The 2006 Monterey Classic Bike Auction

Bob Stokstad
by Bob Stokstad

Over 50,000 enthusiasts came to Monterey to watch Nicky Hayden carry the day for his team, the USA, and himself in the 2006 Moto GP at Laguna Seca, but even in the days and evenings preceding Sunday's big event there was another attraction in downtown Monterey that offered race fans a sense of history and a respite from the sweltering heat.

The 2nd Annual Monterey Classic Bike Auction began on Thursday afternoon with a preview and included auctions Friday and Saturday nights.

Anyone with a fondness for classic motorcycles and a curiosity about taste and what defines it could indulge themselves at no cost other than time. It was a buffet laid out for everybody to look at and everyone was welcome. To sit at the table and eat heartily required "only" a credit card and an appropriate bank account to back it. Momentarily lacking those assets, you could still have fun watching others spend theirs, in real time.

1903 Fabrique Nationale Single
Loris Capirossi's Ducati, winner of 2005 Sepang Moto GP
1929 Bohmerland - 600 cc Czech touring machine
Gavin Trippe showing Eddie Lawson helmet
1976 Benelli 750 cc six-into-six
Custom design by Jesse Rooke
The lobby of the Portola Plaza Hotel was filled with motorcycles spanning a century. A 1903 Fabrique Nationale Single was only yards away from a 2005 GP-winning Ducati. In between them stood one of the longest and most interesting motorcycles I've ever seen - a 1929 Bohmerland 600cc touring machine. All three belonged to the group of big-ticket items to be auctioned on Saturday evening. Gavin Trippe, organizer of this and last year's MCBA events, commented "every bike we've got has a story to it." It's the story as well as the condition of the motorcycle that determines whether he accepts it for the auction and, ultimately, its value. Over one hundred motorcycles - vintage, road-race, street, dirt, and custom creations - were on the block and available for up-close inspection.

"The collecting market for cars is overblown," says Trippe. "Everything to find has been found." A recent analysis by the Forbes Collector notes that collectable motorcycles, after peaking in the '80s went through a slow period. Since the late '90s, however, there has been a resurgence in interest. Compared to classic cars, there are good deals in motorcycles out there.

The MCBA organizers, through the courtesy of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, set up an enormous tent on the old customs plaza next to the hotel. It housed the bikes, the bidders, the enthusiasts, the idly curious and a sound system that could compete with a rock concert in ability to shatter eardrums. When auctioneer Steve Holt let go on the first item up for bid, it was like somebody had started a chain saw in church. Occasionally the undecipherable staccato would be interspersed with recognizable words, which were usually numbers signifying dollars, either already offered or hoped for. Bid spotters or "ring men" worked the crowd, using complicated hand signals in cajoling bidders to up the ante. Big-time bidders, usually from museums or representing serious collectors, received personal attention from the ring men. With few exceptions it was hard (at least for me) to tell who was bidding. Poker faces were the norm. A hand gesture, a wink, some subtle body motion was all it took to send the amount up another thousand, an event accompanied by shouts and applause from the bidder's ring man.

Each motorcycle was introduced with choice words on its provenance or pedigree, typically by Gavin Trippe who, himself, has been key to early development of motorcycle racing in California.

It was fascinating to hear the history of these bikes, which is the history of motorcycling itself.

Stellar figures from the past like Mert Lawwill and Gary Nixon came on stage to tell stories. Current personalities, such as Mitch Boehm, Troy Lee, and custom designer Jesse Rooke explained their connections to the bikes on the block. At some point control would be handed over to the auctioneer who, working his way down, would meet a bidder working his way up, and the process would begin.

Simulcasting the auction over the Internet brought on-line bidders into the action. At times though, the bidding was slow, so slow that the auctioneer would threaten to "roll it off" and, that's what would happen unless bidding picked up. This was, indeed, often the disappointing end to several minutes of maximum-decibel exhortation. The "reserve"--the minimum amount required by the seller--had not been met and the bike went unsold.

Late in the evening the choicest pieces were brought forward - the most interesting bikes and the ones expected to draw the largest amounts. First place in the category of high anticipation went to the 2005 GP5. The number of people in the tent was highest at this point. Bidding started at 100K and started working up in $10,000 amounts. At $225,000 there was a pause while Trippe came back on the dais to explain why this was an investment opportunity worth mortgaging the family farm. But, alas, the touted half million didn't materialize and this high-tech, gorgeous GP winner was rolled off to wait for another day on the block.

Every bidder is looking for something different. Jeff Ray from the Barber Museum in Birmingham, Alabama bought at least five bikes for the museum's collection, now numbering over 1000. "We're looking more to original paint, original bikes, unmolested, ... that we can detail out, maybe change out some parts that are incorrect and keep as original as possible" says Ray. A beautiful example of this is the 1976 Benelli 750 six-into-six that he acquired Friday night.

The 1903 FN from the Otis Chandler collection sold for $29,500, but bidding for the Bohmerland topped out at $47,500, well short of the reserve and it was rolled away to mild applause. Knowing how much is offered at a particular auction is certainly useful information for a prospective seller, but it can be frustrating for the auction's spectators (not to mention the organizers) to have the process end in a roll off instead of a "sold!". The full Chandler collection will be auctioned on October 21 at Oxnard. The custom chopper designed by Jesse Rooke was one of the high-end successes - it went for $80,000 to an Internet bidder.

Got an old bike in your garage or barn or know somebody who does? If it has a story behind it, is old with original paint or might be just plain rare, send Gavin Trippe the details and maybe you will be up there on stage next year to tell a story. Just don't set your reserve too high.

Bob Stokstad
Bob Stokstad

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