Some stories are bound to upset at least some people, and this may be one of them. The owners, riders and collectors of vintage motorcycles are such a passionate bunch that highlighting one brand or model over another is bound to elicit strong reactions. Indeed, it's hard to think of a brand name customers tattoo on their bodies more than Harley-Davidson. Whether it's a Harley or Honda or Indian, there's an intense passion and following that prompts those with the means to fork over $1 million-plus for a particularly coveted vintage motorcycle, although it's also possible to pick one up for as little as $100 [source: Cerilli].
It's important to remember that a vintage motorcycle is not necessarily collectible -- it can also mean that it's just old. There is no widely accepted definition for how old a motorcycle must be to qualify as vintage, but some experts say it's anything older than 1974, and others lump in Japanese bikes from the early 1980s [source: Wagnon].
According to John Cerilli, the co-founder of Vintage Motorcycles Online, to be both vintage and collectible is a function of a number of factors, including the condition and originality of the motorcycle, when and how many of the bikes were made, how long the company making it was in business and whether or not the bike was associated with someone famous.
Read on to find out 10 the most popular vintage motorcycle brands out there today.
Whenever a group of program advisers visit the Phoenix, Ariz., campus of the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute, Jim Wagnon, the school's education manager, says that they inevitably start off their first day by going around the room and asking what everyone's first motorcycle was. More often than not, says Wagnon, the answer is the same: the 1966 Honda Trail 90, a bike that he says was relatively unremarkable technologically, but was simply one that parents allowed their kids to have.
A big factor that made parents of kids growing up in the 1960s comfortable with letting their children have a motorcycle was the company's iconic advertising campaign, "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda," which was an antidote to the slightly dangerous, outlaw image many had toward motorcycling [sources: Wagnon, Honda]. In fact, Wagnon says that the Honda Trail 90 is a big reason motorcycles are so popular today. "It probably grew the motorcycle customer base more than any one motorcycle," he says. "It grew people into bigger, full-size motorcycles and some might argue it's the reason baby boomers are so heavy into motorcycling." Because so many people got their start riding a Honda, there remains significant affection toward some of the brand's vintage models, including the Honda CB350 and the Honda CB750. It also doesn't hurt that Elvis Presley was known to ride a Honda, along with a number of other brands [source: Cerilli].
Read on to find out about a brand that once rivaled Harley-Davidson.
At the turn of the last century, there was a lot of competition in making so-called motorized bicycles, with more than 300 manufacturers coming out with offerings [source: Carleton]. Many of the bikes that were made, however, were unreliable and susceptible to breaking down. "A lot of the bikes had bicycle pedals still on them, so if all else failed people could pedal home," says Dave Carleton, a California-based motorcycle historian who has served as a judge at many vintage motorcycle gatherings.
Thanks to their ability to make bikes that didn't fall apart, Harley-Davidson and Indian emerged from the very crowded pack and became fierce competitors. Indian was founded by two former bicycle racers, who churned out a number of models that became well known for their power and speed [source: Cerilli]. Among the more popular models amongst vintage motorcycle buffs are the Indian Chief (the 1940 version is coveted), the 4-cylinder Indian Four and the Scout.
Read on to find out what Steve McQueen and James Dean had in common.
If one of the factors that makes a vintage motorcycle collectible is what famous people are associated with it, then it's no surprise that Triumph is high on the list. A British manufacturer, Triumph was a bike of choice by ultra-cool icons James Dean, Steve McQueen and Bob Dylan [source: Cerilli]. The fact that such prominent cultural figures were associated with Triumph motorcycles in the 1950s and '60s is a big reason the bikes are attractive to people today, especially those who were kids then and couldn't possibly have afforded one. "The nostalgia buyers are baby boomers looking to buy either what they gave up as a youth or could never have afforded in their youth, and the top-seller there is Triumph motorcycles, ranging from 1959 to 1970," says California-based Lorin Guy, who has been a principal organizer of numerous prominent motorcycle shows around the country.
One of the most popular Triumph motorcycles is the Bonneville, which were lightweight and known for their excellent handling. That said, by the mid-1970s the brand had largely lost its luster. "I was at a motorcycle magazine and we had a new Bonneville come in at the time and they were pretty archaic, especially compared to the Japanese bikes," says John L. Stein, a long time automotive journalist and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycles." "It was two different planets."
Keep reading to meet the king of the road.
In some respects, motorcycle journalist Stein says it's hard to simply call Harley-Davidson just a company or a Harley simply a motorcycle. "Harleys are motorcycles in that they have two wheels and an engine; but to use an overused phrase, they march to the beat of a different drummer," he says. "For Harley people, it's more of a lifestyle or leisure activity compared to the way you would describe enthusiasts of Japanese bikes."
As is so often the case with iconic brands, Harley benefits from having a really good company story. Launched in 1903 by two brothers and a friend, Harley has had times when it has flourished and floundered, managing to pull off a dramatic turnaround of the business in the 1980s [sources: Harley-Davidson, Cerilli]. Among the more popular vintage models include the Flathead, Knucklehead and Panhead and the legions of famous people who ride or have ridden Harleys is long, from Malcolm Forbes to Clint Eastwood to former Texas Governor Ann Richards [source: Cerilli]. Jim Wagnon of the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute argues that the 1965 Harley Electra Glide, which had an electric starter, wind screen and saddle bags, really propelled the motorcycle touring culture. "I think this bike kicked off the king of the road market stance for Harley, and you throw in Americana and Elvis and apple pie, and that to me is what this bike means to most people," he says.
Go to the next page for a taste of a different sort of British Invasion.
As becomes clear from this list, competition amongst British motorcycle makers was particularly fierce in the 1950s, '60s and into the '70s. What allowed the Norton brand to make a name for itself was its ability to produce a handful of models that had an enviable combination: They were very, very fast, durable and just looked good. High on the list for combining all three attributes was the Norton Commando, a vintage bike many experts point to as desirable. "In my opinion it was one of the sexiest bikes built," says author and journalist Stein. "It is an absolutely gorgeous bike."
Although less well known amongst the general public, the 1953 Norton Manx is also high on the list of many vintage motorcycle collectors because it was a bike that was technically advanced for its time -- with double overhead cams driven by a tower shaft -- and built to go fast. It's interesting however, how fast is a very relative term amongst different eras of vintage motorcycles. Wagnon recalls a time when he owned a Norton Commando and raced someone on a more modern Kawasaki bike. "I thought I was backing up," he says, remembering that it felt like he was going backward while his competition raced ahead and left him in the dust.
Click forward to read about the thinking man's brand.
Known as the "thinking man's motorcycle" because of their elegant engineering and simple maintenance, BMW has made a host of bikes that many vintage experts point to as significant. According to Nolan Woodbury, co-founder of Vintage Motorcycles Online, the revered German manufacturer should probably thank Honda for pushing it to produce some of its very best vintage bikes, especially the 1973 R90S and the R100RS. "More than anything, the R90S was proof that BMW acknowledged the Japanese as a threat to their market share," he says.
Prior to the release of the 1969 Honda CB750, Woodbury says that BMW was nonchalant about its offerings, more or less telling its affluent customers to take or leave their black with white pinstriped bikes or go ahead and find something else. That all changed when Honda's CB750 arrived on the scene. "The flashy gray or orange smoke R90S was introduced to prove BMW was hip to the new generation of motorcyclists and tuned so it outperformed the CB750. The R100RS was a continuation of this theme, more lavish and unlike anything Japan offered … for a while," he says.
Read on to learn about the bike of choice for café racing.
Celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2011, making it the second longest continuously operating motorcycle manufacturer, Moto Guzzi got its start on the banks of Lake Como in Lombardy, Italy when co-founder Carlo Guzzi couldn't find the perfect bike and instead decided to build it himself [source: Moto Guzzi]. Known as the great Italian "Eagle," Moto Guzzi has distinguished itself as a builder of motorcycles that win races; in fact, the company estimates its bikes have taken home approximately 3,300 titles during its history [source: Moto Guzzi]. Some of the company's more well-known vintage models include the Le Mans, Falcone and El Dorado, which are distinguished by their styling and reliability.
Perhaps the most interesting history around a Moto Guzzi bike is that of the original V7 Sport, which has been revived and modified today into the V7 Café Classic [source: Panettieri]. In the 1960s and '70s, V7 Sports were identified with a counterculture group known as the Rockers. Starting in England and then spreading to Europe and America, V7 Sports were used in races where competitors would start at a café and attempt to reach a predetermined point and then return before a song on the jukebox finished [source: Panettieri].
Read on to learn more about another Brit brand.
Well before The Beatles landed on the shores of the United States and kicked off an era of music defined by British bands, a number of U.K. motorcycle companies were making bikes highly sought after in America. Among the more notable companies that saw success exporting their wares to the States was Vincent, which was founded by Philip Conrad Vincent. According to Cerilli of Vintage Motorcycles Online, Vincent began designing an innovative rear suspension while he was studying mechanical engineering at Cambridge, a design he incorporated into his first Vincent motorcycle.
These days, the Vincent Black Shadow is an especially valuable motorcycle -- fetching between $75,000 and more than $250,000 -- because only 1,700 were made and because of the features it boasted when first released [source: Cerilli]. For instance, Wagnon of the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute says that the 1948 Vincent Black Shadow was probably the fastest mass-produced motorcycle of its time. "This was truly a 100-plus mile-per-hour motorcycle in the time of 60-mile-per-hour bikes. They were fast and powerful and advanced for their time," Wagnon says. "Every vintage collector, including myself, would love to have a Vincent."
Move ahead to find out how a jack-of-all-trades company made a splash with motorcycles.
There's an argument to be made that companies that specialize -- be it in widgets or mobile phones or motorcycles -- are going to have the focus required to produce products superior to businesses that do a little of everything. The Japanese company Kawasaki, which began making motorcycles in 1960s, may disprove that theory, given that it had a legacy of making ships, jets and industrial equipment before entering the business of two wheels [source: Cerilli]. In fact, when it comes to some of Kawasaki's best known vintage models, it seems clear that the company was eager to impart what it knew about making big powerful machines to the craft of motorcycle making, especially the high-horsepower 1969 500 cc Mach III and the 1973 900 cc 4-cylinder Z1. The Z1, in particular, was thought by some to be the first so-called "super bike" of modern times. It could go extraordinarily fast (between 120 mph and 130 mph) just like a Corvette or Ferrari, but cost much less [source: Wagnon].
Read on to discover that you're not the only one who names your bike.
People often marvel at how the cost of vintage motorcycles can skyrocket over the years, making them valuable enough that some investors use them to balance their portfolio of stocks and bonds. Some bikes, though, are expensive from the very start. Some Brough Superiors, which were made by the company founded by George Brough, cost as much as a house at the time of their release [source: Woodbury]. Obviously, the bikes earned their nickname as "The Rolls Royce of Motorcycles," which referred not just to their high price tag, but also to the fact that Brough used only the very best materials in assembling his bikes.
These days, many people associate Brough Superiors with TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. To say the least, Lawrence was a devoted Brough rider, owning eight in total, each of which had a name: His first was called Boa, while the rest were named George I, George II and on and on, up until George VII, the bike he was riding when he died -- George VIII was on order, but never delivered [source: Woodbury].
As we mentioned at the start, we know this list omits some deserving names, like Ducati and Velocette, so let us know what brands you would add.
Calm down Evel Knievel. Popping those wheelies could get you in in trouble with the law. But can it land you in jail? Find out at HowStuffWorks.
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- Carleton, Dave. Vintage motorcycle judge and historian. Personal interview. (May 13, 2011).
- Cerilli, John. Co-founder of Vintage Motorcycles Online. Personal correspondence. (May 11, 2011).
- Guy, Lorin. Motorcycle event organizer. Personal correspondence. (May 9 and 10, 2011).
- Harley-Davidson. "Harley History Timeline." Harley-Davidson.com. (May 12, 2011).http://www.harley-davidson.com/wcm/content/pages/h-d_history/history_1900s.jsp?locale=en_us
- Honda. "'Nicest People' Campaign Causes a Sensation." world.honda.com. (May 13, 2011).http://world.honda.com/history/challenge/1959establishingamericanhonda/text08/
- Moto Guzzi. "Ninety Years of Moto Guzzi." motoguzziheritage.com. (May 15, 2011).http://motoguzziheritage.com/about
- Panettieri, Rich. Moto Guzzi brand manager. Personal interview. (May 20, 2011).
- Stein, John. Motorcycle author and journalist. Personal interview. (May 12, 2011).
- Wagnon, Jim. Education manager at Motorcycle Mechanics Institute. Personal interview. (May 12, 2011).
- Woodbury, Nolan. Co-founder of Vintage Motorcycles Online. Personal correspondence. (May 18, 2011).