Some people put money into superannuation; I put it into old motorbikes.

Republished from July 2021

THERE’S an interesting tension in the world of old motorbikes right now. On one side, some are angry at the escalating prices of classic machines. They believe motorbikes should be, as they once were, affordable means of transport which happen to be a lot of fun and should be ridden frequently and with gusto. On the other side are those who see motorbikes — or some of them, at least — as ridgy-didge investment vehicles that should be preserved, admired, and held until it’s time to pass them on to a new custodian. At a handsome profit, thanks very much.

Classic bikes were already appreciating strongly before momentum started to gather for electric cars and bikes to replace the venerable internal combustion engine. While there was some expectation that demand for petrol-engined machinery would collapse, classic bikes appear to be going the other way — and prices seem to be growing even stronger.

Bob Whittingstall lives with one foot in each camp of the investment-versus-enjoyment argument. A motorcycle enthusiast since buying his first bike, a Honda Dream when he was 14 years old, Bob has assembled a wonderful collection of rare and valuable British and American classics. He’s not a buy-and-sell collector. He buys bikes that he admires, he repairs them, and he rides them — in some cases shipping them from one side of Australia to the other to reunite with once-a-year friends and fellow bike enthusiasts at veteran rallies.

But he’s not oblivious to the growing status of old motorbikes as appreciating assets. “Some people put money into superannuation; I put it into old motorbikes'” he says. “I think I’ve done okay out of it.”

Bob started with British bikes but has found lots to like in early American machinery. And no, there’s not an Indian or a Harley to be seen!

Some of Bob’s bikes were in excellent condition when he bought them, some needed work, and some needed major restoration. A self-taught mechanic and fabricator, Bob is adept at rebuilding and repairing tired machines and has established a network of like-minded souls he can engage for expertise beyond his own.

As a result, the quality of all Bob’s bikes is superb — a quick inspection of his worker-man Norton Commando and A65 BSA show the same dedication to detail as that applied to his top-shelf Brough Superior or his two Hendersons. Even bikes undergoing repair or restoration have that same do-it-right-or-don’t-bother look to them. The day we visited, there was a 1918 Henderson on the bench, getting substantial attention in preparation for a veteran rally (COVID permitting …) later in the year. It didn’t look like an old old bike. It didn’t look like a bike that needed work. It looked like a new bike getting a service, in a purposeful neat-and-tidy workshop.

It sure doesn’t look 103 years old. Bob has two Hendersons; big-bore American-made luxury bikes propelled by in-line four cylinder engines. They are beautiful!

Recently retired from the trucking company he founded with two friends in the early 1990s, Bob is an active member of Albany’s Vintage and Classic Motorcycle Club on the south coast of Western Australia. He’s one of the driving forces behind Albany’s highly-regarded classic motorcycle weekend and an enthusiastic participant in veteran bike rallies.

“Much of the enjoyment I get from bikes is about the people you meet; the friends you make at rallies,” Bob says.

“You can not see someone for a year, or even two, and you’re still great mates when you reconnect at these events.”

Bob gave us a tour of his marvellous bike shed, and we took our camera.

BSA’s 650 (A65) was a work-man’s bike back in the mid-60s. Today they’re valued as a classic, and this one is as good as you’ll find.
These triples are twins. The Triumph Trident (left) and BSA Rocket 3 were both built in March 1969, and conceivably bumped handlebars in the UK way back then, before being reunited in Bob’s shed half a century later.


This spotless 1972 Commando 750 is Bob’s “modern” Norton. It’s in superb shape.
Not-quite-so-modern 500cc Norton ES2 from 1938.
Even-less-modern Model 19 Norton, from 1929. Also a 500cc.
Not even the slightest bit modern, the Norton 16H dates to 1925; right back to the early days of motorcycling. You guessed it — 500cc.
This Triumph 500 was already a teenager when Norton’s 16H was released. Built in 1913, it has only one gear, is driven by a rubber belt, and has a valve-lifter to lower compression so it’s easier to start. (And you thought decompression levers were a modern invention, right?) Gotta love the twin overhead horns.

This one’s our favourite. T. E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to you and me) owned eight Brough Superiors and died when he crashed number seven; the eighth was on order. They cost as much as a house back in the day, so were a rich man’s toy. This one of Bob’s is an SS80, which means the factory guaranteed it was good for 80mph. Not bad for 1935 — but not as impressive as the SS100…
Tucked away in a corner of the shed is this fascinating project. It’s a 1930 Matchless X2R. The X2 was a 1000cc V-twin cruiser, but the X2R was a rare sports version. Bob’s been told this bike is one of only four ‘R’ variants ever made.
So you’ve never heard of a Sears motorcycle? Well, at the turn of the Century (the last one, that is) there was an American magazine-style sales catalogue called the Sears Catalog. Americans would pore over every edition, shopping for everything from underwear to furniture and even, yup, Sears-branded motorbikes. This one is an absolute stunner. It’s an 1157cc V-twin, has only one gear, and those pedals are used to make it start (pedal forwards), make it stop (pedal backwards), and are also your footpegs. And to think you could have bought one for $US189 back in 1913 …
It’s easy to see why Bob has developed a taste for Hendersons – apart from being gorgeous pieces of kit, they have a great story. The Henderson company ran from 1912 to 1931, and their bikes were the biggest and fastest motorbike that money could buy. A Henderson famously thumped a Harley-Davidson in a high-stakes shootout in 1922 when both companies were pitching to supply bikes to the Chicago Police Department. The Harley won the first ‘race’ and then lost 11 in a row. Of course, Harley had the last laugh because H-D survived the Great Depression. This bike is a 1923 Deluxe, with a 1340cc in-line four engine and a speedometer pick-up gear that’s a work of art all on it’s own.

As well as being home to a wonderful collection of bikes, Bob’s shed also has some intriguing hardware. This is a Bonniksen speedo – high-tech kit fitted to Brough Superiors and Scotts in the 1920s and 30s. Note that it has two hands. Evidently one hand would give you a speed, then fall away, then the other hand would give you a speed, then fall away. They say many riders perished looking at Bonniksen speedos on the fly, instead of looking where they were going. We don’t know whether Lawrence of Arabia was one of them …



Peter Terlick