Want to know the highest price ever paid for a motorcycle? Yeah, me too. But getting a straight answer about a seven-figure private motorcycle sale is a sketchy enterprise. Even discreet inquiries to the very rich are typically answered with a dollop of BS, the usual sum of money, plus ego.
While I can confirm that many motorcycles have sold for more than $1 million, none can be independently verified, hence there really should be an asterisk on the title of our story.
The only reliable-ish accounting of collectible motorcycle sales is via public auctions. With company reputations at stake on big sales, my experience is the major auction houses give straight reporting of their high-dollar transactions. Things you should know: It’s perfectly legal for auction houses to ghost bid up to a bike’s reserve price, so while you may be the only person bidding on a 1940 Crocker, up to a point you will still have vigorous competition!
Here’s a list of the top 15 motorcycle sales at auction. As you’ll see, it’s heavy with super-rare V-twins: Brough Superiors, Vincents, Crockers, and Cyclones. There are two four-cylinder bikes (Henderson and Brough Superior-Austin), and one flat twin that’s the only Grand Prix racer on the list. That might seem surprising, if you follow the car auction scene, where race history is the golden ticket.
It seems motorcycle collecting is much more about passion and PR (perceived reputation) than in the car world: Bikers will spend fortunes on what’s cool rather than what won races. Dig into that any way you like, but the bottom line is, if you want a motorcycle that’s rare and everyone agrees is the absolute coolest thing on wheels, be prepared to dig deep: The entry level for this list is $450,000. And no, there hasn’t been a million-dollar motorcycle sale at auction…yet.
15. 1926 Brough Superior SS100: $453,000 (October 2012, RM Auctions)
The first beauty on our list and one of several Brough Superiors is this SS100 still in its original early form, with a J.A.P. KTOR racing engine, and “dog ear” rocker arm supports for its exposed pushrods and valve springs. The first-generation SS100 is spindly and raw, and despite being incredibly elegant, is an uncompromising machine. With hard-inflated 23-inch beaded-edge tires, it carries its cast-iron cylinders fairly high, giving a razor’s edge feel when pushing around a parking lot. With 9.0:1 compression, a big swing on the kickstarter gives a woffly chuff, followed by a smooth bonky idle. Pull the lever throttle back to feel 94 years of history vanish, and you are aboard a fast-running cheetah, making an incredible noise, and quickly outrunning any hope of braking for an emergency.
No matter, tears of joy erase the worry of repeating Lawrence of Arabia’s demise, and an easy 80 mph on any American road will see you mostly airborne due to rock-hard tires and minimal suspension. Beyond that is terra incognita, the land of the very brave and well-insured, but given the chance, you must, mustn’t you? Every cell of your body will be altered forever, hopefully not by dying. I speak from experience, having ridden exactly this model across the USA on the coast-to-coast vintage bike rally called the Cannonball in 2018. Nothing of the era can touch it, and it’s worth every penny—if you have them, of course.
14. 1929 Brough Superior SS100: $465,350 (October 2015, H&H Classics)
Later on this list, you’ll see this bike appear again. Yes, this is the same machine as No. 9, sold a year later at a loss of about $30,000. Who says prices always go up? When you’re in big money land, the price comes down to who is bidding, how much they’re willing to spend, and if anyone else is bidding against them. As far as I know, there were no asterisks or question marks attached to this bike to justify a lower price, but there you go. I once asked a Brough Superior collector, who happened to be a hedge fund guy, if blue chip motorcycles were a good investment. “Motorcycles are terrible investments: Buy them because you love them.” Sound advice.
13. 1922 Brough Superior SS80 “Old Bill”: $469,800 (October 2012, H&H Classics)
Another one of George Brough’s personal competition bikes, “Old Bill” was the prototype of the SS80 model, with its guaranteed 80-mph top speed. Named after a cartoon character from World War I, Old Bill was built for speed, and was the first British side-valve racer to top 100 mph. The engine was tuned by the legendary Bert LeVack, who carved the flywheels down to slender rims connected to the crankpin by a single arm. Struts were added to the frame for stability, and George, who could really ride, took this bike to 52 first-place finishes in a series of sprints (that’s drag racing to you) in 1922.
But George wasn’t on Old Bill over that last finish line—he’d got a flat and fallen off, but the bike carried on to make the stripe, but he was disqualified because, as one competitor protested, “If the rider ain’t on it, you might as well fire it from a gun!”
12. 1939 BMW RS255 Rennsport Kompressor: $480,000 (January 2013, Bonhams Auctions)
The only Grand Prix racer on our list is this supercharged BMW, a legendary model for having won the 1939 Isle of Man TT, and holding the absolute motorcycle land speed record from 1937-1951, at 173.68 mph. The RS255 was a brilliant machine, with an integral supercharger powering a shaft-and-bevel double-overhead-camshaft motor, that managed despite its complication to be 30 pounds lighter than its rival Norton racers. It didn’t handle like a Norton, though, and Georg Meier was a brave man to wrestle this wild animal to victory in the TT, and many other races.
RS255s are extraordinarily rare, and this bike was built up by racer Walter Zeller in the 1980s, from genuine factory race team parts stored in the BMW race shop. Imagine that. It really is the ultimate BMW, for while the postwar Rennsports won more races, the prewar blown version is the cat’s meow.
11. 1931 Brough Superior BS4: $481,624 (April 2016, Bonhams Auctions)
A four-cylinder Brough Superior? The company built four different fours, actually, but this was the only version to see production, if 10 examples count. George Brough made a deal with Austin to use its water-cooled Austin 7 motor, beefed up with a high-compression aluminum sports cylinder head and twin carbs. Rather than cast up a new gearbox, George cheekily used the Austin ‘box, running the driveshaft between a pair of close-coupled rear wheels, driven via a bevel box. The Brough three-wheeler was a sensation, and had a reverse gear too! It was intended for sidecar use, but journalist Hubert Chantrey challenged George, who claimed it could be ridden solo. George suggested Chantrey ride one in the London-Exeter Trial, which he did, and was so impressed he ordered this machine for himself! Chantrey entered this bike in several road trials in 1932 and ’33, and was famous for riding it backward around Piccadilly Circus.
The BS4 is unique, and just might be the most elegant motorcycle ever built. Sadly, this bike sat for decades in outdoor storage in Bodmin Moor, and was rough as a bear’s behind when sold in 2016. Someone still thought it was worth a fortune, and having road tested a BS4, I endorse this message.
10. 1912 Henderson Four: $490,000 (January 2017, Mecum Auctions)
If the Brough Superior was the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles, the Henderson four was the Duesenberg. Long and elegant, the brainchild of William Henderson was a remarkable machine for its day, being fast, reliable, and extravagant. It was good enough in 1912 to become the first motorcycle ridden around the world (Carl Stearns Clancy), and even today early Hendersons make every mile on the Cannonball cross-USA rally.
This machine is a first-year model in totally original condition, with an achingly beautiful patina and fascinating small details. Original paint is the gold standard in the motorcycle world, partly because it’s so easy to make a replica, and partly because the hand of the manufacturer is visible, something impossible to reproduce in a restoration.
9. 1929 Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sports: $494,580 (November 2014, Bonhams Auctions)
George Brough started production of his eponymous Superiors in 1919 with the Mk 1, and nailed his reputation to the mast in 1924 with the SS100 model. The SS100 was a true super-sports machine with a guaranteed 100-mph top speed, and it was beautiful too, with a nickel-plated bulbous gas stank straddling the frame (an industry first), and an elegant line from the nose of its “mudguard” to the tip of its throaty “carbjector” mufflers.
The Alpine Grand Sports gained its name after trouncing all comers in the Austrian hillclimb scene, and this bike (like George’s above) has rear suspension via a Bentley & Draper swingarm. The twin-headlamp craze of the late 1920s is evident (Harley-Davidson did it too), but the Rexine-covered twin valise panniers tell a tale of gentility that would today be at odds with such world-beating performance.
8. 1930 Brough Superior SS100: $542,500 (March 2019, H&H Auctions)
The Brough Superior SS100 was a dream bike in all regards, from the days when a “luxury motorcycle”—a category lost in 1940—could also be the fastest streetbike in the world, and hold the absolute land speed record. The Superior emerged from George Brough’s fantasies of the ideal motorcycle in the dark days of World War I to become an enduring legend.
What George wanted: a racing engine in a stable chassis, with the most beautiful styling ever, a two-wheeled Grand Tourer, and the “Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles” as the ads proclaimed. This was George’s personal SS100, on which he competed in the 1930 ISDT, and that provenance was sufficient to launch even this rolling basket case to the financial stratosphere.
7. 1940 Crocker Big Tank: $550,000 (May 2019, Mecum Auctions)
The first Crocker on our list is an ex-Australian bike, as the 1346Venice collection was thinned. The ensuing fight for one of the 64 (or so) Crockers ever built meant even in basic black, a Crocker is worth the price of a house, not that the bidders were in danger of homelessness.
This is a second-generation model with larger cast-aluminum fuel tanks, and improvements to the cylinder heads: Crocker went through five cylinder head designs in six years. Regardless they built the coolest and fastest American motorcycles for decades, Crocker could only build about 10 bikes a year, and if we’re honest, a lot of development work was left to the owners. Nobody cares 80 years later, as we have the technology to make them better, stronger, and faster.
6. 1915 Cyclone Board Track Racer: $551,200 (July 2008, MidAmerica Auctions)
This Cyclone was the first auction bike to break the half-million mark, way back in 2008. Cyclones are apex collectibles, and don’t come up for auction generally, so when they do, all bets are off. I was in the room where it happened, providing color commentary for that sale from the podium, and had the great pleasure of asking the whole audience to raise their hands for the first $100,000 bid…luckily the next bid doubled that, and I was off the hook.
This despite a non-original chassis (the frame is Indian, the fork Merkel, just like our upcoming No. 2 Steve McQueen Cyclone), which is typical for Cyclone racers, as their factory frames were weak and replaced with stronger parts from their rivals. But with Cyclones, it’s the engine that matters: America’s first OHC V-twin.
5. 1939 Crocker “Big Tank”: $704,000 (January 2019, Mecum Auctions)
Crocker magic is strong with this one. With polished cast-aluminum fuel tanks and a scallop paint job, the Crocker was perhaps the first “factory custom,” or at least, the first production motorcycle to incorporate what customizers were doing to their bikes in the 1930s. The hot trend in the USA began in the early 1930s, when fast riders chopped the frames of their Harley-Davidson JDHs for better handling, making them lower and shorter.
The “cut down” style was the OG custom, and Al Crocker built his V-twin in like manner, with all the hot SoCal mods: cow horn handlebars, short fenders, and cool paint. This bike sat in the MC Museum in Sweden, was restored by Michael Weigert in Germany, and had an Idaho title from the 1950s!
4. 1907 Harley-Davidson “Strap Tank”: $715,000 (tie, March 2017, Mecum Auctions)
The only H-D on our list is not a V-twin! It’s a super-rare single-cylinder model from the first three years of actual Milwaukee production, and an amazing survivor in totally original, from-the-factory condition. With full provenance from new—collector EJ Cole bought it from the first-owner family—this is the 94th Harley-Davidson built. H-D began true production in 1905 with five bikes built that year, and by 1907 the Motor Company put out 150 bikes, and this was the 37th of the year.
Very few of these first “strap tanks” survive, and this is reckoned to be the best of them all. They work well too: a similar machine won the 2018 Cannonball, traversing every mile across the USA without a hitch…not that anyone would ride a time-warp machine like this.
4. 1937 Crocker “Small Tank”: $715,000 (tie, March 2017, Mecum Auctions)
Not a typo: Fourth place is a tie. This early Crocker sold for exactly the same amount and at the same auction (EJ Cole’s collection liquidation), as the H-D above. This is a well-documented machine, from arch-enthusiast Chilli Child’s collection in Sydney, and is a gorgeous example of Al Crocker’s handiwork.
The Crocker V-twin was designed with Paul Bigsby, Al’s former supervisor at Indian, who gained fame designing a whammy bar for electric guitars. The Crocker Big Twin debuted in 1936, a few months before H-D’s first overhead-valve V-twin, the EL Knucklehead, and was 20-plus-mph faster, depending on customer spec. It was a badass shop-built special, and has lodged in every true biker’s heart evermore.
3. 1936 Crocker “Small Tank”: $825,000 (August 2019, Mecum Auctions)
Another machine of myth and legend, the Crocker was the American V-twin everyone wanted when it was new (1936-42), but few could afford. That’s still true today! Al Crocker was an industry veteran, having started his career at Indian in the 1900s as a development engineer, and owning a string of dealerships in the ’20s and ’30s. His last dealership was on 1346 Venice Blvd., the hallowed home of Crocker motorcycles.
Al Crocker built excellent speedway bikes and Indian Scout OHV conversion kits before embarking on a Harley killer, an overhead-valve Big Twin that vied with the prewar Vincent V-twin for the title of fastest production bike in the world. This bike was claimed as the only original, unrestored Crocker extant: replicas are made, caveat emptor.
2. 1915 Cyclone board track racer: $852,000 (March 2015, Mecum Auctions)
As American bikes go, the Cyclone has a mythical aura that is all out of proportion to its impact on the industry. It is arguably the most technically advanced American motorcycle engine until 2001 (V-Rod), with a single overhead-camshaft motor that was outer-space tech for the day. The chassis was pure 1915, though, with a single-speed chain drive on both racers and roadsters, though the road bikes had a clutch and rear brake.
Cyclones were the fastest thing on wheels for a while, before cooler-running F-head racers from Excelsior and Harley-Davidson made it obsolete. That was after its legend was firmly established, and the Cyclone name captured the public’s imagination. This machine is doubly legendary, as it was previously owned by Steve McQueen, a connection that pushed its price heavenward.
1. 1951 Vincent Black Lightning: $929,000 (January 2018, Bonhams Auctions)
In 2018, four Black Lightnings were sold: two for around $350,000, this one for close to $1 million, and the long-lost 1950 Earls Court show bike, purchased for $20,000 off Craigslist (yes there’s hope, dreamers). Tossing the outliers, the selling price of a Lightning is clearly in the mid-$300K range. What happened here?
Two things; this is an unmolested original paint bike, and it’s famous in Australia, as Jack Ehret rode this machine to an Australian speed record in 1953 at 141.5 mph. Clearly Jack didn’t strip to his bathing trunks to get an extra 9 mph, as Rollie Free did at Bonneville in ’48 at 150 mph…and that bike is one of our asterisk machines, selling for a reputed $1.1 million, privately. So, history, and this bike gives lie to my theory that race history won’t push values skyward, but it’s the only bike on our list with a known track record. Lightnings are very rare, with only 31 built between 1948-52, and their reputation was enshrined by Richard Thompson, whose song “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is a compelling argument for must-have status.