Advice for Buying a Vintage Motorcycle

So, my wife makes fun of me sometimes, because she says that I agonized over the purchase of my wedding band longer than she did hers.  First off, that is a load of “you know what” that I will never admit to.  Second, I am going to be wearing this ring the rest of my life, so I better darn well make sure I like it.  It’s logical people!  Okay, so what does that have to do with buying a vintage motorcycle?

Well, truthfully, I actually did agonize quite a bit over the subject of this post.  Why?  Because this is the very first HappyWrench.com post.  Yes, I launched the site with a few posts at the same time, but this is the very first one I wrote.  That’s right, the one that will be remembered forever (dramatic-much?).

And why is it important?  Because, buying a vintage motorcycle is what it is all about people! At least for me…….and probably for you.  Don’t get me wrong, new bikes are great.  But there is nothing like buying a vintage motorcycle, a piece of history that is your very own to tinker and play with.  However, when it comes to buying a vintage motorcycle, there is a HUGE problem.  What should you buy?  There are literally hundreds of thousands of choices out there (check out this site I found that lists every motorcycle manufacturer ever: Motorcycle Compendium).  And of course, there are pitfalls.  Many, many pitfalls (some of which I have made…..so I speak from experience).

HappyWrench is here to help.  Because really, there is no better topic to start off a DIY Motorcycle Repair website with than a little bit of assistance in choosing your next project.  Here goes……

8 Solid Pieces of Advice When Buying a Vintage Motorcycle

1) Year:  I suggest a bike from the 1960’s or 1970’s.  These are going to be within an affordable price range (not yet over-inflated as collector’s items) and starting to hit that “rarity” sweet spot (i.e. prices are leveling or starting to creep up).  You should also still be able to find parts (see below for caveats).  During the last financial crisis, I also read some articles about alternative investing that suggested that if you buy the “right” motorcycles from this era, you are likely to see a 100% return over a 10 year period (see CNBC post and similar post from Forbes).  Not bad.  Be careful though, old is not necessarily rare and rare is not necessarily old (who am I, Dr. Suess?).

2) Rarity:  Something to keep in mind is that the Japanese manufactures imported a ridiculous number of motorcycles into the US during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, meaning that some of these bikes although getting older aren’t all that rare.  Rare is important if you are looking for a bike that will retain or appreciate in value.  Also, there are the exceptions to the rule, where a younger bike can be rare.  Examples include the Honda GB500, because so few were made, or a trials bike that you know was a factory racer.

3) Authenticity:  This one can be a whole separate post, but the point here is to avoid buying a vintage motorcycle that is a fake, hot (i.e. stolen),  or has had its numbers modified.  Good thing is that there are tons of websites on the internet that can help you “decrypt” engine numbers to first off see if they make any sense (see my separate post on the VIN Number issue).  A great example of this situation was an Indian Scout racer I was planning to buy.  I was in love with the idea of finally getting my hands on a old school Scout.  I had the seller, who was up in Ohio, send me a picture of the engine number.  I did a little research and came to learn that the engine number matched those only used for the Indian Chief.  Now before you jump to the conclusion that maybe the guy was an idiot and didn’t know he had a Chief, the reality of the situation was that someone tried to re-stamp the engine and didn’t do their research (i.e. gave it a Chief number instead of a Scout one.  No biggie he said!).  Fact of the matter is that you are going to have to be very careful with regards to engine numbers.  Do NOT buy a bike that has a plate mounted over the original number (the seller will probably say that the old one was “getting hard to read” and this one matches).  If you can, buy a bike where the engine number and frame number match (if the motorcycle originally received both).  Do NOT buy a bike that has had the engine number marred in any way. Do NOT buy the bike if anything smells fishy with respect to the bike’s authenticity.  Seriously, use your gut and walk away if need be.  Authenticity goes for parts too.  If you can, get a bike that is closer to original rather than clad with tons of aftermarket parts.

4) Paperwork:  Two points on this topic.  First, GET a freaking title.  Don’t let that heart racing feeling in your chest distract you from dotting your “i’s” and crossing your “t’s.”  Yes, there are ways to get a motorcycle titled if the title is missing.  There are even services you can pay that can get you a title with as little as a bill of sale (sometimes necessary for really old bikes).  Honestly though, it is so much easier to simply make the seller provide a title.  If you think you are going to have to go the route of using a title service, give the seller a deposit and make them do it first.  Hesitation on their part if you are willing to pay the titling fee is a BIG red flag.  They should be more than willing as this will make the transfer easier (and you will sleep better at night knowing it is truly yours).  I rebuilt a Harley in college that I didn’t get a title.  The hoops I had to jump through to ultimately get that thing on the road were ridiculous.  Never again.  Second, related point on this topic.  Always get a title stating the true year of the bike over a special construction designation of a newer year.  This adds to the authenticity of the bike and as a buyer, I would always prefer to see my 1970’s Harley titled as a 1970’s Harley as opposed to a SPCN.  This will help with resale value and you know the bike wasn’t some Frankenstein slapped together from miscellaneous shop parts.

5) Condition: If at all possible, find a bike that is running.  Even if it leaks oil like crazy and has the same stopping power as Fred Flintstone’s car, seeing it run for a bit before petering out is worth a little extra cash and the peace of mind that you at least have a solid foundation for a restore/rebuilt.  I have bought the completely broken down non-runners before at the right price, but you definitely run the financial risk of the bike needing way more than you anticipated.  A basket case is better reserved for after you have a few restorations under your belt and potentially a bike you have worked on in the past.

6) Completeness:  This one I think is a big one that you might not realize, and I promise if you take my advice, you won’t regret it.  Why so adamant about this one?  Because I made this mistake in the past.  My first bike was a complete basket case.  It was cheap, so I figured what the hell?  Problem is if you buy a basket case or an engine, then a frame, then a tank, then a ……….partridge in a pear tree, I promise your project will cost four times what you planned.  If you can, get a bike that is mostly complete with authentic parts.  Replace parts as needed or wanted and you will come out on top in terms of overall cost.  Another consideration is that as a bike gets older, literature regarding how to fix certain parts becomes more scarce.  Obtaining the bike in an assembled condition will allow you to see how things were originally together.  You can take pictures as you take things apart and reassemble to match.  This is a big benefit as sometimes shop manuals don’t give sufficient detail.

7) Parts:  Something to keep in mind when buying a vintage motorcycle, but not a deal-breaker is that the parts for an American motorcycle (i.e. a Harley) will be cheapest, while the parts for a Japanese, German (BMW), or British bike will be more expensive and harder to come by.  There is no doubt that the craze with Japanese cafe racers and scramblers has made aftermarket parts easier to find, but I promise you will have an easier time with an American motorcycle.  The number of aftermarket, new-old-stock, and original parts out there is amazing.  Then again, you will pay more for that American bike, so balance out all considerations before making a purchase.  If you find a mostly complete 1969 CB750, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.

8) Don’t Rush: Research all available avenues when buying a vintage motorcycle and be patient.  This is a purchase that is going to be with you for a long time.  Personally, I have had a lot of luck with Craigslist because it is local and it allows me to vet a lot of bikes, but there are entire websites dedicated to the horror stories that people have gone through trying to buy off CL.  Then there is eBay.  I have had amazing luck here for parts.  Seriously, it is my go to forum for certain bits of wiring, etc.  The prices on whole motorcycles though seems a bit inflated, plus you need to travel to personally inspect and then arrange shipping.  Don’t forget about CycleTrader and of course, events and local rallies.  The primary reason I say to be patient is that there is a deal to be had.  The vintage motorcycle market is so fragmented that you can see something for $6k in one locale and $3k in another.  For me, it has generally been a gut feeling – like I know when the right deal has come along.  I know because there is no worry or buyer’s remorse; just excitement and excitement alone.

I am really happy to provide the advice above, and please don’t hesitate because the list seems long.  This was easy post for me to write tons about because I have been down this road many times.  I will emphasize that rebuilding/restoring old bikes has been the most rewarding and satisfying past-time of my life.  I can’t recommend it any more highly.

Here are a few other resources I recommend if you are headed down the road of buying a vintage motorcycle:

1) Mechanical checklist from Bikers Garage. This is a great list and super comprehensive.  No reason to re-invent the wheel here (no pun intended); visit this site and follow the list.

2) Vintage motorcycle identification from ClassicMotorcycles

3) Building a motorcycle collection the right way from Salzmoto

Happy Buying Everyone!  If you have any questions or want any advice, please feel free to reach out via the contact page.  I am happy to help!  As you can tell, I love talking about this stuff.  Also, please please please, share this post via social media!  HappyWrench is new and needs your support!

Didn’t find what you needed in this particular post?  Check out the HappyWrench Motorcycle Repair Link Database.  It is a one-stop shop for all your DIY motorcycle repair information needs.

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4 Comments

  1. Happy Wife January 29, 2017 Reply
  2. Janet G. July 26, 2017 Reply
    • Christopher Pumo July 26, 2017 Reply
    • Christopher Pumo August 6, 2017 Reply

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