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.