Sunday, October 6, 2013
The Last Affordable Classic Vehicles from Our Youth
Let's begin with full disclosure. The author of this article's most recent book is The Tiddler Invasion: Small Motorcycles of the Sixties. The book is almost three pounds of 615 pages, 430 photographs, and 180 charts on the subject of this article. If you wish to read a lot more detail on this subject, you will find it there. This is obviously a subject close to my heart or I would not have spent years researching it. Now on to the big picture!
I have been literally obsessed with classic vehicles of The Sixties since The Sixties. I am a devoted fan of the motorcycles and cars of the period. The relevant point I wish to make now is that all the others have more or less been priced out of the reach of many ordinary Americans who would dearly love to own one of the nostalgic machines from this era. Have you priced a 1969 427 Stingray or 1970 Superbird lately? How about a Mustang 289 GT Convertible or a turbocharged Corvair Spyder? Even a nice Falcon Futura Convertible will cost much more than you might have dreamed twenty years ago!
Let's subtract a couple of wheels. You won't get much change back (if any at all) from $10,000 for a a nicely restored 1966 Triumph Bonneville or a Harley-Davidson XLH 883 or even a BMW R-69S 250, but have you considered a Honda or Yamaha from their early years? These tiny (by today's standards) machines were far more reliable than most anything produced during the period on either two wheels or four. We all know that the only way to hurt a typical Honda motorcycle of the period is to rear back and throw a brick at it! If you want to pay more for a machine that will likely increase more in value than the common Japanese machines, consider a small Harley-Davidson, Cushman, or Allstate. Of course the small Ducatis, BMW's, and Triumphs are always likely to increase in value. Even classic Vespas still have a significant following today.
In the postwar period up until 1960, the machines were all manufactured in the USA and Europe. Many of these have been continually considered classics for some time, and the prices have risen accordingly. The Japanese brands began to establish American distributorships with the arrival of Honda in mid-1959. Yamaha, Suzuki, Bridgestone, Hodaka and several others arrived up through 1964. It would be 1966 before Kawasaki got serious about the U.S. market, but by '69 the company was leading the high-performance segment. The Seventies were mostly a decade of refinement as the Big Four moved steadily up-market. The Eighties would bring at least a few models that would continue in production up through the present day. The Nineties would bring a revival of popularity for motor scooters from Italy, Japan, and elsewhere in the Orient. The latest trend, to the chagrin of some, has been the proliferation of no-name scooters from China, ordered off the Internet at fire-sale prices.
Although all of these types of machines are available to collectors and restorers, this article is about the central focus of The Tiddler Invasion, the common, highly reliable and practical plethora of small machines exported to the U.S. from Japan during the exciting Sixties of our youth. These are the models that still may offer some affordability and leave a little room for prices to inflate later on. The rarest of the rare can be excluded from this list because their price gains have long ago accelerated. These include the rare Hondas first imported in very small numbers during the seminal 1959-62 period and later high-performance classics such as the 1969 Honda 750 Four and 1979 CBX. The bargains in those departments are long gone.
An analysis of the early Japanese machines will show a few distinct periods. The earliest models were usually distinguished by their tiny tail lights, turn signals that were close together in the left-right dimension, and in some cases, low handlebars or rotary transmissions. The last item was popular in Japan, but not so suitable for the American market. Not many American riders want to find Neutral or First Gear immediately following the top gear in the shift pattern! The next period from approximately 1964 through 1968 brought more attention to models and designs created directly for the American buyers. With most brands, these were continued refinements of the '59-'63 models. After 1968, the performance race was in high gear and the emphasis slowly shifted away from the small tiddlers of the earlier years. Beginning with the Suzuki 500 Five, Kawasaki Mach III, Honda 750 Four, and Yamaha XS-1, the writing was already visible on the driveway.
Here are a few points to consider if you are looking for a classic tiddler to purchase or restore. Honda dominated the market like nobody's business, so there will always be a stronger market with far more parts availability for Hondas than for the many competing two-stroke brands. This does not make restoration of an early Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Bridgestone, or Hodaka impossible, but it certainly might slow down the parts scavenger hunt a bit. Consider that some particular models do have loyal fans who perpetuate a cult following. The restoration of some of these models will be somewhat easier to accomplish and the resale market could be a little stronger when completed. These include the Yamaha XS-1 650 twin, Suzuki X-6 Hustler, Kawasaki Triples, and several Honda models such as the Trail 70, Trail 90, Super 90, and the Hawks and Dreams. Although the cult may have yet to fully blossom, you will rarely go wrong with any Honda Scrambler, either. The Honda twins of the 1968-74 period are likely to continue an upward trend, following in the tire tracks of their Hawk and Dream predecessors.
Once the prices of the Japanese tiddlers have inflated, there will be few entertaining, affordable vehicles left from the classic era. Many of the smallest, most common machines from our earliest driving days are now in the over-$5000 bracket. The few remaining are quickly heading in that upward direction, too. If you wish to recapture that special era on two wheels, time is running out!