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The Paul d’Orléans Vintage Bike Buyer’s Guide

Posted on May 25, 2011 by Andrew in Classic, Other. 24 comments

A 1952 BSA B33 “BSL 518” – great to own, hard to pronounce. Photo by Frank Hilton

Ever thought about buying a vintage bike. Of course you have! You know you want to. Hell, who doesn’t? In my perfect world (or mind), a character test, job interview, police interrogation, or court hearing would all involve the same simple question – “do you now, have you ever, or will you at some point in the future own a vintage motorcycle?” “Yes,” you say? Well, you’ve got the job/passed the test/are a free man despite the seemingly insurmountable evidence involving the hookers, jumping castle, and those fluorescent rubber clown masks.

But let’s cut to the chase. You’re afraid to own one, aren’t you? AFRAID! Like a big baby, you are! Oh look at you with your cool 80s motorbike and your iPhone and your streaming movies on demand! You are soft, is what you are. Spoilt by too many modern conveniences. What you need is to get back to you roots – to get your hands dirty and to connect, really connect, with what it means to be alive and free. Paul d’Orléans knows exactly what it’s like to be a real man. Hell, he’s got more man in his little finger than most of you have in your entire, pudgy, mobility-scooter-bound bodies. He’s not afraid; he’s got a ton of them. Hundreds! So us big babies here at Pipeburn decided to ask Paul how we could man-the-hell-up and get ourselves a vintage bike without all the pain, breakdowns and wasted time. God, we’re soft.

Pipeburn: “I’m thinking about purchasing a vintage bike; something 1960s or earlier. Open to any brand or model. But i’m more than a little scared about the upkeep, expensive mechanical issues, and lack of parts along with the time they soak up. Any recommendations for a rock-solid old bike that’s easy to work on and not too expensive to maintain or hard to find parts for?”

Paul: “There are plenty of totally affordable 1960s bikes which are super reliable with excellent spares availability.  I’ll assume you want a middle weight and larger (500cc and up), and give my recommendations.

The early Honda CB450 ‘Black Bomber’s are excellent, fast, and look great to my eye, with their chrome tanks, and they’re fast and handle well enough. Spares and knowledge easy to come by.  A later CB450 would be cheaper; find a good original one, they’re beautiful.”

“If you want a German bike, that will mean BMW.  The R50 and R60 aren’t expensive in average condition. They can be upgraded with ‘S’ cylinder heads without crazy expense too.  If you find a ratty one which runs, playing with the ‘look’ is fun, but they also look great completely stock with a solo Pagusa saddle.”

A 1969 BMW R60. “Buy me,” she says. “Buy meeee…”“On the American end, early Sportsters are cheap, and you can get all the parts, plus there is a huge service network for them. They are amenable to tuning and whatever cosmetics you choose. I quite like the East Coast business which uses old Benelli tanks on Sportys, as I’m no fan of the trad tiny HD tank, unless you’ve got an XLR or KHK… but then you’ve entered into an expensive world of badass.

In the British scene, you’re going to have more hands-on time, as they were in fact designed to be maintained by the owner, and can be infinitely rebuilt fairly easily, with a good manual and some tools. Big vertical twins are still pretty cheap, Triumphs and BSA, and can be very reliable if done properly. Bad electrics and crappy rebuilds are common though, and I understand the Fear which keeps kids away from Brit stuff. They reward the work put into them. Among all Brit stuff, the singles are really simple to keep going and are really fun.  My favorites are Velocettes; the Venom engine is a rock (100mph for 24hrs – nobody else did it), and they are smooth and handle beautifully. Total spares availability, huge owner’s clubs, but you’ll have to learn a bit about peculiarities like the clutch, and live with the oil leaks.

Italian midweights of the 60s are rare; there’s the Benelli Tornado 650cc, but no spares. Ducati singles are really fun, with good support, and are still fairly cheap – the 450s really go, as their chassis is basically the same as the 250.”

1971 Benelli Tornado 650cc – Nice but no spares

“If you’re willing to enter the 1970s, there are a million possibilities which are super cheap and lots of fun, but that’s another question!”

Pipeburn: And what would be your No.1 English bike from the 50s that would fit the bill?

Paul: “I’d say any 50s Britbike with an iron top end; BSA A7 or A10, Triumph Thunderbird, BSA B33, Velocette MAC or MSS, AJS 16, etc.  Why? They are less highly tuned than later alloy-engine models, and the iron doesn’t warp and cause leaks, they run quieter and are sweeter-running in general.”

A ’49 BSA A7 with a 500cc twin. Rule Britannia!

  • Hardman

    This is one of the best posts so far! Thank you Pipeburn/Paul. Yes, I fall into the "chicken" category on levels of maintenance and a little advice like this goes a long way when scouting for something vintage. Thanks again.

  • Brian B

    A real life buyers guide is over due. Jumping in with both feet and not knowing what you are doing is great for learning, but if you are unlucky and start with the "wrong" bike for yourself it can run you off.
    I started with a R75/6, moved to a R50/2 (S heads will only fit on R69S) traded that for a R51/3 and now have boxes filled with a 1952 Triumph Thunderbird. So I seem to have hit 2 of bikes suggested.
    Thanks to Pipeburn and Paul

  • michaelb1

    would it be a crime to buy a totally abused vintage and convert it to an electric? becuase i think that would be kind of cool.

  • Excellent post!

  • Paddy

    Indeed, I think it is my favourite post as well. I wish it ran ten times longer.

    D'Orleans' web-site is incredible!

  • ekuna

    Just bought a Benelli Tornado 650 a few weeks ago. The Engineering is 1970s, not 1940s. This means it has much better engineering than British twins. Gotta love the Bosch electrics as well. Spares are not easy, but not impossible.

  • psbero

    Old bikes rock! I like the pre-war Harleys & Indians, the 50's British stuff, and the early BMW R's. I chickened out though, so I got myself a 2010 Royal Enfield with the new unit construction engine and EFI. Will certainly get an older bike in the future though!

  • Outstanding post. I too wish it were longer. I ride a 2003 Royal Enfield which is actually a 1955 assembled in 2003. Mechanics are all the same and requires regular, simple maintenance which I enjoy.

  • steve whelan

    Excellent article! Another point I strongly recommend, is that if someone buys a vintage bike, join a support club for that make of bike. Owner's manuals, technical publications & magazine articles are great, but nothing beats the unwritten tribal knowledge that exists throughout the world. You'll have the largest concentration of willing helpers available at your disposal. Paid memberships are worth it!

    I own three BMW's 1938 R12, 1951 R51/3 Cafe Racer, 1964 R69S, a Triumph 6t "Great Escape" replica, a 1950 Vincent Comet & a 1985 MZ ETZ 250A ex-DDR Army bike, & have survived through the support of these type clubs. It's also worth joining the club before you buy a bike, for pre-purchase advice & possible leads to your future investment.

  • Dont just think about. Go for it.

    My first complete rebuild was a 1969 Honda CB350. I'm 26, so this bike is a few years older than me… but what a thrill it was getting it running and looking good!

    My current project is a 1947 CZ 125cc two stroke with the tank shifter.

    You don't need to be rich or go big to have fun with vintage bikes!

  • rafe03

    I must be Vintage then! I bought a CB450 "Black Bomber" when they were new & put lotsa miles on her before I had to let her go. Modern engineering with a real "individual personality & appearance" I put over 70,000 miles on her in Canada & Australia.

    Had to be careful with the warm-up. It took a minute & a half for the oil to get to the cams & the top end rattling to fade away

    The only change that I made was to remove the top engine mount. The well written & illustrated manual explained how the engine was balanced & I figured that there was a transverse rocking couple that did all the shaking. Off it came & it was half as shaky! (Or maybe I just forgot to put it on one day! Can't remember now.)

    Biggest bike Honda made when I got it. Then the CB750 came out & my love shifted.

    Now I know better & wish I had her back..

    I have spent too many hours over at the vintagent seeing what Paul has come up with. I can disappear into the archives for years at a time. Always something interesting. Thanks for reminding us of the fun thats over there.

  • Raúl Vicente

    Beautiful…! The Vintagent reminds us always that we should preserve the lessons from the past and apply them to the present time, in order to prepare for a future worthy of all the effort put into building this civilization. Nothing should be taken for granted, for everything can be destroyed at the hands of hatred and ignorance. Build your own piece of the world in a decent way, and it'll last forover as long as there are Vintagents. That's why I'll age with my lovely SV650N, and hope I'm fortunate enough to watch it become my own classic.

  • Nickwiz

    Great article. Yes Old bike ownership is fun. If you have a modern bike to raz round on 90% of the time riding the old uns is a pleasure. Get them in a reasonable state and TBH they'll run for ever unless of course you use it as a daily rider. I have a 1968 BSA single and a 1930 Triumph which is simply great to chuff along on. Don't be afraid take the plunge. Plus once the initail outlay has been stumped up. The cost of ownership is peanuts.

  • There's nothing to be afraid of. The worst case scenario is that you buy a bike then blow up the motor. But it will be a learning experience as you fix, rebuild, refurbish, restore, etc. And then you'll know a whole lot more about your bike and bikes in general.

    My suggestion is to find the bike that you really want. Don't just buy the first old bike you see, read books and magazines to find out what really turns you on. You'll be futzing with the bike for a while, and it is easy to loose motivation. So start with something that is really exciting to you, and you'll have more motivation to see it through.

    Once you know what you want, join the one-marque club for that bike. Put in a "wanted" advert in their newsletter. Go on club rides, even on a modern bike. You'll be surprised how they welcome you when you are excited about things. It won't matter if you're on a 1980's Honda. Just meet the guys and start asking questions.

    Don't be afraid to jump back in time to the pre WWII bikes. They are pretty simple to work on, and have great style. Remember, by the 1930's, bike designs were very modern. Post WWII, they had rear suspension, and automatic advance on the ignition, but the 4 speed gearbox, enclosed valves, 6 volt headlights, multiplate clutches, etc were all in place during the 1930s. And 1930's bikes are lighter, lower and vibrate less than 1960's big parallel twins. Once you learn how to install a clutch cable or change a wheel bearing, it is the same for a 1920's Rudge as on a 1980's Honda.

    Once you wrap your mind around the fun that can be had while riding a little slower on a beautiful bike that you fully understand and are comfortable with, you'll never go back to riding modern bikes on sunny Saturdays. (ride-to-work is a whole different story!).

    enjoy yourself.

  • SOFT is right!! ,streaming video,tweeting AAA to come change your flat,,..buying a vintage bike without knowing where the choke is or WHAT it is.. I own a great vintage cycle shop in Phila,pa called Liberty Vintage ,GOOGLE IT ON YOUR I PHONE FOR VIDEO PORTRAIT FROM ETSY,,and ive started to have to interview customers who come in on how much experience they have…i explain that these bikes are RUSTY- unreliable- expensive & labor intensive to own..and people look back at you blankly…they say "what does all that matter as long as i can pay?? $$$$ i say- would you buy a hang glider and say no problem??? YOU WOULD DIE… would you buy a 1971 honda civic and expect it to be the same as your 2011 honda car?? no,,if you drove a new car always,,,you would never buy and old car and expect it to be as easy as a 2011 car….but with motorcycles it seems that every scenester in his girlfriends tight pants,,that spent 3 hours messing with his hair to make it look like he didnt comb it,,is hopping on the cafe racer train…just click it and its yours…no need to have a background or any experience in anything mechanical…these guys can even start a power washer let alone own and maintain a 40yr old bike… im not saying not to try…but….VINTAGE,OLD,USED,ANTIQUE MOTORCYCLES ARE NOT LIKE PLAYSTATION – NO SET UP MENU- YOU CAN HOP ON AND INSTANTLY BE SHOOTING AN M16 LIKE A BATTLE HARDENED VETERAN-BUT NOT IN REAL LIFE.
    Our next generation is growing up pussifed,,while other countries children and young people are coming here to learn and work,,get experience…our children and young people are playing games on computers and ipads instead of learning about work and life.The new digital tech is great…but lets remember…its still just the same bullshit on steriods

  • Stephany

    This article has helped me (almost) appreciate the bikes I own, but I'm still scared. I know this probably isn't a site for selling bikes, but I have vintage motorcycles that I need to sell cheap, fast. My brother was a collector and died two years ago, leaving me with his hoard. Although I ride a motorcycle myself, I am not mechanically minded enough to fix, let alone own, these bikes. Some run, some don't, some might even be for parts for others. I'm so sorry for letting them sit for two years, undrained, unwinterized. I'm willing to sell them to someone who can fix them up and appreciate them. Or, if you know anyone who might be interested in checking these out, refer them. Also, of my brother's bikes, our half-sister has a 1940 Indian Chief, fully restored, that we're trying to sell. I'm sorry to use your site, but I want to find people who appreciate vintage bikes. Before the new generations come along who may not give a shit about excellence and history. Plese, help me find good hands for my brother's heritage.

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