Should I restore my classic bike?
Oily rag | Full restoration | Far Eastern parts | NOS | Patina | Historic motorcycles | Value
▲ 1935 348cc Mk V KTT Velocette. This project (Lot 139) was sold by Bonhams in October 2019 for £16,937 including premium. Why so much money for "a pile of bits"? Well that's down to history. The bike, it appears, is connected to Norman Gledhill who raced a Velocette in the 1935 and 1936 Junior TT's, finishing 17th and 13th respectively. And it is, after all, a Velocette. So will it be restored? We hope not. But with luck, this classic motorcycle will be rebuilt and displayed and enjoyed as a useable relic of another age.
The pros & cons of classic motorcycle restoration
Firstly, restoring a classic motorcycle is increasingly expensive. It isn't just the price of the parts that invariably rises far higher than most people anticipate. It's also the price of the services you need to complete the work; services such as painting, chroming, machining, welding, brazing, wheel-building, metal bashing, etc. Human labour prices in the western world are much higher than they used to be. So if you can do most of the labouring work yourself, that will make a huge difference to the final cost. But unless you've got an amazingly well-equipped shed, garage or workshop (and unless you've got all the necessary skills), sooner or later you'll need specialist help. And that's not cheap.
Secondly, restoring a motorcycle is actually as much a destructive process as a constructive one. When restorers strip, blast, repaint and re-chrome a bike, what they're doing is destroying all the originality. It's analogous to going to Stonehenge with a few dozen truck loads of concrete and plastering and skimming the monument until it looks the way it did 5,000 years ago—which, we're assuming, would be a little less rough and ragged than it is today. In other words, the patina of age and wear and tear is part of the story of Stonehenge*. And it works the same with motorcycles.
▲ 1912 Indian board track racer. It's over-restored, for sure. But this motorcycle (sold by Mecum Auctions) still managed to make a very respectable $253,000 for its owner. However, other OTT restorations haven't always been so lucky. In any case, the history of this bike has been largely erased. It looks very nice, in a fakey kind of way. But we'll take our classics au naturel, so to speak.
See Sump Classic Bike News August 2019 for more on this machine.
Over-restored classic bikes
So okay, it's hard to appreciate that fact when you're looking at a "beautifully restored" bike at a motorcycle show—and if you can maintain the pretence that the bike you're gazing at is indeed a faithful re-creation of the way it was originally when it left the factory, then good luck to you. But most classic restorations are actually over-restored, and all the originality has been expertly blasted away and lost forever.
Next, restoring a classic motorcycle can simply devalue it hugely. This is because plenty of people looking to buy old and vintage motorcycles share these views about over-restoration. Such people, be they riders or investors, are not simply buying steel, aluminium and rubber. They're essentially buying history. That's at the heart of it.
So if you've removed all that history, you've also removed all the period charm. Yes, what's left when you finish restoring might well be a pretty bike, whatever "pretty" means to you. But prettiness isn't the only criteria. With many people, it's the originality that counts; the feeling that you're looking back into another age.
Repro motorcycle parts
▲ We ought to be grateful perhaps that there are manufacturers in the Far East and elsewhere who are still making spares for classic motorcycles. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't remain vigilant when buying. The Indians and Chinese are getting much better at what they do. However, there's room for improvement. And we ought to remember that to a large extent we get the parts for which we're prepared to pay. Always ask about the provenance of any classic bike parts you buy.
Today there are thousands of different classic motorcycle parts on sale; perhaps almost as many parts as there used to be in the "golden age". Or maybe there are more parts today. We've got no figures, and we suspect that no one else has. But don't confuse modern reproduction parts with original parts.
When BSA, Triumph, Norton, Royal Enfield, AJS and Matchless (and all the other great British motorcycle marques) manufactured spares, they made them to a higher standard than parts generally made today.
Yes, that repro fuel tank might look right, and that repro girder fork might seem like a faithful reproduction. But it isn't that simple. Firstly, the British bike factories made parts in far greater numbers. Never mind ten crankshafts or a batch a fifty pistons. BSA made parts in thousands. Sometimes tens of thousands. That meant there were huge economies of scale, and that meant that the materials used in the manufacture were the right materials. The factories could afford to do that.
Metal, after all, isn't just metal. It's forged metal, or cast metal, or ductile metal, or hardened metal, or metal that's heat treated in some other way. Use the wrong metal on the wrong part and you're headed for trouble. It's not simply that the part might wear faster. It's might also snap or collapse.
Dangerous motorcycle parts
The factory engineers understood all this and specified all kinds of criteria that today have either been overlooked or wilfully ignored. At Sump, we've been caught out this way when buying spares. We've had cycle parts that almost instantly failed, seals that have almost immediately blown, gears that stripped just a few hundred miles after installation, brake discs that were warped before they left the box, and chrome that pickled at the first hint of rain.
Today we're much more careful about what parts we buy and who we buy them from. We check the provenance as carefully as we can. We ask searching questions of parts dealers. Additionally, we've learned that wherever possible we should use original parts even when those parts are past their best. In other words, an original Webb girder fork that's a little rusty, bent and battered is preferable to a brand new shiny fork from a Far Eastern back street workshop. Ditto for a repro cylinder head or a repro frame or a petrol tank. Originality is almost always the best option, and very often the act of restoration totally destroys that originality.
Of course, if you've recovered a Norton Dominator from a swamp, and if you've got a well-equipped workshop, the right skills, and have stumbled across a cache of suitable spares at a knock-down price—and if you have the time and energy—you might create a great motorcycle fit for every day riding and/or display. But our experience is that the economics of restoration rarely make much sense. And even when you restore a "blue chip classic" costing tens of thousands of pounds, you can easily end up with a bike that looks "pretty", but no longer has any appeal to investors and other buyers with significant money to spend.
But we should mention here that there are good quality parts on the market. There are still people who really care about producing great components to help keep classics viable. However, the vast majority of aftermarket parts on the market are inferior quality at best, and dangerous at worst. So, if you're planning to restore a motorcycle of any age or description, factor in the cost of parts; original parts.
Oily rag motorcycles
So what's the overall answer? Well, we think you're best advised to simply maintain classic bikes wherever possible rather than restore. This usually means keeping them in an "oily rag condition", which refers to waxing them regularly, or wiping down literally with an oily rag (but not too much oil, please. Just a misting will do). It means just keeping these bikes the way they are with ageing paint, spots of rust, dents and (wherever possible) the original badges or transfers. That's assuming you've found a classic bike that hasn't already been restored. And these are rarer every day.
Instead of spending money creating something faithless, we suggest you spend your money buying original parts, either NOS (new old stock), or second-hand, and keeping that bike in tip-top shape—and then enjoying the hell out of it on the open road. We suggest that you keep it in daily (or at least weekly) use and always put at least twenty or thirty miles on the clock with each jaunt. Inactivity is your biggest enemy.
But if you can't suppress the urge to restore a motorcycle (and we've been there too), you might consider selecting a fairly common and (dare we say it?) more ordinary bike rather than something rare and special with greater historical value. So find a BSA Bantam, or a Triumph T140, or a Norton Commando. Then scratch that restoration itch. You might even make a few bob if you're careful and shrewd (although you probably won't). And you might get some satisfaction from the project. But if you buy a rare and "special classic" and restore that, in many eyes you would simply have wrecked an item with charm and history, and you might also find yourself well out of pocket. Restore at your own risk. And peril.
*Actually, Stonehenge is largely a restoration project that was carried out a century or more ago; a project in which many of the stones were re-positioned to suit the archaeological notions and suppositions of the age.
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