Old bikes have that intangible something…
Not everybody is into old motorcycles, or, for that matter, even what has become known as “modern retro” bikes.
That fact is not without good reasons. Old bikes can be cantankerous heaps of junk—to be blunt about it, some of them were little more than that back when they were new. They usually have old tech systems that recently-minted mechanics may have little or no training in how to work with—contact breaker points, primitive ignition systems, and finicky carburetors, for example.
The ride, handling, and brakes on old bikes can be, well, pretty bad. That is not to say that is a general rule, but it can be very apparent to riders who have done most of their riding on more competent, advanced modern bikes.
That probably explains why a lot of old bike owners, collectors, and restorers are riders of a certain age who became riders way back when on the now-old bikes they collect. Indeed, sometimes they have owned an old bike or two that they literally have owned for a few decades since new! Restorers tend to be very capable mechanics with extensive experience, tools, and maybe a machine shop.
Old bikes can have brakes that at their best earned the snarky phrase, “better plan ahead.” They can have electrics that are most suitable for riders who “ain’t afraid of the dark.” All good fun, but also good to keep in mind.
The list of deficiencies goes on and on. Nonetheless, some riders who consider these qualities “true old school” actually not only don’t mind them—they value them as proof of original condition!
For example, brakes that work really well on an old Norton would be suspected of being “non-original.” Or an old British bike that starts consistently on the first kick and has reliable electrics must have had an aftermarket non-British upgrade.
They tend to vibrate at nearly all operating speeds, which results in fasteners working loose and sometimes, even in parts falling off. For the rider, handgrips, footpegs, and seat buzzing away leads to numbness, soreness, fatigue, and general discomfort. These are what old bike fanatics love about them.
Keeping thread-locking compound handy or even safety wiring some nuts and bolts may be necessary, as is making sure you carry the right size wrenches, sockets, and maybe even extra nuts, bolts, and screws in your tool kit. Most maddening of all is when that incessant vibration work-hardens wiring causing it to spontaneously break, or short out when insulation is slowly worn off wires that touch frame members causing dead short circuits.
Bikes more than 20 years old also can be a problem to get parts for. Bikes that are much older and particularly makes and models that are rare can be a real pain in that regard. In addition, some specific types of parts can be tough to get, if you want OEM spec instead of aftermarket variants.
In most any old-bike restoration project, you can usually count on having to spend some time and money on the basics even before you get very deep in the weeds on problems any specific bike may have. Tires, tubes, battery, chain and sprockets, front disc brake overhauls, rear brake pads, fork seals, steering head bearings, rotted out or non-existent exhaust system, wiring, voltage regulator, etc. may all figure in the job as part of the first phase. Bikes stored outside, even for only part of their existence may have a more extensive list of basic needs. More complicated problems may emerge once those things are done.
Take my 1974 Honda CB350F exhaust system for example, which had all four pipes still on, but all were rusted out. It was manufactured for three model years, 1972-1974. Now, that’s really not an antique—not yet, anyway—but when I went out on the market in 2010 for OEM-spec four-into-four pipes, there was no such thing from anybody, anywhere. There were two options: a couple of complete sets of NOS (new old stock) genuine Honda pipes from private sellers asking three times what I paid for the entire bike or a much cheaper four-into-one new aftermarket set-up.
Since my primary goal was to be able to qualify the bike as a Production Classic Class bike for land speed racing at Bonneville, I had to have the original equipment specification four-into-four system—and besides, it is much cooler than a four-into-one set-up. Fortunately, in 2011, a company in Europe started manufacturing exact OEM replica pipes for the CB350F and I got a set for mine; we told the story of that project.
They weren’t cheap, but they were less than the NOS pipes and were acceptable for competition. I was able to procure the pipes from David Silver Spares, a U.K. company that specializes in parts for vintage Hondas that also has a location here in the U.S.
I recently acquired a 1973 Honda CB500K2 that I’m restoring for a run at Bonneville and that bike also needed the entire exhaust system replaced. Fortunately, David Silver Spares was (eventually) able to get the OEM spec pipes for that bike, as well; we review them here.
Even re-painting an old bike can get pricey, if you are a stickler for originality. Some of the paint formulations were very exclusive and somewhat exotic, so most paint shops may not even be able to match a given bike’s original paint, and those that may not be able to do it on the cheap.
The financials of old bikes can be tough to figure out. The common concept that if something is old and rare, it’s going to be worth a lot of money is not always true. Those factors by themselves do not a high-value bike make.
There are a number of resources that can help figure out what an old bike is worth based not only on the age and relative rarity of the bike but on the general condition. One of the handiest in terms of those factors and its sheer range of bikes and vintage covered is the Comprehensive Vintage Motorcycle Price Guide 2020-2021.
There is also the very real problem of being led to spend much more that you really ought to for a bike that is represented as something very rare, collectible, and original when it really is not. This can occur when a classic bike that appears to be complete and original actually is a hodge-podge of repurposed, aftermarket, and/or non-original transplant parts.
There are ways to avoid being taken in, but knowledge of the specific make, model, and vintage in question is often the key. Over the years, we have reviewed some excellent “Essential Buyer’s Guides” that provide just such insights and information to help prevent the non-brand-expert buyer from paying too much for a bike that may look like the real deal but isn’t. We have a list of those included below, but if the kind of bike you are considering isn’t listed among them, there are others out there.
All that said, maybe it is the fact that old bikes are uncommon, unusual in design—or just plain weird sometimes, funky, challenging, cool, rowdy, nostalgic, often cheap, usually fairly basic, sometimes downright beautiful, you-name-it that makes it so worthwhile to own one. Or, maybe you consider it an investment sure to grow in value over time.
There is genuine satisfaction in rescuing an old bike from slow decay in somebody’s shed and restoring it to full function out on the road. Or, maybe putting the completed project bike out on the market and realizing a genuine positive return on investment.
The problem? It’s very easy to get in deep water with old bike restoration. Before you know it, the investment of time and money can well exceed even the highest selling price that could rationally be expected.
Bottom line: if there’s an old bike you just have to have, you’ll probably end up saying to yourself, “go for it.” You’ll find out soon enough if it was a bad decision financially, but if the intangibles such as memories of happy bygone days, the cool factor, or the challenge of a frame-up restoration are what it’s really all about, then the up-front bucks become less important. The return on investment may be hearing that once-dead engine roar to life and taking that old machine down the road.
Resources about old-bikes:
For a look at examples of Buyer’s Guides we’ve reviewed, see:
- Illustrated Buyer’s Guide to Harley-Davidson Big Twins since 1936
- Illustrated Buyers Guide Harley-Davidson since 1965
- Illustrated Norton Buyer’s Guide
- The Essential Buyer’s Guide: Triumph Trident & BSA Rocket III 1968—1976
- The Essential Buyer’s Guide Velocette 350 & 500 Singles
- The Essential Buyer’s Guide Royal Enfield Bullet
- The Essential Buyer’s Guide Triumph 350 & 500 Unit Twins
- The Essential Buyer’s Guide BSA 350, 441 & 500 Singles
- The Essential Buyer’s Guide Triumph Bonneville 1959-1988
- The Essential Buyer’s Guide Moto Guzzi 2-Valve Big Twins
- Comprehensive Vintage Motorcycle Price Guide 2020-2021
Once you get that old bike you’ve always wanted, you may need some help fixing it up. Here are some restoration/repair resources we’ve told you about that you might want to check into:
- How to restore Kawasaki Z1, Z/KZ900 & Z/KZ 1000
- How to Restore Triumph Bonneville T140
- How to Restore Triumph Trident T150/T160 & BSA Rocket III
- How to Rebuild and Restore Classic Japanese Motorcycles
- How to Restore Suzuki 2-Stroke Triples
- How to Restore Honda CX500 & CX650
- How to Restore Honda Fours
- Beginner’s Guide to Classic Motorcycle Restoration
- How to Restore Your Motorcycle
- Clymer Vintage Collection-Four stroke Motorcycles
Other resources include the must-have shop manuals: