Motorcycles have come a long way since their invention, nearly 135 years ago. Newer bikes have many companies to thank for figuring out the proper evolution of riding styles, engine technologies, and materials used to make them.
However, there are some motorcycles out there that have been around for a while, and because of either their historical significance or simply being a collector’s item, they can fetch a pretty penny. Some models, such as the 1929 Brough Superior SS100, are way outside the budget and ownership dreams of many, yet there are some vintage motorcycles that are relatively affordable.
In setting my rules for this list, I focused on three specific areas. The big one is the budget, and for that I set a limit of $40,000. This is a reasonable amount for someone who has saved up for a while and wants to add that classic to their stable, as some fully kitted out customs and limited edition modern bikes go for around that sum.
Second was historical significance, as some vintage models that revolutionized the bike world were produced in large numbers. This makes it both a) a classic item and b) an affordable item.
Third was realistic expectations. I know this sounds a touch weird, yet I refer to the 1929 Brough Superior SS100 again, as there is no possibility of one of them going for less than $480,000.
With all that in mind, here are some of the most expensive vintage motorcycles you can buy.
1977 to 1982 Ducati 900SS
Price: $35,000 to $40,000
The Ducati 900SS, especially the 1977 model, set the tone for all future Ducati’s to come. After Ducati entered their racing spec 750SS in the Imola 200 in 1972 and claimed the top two steps of the podium, limited editions of both the 750SS and 900SS as race bikes were made for the European market.
It was in 1976 that Ducati’s primary American importer, Berliner Motor Corporation, requested that the previously limited-edition bike be made into a production bike. Ducati agreed, and after some modifications to tone down the power, quieter exhausts, and smaller carbs with built-in air filters, the 750SS and 900SS eventually made it to American shores.
Of specific note was that the gear lever was moved from the right side of the bike, as racing bikes put them there, over to the left side. As well, the brakes were unchanged, still using the race discs on the front and the drum brake at the back.
Powered by an 864cc air-cooled desmodromic 90-degree v-twin, the 900SS produced an astonishing (at the time) 80 HP and could reach a top speed of 143 MPH. It was one of the first bikes to truly embrace the aerodynamic tuck position as desirable for a supersport, and even featured a front cowl and low swept windscreen that made the bike look fast standing still.
Only 137 900SS’s made it to the US between 1977 and 1982, making this a rare, but obtainable piece of Ducati history.
1967 Norton Commando Mk I 750
Price: Between $10,000 for a restoration project to ~$20,000 for a Concours d’Elegance mint condition model.
The 1967 Norton Commando Mk I 750 was a bike that gained a surprising amount of interest, and hence a lot of sales, when it first launched. Norton, at the time, was facing some financial difficulty, having the previous Dominator and Atlas models not selling to expectations.
As part of a slight corporate hail mary, Norton brought in Dr. Stefan Bauer, recently departed from Rolls-Royce as one of their chassis engineers, to see if there was anything that could be done to make the Commando the sales success it needed to be. Before the Commando, the Dominator and Atlas had been built on the race-spec Norton featherbed frame, which was light and agile for competition at the Isle of Man TT.
Dr. Bauer took one look at the featherbed frame and stated that it went against all engineering principles for a road bike that was meant to be ridden at road speeds, not blazing around a road circuit. The frame was lightweight and as stiff as it could be, which also translated a lot of engine vibration to the rider and made Norton bikes precariously uncomfortable.
As such, Dr. Bauer engineered an entirely new frame, based around a strong single top tube, and moved the 745cc parallel-twin back towards the rider. It was also decided, at Dr. Bauer’s recommendation to the Norton brass and engineers, to bolt the engine, transmission, and swing-arm together as one stressed member, and then isolate it from the frame using rubber mountings.
Naming it the Norton Isoelastic system, it freed the Commando from the classic parallel-twin engine vibration issues, and customers that had been waiting for a comfortable but fast Norton flocked to the sales floors. The rest, as they say, is history.
1979 Honda CBX
Price: Between $15,000 to $25,000 depending on condition
In 1979, Honda took a big gamble. They had enjoyed success with their modest sportbikes that anyone could ride such as the CB750, and had a 15-year-old engine design that used 6 cylinders in a 1047cc engine that needed to have the nuts revved out of it to produce full power.
And so, in the hours of the evening when everyone else had gone home, the idea of the CBX was born. What resulted is arguably the first true supersport motorcycle to emerge from Japan. And what a bike it was.
The first thing that many noted was that the engine, despite being transversely mounted, was not actually that much wider than the inline-four in the CB750. It also allowed a lot of cool air to run over the engine’s cooling fins and somewhat protected the rider’s legs from wind.
The biggest feature, however, was when the engine was actually revved hard, it produced 105 HP and a bucket-load of torque, propelling the humble Honda to 140 MPH. And when it revved hard, it made a sound of mechanical magic. The exhausts were barely baffled, so when someone pinned it on a CBX, everyone for about two miles around thought a Formula 1 car had suddenly arrived.
Don’t believe me? Just listen. That noise is worth $15,000 alone, to my ears, even if that is the slightly less than well-treated bike price.
1959 to 1964 Triumph Bonneville T120
Price: $20,000 to $30,000, depending on condition and age, with 1959 being the most desirable year
1959 was a year that saw many great British bikes either in production, or being released. The Royal Enfield Constellation, BSA Super Rocket, AJS Model 31. Yet, at Triumph, legendary Triumph Chief Designer and General Manager Edward Turner was about to reveal to the world a motorcycle that was so successful, modern models of it are still made today.
The 1959 Triumph Bonneville T120 was also Turner’s last design at Triumph before he moved to the automotive side of things at BSA. Marketed as “the best motorcycle in the world,” it was designed primarily for export, despite the fact that it sold very well in the UK.
The USA, however, understood exactly what Triumph had released. This was a standard style bike that had a 650cc air-cooled, bespoke British parallel twin that was designed off the engine from the Triumph Tiger T110, with twin carburetors and a high-performance inlet camshaft.
46 HP and 38 lbs-ft of torque may sound a bit low today, but at the time, it was viewed as a competitor for such classics as the Vincent Black Shadow. It also was one of the few bikes that could break through 100 MPH, although a small design flaw in the single downtube frame would induce speed wobbles as it approached the max speed of 108 MPH.
The speed wobble was rectified in 1963 with a stiffer swingarm and reinforcement of the frame around the front forks, and is a modification that can be retroactively done to 1959 to 1962 models.
And due to the twin carburetors and the aggressive camshaft, the noise that the original Bonneville put out was the stuff of parallel twin dreams. The rough, brum-brum-brum idle. The classic British roar of a barely baffled straight pipe when at speed. It sounded, and still does sound, glorious.
1957 to 1960 Harley-Davidson Sportster
Price: $20,000 for a well-maintained model, $25,000+ for a Concours d’Elegance mint model
In 1957, many things happened. Sputnik was launched into space. The Detroit Lions defeated the Cleveland Browns to win the NFL Championship. In one of the toughest World Series finals, the Milwaukee Braves defeated the New York Yankees. And that Milwaukee victory was watched by employees of a company just down the road called Harley-Davidson that had made an American classic.
The Sportster was a motorcycle that was designed to reclaim American interest after the invasion of British bikes had shown that lightweight, nimble bikes could be more fun than a heavy cruiser. Models such as the Triumph Speed Twin and the BSA A7 500cc put Harley on the back foot, and they needed to respond.
With a project launched in 1951, Harley-Davidson produced the Harley K, at that time a revolutionary model. Left-hand clutch, right foot shifter, telescopic front forks, and a sprung swingarm were all meant to compete with the British bikes. However, the key thing that Harley-Davidson forgot to do was inject personality into the K. It was a sound bike, but it didn’t grab attention.
The K model also introduced the side-valve 743cc v-twin that would revolutionize Harley-Davidson’s entire lineup. Through some evolutions that saw a racing version produced and a heavy-duty stroked version that added a lot of weight, the engine was reworked in 1957 to produce the Sportster v-twin.
The big evolution? Moving from side-valves to an overhead cam and valve setup. It had iron barrels and heads, 40 HP at 5,500 RPM, and a 7.5:1 compression ratio. But the original Sportster prototype bike failed to gain dealer attention and wasn’t even available for the public to purchase.
The spark, the moment of inspiration, came when the dealers, fed up with the K style of bike, confronted Walter Davidson and demanded that the bike be made to look like the much more graceful and desirable KR-TT road racing bikes. Walter caved and said that if the dealers could sell 100 of the KR-TT with the Sportster engine, dubbed the XL, he would make the bike a production item.
Well, let’s just say that all 100 of the original Sportster XL’s sold out pretty much instantly. Customers were frothing for the speedy, rumbling Harley, and the 1958 XLCH and upgraded XLH models were introduced as production models. The upgrade to the XLH was that it had a higher compression 9:1 version of the Sportster engine, a magneto driven ignition, full straight pipes from the factory, bobbed fenders, a bobber sport seat, and the 2.25-gallon tank from the KR-TT dirt racer.
The Sportster sold out consistently, so much so that only 240 XLCH’s were made in 1958, and about half as many XLH’s. If you can find a 1957 or 1958 Sportster in good condition, they cost less than some new Harley-Davidson’s and are the original models that lead Harley to later develop their Street series of sport cruisers.
1973 to 1976 BMW R90S
Price: $15,000+ for a good condition model
Introduced in 1973, the BMW R90S was one of the most influential models that BMW has ever made. Styled via commission of designer Hans Muth, the R90S was the flagship bike of BMW’s newest model range, the sports touring bike.
Indeed, this model was the genesis of the primary line of bikes that BMW now sells. Considered both a sportbike and a touring bike, the sport tourer concept was for the daily rider to be able to comfortably ride from their house to the autobahn, and commute at speed to their workplace.
This touring concept was proven out in the engine, an 898cc four-stroke boxer engine, which delivered a respectable 67 HP, but grunted out 56 lbs-ft of torque. It could reach and maintain 100 MPH on the Autobahn, and had a top speed of 120 MPH. Of note, it also transferred power to the rear wheel via a sealed shaft drive.
Catering to the sports tourer, the R90S had quite a few creature comforts. The front cowl was sleek, but the windshield was designed to push air up above the rider’s shoulders in a three-quarter comfortable tuck. There was a tool kit under the seat, which even had a hand towel in it with the BMW logo embroidered on it, to wipe off oil and grease after a roadside repair. The engine was designed to be accessed easily, and serviced by the common man.
The engine, the first of the /6 series by BMW, was also extremely frugal. The bike could do over 220 miles on a single tank, with mixed riding. It was also a lightweight at 474 lbs full wet and had a massive 6.3 US gallon tank, designed specifically for long-distance but speedy travel.
The later years, especially the 1975 and 1976 models, had reworked engine casings in anticipation of the replacement model, the R100S. The gauge cluster was classic BMW throughout, with four primary gauges in an efficient, tight package. Later models also had the option to have panniers fitted, and the pillion seat could be converted to a top mount luggage rack.
Not many models made it to the USA, so this bike is quite rare here. However, it is able to be imported as an antique motorcycle, although the import taxes and antique registration might drive up the price to closer to the $20,000 mark.