We Are Entering a Golden Era for Sidecar Motorcycles
Next month in England, H&H Auctions will sell more than 100 vintage motorcycles taken from one of the biggest collections in the country.
Among the lot are four sidecar motorcycles that are as notable for their rarity as for their quirky design style and ride personalities. There will be a 1924 AJS Model D Combo, a 1932 BSA G12 Combo used by the Bath City Police, a 1930 BSA Sloper Combo, and a 1925 Quadrant Combo.
Mark Bryan, the head motorcycle specialist for H&H, found them covered in dust and bird droppings tucked away in a large barn in rural Gloucestershire. It was the proverbial family barn-find, yes, but it was also more unusual than your average dusty discovery.
“It’s very unusual for me to come across somebody who collects multiple of these bikes—sidecars take up a lot of space,” Bryan said. “They are not easy to just hide out of the way.”
A Rarity Among Motorbikes
Sidecar motorcycles require special considerations both on the road and in storage. They’re three-wheeled machines with complicated—and unwieldy—components. You can’t just stack them against each other in a shed as with regular two-wheel motorbikes. What’s more, many early ones were made with cloth covers and wooden frames, so they have largely decayed since the height of their popularity in the 1930s and ‘40s. That was the age of one-car families, when sidecars were used as an essential and highly practical alternative form of family transpiration.
“This is a specialized item—quirky,” Bryan said. Sidecar-style bicycles emerged in the late 1800s, when a motorized “safety” bicycle with a light sidecar earned a patent; by 1914, even Harley-Davidson had cataloged a three-wheeled motorized sidecar bike. During World War I, Western Front soldiers used them for dispatch duties. After the war, cars became much less expensive, and many sidecar companies disappeared. A few brands, such as Ural and Harley, continued to make the bikes for people devoted to their eccentric style: “They’re not generally as nice to ride as a regular motorcycle,” Bryan said. “There is a group of people who love them, but it’s a specialized group.”
A Solid Market
The real appeal, for many devotees, is to access the history and design of the old models. According to Jonathan Klinger, the head specialist at Hagerty, a company that insures high-value and collectable cars and motorcycles, vintage motorbikes make up 5 percent of all vehicles offered at North American collector car auctions. That number has been fairly consistent for the last four years, he said.
“In terms of the overall collector-vehicle market, vintage motorcycles are the second most active in terms of year-over-year activity during the past five years,” Klinger said. “To put that into perspective, they are behind vintage pickups/SUVs but ahead of traditional collector cars, in terms of increased activity.”
But they are increasingly popular as new-vehicle purchases. Last year people in the United States bought more than 500,000 motorcycles, a 3.55 percent increase over 2014. Sidecars represent less than 5 percent of that total, though their number has remained relatively steady, according to Matt Trigaux, the spokesman for Seattle-based Ural Sidecar Motorcycles. What’s more, the worldwide market for motorcycles is forecast to grow by 7.2 percent annually, to 134.5 million units, by the end of 2016, and industry revenues are expected to rise 8.7 percent per year, to $90.1 billion, according to a report from RNRMarketResearch. Statistics on sidecar growth are not compiled separately from those for two-wheeled motorcycles, though Trigaux said he expects it to remain steady.
More specifically, Trigaux said that since the 75-year-old Ural brand entered the U.S. market 10 years ago, the volume and price of sidecar bikes being sold have risen dramatically. Sales last year hit roughly 2,000, up from 1,200 two years ago and double what they were when Ural first came to the U.S. 10 years ago; the majority went to U.S. buyers.
“We used to see a lot more camo," Trigaux said. “It was much more utilitarian before, but now it’s a bigger lifestyle thing.”
Where the original Ural customers were typically white, male hunters and DIY-type campers, more Ural buyers are now women and people who use the bikes to carry their dog (or brother or daughter, say) down the street to get coffee. What’s more, the median age of buyers has dropped by 10 years during the past two years, Trigaux said. While the initial price of the Ural bikes was less than $15,000, the majority now sell for more than $20,000.
“For a lot of guys, they had always liked that old-school classic look, and now that the tires have Brembo brakes and the bikes have fuel injection, they get the reliability and the performance of a modern bike, they’re into it,” he said.
Modern—but still nearly 800 pounds of hulking Soviet-style metal. (This is a selling point for that vintage-loving outdoorsmen.) The Ural bikes can cruise at 75 miles per hour.
A Good Value Proposition
The value of a solid, vintage sidecar motorcycle in good condition is often higher than for a conventional motorcycle, even though the two-wheel types tend to lead lists of the most expensive vintage motorcycles sold.
“A sidecar absolutely can increase the value of a motorcycle if it is an appropriate sidecar to that bike,” Klinger said. “For instance, was it offered with it when it was new vs. someone just strapping on a sidecar for functionality? It’s a case-by-case basis, but it’s hard to imagine that a sidecar would make a value go down.”
Brands such as Brough Superior, BMW, and Vincent retain the highest values.
Last August, Mecum Auctions sold a Brough Superior sidecar for $160,000; in 2014, Bonhams sold a 1939 Brough Superior SS80 ‘Petrol Tube’ Sidecar for $92,750. A 1954 BMW RS54 sidecar took $167,800 at a Bonhams sale in Las Vegas in 2013; one of the most-expensive-ever sidecars was a 1927 Zenith that sold for $319,653 in 2008.
Klinger said the frequency and quality of the shows—and sales of motorcycles in general—have risen over the past decade, and this has contributed to increasing values. The fact that they’re also easier to collect (they take up less space than cars and often don’t have problems with rust) also broadens their appeal, he said.
“Motorcycles in recent years have become interesting to collectors outside of the hardcore motorcycle enthusiast. We’re seeing a real increase in this trend,” Klinger said. “For people interested in the collector market in general, they’re an excellent entry point into the hobby.”
The four Bryan found are expected to take from $8,500 and $22,000 when they hit the auction block on Nov. 15. The sale had been planned for the 16th, but the market is looking so positive that the auction house moved the date up a day.
“People always have money, and these type of buyers are always happy to buy them,” Bryan said. “We expect the same for November. It’s going all in the right direction.”