The most expensive motorcycles sold at auctions

800px VINCENT Black Lightning

Published on 20 June 2018 by Robert Drane

Classic motorcycles have always been desirable, but recent auction prices show they are now serious investment items.


The world record for the most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction was broken earlier this year when a 1951 Vincent Black Lightning sold for almost $1 million.

The price reflects the growing global interest in rare and classic motorcycles, particularly those with interesting history or provenance. The Vincent reached a hammer price of $929,000 (£651,715) after spirited bidding when it was sold in January 2018 by specialist auctioneers Bonhams in Las Vegas.

Needless to say, this is no ordinary Vincent (if such a thing can be said to exist). The Black Lightning is the limited edition, built-to-order racing version of the legendary Black Shadow. Only 33 are thought to have been made, of which 19 are known to still exist. This example was shipped to Australia where it competed in road racing under original owner Tony McAlpine. More importantly, owned later by racer Jack Ehret this Black Lightning smashed the existing Australian land speed record in 1953, at an average speed of 141.5mph.

The auction result highlights the importance of provenance and race history in the value of classic motorcycles, as well as the now global nature of the market. The bike was shipped from Australia to France for mechanical restoration by legendary Vincent builder Patrick Godet, then shipped to Las Vegas for auction, before returning to Australia to be united with its new owner. The ‘restoration’ reflects the value the market now places on bikes in original condition – this motorcycle looks exactly as it did when Jack Ehret parked it up in 1953.

Certain motorcycle marques achieve semi-legendary status and hence value, and Vincent is certainly in that category, with the Black Lightning at the top of the tree. A 1948 Black Lightning sold for £246,000 and a supercharged 1949 example sold for £221,500 in 2008.

Vincent Series ‘A’ models, built in limited numbers pre-WWII (around 70 were thought to have been built), regularly feature in the rarefied upper price brackets. A 1939 Vincent Series A sold for £275,900 in 2015 at Bonhams auction at the Stafford Bike Show. Two other Series A bikes reached £225,500 and £198,400 at auction.


Brough domination

The only other marque to regularly beat the Vincent at auction is Brough Superior, partly due to its beauty and build quality and partly thanks to its association with Lawrence of Arabia, who owned a series of eight examples and died on one in 1935. A 1929 Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sports sold for £315,100 in 2014 and George Brough’s personal bike ‘Old Bill’ made £291,200 in 2012. In fact, Brough Superiors dominate the ‘most expensive’ list with examples regularly exceeding £250,000.

Brough hysteria reached fever pitch in 2016 when a long-rumoured hoard – the ‘Broughs of Bodmin Moor’ – came to auction on the death of owner Frank Vague. The eight bikes, despite being in poor condition having been stored outside for decades, reached £752,625 with a 1938 750cc BS4 three-wheeler, one of only 10 built, sold for £331,900 to an anonymous German bidder.


The X factor

Another factor in motorcycle pricing is celebrity ownership. Anything owned by Steve McQueen comes with a heavy premium due to the aura of cool by association. A 1915 Cyclone board track racer owned by McQueen held the number one record price until recently at $852,500. A 1958 Ariel Cyclone owned by Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings sold for $450,000 in 2014, a 1959 Harley-Davidson Panhead owned by Jerry Lee Lewis went for $385,000 in 2015 and a 2013 Harley-Davidson Dyna Super Glide owned by Pope Francis made $330,938 in 2014 (the Pope’s matching leather jacket sold for $77,485).

Celebrity associations aside, certain other motorcycle models regularly reach stratospheric prices when they come on the market. Early ‘strap tank’ Harley-Davidson models, particularly in original condition, are highly desirable – a 1907 example made $715,000 in 2015 and another 1907 example reached $325,000 in 2006 despite being restored. Crocker Motorcycles – the US equivalent of the Vincent – regularly feature, a 1942 ‘Big Tank’ model reaching $385,000 in 2015 and a 1939 restoration $302,500 in 2008.

Desirable bikes from the 1970s and later are now starting to reach equally exotic prices. A 1970 Munch Mammoth sold for £154,940 in April this year and a 1973 MV Agusta 750S reached £96,700 at the same auction while a Ducati 750SS ‘round case’ project reached £106,780 – more than three times its pre-sale estimate. Other motorcycle models showing enormous increase in value include classic BMWs (a ‘Kompressor’ model made $480,000 in 2013), Coventry Eagle, Henderson four-cylinder models and Flying Merkel V-twins.

Race success continues to drive high prices, with a 2010 Ducati GP10 bike raced by Casey Stoner reaching €251,500 in 2010 and another Ducati GP bike raced by Valentino Rossi reaching €245,700.

Although auction results are seen as the most accurate reflection of the true value of motorcycles, private sale prices can also reach similar levels, although they are harder to verify. The legendary ‘bathing suit’ Vincent Black Shadow, the subject of probably the world’s most famous motorcycle photo showing rider Rollie Free prone in bathing trunks at 150mph, was reputed to be sold privately in the US for more than $1 million.


Up, up and away

How far will motorcycle prices go? It is of course anyone’s guess, but if the price trajectory of classic cars is any measure, there is still a long way to go. A 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO sold for $38,115,000 (£30,750,300) and many other Ferrari, Aston Martin, Mercedes and Jaguar models have exceeded $20 million. And as classic car prices reach these levels, more collectors are turning to the (relatively) more affordable classic motorcycle market.

The conclusion? Hang on to those old motorbikes…


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Picture: The Vincent Black Lightning of E. Hegeler/Creative Commons Licence