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What to Consider When Investing in a Classic Motorcycle

Basem Wasef

Stylish, classic motorcycles are desirable collectibles, but the urge to purchase a signature model can oftentimes distort even a sensible buyer’s vision. There are few critical points to consider before making a purchase that will help you ascertain whether you’re making the right buying decision.

Mike FitzSimons, a serial collector who has consulted for auction houses Bonham’s and Sotheby’s, says he always imparts two points to would-be collectors. “Buy what you like,” he advises, “but learn what to like. Don’t just buy it because somebody tells you to. There has to be a warmth in your heart for the things you collect.” With a 40-year history of collecting everything from motorcycles and art to clocks, watches, and fine pistols, he’s learned that collecting and investing are two separate things.

Once a collector decides on a marque or a particular model, it’s important to consider the opinions of experts in the field—whether that means attending shows, rallies, and meets, or hiring a consultant to share his or her insights. “Align yourself with a professional who knows the bike inside out and backwards because there are so many things that can go wrong with bikes that are sold as originals—and are not,” advises Guy Webster, one of the foremost collectors of classic Italian motorcycles.

Which brings us to our next point: Go for originality when you can. If you were to compare two Norton Commandos of the same year, you should expect to pay a 35 percent to 45 percent premium for an original bike over one that’s been restored—even though the restored one is probably shinier, newer looking, and perhaps more attractive. The maxim “it’s only original once” is a cliché for a reason: There may be nothing inherently wrong with a restored bike, but purchasers should know that a seemingly innocuous component like new tires can actually drop a motorcycle’s value by several thousand dollars. Many collectors preserve a bike’s authenticity by saving and storing the original tires, offering the buyer the option of riding with confidence on new rubber or displaying the bike the way it rolled off the showroom floor with the old set. Provenance is another crucial variable in the collecting world. Documentation of past owners and historical context can significantly alter a bike’s market value.

Once you’ve got a classic bike in your crosshairs, don’t let sense effect your sensibility. One collector tells a tale of a buyer who rushed to purchase a pricey classic, only to find out the bike lacked a gear cluster and couldn’t move under its own power. Looking inside a gas tank for rust, perusing frames for aftermarket parts, and checking engine compression ratios by pumping the kick-starter are all ways to ensure mechanical integrity. The classic bike community is relatively small, so buying from someone with a good reputation is a way to insure against the unknown.

Daniel Schoenewald, a Southern Californian who enjoys his eclectic array of classic bikes, has his own philosophy on the art of collecting: “Research. Do your due diligence. Stalk it. Hunt it down. Be patient. It will come. It’s a fun, exciting, rewarding game to play!”

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