What’s That Old Bike Worth?

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I’ve got a friend who is looking to buy an old bike – an early ’80s Honda Silverwing Interstate, like mine. Only this one’s much nicer – with almost no miles on it. What makes this deal potentially of interest to you is the way it illustrates something about old bikes: Each one is an individual – and a consequence of this is that the “average book values” listed in pricing guides are damn near worthless as a measure of a particular old bike’s actual real-world worth.

Here’s what I mean:

My friend is looking at an ’82 Silvering that has just over 3,000 miles on the clock. It is as close to new as a 30-year-old bike can be, just about. Virtually no wear on anything – from the tires to the seats. Perfect – original – paint. Chrome that shines as brightly as it did when Ronald Reagan was still in his first term – and your humble narrator was still in high school. Some guy bought this bike, rode it a little (very little) and then put it in storage.This is weird, but seems to happen fairly often with motorcycles. People intend to ride, then don’t.

The years go by… .

The Silverwing slept away the next three decades – emerging to find Reagan long gone and me middle aged – but the bike itself looking as though maybe a month had passed by. A time capsule. And, probably, one of a kind. I doubt there’s another 1982 Silverwing with less than 3,000 miles in the entire country – or the world, for that matter.

Restored, maybe. But not original.

Which brings me back to our discussion about “book values.” The “book” – the used bike pricing guides – say an ’82 Silverwing is worth about $1,200. This one’s priced at $3,900. My friend is perplexed by the disparity between what “the book” says – and what the owner is asking.

And angry, because the owner won’t budge. It’s a take it or leave it deal.

I explained to my friend that the owner is holding all the cards.

With a new bike – or even a fairly recent used bike – the “book value” makes some sense. Because you can generalize. New bikes, of course, are all identical. There’s no objective reason one should cost a cent more than its identical brother parked on the lot next door – assuming they’re the same make/model/year and have the same features.

And with recent-vintage used bikes, the approximations – “poor condition,” “average condition” and “excellent condition” are adequate barometers. A four-year-old KLR650 (or whatever) with 15,000 miles on it  that still looks good/runs good can be measured up against bikes with slightly more (or less miles) that are in overall better or worse condition. Usually, there are many similar bikes out there.

But how do you assess the value of one-of-kind?

A bike that is not only a survivor of several decades but also extremely low-miles, absolutely original, unmolested and almost perfectly preserved? A thirty-year-old time capsule – right down to the still-there break-in warning sticker on the tach? The little nubs on the factory original tires?

It is not possible to replicate such a machine – even a meticulous restoration will never be original. The best you can do is a facsimile of the original.

How many years might go by before another one pops up – if ever? Anyone who’s been into old bikes (or old cars) knows all about this. You have a certain model in mind; you want it equipped a certain way – and you want one that hasn’t been molested in any way by anyone else. You’re willing to wait until the right one can be found. And so you do wait. You spend five, ten – maybe twenty years – scouring Hemmings Motor News or Walnecks Classic Cycles. Cruising the Craigs List ads each morning becomes your familiar routine –  the hope that maybe today, everything will line up and you’ll be the first to spot the ad – and the first to make the call.

Well, the day comes, you find that ad – and you make that call – and find out the owner knows what he has. And that he doesn’t give a hoot what “the book” says it’s worth. He knows perfectly well that what he’s got is worth whatever it will bring – whatever you are willing to pay. And he knows if you want that particular bike, you’ve got no real option except to deal with him – and probably, pay just exactly what he’s asking.

Because if you don’t, it’s a sure bet someone else will.

This sort of transaction is an affair of the heart, not a rational decision. If you find your true love, you must do what it takes, always keeping in mind that this might be your only shot.

Or perhaps the only shot you’ll get before another 30 years roll by.

Throw it in the Woods?

 

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25 COMMENTS

  1. Good stuff! When I bought my second 1981 Honda CBX three years ago, it had 900 (yup, 900) miles on it. What was it worth? What I was willing to pay for it. My last one gave me 50,000 miles and 15 years, and if this one does the same, it will be for the duration. The Blue Book has no idea what it is worth. It is my favorite ride and I feel privileged to own it.

  2. How dare you scoff at cafe racers?!
    Check out some of these custom builds, often based on older Japanese bikes. Stunning. I wish I had the technical skill these guys do – it would be such a blast to take an old bike everyone’s written off, and make something of it.

    http://www.scoop.it/t/cafe-racers/

    • I don’t scoff! I like cafe racer bikes!

      You may have missed the initial thing that got that thread going, which was the way some people try to pry silly sums out of buyers looking at their ratted-up up (or wrecked) bike, which they tout as potential cafe racer fodder.

    • No scoffing here. You’d probably love my 81 Suzuki. Clip ons, cafe seat with aerodynamic ass-hump, front end and carbs from a first gen GSXR, wheels and brakes from an SV650 and more importantly, engine mods to make the suspension and brake mods worth the trouble.

      Clubman bars and knee dents don’t make it a cafe racer. Its about the intent and spirit, not the lifestyle. THe cafe racer scene started in the UK by guys with no money wanting to go fast. These d-bags with the fonzie jackets and duck ass hairdos don’t usually get it. They pay out the nose for their custom cafe racer and are into it for the “heritage”. Sound like any other group of elitist motorcyclists to you?

      • Mike,

        Amen – and roger to all of that!

        Working with what you’ve got – and making something uniquely yours – is to me a huge part of the appeal.

        As you say – anyone with the money can go out and buy a factory “custom.” Which is fine – if that’s what you’re into. But I’d much rather buy a frame here, an engine there; some of this – and some of that – and come up with something really special that was made by me and which no one else has.

    • I’ve been seeing lots of old motorcycles lately. Kinds of which I haven’t seen on the road since I was kid. It’s like they are all coming out of dark recesses where they have been kept for a couple decades or more. Almost all of them appear to be in excellent condition too.

      On my way to the grocery store this afternoon I saw what had to be an early 80s Honda. Big fat cushioned black seat… old style mirrors and lights. It was also that brown color that I don’t think made it past 1984 for anything.

      Doing a GIS it looks like it was probably a 1980 Honda CM400 or something very close to it.

      • Me too.

        I think the reason has to do with the fact that the bikes from that era are (for now) very inexpensive relative to a new one and can be maintained by anyone with a bit of mechanical aptitude and a shop manual. About $3k will buy you a really nice one – something you’ll be proud of that’s also very practical.

        The new bikes are not unlike new cars: They have computers, complex (and costly) fuel injection and can be very challenging to work on.

        My ’03 ZRX – the only bike I have ever bought new – still has carbs. And does not have a computer.

  3. Great article Eric. Spot on too. I sold a Triumph triple a couple of years ago and ran into the “But the book says…” nonsense. The book values are just completely useless on low production bikes as they are on old ones. Really, the only thing they are accurate on are high production (Japanese and Harley) bikes less than 10 years old.

    There is a flip side too. Craigslist is full of guys that think because of the cafe racer scene that their clapped out CB or SR500 is worth it’s weight in gold. I had a guy insist that $1k was as low as he’d go on a 1970 CB350 with bent valves and a damaged head .

    • Thanks, Mike!

      And yup on the cafe racer thing… hey, I know… I’ll just take all the fairings off my GL650, put shortie bars on it and double its value!

    • Wow, “the cafe racer” thing has come full circle again has it? Drag bars, rear sets, Fox shocks and cafe fairings were hot items back in the early ’80’s too. Actually, riding with your chest over the tank isn’t too bad (when you’re young anyway). I probably had the strongest neck muscles in my life from that riding position and an old Shoei full face. Ahhh, those were the days…

  4. What sort of things will go bad after sitting up for 30 years unridden? Certainly the rubber bits and pieces will have to be replaced, no?

    • A great deal depends on how it was stored. If it was prepped right – and kept in a place not subject to extremes of heat or cold, out of the sun, etc., often rubber parts will survive an amazingly long time. Contrariwise, a new bike that’s left outside to sit in the sun/rain for a couple years will often look (and be) pretty hagged out.

  5. Great perspective, this is why even when I was collecting/trading sports cards as a kid and would regularly check the beckett pricing guide it could only be used as a guide jsut like KBB. It is only worth what you are willing to sell it for and someone else is willing to buy it for.
    The potential leverage for your friend is that he original owner must not “love” the bike, otherwise it would have a lot more miles so to the seller it is an expensive paperweight.
    But if one finds something that is what they consider “perfect” you don’t want to lose out on it because you were caught haggling.

    • Thanks, Willy!

      My guess on this bike is that the owner is now an older guy; after all, it was bought new 30 years ago so even if the guy was only 25 at the time, he’s now pushing 60. Probably has to sell it. I’ve encountered this fairly often. A guy buys a bike, then for whatever reason he doesn’t ride it much – or stops riding – but doesn’t sell it. The years go by and eventually, the wife says: Get rid of it!

  6. Eric, what do you like about he Silverwing and is it worth all of your friend’s handwringing?

    Also, have you found the prices at cycletrader to be a bit on the high side? Seems like everything I see listed for certain models is always higher than I find for the same thru craigslist.

    • The Silverwing is a type of bike that’s no longer made – a sporty middleweight touring bike. It only weighs about 450 pounds (vs. 800-plus for a Goldwing) and so is very maneuverable and manageable, even for people without long legs. Great engine – “twisted twin,” like a Guzzi – but with late ’70s-early ’80s -era Honda bulletproof engineering. This is a 10,000 RPM-capable pushrod twin that will give you 50-plus MPG all day long no matter how hard you ride it!

      The factory hard bags offer lots of storage/versatility, too. The center section is a modular/interchangeable unit that has both a “tall” and a “short” box – that can be mounted farther back for two-up riding or moved closer to give the solo rider a backrest.

      These are just neat old bikes.

      And yeah, cycletrader prices do seem high-average. I much prefer hunting Craigs!

      • Thanks, Eric. The Suzuki V-Strom series is middleweight touring bike that gets good reviews. The 650 comes in at about 475lbs and is easily outfitted with bags. I doubt, however, that the V-Strom has the same *feel* as the Silverwing, which is a classy-looking ride.

        • You bet!

          The thing about the ‘Wing is it’s a dedicated touring bike. Factory full fairing and hard bags. Upgraded brakes (dual discs, etc.). All the Honda Line accessories (like a built-in radio and accessory gauges).

          I’ve had a lot of bikes – and ridden more. This one’s among my all-time favorites because it’s so good at what it does and yet still costs almost nothing. Even this near-new example with only 3,000 miles on it – asking price, $3,900.

          I got mine for $2,000 –

      • The movable trunk/backrest was such a great idea – but that just illustrates the most frustrating thing about Honda – they are constantly changing things and not always for the better.
        Their engines are sound and bulletproof but everything else now-a-days is chromed plastic that just makes for a cheap appearance.
        I owned 2 VTX’s before I bought a Yamaha/Star and frankly I doubt I will ever buy any Honda again except maybe for a Goldwing (assuming I win the Lottery).

        • I agree –

          I am not a fan of the new stuff; it’s over-engineered and too expensive.

          The golden era of Honda was mid-60s through the early ’80s. The bikes were elegantly engineered (durable, easy to work on). Parts were inexpensive – and easy to get. Excellent dealer support.

      • I know this comment is way late, but I’m a fan of the Silverwing too. I presume you’re talking about the 674cc engine, not the 498cc or whatever it is. I had a theory about that bike–Honda missed a bet. If they’d made it a 750, lightened it up by 30 lbs, and made it just a tad nicer and more elegant looking, they wouldn’t have been able to keep up with demand.

        • Hi David,

          Agreed!

          As you probably know, the “650” was note just a bore/stroke job on the 500; it was a re-engineered engine. And yet, Honda decided not to develop it further.

          If I had the money (and the time) I’d love to see what could be done… maybe increase the displacement to 900 or 1,000 and fit it with a six speed transmission….

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