James Hewitt is the Hagerty Valuation team’s resident motorcycle maven, having owned more than a hundred classic bikes. He finds zen in analyzing motorcycle valuation data for Insider.
The complaints we always hear in the collector vehicle market are that millennials aren’t interested in cars, prewar is dead, and the vehicles of the ’40s and ’50s are doomed. The oldest millennial is now 40 years old. Maybe these doom soothsayers don’t realize that not all millennials live in mom’s basement; seriously, is anyone meeting a 40-year-old at a show or meet-up and lamenting that they’re the demise of the hobby?
The truth, of course, is that millennials are doing the same thing as every generation before them: changing the shape of the market in the image of the cars they prefer. And, when it comes to motorcycles, millennials are actually buying collector bikes that are commonly considered unloved by the younger generation. The American-made ones they’re into might even surprise you.
To start, let’s hover our magnifying glass over the 1940s, a decade in which the motorcycle market vastly diverges from the car market.
Overall (including all makes and based on Hagerty insurance quotes over the last year) a millennial motorcycle collector is three times more likely to be interested in a 1940s machine than a millennial car enthusiast is likely to be interested in a 1940s car. When looking at only staple American vehicles, Harley and Indian motorcycles and Ford, Chevrolet, and Plymouth for car, millennials proportionally love the '40s and '50s American motorcycles twice as much as American cars from the same era.
The famous rivalry between Harley and Indian had riders picking sides in prewar and post-war America, and in the end Harley won when Indian went bankrupt in 1953. It appears Harley is still shoveling dirt onto Indian's grave. Early Harleys, mainly Knucklehead and Panheads, are resonating with a younger audience at levels far higher than Indian. In fact, millennials make up more than three times the share of the Harleys that Hagerty insures compared to contemporary Indians.
Cost isn't the differentiator, here—neither bike is cheap. If anything, millennials are ponying up for the more expensive ride: A Knucklehead in #2 (Excellent) condition is worth some $40K more than an equivalent Indian Chief. The successor to the Knucklehead, the Panhead, is even more likely to attract millennials than a Chief. Comparing same-year models with similar values, a 1948–1953 Harley-Davidson FL Panhead owner is three times more likely to be a millennial than a 1948–1953 Indian Chief owner.
There's no black-and-white reason why Harleys do so much better with the young crowd than Indians. But as a motorcycle collector and millennial myself (and someone who has shopped for Knuckleheads but never a Chief) I have some educated hunches. First, there's the simple matter of brand awareness. Harleys are everywhere. Indians—even accounting for the new bikes produced by Polaris since the early aughts—just aren't. And even if a millennial collector knows and appreciates the Chief, chances are their peers don't. Let's be honest: When you're dropping new-car money on a seventy-year-old motorcycle, you want your friends to know what it is.
For now, the Knucklehead, despite its meteoric rise in value over the last five years, looks to be a safe bet with the younger generation. Don't rat on the millennials in the old bike world, as it turns out they just might be the ones paying $100K for your piece of Americana.