3rd September 2019

Choosing your first classic bike

You want a classic motorcycle, but which one? There is a bewildering assortment of styles, sounds and performance to suit every pocket, so how do you make the choice that’s right for you? With over 100 years of history and several hundred manufacturers to pick from, it’s easy to become overwhelmed if this is your first venture into classic bikes.

The first question to answer is ‘what do I want it for?’. For some owners, the pleasure is in the restoration, or just plain tinkering, as much as in the riding. Will you be entering organised events or shows, which may define the era or eligibility of the machine? For example, the famous Banbury Run is only open to pre-1931 motorcycles which, though simple in construction, can be daunting and unfamiliar for a newcomer, not to mention expensive to buy. A great way to sample such machines is through the Vintage Motor Cycle Club or the National Motorcycle Museum, both of whom offer their members low cost ‘trial days’ in a controlled environment.

If you just want to trundle around the country lanes enjoying the scenery, a single cylinder model from the 1950s can provide oodles of relaxing charm without demanding too much maintenance, providing your right leg is up to starting one. If you want to enjoy longer, brisker runs, maybe to the coast with like-minded pals, any of the larger capacity bikes from the 1960s onwards are well up to the task.

The second major question is ‘how much are you willing to spend?’. In general, price goes up with the age of a bike and its engine size. This is worth remembering when restoring a derelict; it costs pretty much the same to fix up a Triumph 350 twin as a 650 twin, but the end product may only be worth half as much. A budget of £2000 will just about get you a usable 250cc British bike from the 50s or 60s, or a volume Japanese model from the 80s. Stretching to £5000 opens up a wide range of possibilities, including many of the British 500 singles and 650 twins and most of the Japanese products of the 70s and 80s. However, the more glamorous models routinely reach £10,000 or more.

It is worth remembering that when it comes to maintenance, as a rule, the rarer a bike is, the harder it is to track down vital replacement parts. For this reason, joining the relevant owners club becomes an essential part of ownership. For the more common marques, an entire ‘cottage industry’ has evolved, producing everything you need to keep your classic running well, but for the rarer breeds, forums will become your go-to resource.

Of course, there are always exceptions to these rules. People will tell you they’ve toured Europe on a 40-year old 125 two-stroke, or a 70-year-old side valve single. There are as many different types of classic bike enthusiast as there are classic bikes, so the more fellow enthusiasts you are able to talk to in advance of your purchase, the better informed you will be when it comes to taking the plunge.

What was your first classic bike, or what is the model that you are currently looking at buying? Do you have a tale you want to share? Feel free to post in the comments below.

I have several bikes dating from 1927 to 1977, but the one I like riding most is a 76 Bonneville. My only criticism of it is the brakes are rubbish, but they can and will be improved in die course.

Dan, 08/09/2019

Over the years i have owned quite a few bikes..the best was a 1962 dbd 34 gold star clubmans bought from streamline motorcycles in dulwich when i was 18...also a 1963 norton 650 ss and a 1963 bsa rocket gold star..what i would give to have the goldie back...

Heathy, 05/09/2019