10 Best Classic European Motorcycles
Steve Glover/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
European motorcycles are characterized by their styling, handling, and in the case of classics, their unique riding experience.
Any list of motorcycles is subjective, but for someone who’s new to classic motorcycles and thinking about purchasing his or her first bike, they are invaluable. If it’s on the list, it is a well-known and proven classic with a big following.
Triumph motorcycles were first offered to the public in 1902, but their most famous machine has to be the Bonneville. Taking its name from the world records set on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, the Bonneville name remains in Triumph’s lineup.
The original Bonneville was first sold in 1959. Early examples fetch around $14,000. However, the rarity of the early machines ensures their prices are both stable (no massive jumps or falls) and increasing.
Ducati’s fortunes had taken a big upswing by winning the F1 TT on the Isle of Man in 1978. The Mike Hailwood Replica (based on the TT-winning machine) had sales of more than 7,000 and saved the company from failure. The Ducati 851 kept the company moving ahead. This machine combined the famous Desmodromic vale actuation system with water cooling and computer-controlled fuel injection. But it was the 888 (an upgrade of the 851) that put Ducati firmly back at the top of European Superbikes.
The 888 won two world superbike championships (with American rider Doug Polen in 1991 and 1992) and was the predecessor of the highly acclaimed 916.
The 888 used a tubular frame made from Chrome Molybdenum (SAE 4130) and, combined with suspension from Ohlins (rear) and Showa (forks), gave superb handling characteristics. A good example of a 1993 888 is valued at around $4,500, making this bike a very popular classic.
The early Triumph Bonneville’s major competitor was Norton, at least as far as handling was concerned. Motorcycle riders of the time (the 1960s) wanted the power and performance of the Triumph Bonneville engine and the superb handling of the Norton featherbed frame — combining the two produced the renowned Triton.
Prices for a Triton differ considerably depending on their condition, history, and build quality. For the inexperienced buyer, it is recommended that a qualified mechanic inspects the bike before purchase.
Vincent Black Shadow
Considered by many to be the first superbike, the Vincent Black shadow was a development of the Rapide. The C series was first introduced in 1948. The 998-cc, 50-degree V-Twin engine in the Black Shadow produced 55 horsepower and was capable of propelling the 455-pound machine to 125 mph. Interestingly, the Black Shadow deployed a cantilever rear suspension system, which was made popular many years later by Yamaha.
Prices for a 1949-series C Black Shadow are around $43,000. However, the rarity of these bikes tends to push the price up, especially for an original example in good condition.
Not all classics have big engines or staggering performance. The little BSA Bantam was one of the most successful motorcycles ever sold in Europe. Although there are no official numbers available for Bantam production, it is known that BSA produced more than 50,000 units by 1951.
The D1 Bantam was first offered to the public in 1948. The design of the Bantam was based on the German DKW 125 2-stroke. The BSA factory had acquired the design as part of World War II reparations. The machine was designed by German engineer Herman Weber.
A 1948-D1 example in good condition is valued at around $3,500.
The Laverda Jota is a three-cylinder 4-stroke with chain-driven, double-overhead camshafts. The 981-cc Jota came to the market in 1976, but a pre-prototype of the bike was shown at the Milan Motorcycle Show of 1971. The original design had a single overhead camshaft and was a development of the company’s 750-cc twin.
The UK importer Slater Brothers was instrumental in getting the Jota produced. Working closely with the factory, Slater Brothers took the Jota to many motorcycle race victories. The three-cylinder engines have a unique sound due to their crankshaft design (two pistons up, one down).
Unfortunately, this design also produces considerable vibrations (something that was addressed by rubber mountings in 1982).
Moto Guzzi Le Mans
Every manufacturer has a loyal group of supporters, and Moto Guzzi is no exception. The company celebrated 90 years of production in 2011, and one of its most well-known bikes is the Guzzi Le Mans. The 850-cc Le Mans was first offered to the public in 1975. For Guzzi enthusiasts, the Le Mans had all of the classic manufacturer’s features and was competitive performance-wise against the Japanese bikes of the time.
The shaft drive V-Twin had a number of shortcomings (fast-action clutch, torque reaction from the crankshaft, easy rear wheel locking if down changes were not synchronized with engine revs), but it became popular with street bike riders and racers alike. Today, there are clubs supporting the brand all over the world, including a Moto Guzzi world club.
An early example (1976) carries a value of around $7,000.
MV Agusta 750 Sport
Loosely developed from the company’s Grand Prix racers, the 750S is a DOHC (Double Over Head Camshaft) in-line, four-cylinder 4-stroke with shaft final drive.
The actual engine capacity was 790cc. However, the original engine was a 600-cc unit that had been developed for street use from the Mike Hailwood and John Surtees 500 GP winning racers.
Considered by many to be one of the best-looking classics of all time, the MV attracts classic collectors everywhere — which keeps the prices relatively high. A good example will cost in the region of $45,000.
Designed by Max Friz, the BMW R-series became known all over the world for its solid German engineering and quality. Used primarily as a touring bike, the boxer-engined (horizontally opposed flat twin) shaft driven machines are BMW’s best-selling motorcycles of all time with more than 100,000 units sold. The GS stands for Gelände/Straße, which is German for Terrain/Road, indicating the bike’s dual purpose.
The GS series has been a very successful long-distance, off-road racer in events such as the Paris-Dakar rally.
Prices for an early (1980) GS are around $4,000, making them a reasonably inexpensive classic.
The Norton Commando (named after the elite British soldiers) was designed by a group of Norton engineers: Bob Trigg, Dr. Stefan G Bauer, Bernard Hooper, and John Favill.
The 745-cc, inclined parallel twin was first shown to the public in 1967 at the Earls Court Motorcycle Show.
The engine was a development of the earlier Atlas unit with increased capacity. However, the large twin cylinder engine became known for its tendency to vibrate. To counter this problem, engineers rubber-mounted the engine in a new frame for the commando. This new frame was a major departure from the tried and trusted featherbed, but it proved to be another Norton with exceptional handling (something the company had become famous for).
Early examples (1967) of the Commando are valued at around $7,200.