Few people would argue that ideas of greatness are subjective
No one can argue what the oldest, the fastest or the most expensive motorcycles are. But what about coolness, collectibility or whether something is an icon? The varied motorbikes we’ve featured here show that different people have different ideas about what makes a great collection.
So why do people and organisations insist on telling us what the greatest motorcycles of all time are? Most are the product of one person’s view, niche collections or lists based on rarity or auction prices.
We analysed search data from Google to answer this very question: which motorcycles are people in the UK searching for the most? And, if you owned all of the most searched-for bikes, what would that collection look like? And could it be called the ultimate collection?
There is no better – or more iconic – touring bike. It’s basically a convertible on two wheels. It has a distinctive aesthetic that combines Japanese futurism with classic American chrome for a visually striking yet highly functional model.
This is a well-deserved inclusion. It takes me back to when I was a kid in the 1970s. One of my dad’s mates pulled up at the house on one – they used to go touring all over the place. I remember saying: ‘it’s got a radio on! How cool is that?!’ It had speakers and these big soft seats.
The bike was way ahead of its time. It’s not what you’d want to go round a track on, or even too fast round a corner on the roads, but it was perfect for touring because of its design and because Honda are incredibly reliable, even back then. This is an iconic bike.”
“The Honda Gold Wing, in all its incarnations, has become iconic in the ‘luxury’ touring field. They are sought-after for their longevity, presence, smoothness, reliability and performance. Over the 43 years of the Gold Wing’s existence it has won many accolades from the motorcycling press for best luxury touring bike and in the second-hand market you get a lot of motorcycle for your money. Honda’s machines have built a strong reputation. The Gold Wing has evolved as a long-distance ‘luxury’ tourer and it serves that role impeccably.
“Ask a non-motorcyclist to name any motorcycle and Harley-Davidson generally gets a mention, but ask motorcyclists about luxury touring bikes, and the Honda Gold Wing always comes to mind.”Peter Rakestrow
GWOCGB Archivist (with thanks to Chris Easter, Editor)
BSA is a classic British motorcycle manufacturer with its roots as the Birmingham Small Arms Company producing guns since 1861. With their distinctive chrome tank and red badge, the Gold Star made a name as being among the fastest bikes of the 1950s.
I expected to see this or a Manx Norton or something similar in the list. The bike was a bit before my time, but they were clearly ahead of their time and what’s made them the legendary bikes they are – that, and they were very good on the track. I guess if you wanted to go fast and look cool in the 1930s and 1940s you had to have one of these bikes.”
The Ninja is a brand of its own and covers a wide range of bikes from the naked 650R and sport-touring ZX series to the ever-popular ZX-6R. The model and its many iterations have built a devoted following for their high-performance, contemporary styling and speed. With various power-rating options, many people progressed from Ninja to Ninja as their riding demands evolved.
This one does not surprise me, ‘Ninja’ is a brand of its own – you don’t even need to say Kawasaki Ninja, it’s just a Ninja... Some models become that. It’s always been a popular bike, even today. The original was more sit-up-and-beg but now it’s more of a track bike – a powerful, aggressive sports bike. And it’s an icon.”
The commercial model was based on Aprilia’s GP250, to celebrate their success in the championship and brought lots of their race technology to customers. And who doesn’t want to feel like iconic MotoGP riders such as Valentino Rossi, Max Biaggi and Loris Capirossi who rode the bike? The rare 2003 Aprilia RS250DGP-1 has been described as “the most advanced mass-produced street two-stroke that ever roamed the Earth”.
That’s a strange one – I wouldn’t expect that to be in the list. It’s quite a modern bike and it’s not as iconic as something like, say, the Yamaha RD350 or 250 that I would expect to see in here.”
In 1948, Roland ‘Rollie’ Free rode a modified Black Shadow on the Rosamond Dry Lake in California and smashed the world land-speed record by lying down in his bathing suit – cementing the name of the bike in motorcycle lore and creating an iconic image in the process. This bike is a legend.
I’ve heard of these bikes but it’s a bit before my time so I don’t know about the engine or anything. I know Vincents but it’s like BSA, and probably all types of bike, it’s very subjective: whoever you ask, you’ll get a different opinion. Age group is probably a deciding factor too. That iconic picture of Rollie Free breaking the world record [in 1948] on it is better known than the bike itself, but it’s still an icon for that generation, so I can understand why this is in the list.
“The Vincent was the fastest production motorcycle in the world for more than a decade. Quite a claim, but true. The natural habitat for a Vincent is on a fast A road, but it will also eat up the miles on a modern motorway.
“It was a special motorcycle when it was built and is still special now. They are a dream to ride and to own and their current value reflects their continued desirability.”Paul Adams
Information Officer, Vincent HRD Owners Club
Frequently cited as one of the most beautiful and sexy bikes of all time, Carl Fogarty (amongst others) made his name in the saddle of this bike. Not only is it a high-performance racing bike with great handling, but it connected with non-racing, non-sportsbike fans to become universally appealing. If you own one sportsbike, make it this one.
Finally, I agree with you on something! This is an iconic bike. The 916 was genuinely ahead of its time and I guess that’s why it’s in this list. For any bike to be considered an icon – and to be desired by collectors – they have to have that ‘wow’ factor when they come out on the streets or the race track. The 916 was so ahead of its time that it still looks like a brand-new model, it just doesn’t age, it’s incredible. Most 20-year-old bikes look 40 years old, but the 916 is ageless.
“The design was stunning, but it’s more than that: the Ducati 916 dominated the world superbikes, I won four world titles on the bike... which says it all really! It wasn’t that reliable, but I bet most of the top 10 won’t be... highly collectible for sure.”
This is another bike built for the track that became popular on the road. This was partly down to the fact that it was the first road-going supersports factory-fitted with ABS and dynamic traction control as well as Wet, Sport and Race riding modes. It wasn’t a sense of cool that made this bike so popular, it was just the best all-round superbike you could buy.
This is a strange one to include because it’s quite modern, but it has been considered the pinnacle of superbikes for the road for years now. I know that it’s popular with people who do track days. If there’s a row of bikes – Yamaha, Honda, Ducati – people like to pick the BMW. It’s an incredible road bike: it really looks the part, there’s a lot of stuff that works on it – the electronics and so on; it’s the ultimate package. And it’s a very very fast bike – they’ve been great at the TT.
“But if you’d told me 10-13 years ago that BMW would be making the best superbikes out there, I’d think you want locking up!”
Producing 90hp and clocking speeds of over 140mph, the Italian bike was the fastest production motorcycle you could buy. This alone made them a must-have for a generation of speed freaks. Into the 1980s the marque was overshadowed by Japanese bikes which may even add to their nostalgic value – especially as the company finally folded in 2004.
The Jota was a very popular bike at the time. I remember my dad had one. He rode the little one, the 600 in the TT. It’s a great bike, 1000cc, a big statement of a bike at the time.
“I’m not surprised this one made the list, it was an icon then and it’s probably more collectible now than ever.”
“The Laverda Jota is an extraordinary motorcycle that combines Italian styling, pacesetting performance with a truly intoxicating soundtrack. It was essentially a production racing machine direct from the factory, being the first motorcycle timed at more than 140mph it won the Avon Production UK Championship four times.
“With regular oil-changes the Jota can prove to be a robust, enjoyable machine that will provide many years of faithful service. Owning or just riding the Jota is never forgotten.”Simon Yates
Editor, International Laverda Owners Club (ILOC)
Norton were already an iconic brand by the 1960s having made motorcycles since 1902 – its art nouveau logo showing its deep roots – and won TTs in the 1940s and 1950s. As Carl points out, we might expect to see the Manx in this list, but the popularity of the Commando as a production model allowed it to make fans around the world – being voted the best motorcycle in the UK for many years.
Nortons, Triumphs, classic British bikes, they’re icons, real icons. You think of people like Steve McQueen riding these bikes in the movies of the 1950s and ‘60s. I really like that stuff...”
You think of people like Steve McQueen riding these
This iconic bike created a new class with its seminal design changes including the ‘stacked gearbox’ – an aggressive racing bike that gave 150bhp. No one can believe the R1 is more than 20 years old – a statement to how ahead of its time it was in 1998, when it was like nothing else on track or road.
In many ways, the R1 is today’s ultimate superbike. It hasn’t changed much over the years, but it hasn’t had to because it’s such a good bike. It’s a fantastic track bike, it’s a great road bike and it’s been going for 20-odd years. When something lasts that long you know you got it right from the start.”
Most of you will be breathing a sigh of relief that the ‘Bonnie’ made the list. Whatever your premise for inclusion, the Bonneville seems to make the list – and Google agrees with you. In fact, the model was in such demand that Triumph began to manufacture a completely redesigned retro model in 2016. So what makes them so sought-after? Was it thanks to Mike Hailwood and Dan Shorey riding them to victory in the prestigious Thruxton 500-mile race in June of 1958 – before they hit production lines? Is it because Clint Eastwood pillioned Tisha Sterling in 1968’s Coogan’s Bluff? Was it just because of the performance: the motor revved freely and you could summon power at will? It seems, like so many legends, it was influenced by everything: the culmination of movies, Triumph’s bad-boy brand, its attainable majesty and an indescribable X factor in the saddle.
Good! This bike needs to be in there. As I just said, these classic British bikes are icons. They’re so collectible, because they’ve stood the test of time. Young people today like modern versions of classics like this: the Triumph Scrambler and Triumph Thruxton R – I’ve got one. These newer bikes have retained their heritage, but they’ve got all the mod cons that you need for the 21st century. When I pull up on my Thruxton, I get more looks than I do when I’m on a superbike with all the paint and carbon fibre.
“Kids used to be into whatever the newest sport bike was. When I was young you wanted the latest ‘80s bikes. If it was six years old, we weren’t interested. But now it seems to be going the other way. People want naked bikes. They want to see the chrome and engine parts.
“I took a picture of the two new Ducati MotoGP bikes (for 2018) and put them on social media side-by-side with my 1998 Ducati. And people were saying, how ugly the new one looked compared to my older bike. They do look bloody awful to be honest – with these big wings on the side of them.
“Science is defining how bikes need to be designed to go round tracks but they don’t always look that great. Modern versions of classics like the Bonneville appeal to people – chrome and comfort – and lots of manufacturers are doing that now. But this is the original and they’re clearly still in demand.”
“Having ridden the iconic Triumph Bonneville thousands of miles across the world, this bike has to be the epitome of British style and quality. Its beauty always turns heads and gets a thumbs up for its timeless classic individuality.”Zoe Cano
The ‘80s editions remain iconic racing bikes while the 2006 edition was described as ‘arguably the best blend of sheer speed, fluid handling and outstanding braking’. Its most recent iteration was described as: ‘still the perfect mix of power and handling’.
This belongs in the list. They’re very popular bikes. If you want to look cool and go fast, they’re the bike. I look back now and think it looks bloody awful, but at the time… everyone had one for racing in the mid ‘80s. I remember Kevin Schwantz riding one in the Transatlantic Challenge at Donington and doing well at the TT on a GSXR in 1986 or ‘87.”
If I was choosing a bike for this or had to say what’s missing, I’d go with a Yamaha HRD 250 LC or 350 or the Honda RC30. The Honda in particular was way ahead of its time and dominated everything for a few years on circuits like the Isle of Man TT.”
Carl, there are a few people who are searching for American bikes – Indian or Harley-Davidson – for their collection.
Maybe... I wouldn’t have one in there… [laughs].
Whether rarity, price or nostalgia drives a collection all are valid, but it’s interesting to see the metric of median popularity: the bikes most people want the most.
Two – possibly related – observations from our list is a given motorcycle’s lasting, broad appeal. Yes, being desirable and groundbreaking is important, but what these bikes have in common is they have touched lives and made fans of so many people. A Brough Superior might sell for £589,000 at auction, but is it as widely loved as the Ninja? Not only were many of these and other classic bikes in production for many years (some of them are still being made), but some have even been revisited and revived after decades – from the 2016 Triumph Bonneville to the 2014 Royal Enfield Classic 500.
There can be an inherent elitism and even snobbery amongst ‘high-level’ collectors (read: those with the most money) – from stamps to books, motorcycles to music memorabilia. This seems driven by the instinctive competitiveness of these individuals – if you can collect one of every model of Triumph Bonneville, why bother? This mentality drives these collectors to hunt the white whales – or even white elephants – of the motorcycle universe.
We’re certainly not against those who seek out, purchase and preserve models which represent part of the long and rich history of our beloved machines, but we’d be loath to admit they’re more ‘collectible’ than anything above.
For most of us, collecting is more soulful. And the Google data bears this out: people want to own bikes they feel emotionally connected with.
While the bikes in this list may not be the rarest or most expensive, cumulatively they have played a more important role in the lives of more people than any million-pound curio. Whether our parents owned them, tinkered with them in our younger days, or watched our heroes – Barry Sheene, Mike Hailwood and our friend Carl Fogarty – race them, the bikes above touched more lives more deeply than one of two remaining 1910 Winchester 6hps.
And surely that places them amongst the most collectible bikes in the world.