Apr 09, 2023

Preview: The 2020 Las Vegas Motorcycle Auctions

Never before in the history of motorcycle auctions has there been a greater field of desirable lots than is on offer in Las Vegas later next week. It's not just the depth of the field, but the diversity.

The Las Vegas January motorcycle auctions have become an institution in the industry over recent decades because it's the only time that the world's two biggest motorcycle auction houses both appear in the same city at the same time. Sometimes it happens in Monterey, but that's during Monterey Car Week, and the emphasis is on cars.

Las Vegas in January is motorcycling's equivalent to Monterey Car Week when it comes to auction sales. Approximately 1,935 motorcycles are to be offered for sale between January 21 and January 26, and the remarkable successes of last year's sale, which we dubbed "The Sale of the Century" seems to have flushed out some of the most desirable motorcycles from the 1970s and 1980s.

During Las Vegas auction week in 2019, a Green Frame Ducati 750SS sold for US$247,500, a Honda NR750 (RC40) sold for $181,500, and a Honda VFR750 (RC30) sold for $121,000. Neither Honda model had previously sold for more than $100,000 at auction.

Seventies motorcycles were far more sought-after than ever before in 2019, as was amply demonstrated by that regular seventies auction block performer, the MV Agusta 750 S. Produced from 1970 to 1975, the bike was too expensive for its era and at the time was hard to sell. These days, people can't get enough of the exotic 750 four. Produced in two distinct styles, being the voluptuous original "Italian" styling and the flat-sided-tank of the "America", both versions fetched record prices in Vegas in 2019, with the new high watermarks being $137,500 for the original styling and $126,500 for the America.

People who were thinking about selling have suddenly decided the time is right to cash out, and this year there are four Green Frame Ducati 750SS motorcycles on offer, one Honda RC45, five Honda RC30s, and four 1974 MV Agusta 750S (one original and three Americas) on offer.

Simple economics suggests that with the sudden abundance of those bikes on the market, prices should fall. That means there is very likely a bargain to be had if you’ve been waiting for a brief period of oversupply. If you’ve been waiting to get a good example of a particular model, Las Vegas in January is the only place on earth where you’ll be able to compare several specimens.

In preparing for this preview, I found over 100 bikes that I really wanted to highlight. I’ve had to cut it back a bit but the interesting motorcycles come at all price points – we always cover the milestone motorcycles, but they are no more fun to ride than most of the bikes you can pick up for under $10,000 here.

There are only around 70 Crocker V-twins known, whereas over 1,000 Brough Superiors are known and over 3,000 Vincent twins. Limited supply has finally brought Crocker prices to the boil, and it will be interesting to see what happens with this bike and with the marque for the rest of the year. Vincents, Brough-Superiors, Indians and Harley-Davidsons of rare provenance may still sometimes exceed Crocker prices, but Crocker V-twins are now the most expensive production motorcycle at auction by a considerable margin.

Of continuing fascination to us is that the success of Crocker motorcycles at auction mirrors (perhaps even trails) the success of guitars at auction fitted with a "Bigsby" – the electric guitar vibrato tailpiece built by Crocker's foreman Paul Bigsby. More than half the guitars in our 100 most valuable guitars of all-time are fitted with a Bigsby, primarily because the last decade has seen the first round of the guitars of the "guitar gods" coming to auction, and Hendrix, Clapton, Gilmour et al, all preferred Bigsby's indispensable invention. There are more Bigsbys in the top 100 guitars than Crockers in the top 100 motorcycles.

It is one of just three known Brough Superior Mk I motorcycles in the world that use the OHV JAP motor. This bike was the original basis for the SS80 and SS100 models that made the marque famous and was the top of the Brough-Superior range until the SS80 was introduced. Given its place in Brough Superior history, we’re predicting this could be one of the most expensive motorcycles sold this year.

Ducati is making the right moves to become motorcycling's equivalent to Ferrari, with a long history of road models with close ties to superbike racing (think Ferrari's long-term history of sports car racing) and a stellar reputation on the auction block. Ducati has a long way to go to catch Ferrari which commands such high prices that roughly half of the 500 most valuable cars ever sold at auction are Ferraris ... but there are too many similarities to ignore, and the limited edition nature of many Ducati motorcycles with racing victories to back it up, delivers the rarity and performance validation necessary for high prices.

The Ducati 750SS was built in limited numbers to commemorate Ducati's most famous victory, the Smart-Spaggiari 1-2 victory at the 1972 Imola 200. Just over 400 of the resulting 750 SS 'green frame' street versions were produced in 1974 and in Las Vegas last year (2019), one of them sold for $247,500 to become the most expensive 1970s motorcycle ever sold, exceeding the $216,951 (£154,940) paid for a 1970 Clymer Münch TTS Mammut at Bonhams Spring Staffordshire Sale in 2018. The world-record price for "Green Frame" Ducati 750 Super Sports prior to last year's Mecum Las Vegas auction was $176,000 fetched by Gooding & Company during the official Pebble Beach auction in 2016.

This year there are four Green Frame Ducati 750SS bikes on offer, and the most likely of the four to sell for a stellar amount is this near-perfect 2,400-mile original with original rims, mufflers and tires (pictured directly above). With the record now at $235,000, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for the Green Frame to extend its own record and go after the Ducati marque record set by Casey Stoner's 2010 Ducati GP10 Desmosedici. Going to auction in Monaco in 2012, the MotoGP machine that had won the 2010 Australian Grand Prix sold for EUR251,500 (US$325,430). I haven't seen this bike, but I’m told it is good enough to take the marque record.

This bike has spent most of its 71-year existence in storage, having emerged from a nut-and-bolt restoration in 2017, and having covered just 96 "shakedown" miles since. It is one of five genuine Vincent Black Shadows going to auction in Las Vegas in 2020, and several of them are stunners.

The 1953 Vincent Black Shadow going to auction as Lot F202 by Mecum in particular is a two-time winner at The Quail, an honor unique to this bike, having won once at the Quail bike event, and once at the Quail Car event. Expect stellar prices for at least two of this year's Black Shadows.

For a company that only produced motorcycles from 1911 to 1915, Flying Merkel has carved itself a disproportionate share of the world collector bike marketplace. The record price for a a Flying Merkel V-twin is $423,500 set at the EJ Cole Collection sale in 2015 for an original as-raced 1911 Board Track Racer, but there have been many sales of Flying Merkel V-twin road bikes over $100,000, with the highest being $192,500 for a 1914 Flying Merkel V-twin road bike at Monterey 2015, $176,000 for a 1914 Flying Merkel V-twin road bike at Monterey 2019, and $168,247 (£104,540) for a 1914 Flying Merkel 980cc V-twin at Bonhams Autumn Stafford Sale in 2014.

Only 3,000 RC30 machines were ever produced, but they almost all went racing, so if you want one of these bikes for your collection, consider how many are still extant, and how many remain even vaguely original and unmolested.

The bike pictured at the top of this RC30 segment is Bonhams’ Lot 139 which is estimated at around $80,000, but there are five RC30s going to auction in Vegas this year and the bike with the greatest expectations is Mecum Lot W303 (pictured directly above) which might just push past the model auction record of $121,000.

In the early 1990s, master motorcycle builder Gwen Banquer obtained one of Crocker's latter alloy conversion kits on loan and copied it, producing a limited series of only seven engines using Crocker's design. It's estimated that perhaps 24 of the OHV kits were originally produced by Crocker in the 1926 to 1932 period, with another seven from Banquer between 1996 and 2005.

The astonishing thing about these two motorcycles is that it is not known if they are original Crocker conversions or a Banquer conversion, though the general state of the second motorcycle indicates the heads have been in place for a long time and seen a lot of use which suggests they may be the real deal.

Either way, both these bikes are very valuable motorcycles, and if either is a Crocker original, then it is even more-so! All of the Crocker OHV conversions that have come to auction in the last decade appear to be the work of Gwen Banquer: 1929 Indian-Crocker 45ci Overhead-Valve Conversion sold by Bonhams for $93,600 (San Francisco, 2007); 1929 Indian-Crocker 45ci Overhead-Valve Conversion sold by Bonhams for $64,350 (San Francisco, 2008); 1933 Indian-Crocker 45ci OHV Speedway Racing Motorcycle offered by Bonhams on an estimate of $ 70,000 to $90,000 (passed in, Monterey, 2011); 1929 Indian-Crocker 45ci Overhead-Valve Conversion offered by Bonhams on an estimate of $ 70,000 to $90,000 (passed in, Las Vegas, 2015); and 1929 Indian-Crocker 45ci Overhead-Valve Conversion offered by Bonhams on an estimate of $65,000 to $75,000 (passed in, Las Vegas, 2016).

The Indian Big Base Scout racer is one of those mythical beasts that has a reputation far greater than the numbers in which it was produced. Two batches of Big Base engines were produced by the factory for its racing needs, with the initial batch of 13 prototype 'EXP' engines cast by Bob Hallowell in 1939, and a second batch of around 50 produced post war in 1948. In total, only around 60 Big Base engines were ever created, and this is one of the original 13 bikes made pre-war.

The 1974 MV Agusta 750S offered by Bonhams is the fully faired model at top left. This machine comes from the collection of a well known car collector who set out 15 years ago to buy what he thought were the most iconic motorcycles of the 1970's and 1980's and set out to find the ones in the best original or restored conditions. All his motorcycles were maintained by the Guzzi Doctor in Illinois and have been kept in a climate-controlled environment set at 65F. This bike appears to be in near perfect original condition. Bearing in mind last year's prices, it will be interesting to see how the models fare at auction.

This bike is from the Musee L'Epopee de la Moto Collection and comes with documentation that includes the road test of the bike by Cycle World, and the story of this bike being ridden to a 100-mph win in "La Carrera Costa a Costa" on public roads in Mexico. There's something quite special about reading a road test and knowing that it was your bike!

It may seem astonishing today to think that Honda wasn't certain its CB750 would be a "killer app" when it was released in 1969, but that is most definitely the case. When a Honda CB750 is referred to as a "sandcast model" it means it is one of the 7,414 CB750s built before the Honda factory felt confident enough in its new model to invest in new molds for die-casting. Models built prior to August 1969 were not actually cast in sand, but in steel molds – they just look like they were cast in sand because the crankcase surface is rough. A CB750 with an engine number of CB750E-1007414 or lower is a "Sandcast" model and because the Honda CB750 is one of history's landmark motorcycles, and changed the motorcycle world as we know it, these models are highly sought-after and command a premium at auction. Last year saw three "sandcast CB750" Hondas on offer in Vegas and they sold for $35,200, $27,500 and $19,800, respectively. The $35,200 price is actually a bargain as the bike had been restored to new condition by Vic World Motorcycles, a company specializing in the restoration of just Sandcast CB750s, and so good at it that Honda gave the company the job of restoring the CB750 in the foyer of its world headquarters in Japan. The minimum you’ll pay for a CB750 restored by Vic World is $37,500, and for some earlier VIN numbers, it costs a lot more. This year there are six "sandcast" models on offer. The record for a Honda CB750 was paid in 2018 when a pre-production (one of four built and two extant) Honda CB750 built for promotional purposes in 1968 fetched £161,000 (US$263,725). The only other known Honda CB750 Prototype (the other one still extant one of the four) sold for $148,100 on eBay in February, 2014. Apparently, none of the parts of a standard CB750 fit those two prototype machines – they really were one-offs (or four-offs as the case may be).

For those who don't need the "sandcast" imprimatur, there's also a very early diecast 1969 Honda CB750 K0 on offer, and it is in absolutely mint condition, having recently undergone a nut-and-bolt restoration. It may well sell for more than some of the sandcast models.

Auctioneer: Bonhams | January 23, 2020 | Lot 145

Riding this would have been very interesting indeed, and would have required industrial-sized cojones. The above images show both Beese Wendt and Glen Kyle riding it in period above. The 1000cc Vincent engine is modified considerably, runs on nitro methane, and flames belch from those straight-through exhausts at every gear change. Note the size of the rear sprocket, and the position of the footpegs.

This bike is a perfect specimen of Vetter's work. Buyers of the Mystery Ship could choose between four stages of Yoshimura R&D engine tune, or they could go full-house and opt for a $1,700 RC Engineering turbocharger setup that bumped horsepower by 40 percent. Only two Mystery Ships were so equipped, one for RC Engineering boss Russ Collins, and this machine. It rolls on spun-aluminum wheels, another factory option. Finished in "Dino Red," no. 6 is exactly as ordered and delivered, amazingly with just 2 miles on the odometer. It's quite a bargain if it sells within guidelines.

Von Dutch and McQueen have collaborated on many bikes, and many of their bikes have previously sold for remarkable amounts at auction, as they combine the artistry of Von Dutch and the star power of McQueen.