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Antique Motorcycle Series Part One: Nostalgic Appeal with Timeless Features


The appeal of antique motorcycles is one that will be everlasting. The look, the noise, the riding freedom that comes with these bikes is undeniable. In Part 1 of our Antique Motorcycle Series, we’re diving into what makes a motorcycle “antique”, why these bikes are so special, and who are the people that own, curate and care for them. And most of all, we’re going to explore why they have such timeless appeal that has lasted, and will last, for generations.

Making the distinction between antique, vintage and classic motorcycles

Motorcycles older than 35 years are considered antique. What’s crazy is that means anything older than 1988 (at the time of writing this!) is technically an antique.

1983 Honda CX650 Turbo on display at Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, Birmingham Alabama USA
1983 Honda CX650 Turbo on display at Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, Birmingham Alabama USA. Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons (License: CC BY-SA 3.0)"

However, more often than not, bikes from the 1980’s are considered “vintage” and not “antique” due to their distinct look, and the fact that most of their owners would prefer not to think of the ‘80s as antiquated.

The term “classic” is actually quite a broad one, however it’s generally presumed that a classic motorcycle is one from the 1970s that has that timeless look.

Throughout the UK and Australia, the term “Veteran” denotes motorcycles from 1915 and earlier, whereas in the United States, bikes from 1923 and earlier fall under “Century”.

Who are the people with antiques in their garage?

According to a 2010 survey from the AMCA, the average owner is between 40 to 75 years of age, and most of them still have the same motorcycle they’ve had for 40 years.

For a lot of these guys or gals, their motorcycles hold sentimental value.

Harley-Davidson ad from the Wausau Daily Herald Wausau, Wisconsin 01 Feb 1915.
Harley-Davidson ad from the Wausau Daily Herald Wausau, Wisconsin 01 Feb 1915

What makes an antique motorcycle so different from a new model?

Raw sensory delight

They’re loud. They smell like gasoline and rubber. They rumble. They’ve got character and charm and are completely unapologetic about it.

As newer motorcycles become more and more embroiled in technology, particularly with EV on the horizon, they often feel more computer than bike. It’s a refreshing change of pace to get on an old-school machine that looks and sounds how a motorcycle should.

Thinking of pop culture, in the movie I, Robot, Will Smith forgoes the futuristic self-driving cars in favor of a good old-fashioned motorcycle (albeit an ultra-rare 2004 MV Augusta F4-SPR 750).

Maintenance strategy

With a simpler design and frames that were mostly open, older bikes were meant to be worked on by the owner. The expectation that you’d have to maintain your bike yourself was par for the course, particularly with models from wartime eras.

Because of the less complicated engineering, the bikes let in more particulate and require more flushing and cleaning than the tight, closed design of many modern motorcycles.

Stay tuned for Part 2: What to Expect for a deeper look at the unique maintenance quirks that come with antique motorcycles.

Finding common ground

Interestingly, a lot of the new models are falling back on the retro look of the old bikes. Open frames with modern parts. No matter how much bike design evolves, there will always be a market for those classic styles.

1916 Catalog Cover for Indian Motorcycles
1916 Catalog Cover for Indian Motorcycles.

What are people riding?

In the United States, it comes as no surprise that Harleys and Indians are the most common antique motorcycles, with Harley in the lead with a wide margin. The vintage Harley FL Knuckleheads and Panheads are particularly popular with antique Harley riders, along with other FL models from the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s.

1940 Harley-Davidson EL, Knucklehead engine
140's Harley-Davidson EL knucklehead motor with iconic “knuckle” rocker-box covers

Two-cylinder pushrod V-twin Knucklehead engines were manufactured by Harley up until 1947, when post-war improvements to roads and the construction on highways necessitated a bigger, better engine that could keep up with faster road speeds. The Panhead, also a two-cylinder V-twin engine, was introduced the following year and proved immensely popular with returning GIs who were excited and eager to take advantage of the improved highways.

Chiefs from the 1930s and 1940s hold a special place in rider/collector garages since the Indian Motorcycle Company stopped production in 1953.

Some of the notable European and Japanese bikes that are popular include:

  • 50’s and 60’s BMW (1959 R50, 1970 R75/5, 1982 R100)
  • 1970’s Norton Commando
  • 1970’s Triumph Bonneville or Tiger
  • 1960’s BSA Lightening
  • 1970’s Moto Guzzi Ambassador
  • 1970’s Honda CB550, CB750
  • 1970’s Yamaha XS 650

What it takes to get started

Although the appeal of the look, sound and feel of older motorcycles is prevalent, getting started in the hobby can be cost-prohibitive for younger riders and wrenchers looking to spend their money on an American bike.

There are European and Japanese models out there on the more affordable side, if you know what you want and know what to look for. Never underestimate the importance of thorough research, and find a bike that’s within your budget and ideally runs (unless you’re very mechanically inclined).

If you’re solely interested in collecting, your up-front costs could be in the thousands or tens of thousands depending on the make, model, and condition. Unfortunate, unless you happen to have a few hundred thou’ lying around.

Suffice to say, antiques are here to stay

To wax poetic for a minute, much like exquisite oil paintings on display at an art museum, these complex yet simple machines compel deep love and appreciation from generations of riders who did not grow up with them. The appeal of the older construction, style, sounds and look will endure, and there’s no better time to dip your toe into this fascinating hobby.

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