Mecum Las Vegas 2023

Tuesday, 24 January - Saturday, 28 January

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James Hewitt

While the eyes of the collector car world were fixed upon the auctions in Arizona, there was arguably even bigger news in the neighboring state of Nevada, where Mecum’s annual Las Vegas motorcycle auction set a new record for the most expensive bike ever sold publicly.

The motorcycle in question was a 1908 Harley-Davidson Strap Tank, which brought $935,000. If you’re not deep into motorcycles (and maybe even if you are) this might come as a head-scratcher. Harleys are known for being relatively accessible and, in any event, this one is hardly what comes to mind when you think “Harley.” The bike—which indeed looks like a bike—makes about four horsepower.

The reason to own this bike is not to live out some Easy Rider fantasy but rather, for its historical significance. This is an extremely old Harley-Davidson—produced just a few years after the company’s founding—and one of the earliest surviving Strap Tanks. These models were not the first Harleys but in many respects were the first to follow the basic template for what a Harley-Davidson would be forevermore—not unlike what the 1984 Macintosh computer did for Apple. It was beefy, powerful for its day, and looked the business.

The new record, and the Mecum sale as a whole, highlighted the similarities between the markets for collector cars and bikes. It’s surely no fluke that the most expensive motorcycle happened to cross the block less than a year after the most expensive automobile, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. For both motorcycles and cars, interest from top-tier collectors is at an all-time high. And just as appreciation for mainstream cars slowed in Arizona, we saw newfound caution among buyers of affordable (think, $2000–$4000) motorcycles in Las Vegas.

Yet the very age of the Harley points to a key difference. Whereas the collector car market has by and large trended toward newer vehicles of late, for motorcycles, the oldest models still reign supreme. That likely owes to their form factor—they’re small enough to be displayed as art, so the “how would you use it?” question matters less. (Indeed, don’t expect to see this Strap Tank get much riding, if any.) Another distinction: $935k is, in the high-end classic car world, kind of cheap. Someone lost that much money on a repeat sale at Barrett-Jackson.

by James Hewitt
2 February 2023
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  • Jo Anne says:

    Looking at that pictured HD…how on earth was it not considered a killer machine with that exposed drive belt? I would never have ridden it!

  • Bartman says:

    Detailed pictures of the Harley would have been nice.

  • Glenn Walker says:

    Interesting to note the drive belt used to get power to the rear wheel, then it went to chain, now the rules again.

  • Jack Paluch says:

    It’s a beauty annd need more pics. Although I’d like clarity as to what is a top tier collector. Does that leave me out since my motorcycles are under the 25,000 dollar range HA

  • Jim Babchak says:

    It is my belief this machine achieved this valuation because its history was known from new and documented. There are so many composite old Motorcycles put together from parts that an all original one with an honest heritage really stands out.

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