Art & Antiques: Collecting antique and vintage motorcycles

. Indian motorcycles were Harley’s biggest competitor in the early 1900s.

. Indian motorcycles were Harley’s biggest competitor in the early 1900s.

Harley-Davidson motorcycle, circa 1905.

Harley-Davidson motorcycle, circa 1905.

To some, a motorcycle is just a vehicle. To motorcycle enthusiasts, collectors, and historians, motorcycles are so much more.

After pioneers moved westward in Conestoga wagons and encountered tribes of Native Americans, motorcycles became vital to settling the Wild West. At a time when areas of the country were referred to simply as “Indian Territory” (such as the state of Oklahoma prior to 1906), the motorcycle offered a groundbreaking advancement in technology.

In the early 1900s, the two most popular American brands were Harley Davidson and Indian. Of course, Harley Davidson continued into the 21st century and documented a long and important history among the ranks of great American industries. The Indian brand, a firm that produced motorbikes and motorcycles including the classic Indian Chief model until 1954, was known for highly stylized bikes that could get the job done in grand style. Inventors William Harley and brothers, Arthur and Walter Davidson launched their now world famous motorcycle company in 1903.

However, one of the first production motorcycles was made by Harley Davidson, circa 1905. It was a single cylinder motor mounted to a reinforced bicycle frame that is credited with winning the old west. On this 1905 Harley, the rider would have to pedal very fast to get the motor running. Once the motor was engaged, the rider would have to be satisfied with a top speed of 25 mph. When you were relying on the vehicle to take on dirt roads and rough terrain, a top speed of 25 mph was just fine. Harley only made 16 of these models in 1905 adding to its rarity on today’s collectors market.

Just like other collectibles, vintage motorcycles drive their market based on visual appeal, background or provenance (who once owned the bike), race history, technological innovation, and originality. Some tips for newcomers to the world of motorcycle collecting: Numbers on the frame and the engine should match, experts can tell when a serial number has been ground down and re-stamped and too much shine and sparkle may mean too much restoration and that could be a bad thing. Pay attention to the details as they can cost you big bucks.

You might be surprised to learn that sales for antique (pre 1913) or vintage motorcycles have nearly doubled in the last decade. That’s right, not only are motorcycle enthusiasts serious about their bikes but they are spending serious money collecting motorcycles. For about $10,000 you can get a 1950s Triumph — the kind of motorcycle made famous by Brando in The Wild One film — and be the envy of your friends.

American motorcycles from the pre-1920s era command high prices today. And many collectors also want BMW motorcycles from the same era. A traditional 1920s BMW ride will sell for upwards of $75,000 and the market is only getting more competitive. And it has been noted that Italian bikes have it all. If you are looking for an artful motorcycle, consider the Ducati 916.

Looking back, a rare 1907 Harley strap tank with original paint stunned collectors when it brought $175,000 at an auction a few years ago. Its seller had the bike tucked away in a Nebraska barn for nearly a century. Custom brands with a cult following like Indian, Cyclone, and Excelsior attract tried and true collectors too.

If you are true motorcycle aficionado and want to partake in the love affair with the motorcycle, consider the one that highlights the icon ride’s impact. Rev those engines.

Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, and award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori presents antique appraisal events nationwide. Dr. Lori is the expert appraiser on the Discovery’s “Auction Kings.” Check out Dr. Lori’s event schedule at, or call (888) 431-1010.

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