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What Makes a Classic Bike?

Posted: Sun Feb 24, 2008 9:46 am
by Kwackerz
What Makes a Classic Bike?

What, exactly, makes a particular motorcycle a classic? I think it's entirely possible that there really is no objective answer. Tastes are pretty subjective. I know people who think cruisers are ghastly looking anachronisms. I personally think most sport bikes look as if they've just escaped from a Japanese cartoon, or possibly a Power Rangers rerun.

So, what this all boils down to is that what I, or any other individual, happen to think is a "classic" may be someone else's "old piece of junk."

The only clear-cut guidelines as to what is, or isn't, a classic are those used by the states. In most states, if a vehicle is more than 20 years old it is classified as a "classic," or an "antique," or a "collectible." Some states have all of these categories, calling the newer vehicles collectibles, slightly older ones classics, and the oldest of them antiques. There is also an historic vehicle category, which is usually reserved for vehicles made before an arbitrary date, generally around 1925 or earlier.

In any case, these designations are bureaucratic in nature, and have nothing to do with the value or desireability of the actual bike. The only advantage to these classifications is that the tag is generally cheaper.

"Classic" is as much a state of mind as anything else. In the strict sense, it implies something that has passed the test of time and is recognized as having lasting value. But not all classics, in this sense, are eternally popular. If it was submitted to a publisher today, I suspect that Notre Dame de Paris (in English, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) would never see print without drastic editing, including the removal of perhaps 150 pages of descriptions. In other words, while the novel is recognized as a classic, most people today would never actually read it. (And, in this post-Disney world, would be terribly dissappointed if they did, since they might not expect Esmeralda to be hanged, or Phoebus to turn out to be the total jerk that Hugo made him. Of course, they'd probably also be a little shocked to read Bambi and find out that Felix Salten's little animals act exactly like animals and, instead of having lots of fun in the deep forest, spend a great deal of time eating each other.)

But, getting back to motorcycles, we still haven't really defined a classic. For visitors to this particular web site there is at least a good chance that the definition includes an in-line two or four-cylinder engine, and a fairly upright riding posture. (Others would differ, obviously.)

Most people don't consider KZs to be classics, or particularly collectible. Many buy them as learner bikes, figuring they're cheap enough to use while the rider is still in the "oops, dropped it again!" stage. Something to use for a while, then trade in on a new bike.

KZs were made in fairly large numbers, and there are still a lot of them on the road. Enough, at least, that you can still get parts for the more popular models without too much trouble. But they haven't been sold in the United States since the mid-'80s (except for the old KZ1000-P, which, despite having the name changed to Police-1000, is still essentially the same bike that Ponch and Jon used to patrol the California freeways on CHiPs).

There is an interesting phenomenon at work in used vehicle prices. Most decline in value over time until they reach a bottom point. After that, the price may remain stable for a number of years. But, eventually, if you keep it long enough, the price of the vehicle will slowly start to rise. How quickly is dependant mainly on how popular the vehicle is in the collectors' market, but even obscure, unpopular models will eventually start rising in price.

So what makes a bike become valuable after enough time. A number of factors are at work here. Scarcity is one of them. The fewer examples of any item there happen to be, the more the remaining examples will cost. An intact copy of the first issue of Action Comics is worth enough that someone who found a previously unknown copy could probably retire on the sale. A 1982 KZ440LTD is worth about $750.00, and will probably drop to around $500.00 or so before it stops going down in a few more years. But there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of these reliable old bikes on the road, so they aren't rare. If there were only a dozen or so left you'd probably see prices well above what they cost when new.

NOTE: Just to show that I do get one right sometimes, the current Kelley Blue Book price for the same model is now $1,155.00, representing a 54% increase since the article was originally written. This price is for a bike in like-new condition at a dealership, so private sale prices are likely to be lower.

Popularity and perception have a lot to do with the value of a used motorcycle. Something that is in great demand retains its value much better than something that isn't. V-twin bikes are more popular with Americans than in-line types. The classic image of a biker is of a rough-looking character on a Harley-Davidson. (An image not exactly borne out in cinema, by the way, where until fairly recently the biker gangs were as likely to be riding imports. Marlon Brando defined the film bike gang leader while mounted on a Triumph Thunderbird. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, of course, did use Harleys in Easy Rider, though only after the bikes were wildly modified from the configuration they had when they still belonged to the LAPD.)

In any case, a Harley, or an Indian, is an automatic classic. (An original Indian, at least; the new ones, so far, remain little more than Harley clones with valanced fenders.) Anything else is going to have to work a little to get there. It's a style thing. Right now, V-twins are in and in-line engines are not. (Except in sport bikes, where you can't see the engine anyway.)

Some of the factors that go into making a classic, or at least a collectible, bike include:

General opinion
We've already touched on scarcity, so let's briefly look at condition. In general, as far as collectors are concerned, original is better than restored. This means that if the paint is in reasonable shape, it's best to just put a coat of wax on it and leave it at that. Restoring a bike, including repainting, replacing worn parts, and so on, doesn't always increase the value. In some cases, it may even detract from the value.

What about popularity? Collectors are as prone to picking up on a fad as any other person. From time to time there will be a vogue for a particular model, and so the price will rise. And the original popularity of a model has some bearing as well. Someone who learned to ride on a particular model is more likely to want to add one to his collection in later years.

General opinion works hand in hand with popularity. As mentioned earlier, the American fashion today is for v-twin motorcycles. In the 1970s and '80s, many people were riding in-line twins and fours, along with the occasional six. (Remember the KZ1300?) Harley was just about the only company making v-twins in those years, and there weren't enough to go around, reliability was a very real problem (particularly during the AMF period), and the standards simply had a friendlier image in the public mind. (You met the nicest people on a Honda; on a Harley you met a Hell's Angel.)

Another problem for collectors of non-V-twin bikes is simply that, while they were popular when new, they never developed any particular mystique. Most Japanese bikes of the period were categorized as "UJMs." (Universal Japanese Motorcycles.) With a few exceptions, there was nothing unique about them. The engines didn't throb and threaten to shake all the fasteners loose. Except for some of the 2-cycle models that were popular before the EPA got into the act, they weren't very noisy at all. A Harley was 90% attitude; a UJM was transportation.

Despite this, I think that the old UJMs are about to become at least a niche collectors market. A lot of my e-mail is from first-time riders who are using their old bike for learning and want to know how to adjust/fix something. But, increasingly, I'm also being asked questions relating to restoring the bikes. Could be a trend.

Article by KZRider @

Posted: Sun Mar 28, 2010 1:43 am
by AJFalco
Simple answer is...

1.Wanted one when I was young, couldn't afford one. :smt009
Older now and have cash to spare :smt002

2.Had one and killed it/had it stolen. Everything else has been a poor substitute :smt017

3.It ticks all the boxes and makes me feel like a kid. :smt026

4.(And the reason I like the least) It is very rare and will make me money if I wrap it in cotton wool and hide it away for years :smt019

Any or all of these answers will cover 99% of what makes a classic bike!