stating to his management team, "Gentlemen, today we stop". He opted to cease production immediately and return the business to its roots, bicycle manufacturing. While the passing of the great marque is lamented, Schwinn bicycles continues to this day.
In 1993, Dan Hanlon secured the rights to the Excelsior-Henderson trademarks and founded the Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Company in Minnesota. Production commenced in 1999 with an estimated 1950 Super X motorcycles produced until production ceased due to financial difficulties in 2000. The limited number of motorcycles produced in this short-lived resurgence are certain to only increase in both value and collectibility.
9 – Iver Johnson
Iver Johnsons in Top 100 – 2 Years of production: 1907 – 1916 Total Production of Iver Johnson motorcycles – unknown Most expensive sold at auction: US$299,600
Iver Johnson was born in Nordfjord, Norway and was a gunsmith with his own business in Oslo before emigrating to the United States in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War when gunsmiths were in high demand.
Establishing himself in Worcester, Massachusetts, he met fellow gunsmith Martin Bye and the pair established Johnson Bye & Company in 1871. In 1883, Bye sold his share of the company to Johnson, giving birth to Iver Johnson & Co. Johnson began building bicycles and the business would undergo yet another name change in 1891 to Johnson's Arms & Cycle Works, at which time the company relocated to Fitchburg, Massachusetts. After Iver's death in 1895, his sons took control of the business and turned their hand to motorcycle manufacturing in 1907.
The Iver Johnson motorcycle was a stunning machine with fuel tank nestled between arched frame rails which curved over the single cylinder or V-twin side-valve engines. The single cylinder model had an output of 4.5hp whilst the V-twin produced 8hp. Later versions of the V-twin offered customers a choice of single or 2-speed rear hub.
Front suspension was courtesy of a leading link, leaf spring designed fork assembly. Customers could specify either rigid or swing-arm rear suspension. Both chain and belt final drive were offered on the Iver Johnson range whilst starting was accomplished via pedals and a chain running to the rear hub.
By 1916, the weapons division of the enterprise was delivering far greater profits than motorcycles so the motorcycles were abruptly discontinued and focus was placed on the lucrative firearms. Iver Johnson firearms were manufactured under various names and ownership until 1993 when operations ceased.
9 – Hildebrand & Wolfmüller
Hildebrand & Wolfmüllers in Top 100 – 2 Years of Production – 1894 - 1897 Total Production of Hildebrand & Wolfmüller motorcycles – between 800 and 2,000 Most expensive sold at auction: US$161,000 (restored), $132,550 (unrestored)
Manufactured in Germany, the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller is of the utmost historical significance as the first powered two-wheeler to enter series production, and is the first vehicle to which the name motorrad (motorcycle in English) was ever applied.
The Hildebrand & Wolfmüller motorcycle sounds like a modern motorcycle in its specification – twin-cylinder, four-valve, water-cooled, 1488cc engine – but it is indeed as unconventional as it is rare. Check out the diagram and you'll see the rear wheel doubled as a pseudo flywheel and indeed, the piston connecting rods and the pushrods that actuate the valve gear are also attached to the rear wheel, there's no clutch and no brakes. We did a full history of the machine a few years ago, complete with lots of links to articles and illustrations verifying its place in history.
Other marques in Top 100: AJS, Benelli, Coventry-Eagle, Curtiss, Cyclone, Ferrari, Gilera, Husqvarna, March Metz, McEvoy, Minneapolis, Montgomery-Anzani, MV Agusta, Pierce, Scott, URS, Winchester, Windhoff and Zenith.
Our complete listing of the top 100 motorcycles sold at auction, with images of each bikle and links to the official catalogue descriptions can be found here.
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more