Wednesday, May 14, 2014


George Disteel late in his life, using 'duct tape' as an eyepatch to help him see despite cataracts
An old friend forwarded a pair of newspaper clippings from a 1978 auction, held by Butterfield+Butterfield auctioneers of San Francisco (now absorbed into Bonhams), of the various contents from the estate of noted Bay Area eccentric 'Crazy' George Disteel.  I've written previously about Disteel, but hadn't seen the prices fetched by his motorcycles at the auction -it makes fascinating reading, and sheds light on how the priorities of the motorcycle collector market have shifted in the 35 years.
The San Francisco Chronicle article of Jan 26, 1978, with a story of George Disteel's estate auction...
If I were to ask a savvy classic motorcycle fan today, which was the more valuable, a Vincent Black Shadow, a Norton International, or a Moto Guzzi Falcone?  The answer would likely be in that order, that 'of course' a Shadow is among the most coveted of vintage motorcycles, and anyone who's been reading the classic press the past 30 years could explain exactly why - the speed records, the exploits of Marty Dickerson and Rollie Free and George Brown, the Phil Irving connection, all of which seems correct and natural today.  But history is a mutually agreed-upon construction (or disagreed upon!), a narrative which suits the needs of the present.  And at present, we apparently need the Vincent Black Shadow as top dog, with consequent demand and bidding wars at auction pushing prices over $120k for decent examples.
The Butterfield+Butterfield auction list and results for George Disteel's estate
In 1978, though, collectors felt the three machines - Vincent, Norton, and Guzzi - were of equal value - $1550 - at least in that California auction room.  As someone who entered the 'classic bike' scene just a few years later, I concur that in the early '80s, a Moto Guzzi Falcone was a rare exotic in the USA, highly esteemed for the quality of its build and innovative design.  Moto Guzzi, the only factory of the 3 still in business at that date (Norton was limping along in limbo, and Vincent gone since 1955) had a far better reputation for the quality of their castings and machine work than either British brand, and Norton OHC singles bathed in the glory of decades of racing success of their racing brother, the Manx.  I can confirm that both an Inter and a Falcone were every bit as desirable as a Shadow until the current generation.
The 1965 Cycle World road test of a Vincent Black Lightning - 'an evil-handling beast'
Vincent twins had a reputation in the USA for excellent top speed potential, but frightening handling, the legacy of a profoundly negative Cycle World road test of a Black Lightning in their Sept.1965 issue.  In fact, the tester said, "The Vincent motorcycle may be fast, but it is an evil-handling beast, with simply awful brakes. It is the most dangerous motorcycle ever to come our way, and we are not sorry in the least that it is no longer being made." Which is a far cry from their current reputation!  (By contrast, I've road tested a 1950 Vincent Black Lightning, and found it absolutely fantastic, with excellent handling, and a thrill to ride).

Using an 'inflation calculator', $1550 in 1978 dollars equals around $5800 in 2014, a 275% inflation over 36 years.  What would can we expect to pay today for these machines?  While I can't account for the condition of Disteel's bikes (they're still around of course, I know of several in the SF Bay Area still), here's what you'll have to pay for really good examples of each machine:

- H+H sold a 1950 Norton Model 30 International for $33,900 in April 3013 (courtesy

35 years later, the Vincent is valued by collectors at 4 times the value of the Norton and Moto Guzzi, a situation which would have puzzled collectors in 1978, who would have pooh-poohed the notion of the flawed Vincent twin having more value than the race-bred Norton and high-quality Moto Guzzi.  Food for thought; today's values are exactly that, and not an indication of tomorrow's values...


John Romano said...

Richard Thompson has everything to do with the value of a Vincent. It doesn't hurt that it has an additional cylinder and a guy in a bathing cap laying on top of it.

Anonymous said...

Howdy Paul,
As I remember, the Vincents were pretty rough and Ed Brooks and some other guy were bidding furiously on the Inter and Falcone. I had these sheets of paper sitting in some old MC book that I hadn't looked at in a long while and couldn't believe the prices. Might as well have been a million for all I could muster. But then, this house sold for $37k in 1977.
- Mike Rettie

GuitarSlinger said...

Actually Richard Thompson's song " 1952 Vincent Black Lightning " may of raised popular public awareness of the mark a little [ But try and find a Vincent T-shirt or diecast .. both being hard to track down because the song had so little commercial effect ] but in truth had next to zero effect if any on the values of Vincents . Damn fine song though . By a damn fine musician .

Vincent M/C's have been scaling the price tag ladder all on their own based on performance , literature [ re; Hunter Thompson's account of riding a Vincent etc ] heritage , legend [ along with a bit of myth ] and racing history especially here in the US ... thanks to the likes of Marty , Rollie Free , Bid Sid etc efforts

Toss in more than a couple of articles along the way by the good Peter Egan not to mention his reverently mentioning the mark quite often and it was obvious a decade ago which direction Vincent prices were heading . As Jackie Gleason would of said " To the Moon Alice .. To the Moon "

Anonymous said...

The Disteel Falcone was on eBay in recent months and got as LOW as about 13k as I recall, repeatedly relished at lower and lower prices. From the looks it was as it was when sold.

Anonymous said...

Not to diminish Rollie Free's accomplishments, but obviously overlooked is the (Bob) Burns & (Russel) Wright Vincent Black Lightning, a true overall Land Speed Record holding machine; much faster and sophisticated Works race-only, LSR-prepared (Picador crankshaft, etc). IMO, it is one of the perhaps 3 most "collectible" motorcycles in existence. The Rollie Free bike had a famous photograph taken of it. The Burns & Wright Black Lightning posted long-lasting overall LSR numbers, and went really fast. Interesting to note, that when I asked Russel Wright "How much more speed did she have in her at Bonneville if you'd used more "dope" in the alcohol, he said "About 30 MPH. The locals chaps were not entirely straight with us when we asked about help with mixtures at that altitude."