I had a conversation with Stephen Cox of Sopwith Motors a few days ago regarding the upcoming Las Vegas motorcycle auctions. Stephen and I will be filmed by NBC TV during Saturday’s Mecum auction at the South Point Casino, where I’ll provide ‘color’ commentary on the machines coming across the podium, for the first time in 5 years…at Vegas, anyway – before joining Bonhams auctions in 2010, I provided ‘color’ for MidAmerica auctions at their Las Vegas, Monterey, and St Paul sales in 2008/9.

A little price comparison from the upcoming Las Vegas auctions: this is an ultra-rare, 1 of 15 Vincent ‘White Shadow’, ie a Black Shadow which came from the factory with unpainted engine cases…[Mecum]
Stephen asked for a few reasons car collectors might be interested in motorcycles…a controversial subject among hard-core bike enthusiasts, who feel ‘car people’ will only raise prices, without returning energy into the motorcycle world by riding/restoring/participating in motorcycle events. That’s a respectable argument, but I have a different take; building bridges to the car collecting world just might keep vintage bikes legal to ride in the future. Car collectors outnumber and outspend motorcyclists by a very large margin, and have robust organizations defending their rights to use old, polluting, and ‘unsafe’ cars on the road. The more ‘car guys’ who think bikes are cool means more people who’ll get upset when repressive legislation is pending – and that seems to happen every year, somewhere. Yes, the car guys might make Brough Superiors and Vincent Lightnings into $Million motorcycles, but there are just too many old bikes out there for them all to become unaffordable.

…and this is a Vincent Rapide modified to Black Shadow spec. It’s a well-sorted and reliable machine, but not a ‘real’ Shadow. The White Shadow on top will likely sell for ~$150k to a ‘numbers freak’, while this is more likely to sell for $80k less (although a discerning fan of well-known and well-sorted Vincents might pay more). [Bonhams]
Hankering for a Vincent Black Shadow over a Rapide, for example, is an emotional problem, not a rational one, a habit Karl Marx first described as ‘commodity fetishism’, in which our desires are projected onto objects. The truth is, 60 years down the line, there is no real difference between a Rapide and a Shadow, barring a little black paint, a big speedo, a few stampings, and $100k. Similarly, a 1936 H-D Knucklehead gives an identical ride to a ’47 model, even though the first-year bike costs $100k more. I’m fine with giving over supposedly precious motorcycles to the hype-hounds and the connoisseurs, who’ll duke it out in price wars, as is their wont. I’ve owned over 300 motorcycles since I was 15, from an original-paint 1925 supercharged Zenith-JAP, four Brough Superiors, a phalanx of pukka racing Velocettes, Nortons, Sunbeams, Rudges, etc, and a whole lot of really good bikes from Britain, Europe and Japan.

Not for Sale! My favorite motorcycle, a 1933 Velocette Mk4 KTT, the ‘Mule’. Maximum fun per cc. [Paul d’Orleans]
I figured out what I liked over time, and kept what works for me, which was always weighted towards the quality of the ride over ephemera like matching numbers or even provenance. I found my mismatch Manx just as fun as the one Hailwood rode, and a cobbled-from-parts Velocette Clubman as invigorating as an original-paint, one-owner bike. That might seem odd for a historian – to value the ride over the story – but for me the joy of motorcycling is in the riding, not the hoarding.

Bargains at Vegas? How about a ’92 Buell RS1200, estimated at $3-4000. That’s a lot of performance for very little money… [Bonhams]
Here’s the text of my interview with Stephen Cox (January 5, 2014):

My true passion was for classic cars and historic racing cars… that is, until the summer of 2012 when I co-hosted Mecum’s first major motorcycle auction in Monterey. That auction was my road-to-Damascus moment. My eyes were opened to the beauty, history and raw functionality of motorcycles. As we approach Mecum’s biggest bike auction ever at Las Vegas on January 8-10, my plan is to drag as many of my car friends as possible into the amazing world of bikes.

I openly confess that I am not a motorcycle expert, although I play one on TV. When I need a real-life, no-kidding bike expert I call veteran motorcycle journalist Paul d’Orleans, who will co-host the upcoming Vegas auction on NBCSN with John Kraman, Scott Hoke and myself. Paul d’Orleans not only writes about motorcycles, he collects them, judges Concours d’Elegance and rides vintage bikes across the country in his spare time. The guy knows bikes. So I asked Paul for some reasons why car guys should become motorcycle enthusiasts. His response was convincing.

You can Really see everything in a ‘cutaway’ engine…Herb Harris is selling his exceptional collection of cutaways at Vegas…[Bonhams]
Reason Number One – You can see everything on a motorcycle.

“Unless you’re a real tech head and you’re going to get under the hood, cars are about shape and motorcycles are really about mechanics,” d’Orleans said. “Everything is visible on most bikes until you get to the 1980s, when there was a real trend for covering everything up.” “I think anyone who’s really interested in engineering should be interested in motorcycles because they are the most pure mode of engineering. And you don’t have to ride them to appreciate them. Motorcycles have been made in one form or another since 1867 so there’s a lot of intriguing development that happened, especially in the 20th century.”

Office trophy? A replica 1905 Harley ‘strap tank’…[Bonhams]
Reason Number Two – Bikes go places that cars can’t.

Paul says, “They’re more compact. You can actually keep one indoors without re-engineering your house. And if you’re inclined, they are a lot of fun to ride. Even the old bikes. When you keep your expectations reasonable as far as what performance to expect, they’re really rewarding.” The compact nature of motorcycles is such that I am now re-designing Sopwith’s office to feature my 1971 Honda as well as a second, yet-to-be-procured two-wheeled beauty. Why put pictures of awesome vehicles on the walls when you can park one in five feet of floor space?”

Value for money? How about a ’62 H-D XLCH, the fastest street motorcycle you could buy in ’62, according to Cycle World, with an estimate at $13-16k. [Bonhams]
Reason Number Three – Motorcycles give you a lot for your money.

“There are lots of opportunities. If you can’t afford a Vincent Black Shadow for a hundred thousand, for half the price you can get a Vincent Rapide which is almost an identical motorcycle that just doesn’t have the black engine cases or a sexy name.” “If you can’t afford a 1959 Bonneville which might go for twenty-five thousand, you can get a 1968 Bonneville for twelve. And if you can’t spend twelve thousand for a ’68 Bonneville, you can get a ’68 BSA for six thousand dollars with the same engine capacity, the same performance and similar styling.”

So what’s your excuse? Join us for Mecum Las Vegas on January 8-10 at the South Point hotel, or watch the broadcast on NBCSN on January 12 at 7 pm Eastern. You might just fall in love with motorcycles. I did.

Stephen Cox: Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions, Co-host, Mecum Auctions on NBCSN