Beginner's Guide to Classic Motorcycles

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Why Own a Classic Motorcycle

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The classic motorcycle market is riding a wave through to 2016, with growing interest in classic bike ownership and the exciting classic community attracting worldwide interest.

  • Over 30% of bikes in the UK are considered a classic or vintage motorcycle
  • The classic market accounts of 10% of the UK's motorcycle industry
  • Google searches for classic motorcycles have risen 20% in 2015

Want to know more on the classic motorcycle scene? Insurance specialists Bennetts have enlisted the help of industry experts to guide you through buying and owning a classic.

Introduction to Classics

Photo by Bonhams

Buy a machine that you are going to ride, enjoy and cherish, and it will reward you with everlasting memories.

Photo provided by Retro Show

In my short time with Bonhams Collectors' Motorcycle Department I can honestly say I have had the privilege of meeting some incredibly generous people, keen to impart their own incredible stories of man, machine and the road less travelled.

Whether a £1,000 BSA Bantam or a £100,000 Brough Superior, the ultimate goal is the same. To own, maintain and enjoy the machine as its maker intended.

Few collect for investment, financial gains are simply a by-product of collecting. Some refer to investment as time, energy, or matter spent in the hope of future benefits actualised within a specified time frame. I agree however, the benefits are far beyond monetary. Motorcycles have the ability to break down barriers. Motorcyclists themselves remain an approachable bunch – whether you ride a classic Honda step-thru or a 1950's Vincent Black Shadow, you will no doubt have the same appreciation for man, machine and the journey ahead.

The Benefits of Classic Motorcycle Ownership

Collectors' motorcycles remain 'tangible assets' and offer so much more than 'investment'. You're not simply buying a classic motorcycle, you're investing in a two-wheel route to:

  • Nostalgia - passage to a bygone era, the sights and smells that evoke life's fondest memories.
  • A sense of freedom - the road ahead and social integration into the motorcycle world and all of its interesting people.
  • Historic and engineering interest - whether it be a particular vintage, two-stroke, multi cylinder, road racing, scrambles, you name it. The collecting categories are endless.
  • Competition - the inherent desire to go out and win.
  • Restoration - the joy of reinstating a machine's magnificence.
  • Fashion & lifestyle - the ability to design and customise a machine to your personal taste and take part in truly enjoyable events such as The Distinguished Gentleman's Ride, The Pioneer Run or perhaps Bike Shed events.
  • 'Art' - a creative product with imaginative aesthetic and engineering appeal.

May the motorcycle continue to enrich the lives of all. In the meantime, the Bonhams motorcycle team look forward to welcoming friends old and new to its 2016 motorcycle auctions following a momentous 2015.

Buying a Classic Motorcycle Offline

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Sellers will tell you how good their bike is; in reality the truth is usually a little different.

Justin Faithfull, BEng (Hons). MSc. Classic Motorcycle Engineer at Andybuysbikes.com

Photo provided by Retro Show

Classic motorcycle ownership can be very rewarding, however by way of a warning; it can also be very frustrating, especially if you get it wrong.

Here are some points that should always be taken into consideration when thinking about purchasing that classic motorcycle:

  • Classic bikes are old used machines; the one you buy can be 30 years, 50 or even 100 years old! Consider what the ravages of time may have done to your chosen bike.
  • Knowledge, what do you know about the make and model you are interested in? Do your homework, join an owners club, make friends and ask for advice.
  • Look into what information is available in the form of work shop manuals, parts books, road tests etc.
  • What is parts availability like? It is best to take on a make and model with good parts back up as your first classic bike – this will lead to a more rewarding ownership experience.
  • Sellers will tell you how good their bike is; in reality the truth is usually a little different.
  • Beware of 'restored' machines, they may look lovely and shiny, but if they have not done several hundred miles (400 to 500 at least) since completion, then there will be a lot of teething problems to sort out. Sadly, beautiful cosmetics do not automatically mean mechanical excellence, and many are not what they seem.
  • Get a knowledgeable friend to come and view any prospective purchase with you. Road test the bike if at all possible.
  • Consider your own abilities, are you mechanically minded? Don’t forget that classic bikes will need constant love and attention to keep them in good order, so if you can’t do it yourself, then you will need a friend to help or do it for you, or pay a professional for repairs and maintenance.
  • Originality, consider how important this is to you. There are many non-original classic bikes around that make good bargains, of varying levels of originality. In addition, it takes a real expert to verify correctness, and remember; even then it is not always possible to guarantee 100% originality.
  • Expect things to go wrong with any classic bike.
  • Avoid spur of the moment, impulse buying!

Classic bike ownership is great fun, as long as you are prepared for the time and expense involved.

Buying a Classic Motorcycle Online

Photo by Bonhams

The main thing with any of these sites is to ask questions. Don't rush and keep your wits about you. An honest seller will have nothing to hide.

Photo provided by The National Motorcycle Museum

Where to Buy Online?

The Classic Motorcycle Dealer/Trader:

Vintage motorcycle dealers can be found throughout the UK; as well as overseas. I've been involved in transporting, buying and selling bikes for almost 15 years and I'm still finding different ones weekly. Some will sell bikes from their homes, others will have retail premises. Give them a call and ask them about their stock. Ask their advice.

Some will even provide a service where they will source a bike for you, although this is putting your trust and money in someone else and may be more costly. If you choose wisely, all the hard work can be done for you.

Online Selling Sites and Private Sales - (eBay, Gumtree, Bike Trader etc.):

Always do an online image search on the listing picture of the bike you're interested in. It's easy to copy an image off the internet and pretend to have the bike for sale.

Never rush into anything and always ask questions: Have they got a v5/paperwork for the bike in their name? Where did they buy the bike? Who has serviced the bike in the past? Why are they selling?

Ask for new pictures and ask them to put the v5/paperwork on the seat before taking the pictures. This will almost guarantee up-to-date pictures. You can also ask if they have a smartphone that they could use take a short video of the bike starting and running.

The main thing with any of these sites is to ask questions. Don't rush and keep your wits about you. An honest seller will have nothing to hide.

Buying from a Make/Model Specific Forum:

Most makes have their own online forums. These typically have members who have been riding and fixing their chosen vintage bikes for years. The great things about these are you'll freely get advice off other forum members who have knowledge of that particular model. There will also be a good chance the bike has never wanted for anything. Though, not many will be for sale and those that are likely to be expensive.

Paying for Your Bike

A lot of private sellers will want you to view the bike and pay the money after viewing; then you can take the bike away. Of course this isn't always possible (unless you own a van or a trailer and like driving).

If you are purchasing a classic machine at the other end of the country, another option is to employ a motorcycle transporter to collect your bike. They can visually check the bike and paperwork before the money is transferred. This gives great piece of mind to both parties.

The Different Nationalities of Classic Bikes

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Now let's divide the world of motorcycles into three main groups (Japanese, American and European) and discuss the merits of each.

Photo provided by Classic-Motorbikes.net

Japanese Vintage Motorcycles

The 1960s and 70s saw a massive increase in the number of Japanese motorcycles being produced. The result being that there are plenty of Hondas, Kawasakis, Yamahas and Suzukis available at low prices. These bikes make great rides as they are both reliable and outfitted with modern-style brakes. Many also sport four cylinder motors which provide great power, but also increase complexity with four carburettors. Be wary that the cost of aftermarket parts can easily increase your total investment past the value of the machine.

American Vintage Motorcycles

Perhaps the most sought after and collectable vintage motorcycle is the Harley-Davidson. For the 60s and 70s there are three main engine platforms which are readily available for sale, those being the Panhead, Shovelhead and Ironhead. Of the three, the Panhead is most sought after and their last model year in 1965 is a great choice as it is the first year that HD installed electric starters on their big twins. Shovelheads and Ironheads can both be found at affordable prices, but I caution you from Ironheads as the design of the kickstart mechanism has led to many a case of "Sportster Knee."

European Vintage Motorcycles

Some of the best and most collectable motorcycles to come out of Europe were produced in the 1970s.

If you are looking for an investment and something you can ride, models from both Ducati and Norton will fit the bill and provide performance that even a modern sport bike rider would enjoy

For more of an entry level bike, check out Triumph which still commands great aftermarket support. My favourite European marque and overall choice for the novice vintage enthusiast is BMW. In particular I recommend the R75/5 model as it is an affordable machine capable of modern speeds while still maintaining a classic look and feel.

Expert Advice on Classic Motorcycles

Photo provided by Ridingvintage.com

Expert Tips on Owning and Restoring Classic Motorcycles

Photo by by Bonhams

When considering buying your first classic bike think about ease of ownership. A unique bike from a small production manufacturer made just after WW1 might look very appealing but may not be the best way to ease yourself into the pleasures of old bike ownership! Start with something 60s-70s with good spares availability and owners club support. A single cylinder AJS/Matchless or a Triumph Twin are all ideal starting points.

As you dismantle your project take plenty of photographs, make lots sketches & notes as you go; or you may never get it back together correctly!

Get advice about your classic motorcycle as an investment. Make no assumptions.

Besides all regular maintenance, one other area to consider is the fuel system. Classic motorcycles tend to be ridden infrequently; therefore, it is good practice to a use fuel stabilizer every time the bike is parked for more than a couple of weeks so that the carbs will not gum up.

Budget sensibly, don't impulse buy, join relevant forums/clubs, share knowledge & don’t tackle it alone!

If you intend to use your classic bike, choose a make or model of machine for which spares are readily available and reasonably priced.

Bringing Unloved Motorcycles Back to Life

Photo by Damien McFadden
Headshot by Andre Cunha e Silva

Untitled Motorcycles operate out of London and San Francisco – founded in 2010 by Adam Kay and Rex Martin.

UMC make motorcycles for everyday use, with a focus on individual styling and quality mechanics. In their own words they 'build motorcycles that speak to the soul, bringing old unloved motorcycles back to life and reinventing them into classics.'

For this guide we wanted to tap into the passion behind rebuilding or restoring bikes, so we spoke with UMC founder Adam on the joys of restoring a classic bike!

Photo by Damien McFadden

How did you get started in building and restoring bikes And motorcycles?

I think it was in 2010. I saw a bike on Bike EXIF which I thought was absolutely beautiful – it was a nearly all grey R80/7 BMW made by Wrench Monkeys. I absolutely loved it and I thought I want to build a bike like that – I think I've got the skills to do it. I've never been a mechanic and I've never trained as a mechanic so I found a company called Victory Motorcycles in Camden. I spoke to the owner Rex and he said "yeah come in over the winter and we can see if we can build it/ give it a go together."

So I went and found a BMW R80/7 and over the next 8 months we stripped it and rebuilt it, I was working in the fashion business working freelance. Every few days I would take some time off, go in to the workshop and carry on building it. I wrote about it on a blog and did a Facebook page, people got really interested in what I was doing despite the custom bike scene being quite young, there was not many people doing it in the UK.

I got the project on an Australian site called Pipe Burn and got a lot of interest in it. We then built two other bikes on spec, just to see if we would be able to sell them. The silver one on our website UMC-002 SCRAMBLER and the green one UMC-003 STREET. We got loads of interest from that, because it appeared on the world's most popular blog website Bike EXIF. And then people came to us and asked us to build bikes for them. So that's how it started really.

Your focus has been on BMW flat twin builds – How come?

We started on BMWs but we do all sorts of builds now. If someone comes to us with a modern Triumph Bonneville T100 from 2014 we'll do it. We've customised a Guzzi 850 T3, a Honda CB350, two Kawasakis and we are about to start another 850 T3 as well. We've got a sister company out in San Francisco that's doing a modern Ducati scrambler. So we don't just stick to BMWs any-more.

Where did you begin with the 002? – What was the state of the bike?

It was in okay condition, but it was not loved at all. We just stripped everything off it. When we started we were finding our way with doing a restoration/customisation on that one. We actually changed the sub frame, put the battery box under the frame put the wiring through the handlebars, and changed the headlight totally. We put the speedo into the headlight so it looked very old and classic, very minimal sorts of things we did to that bike. We changed the header pipes to be up and over the engine, running on the side so it was more like a Scrambler style. We did all sorts of different things that with my first bike, we didn't do.

So it took us a lot longer, we were just finding our way on how to customise things not just restore the bikes. And now we really understand what the process is, so it is a lot easier for us and a lot quicker.

After stripping the bike, where would you then turn your attention to?

What we do now is a dry build. So before we totally take it apart, we strip off all the stuff we know we don't need. So take off the seat, take off the headlight, take off the handlebars, all those sorts of things. And then we get the desired handlebars and build our own sub frames and put the mud guards in place. We get the headlights we want. Everything's done with a pre-project build as close to our illustrations that we have done for the customers. So there's welding and chopping all done to the spec before the engine is taken out, so we can have a look at it, to get the proportions right, to get the seat looking right, all those sorts of things get done. We then strip everything off it again and send it off for powder coatering, painting and ceramic coating.

The engine is then taken apart and cleaned, the heads and barrels are taken off to be sandblasted, new pistons and piston rings added. Everything that the engine needs to have done to it, we do to it! We try and get all the parts back near enough at the same time. And then can rebuild the bike front end first. The forks first and then the front wheel, the engine then goes in, and then the rear end goes on afterwards.

Lastly the electrics are done, there's a process and you have to do it in the correct way. And we try and order all the parts before all those bits from the painters come back, so we have a bench with all the parts lined up ready to go in and it makes the process go much quicker.

How do you source your materials?

We have good suppliers we now know very well. Motorworks are very good. We go to armatex for the powder coating, we go to D-Lucks for the amazing paint. For seats we go to Glenn Mogar and he's fantastic at doing all the sort of seats. We have a good supply of people to get parts from.

We actually design and make our own sub frames for BMWs now, and we are now making our own headlights and our own battery boxes that go underneath the frame as well. So then we've worked out how to do these parts, and we also sell those parts to customers. If they can't afford the big build, we can sell a sub frame, a seat, a battery box, a headlight, headlight ears – those bits and pieces can be sold and they can fit them themselves to make a custom bike.

What has been your most exciting bike restoration project?

The most exciting bike is always the next one. Because you never know how it's going to turn out or what you're going to do to it to make it different to the previous one. So I would say getting on to the next project really excites.

Out of the bikes that we've built my favourite one I would say is UMC-002, because that was the first one that we built on spec. We are really friendly with owner Ludovic Robert and he takes our photographs for us. So that's a really lovely, lovely bike, we see that quite a lot when he stops by and comes into the workshop for a chat and a coffee and do bits and bobs to his bike himself. I do love the Guzzi, the green Guzzi that's a beautiful one as well.

What advice would you give to anyone considering going down a similar route to build custom and restore bikes?

Be very passionate about it – build the bike that you would want to ride yourself, don't do stuff that potentially you're not interested in because you won't put your heart and soul into a bike that you don't like. Try and be very organised, use social media massively to boost your company. If you can get into making a generic bike, so you can stick to one style of bike, this might be helpful as well because you can make parts for it. Don't try to be a brand, just get the basics right to start with.

Adam Kay - Owner / Director - Designer - Fabricator
Rex Martin - Owner / Director - Mechanic - Engineer
Nick Kartampanis - Mechanic - Fabricator
Ludovic Robert - Photographer
Damian McFadden - Photographer
Anita Chatelan - Electrics

Hugo Eccles.

Buying Vintage and Classic Motorcycle Parts

Photo by Bonhams

Whether you are starting on a full blown motorcycle restoration, renovating your bike or keeping an old classic on the road, the time will come when you will need to find spare parts.

Photo provided by TOMCC

Owners Clubs/Forums

Spend some time on the net researching your particular make and model and join one of the many specialist owners’ clubs/forums. Here you will find like-minded enthusiasts, some of whom have already been through the same process.

Some of the bigger clubs have their own suppliers of parts and even commission the remanufacture of hard-to-find spares.

Internet Auction Sites

The world is at your fingertips; go global in your search. Many good quality second hand parts can be found from climates that are kinder. New parts can also be found here but occasionally the prices can be higher than buying direct from a part supplier.

Specialist Parts Suppliers

Over the years a whole industry has grown up supplying the Classic Motorcycle Industry. These suppliers will have a good selection of remanufactured and replacement parts for many of the popular models.

Auto Jumbles

One of my favourites, I've spent many happy hours wandering around with a bacon buttie in one hand a tea in the other.

Here you can find everything from professional parts dealers to sole traders clearing out their garages. Be prepared to rummage and barter for that elusive spare part. Some of the larger jumbles attract sellers and buyers from all over Europe.

I've witnessed buyers walking around with a particular wanted part on a sign around their neck - why not?

Main Dealers

Many main dealers still have a supply of NOS (New Old Stock) parts and it's surprising how many parts are still available from the original manufacturer. Some dealers actively scour the globe looking for old forgotten dusty original new parts to add to their stock.

Motorcycle Press

Plenty of the above advertise on the internet and in the motorcycle press. Trawling through the classifieds can seem like a bind but many good spares, unfinished projects or forgotten parts in the back of garages can be found.

If all else fails place an ad yourself in the wanted section.

Remember it's not all about the destination, enjoy your restoration journey.

Classic Bike Community

Photo provided by TOMCC

Photo provided by Retro Show

Retro Show – Sunday 3rd July 2016

The Retro Show celebrates all vehicles of a classic and retro era.

Visitors are enthusiastic about the preservation and restoration of classic vehicles and many unusual and rare cars can be found at this event.

Owners clubs and specialist car and biker clubs make up a display of over 500 retro/classic cars and bikes.

What is the Retro Show?

The Retro Show is the complete show for all things retro! With the UK's classic and retro scene as healthy as ever, Retro Show celebrates all vehicles from the 1950s right through to 1995. There's a whole host of activities including; Run What Ya Brung (public track time), Autoglym Show & Shine, Club displays, live music, FireForce Jet Dragster, Trade village and much more!

Where is the Retro Show?

Retro Show is held at Santa Pod Raceway, the famous ¼ mile drag strip located on the Northamptonshire/Bedfordshire border. 2016 celebrates Santa Pod's 50th anniversary.

What's there to do for bikes?

Now is the chance to put your 2 wheeler through its paces on the strip. Just £25 for unlimited runs to go head to head with your mates to have the bragging rights, and after each run you'll be able to get a full performance print out. Off track entertainment features the likes of the ever popular Autoglym Show & Shine Paddock complete with both car and bike categories here you will find some of the most pristine vehicles where winners walk away with trophy and Autoglym goodies.

Part of a bike club?

Why not book in your own designated club pitch in the heart of the show. Minimum 10 vehicles and no extra charge other than your admission ticket. Club booking details can be found on the Retro Show website.

What makes Retro Show different?

Unlike other retro car and bike shows where you just turn up and drink tea in a field, the Retro Show centres around the drag strip with over 6,000 attendees in 2015 enjoying the classic racing. There's plenty of activities for you to get involved in and we welcome all vehicles including bikes, cars and even tractors!

How much does it cost?

Sunday tickets start from as little as £12 per person if booked in advance or weekend tickets from £20 (booking fees apply). Children under 13 go FREE (max 3 per adult)

Where can I get more information?

For more information or to book tickets visit www.retroshow.co.uk or contact the box office on 01234 782828.

Photo by Bonhams

Triumph Owners' Motor Cycle Club (TOMCC)


The Triumph Owners' MCC (TOMCC) was founded in 1949 by a group of dedicated Triumph enthusiasts in South London. The club continues to go from strength to strength and today membership stands at circa 6,000 with a healthy increase year on year. TOMCC now operate 44 branches throughout the UK with regular social gatherings and rideouts combined with local and national Trifest events throughout the year. TOMCC is a great way to meet like-minded people with a passion for this Great British marque and have a great time in the process.

Becoming a member is easy - if you own a Triumph, new or old, running or not, you are welcome to join. Annual membership is only £20 for UK residents or £30 for overseas applicants. Members receive our fantastic monthly magazine, Nacelle, which is packed full of great features on everything Triumph. Join the network of fellow Triumph riders, enjoy the exclusive Trifest and local events and make some new friends. To join just visit our website www.tomcc.org for more details and apply on line.

Photo provided by Classic-Motorbikes.net

The Classic Racing Motorcycle Club (CRMC)


The Classic Racing Motorcycle Club (also known as the CRMC) is dedicated to the preservation and use of post war racing and sports motorcycles and sidecars. We have close racing, full grids and friendly open race paddocks at the best racing circuits throughout the UK. CRMC race weekends offer riders, officials and spectators a memorable taste of racing from a bygone era covering booming single cylinder engines, droning big twins, howling fours and rasping two strokes. Our biggest annual event is the August Donington Park Classic Festival run in conjunction with Donington Park, we have great stars from the past on track as well as a full programme of CRMC championship races and a UK round of the Camathias Cup (Sidecars). If you want to know more about the CRMC be it racing, marshalling or as a spectator visit our website at www.crmc.co.uk

Find out more...

Photo by Bonhams

At Bennetts, we work closely with our insurers to get the best cover for your classic bike.

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