The 12 Best Classic Motorcycles

By: Jack Sackman
A father taking a picture with his daughter, with a classic motorcycle parked behind them.
Automotive enthusiasts around the world not only love classic cars but classic motorcycles too. Hello World / Getty Images

Cars aren’t the only classic vehicles. Over the years, there have been a good number of classic motorcycles produced that are revered by automotive enthusiasts around the world. These include legendary bikes produced by some of the top manufacturers in the business such as Harley-Davidson, BMW and Honda. Many of these motorcycles can be found in museums around the world or in the personal collections of the super rich and wealthy admirers. Here’s a list of the 12 best classic motorcycles.


12. Royal Enfield Bullet

The Royal Enfield Bullet is one of the most popular motorcycles of all time. Just saying its name is enough to make some people salivate. The motorcycle also lays claim to a special record. It has the longest continuous production run of any motorcycle in history. Versions of the Royal Enfield Bullet have been produced since 1948. However, the version that most collectors want to get their hands on is the very first Bullet that was made in 1931. This original model features a 350cc four stroke engine, as well as a cool chrome finish. The Royal Enfield Bullet’s popularity has been helped by the fact that the motorcycle has been featured in dozens of movies, notably Friday the 13th and Big Fish.


11. Norton Commando

The distinguished, British-manufactured Norton Commando was prominently named “Machine of the Year” for five consecutive years from 1968 to 1972 by Motorcycle News. The motorcycle is known for having an innovative framework called the “Isolastic System” that solved the long-held problem of engine vibration and revolutionized motorcycles in the process. Designed by a group of engineers who left Mercedes-Benz, the Norton Commando was produced for 10 years until 1977 when production stopped. However, several police forces around the world took an interest in the Norton Commando and the bike had an enviable life as the motorcycle of choice for many law enforcement agencies, notably Interpol. With an 850cc engine, the Commando has also proven to be a popular racing motorcycle.


10. Vincent Black Shadow

First built in 1948, the Vincent Black Shadow was an innovative motorcycle for its time and had several unique features that included a stressed engine and extensive use of aluminum. The Black Shadow was also superfast, and held the record for fastest production bike ever made for nearly 20 years. Every one of the motorcycles was hand built, making them even more unique and special. A popular racing motorcycle in its day, the Black Shadow had a 998cc engine that made it difficult for riders to control. An ardent fan of the bike was novelist and counterculture figure Hunter S. Thompson, who featured the motorcycle in his classic book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson once stated to Cycle World magazine that “if you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die.”


9. BMW R32

Looking every bit the antique that it is, the BMW R32 is one of the oldest motorcycles ever made, and one that always catches the eye of collectors. First built in 1923, the R32 was BMW’s first foray into motorcycle production after the company was banned from building airplanes following the First World War. And while this motorcycle now looks like a cross between a bicycle and a moped, the R32 set the template for what has become the typical BMW bike: a boxer-twin engine with shaft-drive. In fact, many of the design elements found in the R32 motorcycle were later incorporated into BMW cars, which the company started making in 1928. Believe it or not, motorcycles came first at BMW, then cars.


8. Velocette Viper

The Velocette Viper is a classic motorcycle from the 1950s and 1960s. Many collectors prize this bike above all others, and claim that it can stand next to any other legendary motorcycles. The Velocette Viper features glass fiber enclosed panels that were revolutionary in the 1950s, as well as a 349cc engine that had a bi-metal cylinder with high compression pistons. Some special model Vipers also had extra-large three gallon gas tanks. This enabled the Viper to drive at extremely high speeds for long periods of time. In fact, this bike holds an unbeaten record of cruising for 24 hours straight at 100 miles per hour. The Viper was produced from 1955 until 1968. It is now considered a red hot collector’s item.


7. Triumph Bonneville

For some gearheads, the British company Triumph is the first and last name in motorcycles. And the very best motorcycle ever built is the Triumph Bonneville. First appearing in 1959, the Triumph Bonneville is named after the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where the bike competed to break numerous land speed records. The motorcycle easily reached speeds of up to 115 miles per hour, which was unheard of in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nicknamed the “Bonnie,” the motorcycle’s cool design and low slung seat made it popular among celebrities of the day, as well as professional racers. This is a classic bike in every sense of the word.


6. Honda Rebel

In terms of modern era bikes, the Honda Rebel, first produced in 1985, is hard to beat. Its classic build and loud spoiler hid the fact that the Honda Rebel was actually a revolutionary motorcycle for its time. In the mid-1980s, this bike redefined reliability and fuel efficiency among motorcycles. Now considered a vintage ride, the Honda Rebel came equipped with 234cc V-twin engine that allowed it to reach top speeds of up to 70 miles per hour on city streets. Lightweight and easy to handle, the Rebel was also very good on gas, and the relaxed riding position made it a popular touring bike. Owners loved riding around on the Honda Rebel in both style and comfort.


5. Moto Guzzi V8

It may look a little odd, but the Moto Guzzi was a leading racing bike back in the 1950s. Armed with a V8 engine, the Moto Guzzi is today considered a masterpiece of automotive engineering. Using a water cooled screamer enabled the bike to displace only 500cc. It also has four camshafts and eight baby carburetors. This enabled the Moto Guzzi to reach earth-shattering speeds of 175 miles per hour, which was mind blowing at the time. Owing to high production costs, the Moto Guzzi was only produced between 1955 and 1957. However, the bike continued to make a name for itself on race tracks around the world for years afterwards, and is today a much-desired motorcycle among discerning collectors worldwide.


4. Henderson Excelsior Streamline

Nicknamed “KJ,” the Henderson built Excelsior Streamline motorcycle was first made in 1929 and featured a number of wicked innovations for the time—notably a 40bhp engine and an illuminated speedometer that was situated on top of the fuel tank. This blew minds back in the day. This motorcycle also boasted improved cooling, down draft carburetion and a five main bearing crankshaft. The biggest and fastest motorcycle of its era, the Excelsior Streamline was another bike that was widely used by police forces for traffic patrol. Sadly, the Henderson company went out of business in 1931—a victim of the Great Depression.


3. BMW Slash 5

Known as the “Slash 5” series of motorcycles, the BMW R50/5, R60/5 and R75/5 are considered by many experts to be the most reliable bikes ever built. Made for only three years between 1970 and 1973, the Slash 5s, as they came to be known, were eventually replaced by the 6 series of motorcycles. However, the Slash 5s were extremely advanced for their time with electric starters and telescopic forks. The R75/5 is considered the very best of the Slash 5s, as well as the fastest of the series as it could hit a top speed of 110 miles per hour. The Slash 5s also have a cool look and have proven themselves to be an ideal street bike. Today they are a popular vintage motorcycle of the 1970s.

2. Indian Chief

First built in 1947, the Indian Chief is one of the coolest looking motorcycles ever made. Built around a 1,200cc engine, the Indian Chief could hit 85 miles per hour in third gear. Outfitted with a left foot clutch and hand operated shifter near the gas tank, the Indian Chief broke all the rules and looked good doing it. And, unlike the classic Harley-Davidsons that it competed against, the Indian Chief had rear suspension that made the ride extra smooth. Although not for everyone, the Indian Chief is the motorcycle of choice among bike purists. The 1950 Indian Chief Black Hawk is particularly prized among collectors. And despite the manufacturer’s up-and-down production history, the Indian Chief bike persists to this day.

1. Harley-Davidson WLA

For motorcycle aficionados and World War II history buffs, they don’t come any better than the Harley-Davidson WLA. This motorcycle was built for the U.S. Army during the Second World War and is slightly different from the civilian WL model made by Harley-Davidson. The fenders, for example, were modified on the WLA so that the bike could withstand the muddy battlefields in Europe. Many WLA bikes also came equipped with leg guards and windshields to cut down on the spray from puddles and mud. And, the WLA bike also came with one-of-a-kind blackout lights that were used when traveling with a military convoy at night. Production of the WLA motorcycle spanned the war years 1940 to 1945. A total of 90,000 WLA motorcycles were manufactured by Harley-Davidson. Today, the Army green-coloured WLA is considered one of the coolest heavy motorcycles ever built by Harley-Davidson, and a bike that every collector wants to get their hands on.