The art of collecting motorcycle racing’s history
By Rick Doughty circa 2002
When you are a kid, time passes very slowly. Math class can seemingly go on for an eternity. It feels like your birthday only happens once every five years. As you age the pace of life quickens dramatically. A year can fly past in the blink of an eye, your abs can turn to flabs over night. No matter what you do, you can’t slow the spinning of the earth, even just a little.
In racing it is no different. Young racers can’t wait until they get good enough or big enough to notch that first celebrated win but as you get older you realize that winning’s glory fades fast. The thrill of victory is but a brief moment in time that really only lasts from the checkered flag to the trophy presentation. Thereafter it melts quickly into the background of good memories, replaced by reminder that “you are only as good as your last race”.
So it goes with the machinery we have brief relationships with. The bike that you once considered to be the ultimate two wheeled creation is inevitably over shadowed within two years by a machine that is vastly superior. A machine you have to sell your favorite old bike to buy. Racing is by its very nature about looking ahead…to a point.
There comes a point for all racers when the rush to get ahead gives way to looking back at the past. For most of us point begins to occur in our thirties. It is known as nostalgia. Nostalgia is the feeling you get when you look back fondly on the past. Nostalgia is the motivating factor behind the collecting craze that is sweeping the world in the 21st century. Nostalgia, retro, old school and vintage are a huge part of the “pop culture” in the 21st century due in large part to the graying of America. The baby boom generation born in the ten to fifteen years after WW II are getting to the point that they are looking fondly back on their past. Why is that significant to someone in their teens or twenties? It is important because the “Boomers” are still large and in charge and in turn influence many of the popular trends of the day.
One such trend or fad is collecting. For many, collecting is a tangible way to reclaim a part of the past and to preserve it. This trend has extended into ever dusty corner of our existence. People are collecting everything under the sun, from tractor seats to toupees. They say that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure but is it really?
What is truly collectible within the sport of motorcycle racing?
Bikes and Bits
There are two basic categories that define the collectibles within motorcycling, the bikes themselves and the memorabilia. The first category needs no explanation but memorabilia maybe unfamiliar to some. Memorabilia is the “catch-all” phase for virtually everything old. Everything that has any significant memory attached to it is therefore a type of memorabilia. That can include apparel, race poster, videos, trophies, tools, aftermarket products, toys, games, so on and so forth. It is truly wide open for interpretation.
If you buy and/or collect things that mean something to you on a personal level, you are by definition a sentimental collector. The good news is normal rules of collecting don’t apply to you. It’s Ok for you to spend $6K restoring your first mini bike. You can feel comfortable collecting every Hodaka widget known to man just because it is the bike you always wanted and never got. There is no right or wrong. There is no smart or stupid buys (unless they are coincidental) Sentimental buys are not about appreciating values, they are not about logic, they are not about anything other than the desire of the buyer and because of these realities we won’t delve to deeply into the psyche behind this group’s habits.
Where is the line between “pack rat” and savvy collector?
Believe it or not, there are folks out there in the world that never throw away a newspaper but does that make them wise collectors? No. There are motorcycle nuts among us afflicted with the same defective DNA. They never throw anything away. They keep worn out tires, bent handlebars, cracked rims, broken pistons, ripped seat covers etc… They are the type to dive head first into a dumpster behind any motorcycle shop hoping to uncover buried treasure. They claim that it is all going to be valuable someday, when the truth is that they are simply pack rats, not collectors.
The difference between the P.R. approach and a true collector is that a collector has a focus or purpose. Collectors are usually more familiar with the subject matter and know when to buy and when to pass. They are discerning, where the pack rats are random.
A truly savvy collector not only knows what things are currently worth, he also has the ability to forecast into the future of what will become collectible. They will start to buy it before the trend becomes popular.
It takes three essential elements to become a savvy collector.
First, you have to do your homework and really know the subject, whether it be memorabilia, motorcycles, art anything else.
Secondly, you have to experience in the field. You either possess the experience personally or you hire it. Vintage or Ex-work motorcycles can cost $15-$250,000.00. You don’t want to make purchases like that without experience on your side.
Lastly, you have to have the ready cash to make the deals happen when they become available. The best buys occur when the seller needs the money. These are usually regarded as “Fire sales” because the seller is willing to dump a valuable item for quick cash. If you have the dough immediately available you usually get a great deal. If balk or have too much lead time in assembling funds, you usually get to hear about someone else getting a great deal.
What is the difference between an interesting conversation piece and valuable memorabilia?
It really boils down the basic principles of supply and demand. Typically the greater the demand the higher the potential price, however if the supply overwhelms the demand the potential price will be lower. The chance for memorabilia to be in over abundance diminishes to a degree with each passing year. For example, a Tyco radio-controlled Travis Pastrana with bike is a current product that can be purchased at your local Toys R Us. A year from now they probably won’t be on the shelf. Five years from now most will be victims of abuse and be at the bottom of the local landfill. With each passing year the item will become more and more valuable. Should you rush out and by ten and sock them away? Probably not, because the number of units produced is too high for there to be huge future value. Should you by one and leave it in the box unopened? I know I did and it sits right next to the Jeremy McGrath model from two years ago that you can’t buy anymore.
In order to be regarded as valuable the item has to exceed what is commonly known as nominal value. This would vary based on the item. A motorcycle that is worth $500. is of nominal value. A famous rider’s signed jersey that is worth $500. is considered valuable.
Where is the best place to find collectibles?
The best place to find collectible motorcycles and memorabilia is hands down, E-bay. There have been some incredible finds on this auction site but before you throw this magazine on the table and rush to your computer, you need to know that E-bay is not always the best place to buy. Not because of the e-bay organization in any way, it is more the individuals that are selling the items that one should be cautious of. “Cavet de emptor” is buyer beware. It is imprinted on US currency and should also be the e-bay slogan.
E-bay is a great place to get an education without getting “experience”. The definition of experience in this context is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted. You don’t need this kind of experience.
E-bay is however a perfect tool for learning the market and tracking values. You can ear mark items and watch them over the course of the auction to see whether the item sold or did not meet the seller’s reserve. Obviously, if the reserve was not met the price was too high for the demand.
E-bay rule #1 is the higher the purchase price, the more cautious the buyer needs to be. If you are buying a race poster for $20.00 your risk is minimal. If you are buying a motorcycle for $5000.00, you best be very sure of all of the details from the condition to the eventual delivery costs. It can add up.
E-bay rule #2 is that things always look better in pictures. Don’t agree? Just ask Hugh Hefner of Playboy magazine.
E-bay rule #3 is remember the words of P.T. Barnum, “There is a sucker born every minute”. Try not to be that guy.
E-bay rule #4 is that auctions usually incited people to spend more money via the competition with other buyers than they would if the price was simply posted. Keep that in mind and try not to let the bidding frenzy override your common sense.
What are the best items to collect?
It all depends on your tastes, your space and your wallet. If you live in an apartment with no garage, it doesn’t make much sense to collect old race bikes. If you have a few acres fill but nowhere to keep the bikes out of the elements, it is really no different. If you have no business spending the family nest egg on a works bike, don’t do it.
On the other hand, if you are spatially challenged you may consider apparel (jerseys, helmets, pants etc…) or race posters that could double as interior decoration. Autographs add value as does use. The difference in value of a Ricky Carmichael jersey that he wore when he won his 24th moto, in the’02 season and one that he never perspired in, is night and day. One has history and one simply has his name on the back. There is a big difference in significance and ultimately in value.
The same holds true for the popularity of the rider. If it is a helmet that a virtual unknown rider wore when he finished 37th at Tuscaloosa National in ’76, it probably will not ever had any real significance (unless of course you were that rider and then it would be very important). By comparison if it was a helmet that Bob Hannah wore in his rookie year it wouldn’t matter where he finished, the demand and the value would high.
If you have somewhere to house old race bikes, you need to look at them as pieces of mechanical art and long term investments. They should be stored or better yet, displayed in a climate controlled environment. The better the environment the less the up keep you will need to perform and the better the long term value.
Works/Factory bikes, those ridden by the factory sponsored riders are “the” most collectible but buying and selling in this arena is like playing high stakes poker. It is not for the faint of heart or those light in the wallet. Works bikes typically bring the biggest dollars because they have historical significance and they are also very rare. Works bikes produced prior to the 1986 AMA production rule are even more scarce, more one-off and carry higher values. Due to the stratospheric values they are very few players at this level, which means that there is a limited buying audience. There are also a greater percentage of scam artists trying to get rich quick by pawning off quasi-works bikes on unsuspecting individuals. Remember the higher the value to more you need to do your homework. Recently an individual put an old Husqvarna up for sale for a mind blowing $300K! Does that make the bike worth $300K? Not unless someone buys it for that outrageous figure (which they haven’t). Selling prices, not asking prices determine value.
In cases like these it is always advisable to get the seller to substantiate their claims with documentation, if at all possible. The last thing you want to do it spend $100K on a works RC 500 only to have Honda lawyers contact you a month later regarding their stolen motorcycle. Most works bikes prior to ’86 were crushed after they were retired because the factories did not want their technology to get out in the hands of the public. Most works bikes had no serial numbers and could not be sold but still some survived. Some were given to riders like Rick Johnson, Jeff Ward and others while others were resurrected from left over parts by the mechanics that worked on them originally.
Collecting production bikes is another story altogether. If you are interested in production bikes you can expect to pay $1500.-$3500. for an unrestored motocross bike from the 70’s to the mid-80’s. Restored machines go for $5500- $12,500 on average. The cost to restore a race bike yourself is approx. $5000-7500. To have it done professionally averages $9500.
The challenge is to buy as complete a bike as you can to minimize the hard to find parts aspect of restoration. Something to keep in mind is that the cheapest bike on the market is rarely the best deal and free bikes are always the most expensive. Free bikes always require the largest investment when all is said and done, it is an unwritten law of the old bike jungle.
What will be the future ‘hot items”?
The items to watch out for are those owned or used by someone who will become popular. The same goes for events. First year items are usually more desirable and fetch bigger prices than subsequent years unless there is some other historical significance that has emerged. Here is a short list of the thing I would try to add to a collection sooner rather than later:
Helmets or Jerseys from the new kids on the block like James Stewart, Chad Reed, Mike Alessi, Nicco Izzy, Davi Millsap because all of these guys are on their way up in popularity and value.
MC, RC, LaRocco, Windham and Ryan Hughes would be my picks from the “Old Guard” because their memorabilia will always have value.
Memorabilia like posters, programs, shirts, hats etc… from events like the failed Comp Park MX Des Aster, the World Cup, the US Open first year, Laguna Seca Supermoto.
Every motocross toy made. They are cheap, they’re small, they get destroyed by little kids and they go off the market quickly. Any toy associated with McGrath, Pastrana or Carmichael will have lasting appeal.
First year or milestone bikes like ’98 YZ 400F and first year F models from all manufacturers.’87 CR 250, ‘93 CR 250 were milestone bikes as was the first perimeter framed KX. Cannondales will be the Edsel/Delorean of the motocross world and will be somewhat collectible because of their failure. Two strokes in general will become collectible over time as they are made obsolete, none more so than the 500cc models.
Collecting 101: The basic guide lines.
1.) Just because it is old or rare does not make it desirable. Desirability dictates value. Make sure that the item or bike has a reasonable marketability before you invest. You never know when you might have to “fire sale’ it.
2.) The larger the audience of potential buyers the greater your chances of selling will be.
The more mainstream your collectibles are the better your chances for appreciation over time.
3.) Something is only worth what others are willing to pay.
Selling prices not asking prices are the true gauge of value.
4.) The best values are usually not the cheapest selling prices.
The best values occur when you get the most for your money.
5.) You can never pay too much; you can only buy too early.
The trick is living long enough to see your over priced deal turn into a bargain.
6.) Sellers can make all the claims the want about history and authenticity but without documentation they remain only claims.
7.) The higher the price the slower the pace.
Use caution not emotion is making a financially significant buy.
8.) If you don’t have the experience and knowledge for the market you interested in, hire it. You will ultimately be money ahead and happier with your purchase.
9.) Buy what you like, not what you think someone else will like. You just might end up stuck with it.
10.) Memorabilia collecting is a cool hobby.
The fastest way to ruin a cool hobby is to try and make a business out of it!