Auction Report

Classic motorcycles are leaving the UK at an unprecedented pace

by Nick Smith
5 January 2023 3 min read
A coveted 1974 Ducati 750SS “Green Frame" attained £172,500 including auction fees. If it had come to the US, that would have been $192,000 on the day of the sale, a strong number but not outrageous. Had it been pre-turmoil—at say, the Bonhams' Spring sale, that same American would have had to pay more than $217,000. Photo by Courtesy Bonhams

I hate CNBC. I hate CNN, Yahoo Finance, and MarketWatch. Well, it’s not that I actually hate them. More like I hate the fact that they are readily available to other people, and those people watch them and have equally brilliant ideas to my own.

Political turmoil, out-of-control inflation, geopolitical influences, and a formerly-disproved fiscal policy amounted to a recent exchange rate drop in the United Kingdom, the likes of which hadn’t been seen outside of a global conflict. So, me thinks, if I send some cash over to the UK and hold it there until the Bonhams Stafford motorcycle auction, I should be able to buy some bikes on the cheap. I would have a 15 percent advantage just based on the exchange rate. Fantastic. So, I arranged finances and notified my international transporters of choice, Shippio in England and Schumacher over here, that the entire auction would be loaded up and shipped over to me at pennies on the dollar.

Only trouble is that apparently, others had the same idea. 

As a dealer of all things on two or four (and sometimes even three) wheels, and having spent the first half of my life in England and Europe, I am most drawn to machines of that area of manufacture. So, when an auction house offers a plethora of motorcycles, I’m there, dressed in my buying boots, even if it is in the middle of the night California time. But, regardless of all that coffee and a trigger finger on the bid button, I only managed to snag a handful of what I believe are good bikes at reasonable prices.

According to sources, the sale was, and I quote, mental: 96 percent sell-through with over half of the 300 odd bikes heading overseas, and about a quarter of the sale heading Stateside. A shocking number for a country that has historically imported collector bikes from around the world by the container load. Many of these bikes were bought by dealers, but a noticeable number went to individual collectors, including a Honda Z50 that was air freighted to an impatient enthusiast. The bikes that stayed in the UK likely were those that didn’t have much appeal outside the country (such as those from a museum that divested itself of British speedway racing motorcycles).

This auction wasn’t a fluke. Hagerty analysis of shipping data for classic cars shows a fifteen percent uptick in imports from the UK to the States. For bikes, those in the know in international transport tell me exports from the United States are down—way down—and imports are up. The scale used to tilt about 80 percent export, but now it is more like 50/50 in/out.

So, what does this say about the motorcycle market? That it’s global, and as a result, quite resilient. Despite (or maybe because of) a barrage of news about interest rate hikes, inflation data, and downturns in stock and real estate, buyers believed that these motorcycles are unlikely to be cheaper over the next few months or years.

All to say, many more bikes are coming into the United States. Should you join the fray? If so, how’s it work?

First, I can’t recommend buying from anyone but a reputable dealer or established auction company— there are too many horror stories about private party deals that don’t really exist. All the firms you would deal with have done this before and can recommend an international transporter to help you. Let them do the paperwork. Customs can be a relationship business, and for the nominal cost to get the paperwork right, these relationships are worth their weight in motorcycles. A seasoned seller will also take the bike to the port, get it loaded, and reverse the process at this end with nice, tidy import documents. Then it is up to you to work out how to get a title for it in the state in which you reside. Research that at the outset: It can be painful, arduous, and expensive.

What to buy and import? Therein lies the trick. From a dealer perspective, you have to juggle interest rates, socioeconomic factors and tastes. That last nugget is the fiddly bit: what is worth more here than there, wherever “there” is? Simple to research, but asking prices are not reliable information, and tastes and associated prices move. A lot. I’d love to recommend a year, make, model, but with my luck that rose will shed its bloom before I finish writing this. And prices will adjust as a taste shifts with remarkable speed, once word is out. If you’re an enthusiast, it’s a little more straightforward: buy what you like while it’s on sale and enjoy it.

What we can be sure of is that all these external factors are cyclical, and that my handful of machines that are now bobbing their way across the Atlantic will be worth more in the UK as soon as economics and politics right-side. They will then have an exchange rate advantage and can afford to buy them all back. And so the world turns.

Nick Smith is a motorcycle and car appraiser and principle of motorcycle dealer Classic Avenue. He’s based in California but a Briton at heart.

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  • JAMES LUNZ says:

    Interesting! Have a 1967 BSA with 90 miles on odometer and original tires. I am to old and it is to big for me now. Time to sell?

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