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Tapping into the Vintage Motorcycle Market

Vintage motorcycle sales could be your next profit center.

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Glenn Bator poses with his immaculate 1957 Harley Sportster. While the new bike business has had its ups and downs, interest in vintage motorcycles is as strong as it ever has been. Although statistics are hard to come by, vintage rallies and concours events are attracting the same participant numbers they have for the past 10 years. Prices at vintage bike auctions are down somewhat, but old bikes are still selling.

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“A lot of guys will complain that there’s not a lot of business with vintage, but the vintage business is always steady,” says John Bettencourt, general manager of Heidenau Tires USA, importer of tires for a variety of bikes, including classics. “It’s not as big or as lucrative as the new bike business, but it is always there.”

In fact, a new type of old bike enthusiast is beginning to appear. Twenty-somethings are starting to buy vintage motorcycles. Charlie Barnes, CEO of TripleTec, a parts and restoration service for Triumph and BSA triples based in Central California, has noticed an upswing in young customers. “People in their twenties have no mechanical skills, but they are getting into vintage anyway, and they need someone to work on their bikes. There’s a lot of old Triumphs out there, but I only know of two people in the Los Angeles area who are working on them. I only know of three people in California, including myself, who know how to work on triples.”

“CB 350 Hondas are the most popular bike,” says Chad Thompson, sales manager of Sudco, aftermarket carburetor and vintage parts specialists. “Young people are buying them and cafe’ing them out. There’s even a racing class for them. We can’t get aftermarket carburetors for 350s in fast enough. Other popular bikes are CB750s, Kawasaki H1s and H2s and Norton Commandos.”

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Thinking about adding some classic spice to your working life? Here are some tips on how to have a good ole time while making a little vintage green.

Host a Vintage Show

A vintage show is not only a lot of fun, but can make good business sense. Charlie O’Hanlon, owner of Charlie’s Place, a repair and restoration facility for old Hondas, points out four reasons to put on a show: “First, you are going to gain a lot of good will in the community. Second, you are going to get a lot of traffic to your door. People love old bikes and will go out of their way to see them.

Third, you are going to see what kinds of old bikes are popular in your community. If you are thinking of developing a vintage bike sideline, its helps to know what your neighbors are riding,” says O’Hanlon. “Last, and most importantly from a business owner’s standpoint, if there is a swap meet with the show, you can see who is buying and how much they are willing to spend. Even if a bike is popular, if the owners will not spend any money on it, there is no reason for you to get involved. For example, there is a moped store across the street from my shop. The owners won’t do repairs, although there is a real need, because the kids that own mopeds refuse to spend any money on keeping them up.”

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You don’t need to do all the work of putting on a show yourself. Approach the local vintage bike clubs: for example, the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, [www.antiquemotorcycle.org] the Classic Japanese Motorcycle Club [www.CJMC.org], the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club [www.vjmc.org], the Cushman Club [www.cushmanclubofamerica.com ] or the Kawasaki Triple club [www.naktc.com ]. The clubs should do most of the organizing and advertising. Ask the Boy Scouts or the Lions Club to sell hot dogs and drinks and have an area reserved for the swap meet.

Chad Thompson endorses the vintage show idea but also suggests checking out what types of old bikes show up at Bike Nights. If you go to the races, there are often vintage classes. These venues can give you an idea of the classic bikes that are popular in your community.

Order Parts

You can extend the good will and interest gained from your vintage show by learning what parts are available for locally popular vintage bikes and special ordering them for customers. “There’s a lot of retail calling Sudco because dealers turn away those customers,” says Chad Thompson. “If it’s not on microfiche, many parts departments do not want to know about it. They are alienating themselves from the customer’s dollar. Both Sudco and K&L can get you many parts for a wide variety of vintage motorcycles.”

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O’Hanlon suggests keeping an eye on the special orders. “Do you have two or three guys coming in for the same parts for the same older bike? There may be an opportunity there.”

“Vintage bikes are here for a reason,” says John Bettencourt. “People have kept them that long because they really like that bike. If you are able to take care of a vintage bike that a customer loves, you will have a customer for life — actually a lot of customers. The enthusiast community will get the word out about a shop that can help.”

O’Hanlon explains how he started his current business. “I used to work on anything old. Then, someone brought me a Superhawk. I got it running well. The customer told me that no one would work on it, and he had friends with old Hondas. Next thing I knew, people were bringing me Dreams and 160s. I had customers I liked and bikes I liked to work on. I had a whole new business model.”

Thompson points out that if an old bike owner gets in the habit of going to your shop for parts, chances are they will buy oil, chains, tires, gloves, helmets and jackets there instead of on the Internet. You are also making an investment in the future. “A kid may have no money now, but in five or six years, he may have graduated college and gotten a job. He may want to have something to ride while he works on his vintage bike.”

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Selling Vintage

“Right now new bike sales are terrible,” says Glenn Bator, owner of Bator International, a vintage bike brokerage and auction house. “The most money you can make on a motorcycle today is on a used bike. Used motorcycles for sale are drying up — people are not buying new. A new bike has an MSRP. On a vintage motorcycle, you can name your own price. A motorcycle dealer I know is getting into vintage, he is making more money on the used bikes and the vintage bikes than he is on the new bikes.”

Servicing Vintage

While displaying vintage motorcycles, offering your parking lot for a show, and ordering parts for customers involves little risk, working on vintage bikes can be problematic.

“Encourage a young mechanic who is interested in actually learning about mechanical stuff,” advises O’Hanlon. “A 750 Honda is a history lesson. It’s a design that hasn’t changed dramatically over the last 40 years, and it’s what turned America on to in-line fours.”
 “Is the bike something that is familiar to you?,” says Bator. “For example, if you already work on Kawasakis, a vintage Kawasaki isn’t going to be a real challenge, but I would send a bevel drive Ducati or a 1929 Henderson to a specialist.”

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Dennis Magri, owner of San Francisco Vintage, a primarily British motorcycle repair facility, provides guidelines for a shop owner interested in taking the plunge. “You need to charge for diagnostic work so that the customer can find out what exactly is wrong with his bike. If the bike does not run, write your work order to read, ‘Diagnostic and attempt to get running.’ Suggest a designated period of time, say, four hours. Add, ‘Estimate will be revised.’”

Second, he advises you to keep the bottom line in mind. “Do not create a work order that approaches the value of the bike,” says Magri. “When it comes to low value vintage bikes, be careful to do the minimum to get it running and identify problems.”

Third, Magri says to be sensitive to the customer’s budget. “Limit each work order to keep it affordable.”

Charles Barnes of TripleTec suggests, “A lot of vintage bikes need a lot of work. I work out pay as you go plans with my customers. They give me $500, and I do $500 worth of work, and then stop until the customer sends me another payment.”

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Lastly, help the customer create a list of priorities. “People have dreams and aspirations,” Magri explains, “But you, as the dealer, have experience. People often have little idea of how to prioritize- they don’t know what their priorities should be. I tell my customers it is more important to have a reliable motorcycle then to have a racer or a show bike. It’s better in the long run to create a hierarchy of what is needed to keep the thing running.”

For the Love of the Bike

“You have to love it,” says Barnes. “While you are not going to make a $100,000 a year doing it, vintage is steady. And vintage bikes draw customers for your new bikes.”

“If you are looking for ways to make money outside of the box, classic bikes are a great suggestion,” concludes Glenn Bator. “Get a bike, and use the restoration process to train your people. Put the bike on the dealership floor, get sources for parts,  put the word out and people will come to you.”

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