Who could forget their first bike? Most of us originally got into this mess we call the motorcycle market because that first experience became permanently imprinted on our psyche. Fortunately for the sake of the industry, most of you have figured out clever ways to sell these dreams to others by manufacturing components that enhance the experience, distributing the products that fuel these dreams or like my dealer friends on the front lines, actually putting butts in saddles.
Speaking of the posterior approach, some of my dealer friends have the vintage bike fever even worse than me. For example, Spencer Ballentine, a former Yamaha dealer from Kentucky, once built a glass bar around his old Penton; and my buddy Bob Jones from J&W Cycles in Missouri has his old Penton race bike molded into the wall of his basement game room (what is it with people and old Pentons? I just keep my 1969 Six Days 125 in my guest bedroom, so I think that makes me one of the sane ones).
However, I just saw the ultimate old bike craziness this side of the Barber Museum: Southwest Superbikes head honcho Mark Peterson has multiple Italian classics "decorating" his Dallas home, including one literally mounted above his mantel. Reminds me of the bad, but true, joke: How do you make a small fortune in the old bike business? Start with a large one!
Maybe there is a method to the madness, though. Hasn’t Harley-Davidson had a fairly successful run playing the nostalgia card? What about the Art Deco inspiration for Yamaha’s excuse me, Star Motorcycles’ Roadliners? Then there is the current crop of retro classics from Ducati, Royal Enfield and Triumph (including the Thruxton featured on this month’s cover) which all speak to the viability of old-looking bikes, but not necessarily true vintage machines.
No surprise that old bikes can be a money pit for customers and dealers alike. Ever notice how all your techs mysteriously get busy as soon as a beat up pickup truck with a 20-year-old bike laying in the bed shows up? Seized bolts, cracked gaskets, dry rotted tires, torn seat covers, sludge in the cases a flat rate nightmare and that’s before you have even begun to look for outdated and obsolete parts.
"My business got started as a direct result of me trying to find parts for my own bikes and getting very frustrated with places not having what I needed," Jeff Saunders of Z1 Enterprises tells fellow old bike afficionado Margie Siegal in this month’s Vintage Market Overview. Unlike Mr. Saunders and his obsession for Japanese classics, Margie is able to remain rational, objective and professional in her reporting … at least until the topic turns to old Nortons!
Having a soft spot in your heart for your first bike is one thing, having a soft spot in your head for thinking you can just jump into the old bike biz and make money working on vintage machinery is another matter entirely. This is definitely a case of look before you leap. At least I have an excuse, having crashed my old CZs, Husky 250s and Penton 125s enough times to have my bell permanently rung … as I always tell the ambulance attendants every time they haul me away, "the brain damage is a pre-existing condition."
However, not everybody in the vintage bike market is completely whacked. Plenty of companies have found speciality niches to be decent profit centers; the auction houses are making good money moving old bikes; new eBay-based entrepreneurs crop up every day and even some dealers have found all that "old junk" collecting dust in the storeroom can be a veritable gold mine of NOS goodies. You just have to know what you’re doing.
Based on success stories like the aforementioned Z1 Enterprises, Margie a.k.a. Ms. Norton has determined that the old bike business is very similar to the approach needed for successful street repairs: 1) Find a hole. 2) Fill it. 3) Don’t fall in!
Speaking of falling into a money pit, just wait until I finally unveil Project Royal Enfield that Jim Knaup at Encore Performance & Fabrication in Prescott, Arizona, has been conspiring with me on for the past five (or is it six?) years. Now you want to talk about crazy, this bike is gonna be sick!
One look at old motorcycles or even the current crop of neo-classics from the likes of Ducati, Royal Enfield and Triumph, and my brain disengages, the mouth opens and the drool starts coming out. It is a sickness and apparently there is no cure!