Five Motorcycles Every Collector Should Know
1950 Indian Chief
Photo credit: Darin Schnabel ©2019, Courtesy of RM Sotheby's
Over the years, vintage motorcycles have become collectible for their historical significance, their success as a beacon of industrial design, and for the joy of motion they provide. They appeal not only to motorcycle enthusiasts — they are increasingly becoming part of large car collections. Here are five collectible motorcycles from around the world that have gained wide recognition and are now some of the standouts in the hobby. Take note: just because a classic motorcycle is significant and collectible, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is expensive.
1. 1959–1970 Triumph Bonneville
Shortly after its debut, the Triumph Bonneville redefined the British motorcycling industry and now embodies 1960s motorcycling for many bike enthusiasts. As a result, the Bonneville has become a staple of motorcycle collections throughout the world.
Bonneville production can be categorized into three distinct versions over its initial 24-year run, with those made prior to 1971 being the most collectible. The 1959–1962 models are the most valuable “pre-unit” models, where the crankcase, gearbox, and primary case were all separate pieces. The “unit-construction” bikes from 1963–1970 had the three separate engine pieces from the pre-unit construction combined into one. Thanks to ongoing performance and reliability enhancements, the later unit bikes from 1969 and 1970 are largely considered to be the best Triumph Bonnevilles by riders. From 1971-1983, there was the “oil-in-frame” Bonneville, which was the last effort from Triumph to keep up with the Japanese rivals. Due to their less-classic look, these later models have not yet resonated with collectors as much.
As with most collector’s items, Bonnevilles from the first year of production are the most valuable, carrying a 50% premium or more over a 1960–1962 model. Motorcycle buyers should expect to pay upwards of $25,000 for a perfect example of a 1959, with the “Tangerine Dream” model being the most desirable. The 1960–1962 models sell for approximately $18,000 in perfect condition, while the 1963–1970 models currently trade for slightly more than $16,000 in perfect condition.
2. 1948–1955 Vincent Black Shadow
The Vincent Black Shadow hails from a time when the British were producing the highest quality and fastest vehicles in the world, and it exemplifies this standard in motorcycle form. The Black Shadow set a top speed record for a production motorcycle of 125 mph in 1948 — a record that would stand for more than 20 years. As a result, it is now widely considered to be the world’s first superbike.
The hand-built bike’s legacy makes it well-suited for tastefully curated collections, and prices reflect that fact. The racing version of the Black Shadow — the Black Lightning, of which 30 were built — holds the current auction record for a motorcycle at $929,000. For a Black Shadow you can expect to pay upwards of $150,000–$200,000 for a perfect first-year 1948 model, $85,000–$100,000 for a 1949-1954 model, or $65,000–$75,000 for a 1955 model.
3. 1936–1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead
Harley-Davidson is as American a brand as Levi’s and Coca-Cola, and the Knucklehead is one of the best representations of the art and history of Harley. Introduced in 1936 to replace the Flathead VL model, the Knucklehead was a vast leap forward for the American motorcycling industry, and it has long been one of Harley’s most collectible motorcycle models. It earned its nickname later because of the way the valve covers made a fist, and it was the first overhead valve “big twin” that Harley brought to market. The Knucklehead cured the overheating and leaking problems of Harley’s previous Flathead models and remained in production until the 1948 Panhead replaced it.
First-year Knuckleheads are the most valuable, capturing $135,000–$190,000 for an investment grade example. The 1937 and 1938 models are worth around 15% less at $90,000–$125,000, the 1939–1940 another 10% less, and the 1941–1947 another 10% less again. Recently an original paint 1940 example known as “Greenie” sold for $220,000. This same Knuckle sold for $159,000 in 2014, showing how the model’s appeal has grown over the last decade.
4. 1946–1948 Indian Chief
Indian’s big-twin competitor to Harley-Davidson, the Chief, was the unfortunate last hoorah for Indian before the company closed shop in 1953 (though Polaris Inc. revived the brand in 2011). Despite the Chief being made for more than 30 years and the original Indian making classic motorcycles for more than half a century, the company’s most famous model was made for less than 10 years.
In 1940, Indian released the Chief with large swooping fenders, and it would become the most iconic Indian of all. Due to the war effort, this generation’s Chief was comprised of military and civilian production, with military bikes making up most of the early 1940s. The Chief was absent in 1949, and then reintroduced in 1950 with telescopic forks. This era saw fierce competition between Harley and Indian, though Harley prevailed in the end after Indian failed to upgrade dated bike designs. Today, motorcycle buyers don’t shop based on the same principles they did in the 1940s and 1950s, and buyers pay a lot more for a bike that might have been less loved at the time.
In investment condition, expect to pay $30,000–$35,000 for a 1946–1948 Chief. Similar to Harleys, the key to value is correct and non-reproduction parts, so have an expert on the model advise on any motorcycle purchase.
5. 1974 Ducati 750 SS
Largely considered one of the most collectible production Ducati motorcycles, and one of the most exotic motorcycles when new, the Ducati 750 SS sits at the peak of the collector Italian motorcycle world. The bike is commonly known by the term “green frame” because of the distinctive paint used on the frame, which was also a signature feature of the factory Ducati Imola racers the 750 SS replicates.
Values had a strong run-up in 2017–2018, and now perfect examples trade hands for $175,000–$225,000. When compared to the $1.5 million+ value of a Lamborghini Miura of the era, the Ducati's cost seems like a downright bargain considering only 401 examples were produced. Despite the limited production, several bikes come up for sale each year.
No matter which motorcycle piques your interest, be sure to contact your insurance broker to get appropriate coverage in place once you make a purchase.
About the Author
James Hewitt is the editor of Hagerty’s Motorcycle Price Guide as well as an analyst on Hagerty’s Automotive Intelligence team. He is a classic motorcycle collector who has owned over 100 vintage bikes from the 1960s and ’70s.