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.
Fascinating read which got me thinking about this is a creative new way. As a long time motorcycle collector, restorer and racer, I have been quite active in the classic motorcycle world for more than 40 years. And yes, I own and have competed on both Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles. – Buzz Kanter
Thanks for giving the younger generation the recognition they deserve. Obviously the folks saying that our hobby will “die” are NOT attending many car shows outside their own comfort zone, cruising the Hot Rod Power Tour (or other car-related travel adventures), or attending SEMA (or know someone who does). As a 58 year-old woman who still owns the 1969 GTO she bought at sixteen and restored by seventeen, I am continuously meeting new friends of all ages and genders in the motorcycle and classic car world. There are some really great young people out there, doing great things within the hobby and industry. Teach a girl how to ride a motorcycle, drive anything with wheels, and get her hands dirty fixing it. You’ll make a gearhead out of her. My Dad did! Our hobby LIVES on!!!
As a long time vintage motorcycle collector and dealer I agree, Harleys are more recognizable to newbies than Indians. A 40’s Knuckle Head is twice the price of a comparable 40’s Indian Chief. The good news is; that makes vintage Indians a bargain! Having owned both, I would rather ride the Indian to a bike meet. The Indian has it over the Harley in the styling department and that Indian flathead motor is super reliable. Then again I’ve always rooted for the underdog.
Absolutely, Denise! I was at Barber recently and started chatting with a young fabricator who is taking Harley engines and putting them in Japanese bikes. It’s the creativity like this that exists when you look for it. And the number of younger friends that like ’40s American bikes, as evidenced by the data I pulled in this article, is bigger than many would think.
John, you are so right about the Indian being a deal. The intersection of art and motorcycle is so strong with both, and the only box the Chief doesn’t check is not being able to tell people you own a Knucklehead.
My Gradfather had an Indian Bike “frame” that he drove with my very expecting Grandmother, I wasn’t able to take it.