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Lessons From the Past

Vintage bike businesses share their recipes for success.

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Is the classic bike business as durable as a vintage bike? It’s beginning to look that way.

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People on the vintage end of the motorcycle world, while not getting rich quickly, seem to be less affected by the current turbulence in the economy than other people in the industry. In an informal survey of the old bike scene, most classic bike businesses have not been doing badly financially over the past year.

Remember Aermacchis, the little Italian bikes imported by Harley-Davidson during the Sixties? Sonny’s Motorcycle Repair, an Aermacchi specialist, has a shop full of them waiting to be repaired or restored. Ross Puleo, the owner, explains that, although the downturn has not affected his volume, his customers want less cosmetic and more mechanical work. “They are more interested in safety, comfort and reliability. They want to maintain the original patina,” he says.

Classic bike auctions are moving as many bikes as they ever have, although, according to auction promoter Glenn Bator, prices are down 15 percent. Also, old bike parts are selling at a premium on eBay. “There’s good activity in used parts,” says Bator, who also does restorations of American motorcycles. “Prices are not going down. I just paid $350 for a generator that used to go for fifty dollars.”

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Many non-vintage motorcycle businesses want to use the cachet of vintage motorcycles to draw customers in the door. However, although a nicely restored classic on the floor or in the window undeniably draws attention, there is more that can be gained from the vintage bike movement than window dressing.

In discussions with classic bike businesses, owners cite the same four factors that have led to their success. These same factors, possibly with a little different spin, can also be used to improve your own business.

The themes that come up time and time again for classic bike entrepreneurs are passion, expertise, community and added value. These themes, along with intelligent Internet use, are what gives the vintage market staying power, in good times and bad. While you probably don’t sell (or work on) vintage motorcycles, you can take a leaf from the vintage book and emphasize these themes at your dealership.

Passion

People are passionate about vintage motorcycles. A lot of the players on today’s vintage scene started out as hobbyists and later realized that they could make a living doing what they were happy to do for free. Puleo, for example, started by restoring his own Aermacchi motorcycles, becoming an expert on the little Harleys from Italy in the process. Bator, the auction promoter, got his start after a museum director saw his restoration of a KHK Harley and offered him a job.

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“Nostalgia does not go away,” observes Laurie Reichert of Purple Haze Racing, a distributor of Kawasaki two-stroke parts. “That is the thing that people always want to go back to. That is what keeps businesses like ours safe.”

Think about it: Few people have to own a motorcycle — they have to want to own a motorcycle. The customers that come in your door are often as enthusiastic and passionate about their bikes as classic and vintage bike owners. Do you and your employees share that passion for motorcycles and motorcycling? Do you convey your deep emotional link to motorcycles and motorcycling to your customers?

Expertise

Many vintage bike businesses could be located in a cave or down a dirt road. Customers learn about these businesses from word of mouth and through seeing the finished results at concours competitions. They seek them out because they believe the owners have unique expertise or skills that are necessary to restore or maintain their own classic.

“People come to me because I have done a lot of research, I have years of practice and my bikes are judged at AMCA meets,” Puleo explains. “My customers come to me from all over the world. I have customers in France, the Netherlands and Japan, as well as all of the United States. They see bikes I have restored on eBay and YouTube. They come to me because they believe I have the knowledge and skill to restore their bikes correctly and make them run great.”

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You may not be the only person on the East Coast who knows how to correctly rebuild a 1913 racing magneto, but your customers come to you because they have confidence in the expertise of your parts department and your service department. Do you foster and nurture that confidence? Does your shop’s name get passed around as the go-to place in your area? Word of mouth advertising is the cheapest and the best kind of advertising.

Community

The vintage movement is in large part a social movement, built around swap meets, shows, vintage races and owner’s clubs. Enthusiasts know each other, help each other and support each other. “I believe that community strengthens in times of stress,” says Motorcycle Classics editor Richard Backus. “This aspect of the classic bike scene is huge.”

Purple Haze’s Reichert concurs. “We have a good customer base,” she says. “Our loyal customers support us in good times and bad.”

“It’s the coming home of the swallows,” Bator says. “When I was running swap meets, a lot of vendors wanted to make sure they were next to the same guy they were next to the last year. People really enjoy the social aspect.”

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Encouraging community around your shop is rarely expensive in terms of dollars, and it has potentials for huge payoffs. This is one area where you can easily intersect with the classic bike movement. Instead of just putting a vintage bike in your showroom on a pedestal, invite the local old bike clubs to hold a swap and show in your parking lot. This can be a fun event for your new bike customers and the community at large. Have the local Lions Club or Boy Scouts set up a refreshment booth.

Remember that old bike owners need tires, chains, oil, helmets, jackets, boots and rain gear. You may be able to order parts for classic bikes from your OEM, fostering much goodwill. Bator points out that most classic bike owners also have a modern bike for transportation. Encouraging the classic bike community gives you added opportunities for parts sales and service.

Added Value

The price in dollars of a vintage motorcycle is rarely its true value to its owner. A vintage bike has emotional value in many different dimensions. In addition, a vintage motorcycle rarely depreciates. It can be seen as a friend, a reminder of one’s own youth or of a departed loved one, a source of pride, a stress reducer and as an investment, all at the same time.

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“In a time when it is unclear where many people’s next dollar is coming from,” says Backus, “a vintage bike is money in the bank. People see an old bike as a protected investment, something they can enjoy, but that will keep its value and possibly appreciate.”

There is no reason why a new motorcycle cannot be many of these things as well. You can encourage your customers to see their motorcycle as a source of pride, a vehicle for stress reduction and a basis for community. Hosting an owner’s group at the shop, leading group rides and holding social events will help with integrating motorcycles and motorcycling into your customers’ lives.

You can also help your customers get the best out of the bike they now have. Seminars on motorcycle maintenance, spring tune up specials and information posted on your website keep customers connected to your shop so, when they do get the money for a new bike, they will think of you.

“We love these bikes,” Bator says. “They have a soul, and you have to learn your way around them. Sometimes, it takes months to figure them out. We are tinkerers at heart, it’s our passion.” Go back to your roots and learn from the themes of the vintage bike community. It will help you grow more green in the year ahead.

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