Monday, April 29, 2013


[Note:  I now write a monthly column for the revamped Classic Bike Guide, which is a Morton's Media publication.  New Editor Gary Pinchin was my 'connection' at MCN for years, and has moved into the world of Classics, where he belongs.  Check out the new magazine; here's my inaugural column from from Feb.2013]
Not Yves' house, but an example of a Jean Prouvé table being used at home...
I have a friend in Paris – Yves - with a lovely Jean Prouvé dining table he found cheap at the flea market (les Puces!) years ago, when Prouvé was iconic to connoisseurs, but not especially valuable. That changed; Prouvé is dead, his work is brilliant, and greed-panic is symptomatic of our 21st Century consciousness, so Yves’ dining table is worth well north of a Million, in whatever currency you care to calculate.  Yet he still uses that table, every day.

Not Susan's 18th Century folk art/modernist chest, but an example of the coveted genre
Susan has an unusual old chest (slap your wayward mind!), painted with a strange mashup of 18th Century American folk art collided with 60s Pop Art patterns. The piece is insanely cool, and when it was appraised for insurance recently, it too rung the carnival bell above 7 figures.  Susan is no fool, and knew the thing was rare, but she likes it where it sits, holding the guest linens, and has sensibly decided to carry on using a family heirloom, which she’ll pass on to her children.  Her attitude is completely at odds with the ‘Roadshow/Pickers’ mindset, the modern game shows where 'Box #3' is your own damn garage. Susan is a responsible steward of the antique in question, just as were the past 15 generations of its owners.
The 1935 Koehler-Escoffier 'Monneret' pictured at the Vintage Revival Montlhéry event in Apr.2013; a unique machine with incredible history, owned by the Musée Mallartre in Lyon, France, the machine is kept in running condition and taken regularly to events.  Stewardship at its best.
‘Stewardship’ is a word tossed around Christian think-tanks and techno-hippie chat rooms, but rarely mentioned over the oil-stained concrete on which our old motorbikes typically rest.  But the term is cropping up at bike shows, in specialist media (Classic Bike Guide, Oily Rag, The Vintagent), and even at auctions, as motorcycle collecting - for many decades the purview of eccentric obsessives – slouches inexorably toward the Mainstream.  A very uncomfortable shift for some, especially the Volunteers, who created a network of old bike enthusiasts, and obsessively searched the countryside for motorbikes, hoarding parts and machines beyond the point of rationality, at a time when bikes were worth sod-all.
c.1929 Brough Superior SS100 at an English rally in the late 1970s, when such a machine could be purchased for £1500. People complained of the high and rising prices for old bikes even then!
They may have had larcenous hearts, greedily selling an SS100 for £15 back in 1949, but we laugh at their naivéte, just as our kids will laugh at us in 20 years when that same Brough tops £1M. Let us praise the Volunteers, whether their pants are secured by rope or alligator belts – I’ve met them all, and they share a common heart of gold, at least for motorcycles; they may well dislike You, as competition! While an imperfect lot, they’ve done their best to keep motorcycles out of the scrap-merchant’s destroying clutches, when they were basically worthless.
Looking at 1960s private adverts can be a painful experience!
Rising values, a dearth of really good unrestored machines, and a growing consciousness of the beauty of an ‘Oily Rag’ original finish, have all fertilized the understanding of Stewardship in the bike world.  For whatever reason, the Magpies – hoarders of shiny things – still dominate the Automotive collecting world, which has everything to do with the Car’s social function as self-perceived penis enlarger. Strange, given that a passing Ferrari is more likely to elicit sins of covetousness and avarice, but not envy of the owner, in whom we see said member, actual size.
A dirty old motorcycle is rarely the answer to a midlife crisis...
Motorbikes can make us feel superhuman (a necessary illusion perhaps, given their danger), and we feel pride while riding, yet we’re also aware the general population greets us with open indifference, or at worst, complete invisibility. With motorcycles Out as a symbol of social status, what’s left is a cadre of enthusiasts willing – to put it bluntly – to risk life and limb for the sheer pleasure of two-wheeling. That’s a different sort of passion than the standard Collector’s obsessions; those motivations are present too, but it’s a richer mix with bikers, who were generally seen as cranks until the 'Art of the Motorcycle' exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum. That’s probably why we’re far ahead of our four-wheeled brethren in the Stewardship stakes.
A tale of two Pierces; unrestored at left (sold for over $110k), restored at right (did not meet $42k reserve)
The trend at auction houses is clear; we are increasingly demanding machines bearing their original manufacturer’s paint job. A case in point; two identical ca.1910 Pierce single-cylinder motorcycles went for auction in Las Vegas last January, one dans son jus, the other restored, which failed to meet its $42,000 reserve. The heavily patinated Pierce, by contrast, fetched over $110,000. What Susan and Yves and the new 1910 Pierce owner understand is that the real treasure is not from the restorer’s hands, but from the maker’s workshop, unmolested. In this, they are in accord with art and furniture collectors, who are a century or two ahead of us in this game.
'Super Kim', probably the only unrestored / running 1920s supercharged record-breaker, built from Zenith chassis, Brough Pendine engine, Amilcar supercharger, and well-engineered adaptations from Argentina, ca.1930.  A famous machine which took many South American speed records, and certainly worth 7 figures these days.  Carefully preserved/maintained with actual rideability the goal; hence this test ride shot at Montlhéry in 2011.  An excellent example of Stewardship.
The reluctance of some motorcyclists to actually Use their treasures, as our examples above continue to do, is, one hopes, merely a symptom of a sudden rise in prices. We haven’t gained proper ennui at all this money talk, which is horrifically boring. After all, we’re in this game to Ride; if we wanted to throw money around, we’d have become bankers or rappers. But you can’t ride a pile of cash down the road, and a MacEvoy Anzani 8-valve shares the greatest thing with a Honda CB72 – they’re both really fun.


occhiolungo said...

As you put it so well in your last paragraph, I'm working to achieve the proper amount of ennui at the talk of prices and auction results.

I long for the day that instead of hearing talk of the dollar value of an old bike, I instead hear about the motor's tractability, or the top speed, or handling, or the fun in rebuilding the camshaft. But we could go on; the sound of the exhaust, the idiosyncrasies of the carburation system, the methods used to bring life back into a tired leather saddle, the proper tire pressures for beaded edge tires. Even talking about the proper type of oil is more engaging than talk of the dollar value of the bike.

But the auction price is what gets reported in the press, as it is supposed to titillate the readers. I suppose that it does titillate the Civilians, but the Riders have more pressing matters to discuss.

The Vintagent said...

Yes, the price game is fascinating, but has nothing to do with Motorcycling, which is all about having an Experience.

There are a million reasons why people ride old bikes, from the 'cool' factor to retro fantasisies to sheer quirkiness, and all of them are valid.

The 'money' issue gets a lot of press, but the bikes which are really only affordable to 1%ers (Ha! Hasn't THAT term changed!) are few in number, because they're really rare. 95% of old motorcycles are within financial reach of any middle-class enthusiast. Which means, just ride the damn things.

David King said...

It's all rather frightening to those of us who are putting off acquiring a vintage machine while paying for college expenses and the like.

jnheath said...

20 years ago I drove my TR6R, Metralla, bevel Duc, etc. hard as I wanted and guiltlessly modded or replaced original parts, because I was the "owner." I've since lost interest in vintage bikes because I would now be the "custodian," a different game.

Paul and I and friends extended the working lives of slightly-out-of-date bikes in deliberate competition to what we saw as appliance-like new Japanese bikes. Now we feel obliged to preserve all bikes as museum pieces. Although I haven't seen a GPZ550 restored or otherwise for a very long time.

The shift is understandable but a little sad.

Dick Mann was reported to have visited a collector with a zero-miles Lito motocrosser. DM asked how it handled; the collector replied that he hadn't ridden the crate-find. DM said, "That's okay. One of these days you'll be dead and gone and somebody will ride that motorcycle."

The collector fired it up the next day.

Stuff doesn't last forever and neither do we. Motorcycling seems less alive than it did when both rider and bike were ephemeral, together.

ImpBarn said...

Great concept that we all need to understand. The investment of something I can personally maintain through good Stewardship is made much more worthwhile by the aspect of Experience. I can't get my stock and bond certificates out and experience them (mental images of Scrooge McDuck swimming in his Money Bin). *laugh* Like you said, "riding a pile of cash down the road".

I can get my old bikes out occasionally and enjoy them. By sharing the Experience with others it makes the Stewardship of the object even more worthwhile until you pass the torch to the next Steward.

William said...

Hi Paul,
Just to say, I saw this piece in CBG and was so shocked to find you there, I promptly bought the mag'.!
And very good it is too.
I wrote to the editor to express my delight, and, we had a little chat line going for a while.
It ended when he informed me that a certain Norton specialist from Somerset was to join the fray as a regular contributor.
I think I must have collapsed with shock.. mad as a box of frogs!
Ah well, I'll look for your next piece.. I do HOPE they're giving you money for this.

GuitarSlinger said...

As much as I'd like to believe the Two Wheel faithful will continue to ' ride ' their beloved classics the unfortunate reality is ... Once an item has attained that dreaded ( IMO ) ' Collector ' status its use in the context it was designed for will rapidly diminish as ' Investors ' drive the prices out of the majority of ' User's ' reach ... stuffing them into private museums and even worse ... their living rooms as show pieces and expressions of ego .

I've seen this over and over in the last 35 years .... from that ' Used ' Ferrari ( 365GTC/4 ) I'd purchased in the 70's for substantially less than the price back then of a year old Corvette ... selling years later for over $100,000 .... to the arch top guitar I once owned ( D'Aquisto ) becoming so over valued to the point of my no longer being willing to use it ( on stage ) because the insurance companies would no longer cover it for professional use ... at any price ( never mind replacement value ) and finally selling it ( for a massive amount of money ) because I could not abide it collecting dust in my home any longer . Attained price driving those items right out of my hands

Another example being Big Sid's ' Rattler ' drag bike that once purchased by its current owner was instantly restored to its original ' Factory ' road specs rather than maintain its heritage as part and parcel of the US Vincent legacy

Collector status is a cancer that has destroyed everything from Cars to Guitars ... that is now rapidly taking over the Classic M/C world as well whether you or I like it or not . And all the most excellent articles such as this will not stem the oncoming tide as long as those prices continue to rise . Sadly the ' True Believers ' will become the extreme minority fringe element .. while the Collector/Investor takes possession of the genre

As for me .... I've resigned myself to never owning the Vincent Sidecar rig of my dreams ... and have adapted my attitude to simply appreciating the fact that those aging VOC friends of mine can now look forward to a healthy retirement financially should they ever chose to sell off their bikes

That Paul ... is the " Brave New World " of classic M/C's we have to look forward to ( sarcasm intended ) Because as the American bard , Michael Stipe so well put it ;

" Its the End of the World ( as we know it ) "

No sense looking back ..... forward being our only real choice in life

captk said...

Welcome back Paul! The Vintagent at his best.
West Australia

David in Fort Lauderdale said...

I don't care what they cost (except to keep score) because, realistically, I wasn't going to buy one at any price. Here's why: I don't trust myself to be a good "steward." I'm mechanically inept and easily swayed by the spouse's mention that there's too little room in the garage for more of her stuff. So I enjoy seeing the pictures, visiting the museum, watching the auction, reading the Vintagent and allowing someone else to agonize over whether a ride in the rain is a potential financial catastrophe. I love my bike and ride it but the factory made 100,000 just like it last year and will do so again this year and next, and next...

Anonymous said...

G'day Paul.

After reading about that truly brilliant supercharged Salt Flats Racer Velocette on your website [and Super Kim today] I thought you might be interested in having a look at my supercharged Indian 741 Salt Flats Bonneville Racer.

I build it 2009-10 and then crammed it in a box and had it air-fright'ed from my native Copenhagen Denmark to Salt Lake City in 2010 and again in 2011 and after many a sling and arrows of outrageous fortune I did get to set a record at close to 100 mph in 2011.

The huffer is from a Japanese mini-car ( Subaru Vivio ) and it now runs on straight alcohol.
The not so impressive 12 - 14 horse-power of the original engine is now up to a somewhat more impressive 38 bph or the rear-wheel as tested on the dyno running alcohol:

...and a clip from 2010 running gasoline...overheating..burning head-gaskets AND melting the head itself..aurggh.

I hope you enjoy the pics.

Keep up the good work on your absolutely brilliant web-site !

Kind regards
Lars Neilsen

Grandpa Jimbo said...

Paul: I agree on all counts. I now have one of each, an unrestored/original (which you are familiar with) Venom and a 5 year old restoration on a Thruxton. I ride the hell out of them both as often as possible (but I stay within my comfort zone) and will keep them both as is. Thanks for your blog,
Jim A., Tucson, AZ

Jim BTW said...

Dear Paul,

A most excellent article and a subject that cannot be spoken of enough.

My own entry into the motorcycle world began late at 40, my first bike ever, a 1947 Sunbeam S7, one of around 2000 early S7's ever built, 200 known to still exist and one of 13 known 1947 bikes and reportedly one of the most original.

It wasn't expensive by any stretch at the time but it is unique. It gets ridden, it breaks, I fix it and repeat and I wouldn't have it any other way...I once made the mistake of washing it and the electrics revolted so it now gets the true WD40 oily rag treatment in the hope that I can pass it on to another custodian in as close to original condition as riding permits.

Thanks for spreading the oily rag word, the value in this form of "stewardship" and the fine prose. In closing, as my folks have been known to say, "shrouds have no pockets..."

Yours sincerely,


P.S. Lars, glad to see you're still in the land of the living, keep on writing the history books, that's a fine use for an old Indian. Hope to see you again at Speed Week.

drsprocket said...

Paul, Well spoken. YOU know my take on the matter. They'll pay hell prying my cold dead hands from the handle bars until the tank's empty. Doc P.S."Screw the value!"