With uncertain returns on many more-traditional investments, astute collectors are latching on to the potential of classic motorbikes - with the hope of a future financial return. Just like paintings, sculptures and other treasured artefacts, motorbikes are perfectly suitable for indoor display once drained of fluids and require no upkeep beyond the occasional polish.
True investors are unlikely to ride their bikes, whether on the road or racetrack, because of the risk of mechanical or accidental damage… As such, an investment bike is often destined for a new life as an ornamental showpiece. Yes, it can be rebuilt, if necessary, but that would risk wiping away its history… “They’re only original once,” as the saying goes.
As with any investment, the return is driven by two main factors: ongoing demand and provenance. Ongoing demand means immunity from temporary price fluctuations, which risk wiping away any investment potential. This is illustrated by the reducing demand for the more mundane machines made before WW2, as fewer people remember them today, and an increase in demand for 1970s models driven by the nostalgia of today’s recently retired enthusiasts.
The lesson here is to avoid mass-produced models. Limited production machines from any era will always be in short supply, hence the ongoing strength of Brough and Vincent prices, but the ultimate examples of limited production are found among factory race bikes. The best opportunity for the investor is a genuine ex-factory racer with pedigree.
A machine with a successful track record is part of the fabric of motorcycle history. An example that won a Grand Prix or TT race, or several, probably in the hands of a famous rider, is likely to remain in demand long after the period in which it flourished. The challenge is to establish its provenance beyond doubt.
Racing machines, by the nature of their use, were rebuilt and updated constantly in period. The most valuable examples will be supported by factory or team documentation to confirm their specification. Unlike road machines which are often cosmetically refurbished, the most sought-after racers often still bear the scars of incidents from the heat of battle. Those incidents themselves have also often passed into legend, so removing the evidence through unsympathetic renovation only diminishes the desirability.
As for prices… More obscure machines are available for five figure sums, such as the 250 Bultaco ridden by Barry Sheene, which sold recently for around £30,000. However, the real quality begins in six figures and is edging towards the £1m mark, in the case of a Vincent land speed record breaker. Many of the most famous factory racers, such as the Grand Prix Hondas from the 1960s, remain captive in company museums or private collections and could even surpass that figure, were they ever to come to market.
Replicas or re-creations of famous racing bikes are more difficult to value, so their investment potential is less certain. At the top of the market, genuine replicas built with factory co-operation and access to original drawings can be highly prized, but the investor should be wary of the lesser machines that are offered for sale. Again, provenance is crucial.
Finally, having dismissed the investment potential of volume products as too uncertain, there is an exception where celebrity ownership creates a halo effect on an otherwise unexceptional bike. It must be a real celebrity though, not just some minor TV personality... The best example is the 1969 Honda Z50A Monkey-Trail bike owned by John Lennon, which sold in 2018 for over £50,000 – a valuation which few other Z50A owners would ever imagine.