Brough Superior motorcycles have always been considered the most likely long term investments for collectors, and after decades of waiting, it's finally beginning to happen. When Brough Superiors sold new in the twenties and thirties, they cost more than the average house (US$400,000 + in today's currency) and though relatively plentiful in comparison to most bikes on the list of the most expensive motorcycles sold, they are now beginning to populate the list - currently, Broughs on the list include the most expensive ever (bottom right), four of the top 12 highest prices ever, with another passed in at auction last week (top left and right) that would almost certainly have established another record if it had sold. In perhaps the greatest testimony to the outstanding 80 year-old design of the Brough Superior, the marque is again in production, with better-than-new replicas fetching US$150,000 each.
The world record auction price for a motorcycle was expected to fall last week when THE 1925 Prototype Brough Superior SS100 “Alpine Grand Sport” (top left) crossed the auctioneer’s block. The bike was a prototype that was raced to victory in numerous big races (including the 1925 Austrian Eight Day Alpine Trial - a test of speed and endurance that lasted eight days) in the hands of George Brough himself.
Astonishingly, it failed to sell, being passed in at US$450,000 - a few thousand shy of a world record price, but well short of the US$600,000 reserve. The bike will remain with its owner of the last two decades, though it must certainly establish a new record in the foreseeable future as it is one of the best known motorcycles of the most revered brand name and comes with such a distinguished provenance.
Just two months ago, a Brough Superior SS100 sold in the U.K. and set a world auction record of GBP286,000 (US$450,188), though that statement comes with a massive disclaimer, as technically there are now two "most expensive motorcycles sold at auction."
That sounds ridiculous, but it is indeed true. Let me explain.
In 2008, a rarer-than-hens'-teeth 1915 Cyclone board racer sold in the United States for US$551,200. In comparative currency, due to the exchange rates at that time, the sale price equated to GBP278,400 in imperial currency.
So there are now two highest priced motorcycles in the world, depending on which currency you prefer.
What is becoming more obvious though, is that Brough Superior is emerging as the most valuable motorcycle brand at auction, now holding four of the top 12 most valuable ever with a fifth set to sell in the near future, when collectors come to their senses and recognize that one of the iconic motorcycles of history is available.
Probably the biggest news though, is the resurrection of the Brough Superior marque - you can now buy a "genuine" replica, MUCH better than the originals of the thirties, for around US$150,000.
The most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction
Part 1 - 1915 Cyclone Board Racer
The short-lived but spectacular success of the Cyclone brand and the bike’s remarkable bevel-driven OHC V-twin design which was decades ahead of its time, both contributed to the shared world record auction price it commanded, but you don’t need to do a lot of research to realize just how rare Cyclones were in their day, let alone one in such pristine condition a century later.
Part 2 - Brough Superior SS100 - the other auction record holder
The Brough Superior which set the “other” world record, is a different beast entirely.
Brough Superior has long been regarded as one of the pre-eminent motorcycle designs of history. George Brough (pronounced as you would pronounce “rough”) was the son of a motorcycle manufacturer who took his father’s craft to the very highest level - well beyond any contemporary motorcycle manufacturer and almost certainly the greatest point of differentiation by a production motorcycle marque in 150 years of motorcycling.
Only 3000 were made across the marque’s two decade history and less than a thousand survive to this day – they won almost everything worth winning in competition, and were all bespoke-built to suit the weight, size, riding style and personal preference of the purchaser.
What the well-dressed motorcyclist was wearing circa 1925. A dashing George Brough aboard the prototype Alpine Grand Sport SS100.
Each sold new for more than the price of an average home at the time – well in excess of the relative price of any new production motorcycle today. The average housing price in the UK at present is just shy of GBP250,000, so if you wished to draw a comparison in today’s prices, the Brough Superior sold new for more than GBP250,000 – US$400,000.
Of course the most valuable motorcycles ever sold at auction are not the most valuable motorcycles ever sold – most extremely expensive objects sold at auction are sold to anonymous buyers, and it is only the auction itself which records the sale. Private sales are another matter indeed, and without the need for publicity, much rarer objects often change hands between individuals for much larger sums of money, and are hence only recorded by rumor or legend.
Given that it is impossible to reliably track the sale prices of private sales and the most realistic valuation is what someone is prepared to pay, then auction sales are the best valuation guide available.
Brough Superior’s most famous ambassador and owner was the famous British warrior, diplomat and statesman T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Lawrence owned seven during his lifetime and had a eighth on order when he crashed and died aboard his SS100 Brough in 1935.
George Brough and his greatest fan, Lawrence of Arabia. There are some wonderful shots of both Brough and Lawrence on the official Brough Superior site
Legend has it that a Brough Superior given to Lawrence by his good friend Irish philosopher and playwright George Bernard Shaw sold privately for US$4 million a few years back. Similarly, the SS100 which Lawrence was riding when he died would command an equally stratospheric price.
Distinguished provenance a key variable
Bikes ridden in films (e.g. Peter Fonda’s Captain America 1952 Harley Hydra-Glide chopper from Easyrider, or Marlon Brando’s 1950 Triumph Thunderbird from The Wild One), by celebrities (there are two ex-Steve McQueen bikes in the top 20) or by famous racers (ex-Hailwood, ex-Duke mounts f’rinstance), all tend to fare particularly well on the auction block.
Another valuable imprimatur is that the bike has been tested and written up by a respected authority. The world’s best known and most authoritative motorcycle tester is British writer Alan Cathcart. Cathcart's riding skills have taken him to two world championships and he’s the only rider to have tested every world championship-winning factory racing bike (MotoGP, 250, 125, Superbike) in the last three decades. "Sir Alan" is motorcycling royalty - you don’t get to throw a leg over that much priceless machinery under the eye of the race chiefs of Honda, Ducati, Yamaha, Aprilia et al, without commanding immense respect. As a vintage racing enthusiast who travels the world, he has ridden hundreds of bikes in races in every country where competition is held. Decreeing a bike as an ex-Cathcart mount adds significant value to it’s asking price.
The point I'm taking such a long time in making is that the Brough Superior motorcycle which set (or perhaps more accurately shares) the world record for the highest price realized at auction, was not blessed with a particularly distinguished history.
It may have been a close to perfect example of the breed, having been meticulously restored in 2001, but was not nearly as rare as the Cyclone, the Harley singles or the Crockers, nor did it have any remarkable history or ownership. This speaks volumes for the marque as there are many Brough Superiors out there which do have a history, and there's no better way to maximize the value of any object than at auction. Obviously, now that excellently restored but otherwise non-noteworthy Brough Superiors have reached the pinnacle, when those with a more distinguished provenance next go under the hammer, some spectacular prices can be expected.
The 20 most valuable motorcycles ever sold at auction
A list of the 20 most expensive prices paid at auction for a motorcycle is curated by Paul d'Orléans at his consistently excellent Vintage Motorcycle site, Vintagent and Paul’s analysis of the list strongly supports the rise of the Brough Superior as the most collectable motorcycle of all.
In Paul's list of the top 20, there are four Brough Superiors, four Crockers, three Harleys, two Vincent HRDs and seven motorcycle marques with one entry.
It will be interesting to see how the Crocker v Brough Superior quest for prominence works out in the long term as there were only 100 Crocker V-twins (the sought after Crocker model) produced, compared with 3000 Brough Superiors.
Only 68 Crockers are still known to exist, compared to around 1000 Brough Superiors and although the Brough Superior is in far greater supply, (and should hence be less valuable), all four Brough Superiors are in the top 12.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect that can be gleaned from the Vintagent list is the predominance of V-twins - 16 of the 20 most valuable motorcycles ever auctioned are v-twins - certainly way out of proportion to the incidence of v-twins throughout history.
Other analysis of the top 20 indicates that the most successful auction house is Bonhams (10 of the top 20), followed by MidAmerica (4), Gooding and Co (3), and HandH (2).
The results also indicate that prices too a dive following the Global Financial Crisis - seven of the top 20 were sold in 2008, but only two in 2009 and three in 2010. That might be an indication to buy soon if the opportunity arises, because prices will soon begin to escalate.
The prototype Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sport
Which brings us to the example passed in last week for US$450,000, and with an unconfirmed reserve price of US$600,000.
The sale venue was almost as significant as the machine on offer, as the bike was not auctioned among rare motorcycles, but as part of a Phillips de Pury sale of important design works.
The first Phillips de Pury Design Masters auction was held December 15, and included 57 important works by pioneering 20th and 21st century designers such as Carlo Bugatti (the celebrated artist/sculptor father of engineering polymath Ettore), Archibald Knox, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Jacques Le Chevallier, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, Serge Mouille, Philippe Starck, Marc Newson, Zaha Hadid and the Campana Brothers.
This very rare “Dragonfly” footed bowl, circa 1907 was one of the many important works included in the Phillips de Pury auction. It is the work of Carlo Bugatti, father of Ettore Bugatti who established the Bugatti automotive marque and captured world speed records for cars, boats, trains AND aeroplanes.
As an aside, the Bugatti plate produced by the non-automotive side of the remarkable Bugatti family. While Ettore Bugatti made the Bugatti nme well known in engineering terms, many other Bugatti family members found fame for their work as artists, …
The inclusion of the original prototype Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sport in the auction is recognition of the importance of the machine in a design sense. As the auction’s advanced publicity put it, in curating George Brough’s Alpine Grand Sport amongst other iconic modernist works, it re-contextualized “the motorcycle as design, at a time when architects and designers were creating design and architecture as machine.”
The bike which went under the hammer at Design Masters was built in early 1925 by Brough’s Chief Engineer Harold Karslake to George Brough’s design. It was built in preparation for the 1925 Austrian Alpine Trial, an 8-day race across public roads and alpine ways at a time when time-trials were still the recognized proving ground for road-going machinery. The trail was as important to motorcycling in Europe at the time as the Tour de France is to cycling today.
Whats more, the modified SS100 was to be the personal machine, ridden and raced, by the man whose name and racing exploits had forged the marque - George Brough.
The carburetion was set up to perform best at altitude, the wheelbase was modified to be longer than a normal Brough Superior SS100 and the frame rails and seat lower to enable the rider to paddle through the miles of muddy terrain encountered in always-wet alpine unmade roads of Austria.
Historically, the event is a direct ancestor of a sporting event now associated with a very different type of motorcycle – the International Six Day Enduro and the since emerged off-road racing scene. In those days road and off-road bikes were little different and the obstacles of the Alpine trial were far less demanding than those encountered in such events today. The special sections in those days included distance runs, hill climbs, and speed sections and Brough Superiors won all but one of these in Austria with George Brough taking gold on the bike.
He followed his Austrian win with another in the London-to-Edinburgh Trial then loaned the motorcycle to J.P Castley who used it to win the London-to-Exeter Trial. Less than twelve months after its initial outing, Brough once more raced the bike to Gold in the Victory Cup Trial.
Just as Brough had done several times before in building and racing machines to victory to display his machines’ superiority, the subsequent production replica became an official model in the Brough Superior line-up – this one became the Alpine Grand Sport.
So it’s entirely understandable that everyone expected this machine to take the new world record for a motorcycle at auction. It is a prototype of a famous machine, with four major wins in twelve months, and the personal machine of a legendary figure. Even at its passed in price, a price which a buyer was willing to pay, it would have become the third most valuable motorcycle ever to sell at auction. Had it reached its reserve price, it would have extended the record for obvious reasons. There are some wonderful period shots of the machine in the hands of Brough on the new official Brough Superior site.
The new “official” Brough Superior site I hear you ask?
The new old Brough Superior
Yes, the Brough Superior name was purchased in 2008 by a British motorcycle enthusiast named Mark Upham, who now produces better-than-original replicas of a number of famous Brough Superior models in limited numbers in Austria. As the genuine owner of the marque, these Brough Superiors are no less authentic than any Triumph, Harley Davidson, Jaguar, Lotus, Cadillac, Bugatti, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Mercedes Benz, Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Lamborghini or any other once famous marque that has changed ownership since it first came to prominence.
The big difference of course, is that marques with equivalent historical models of such gravitas (Bugatti, Cadillac, Alfa Romeo, Bentley and Rolls Royce all made vehicles which are now worth a King's Ransom) have not actually made genuine reproductions before.
What's more, the advantage of being absolutely-and-utterly-dedicated-to-quality, which Upham quite unequivocally is, and making detailed replicas of an eighty year-old machine today, is that the castings, metallurgy, machining and all components can be manufactured to significantly higher quality and closer tolerances than George Brough could ever have dreamed might be possible.
Perhaps an even more significant advantage of producing copies of original bespoke machinery in the modern era, is that exact models of significant historical pieces can be reproduced. For example the aforementioned Brough poster-boy, Lawrence of Arabia, owned eight Brough Superiors, and his best known Brough was nicknamed "George IV" and featured among a number of his published works.
Brough Superior is now producing exact replicas of Lawrence's George IV - down to the very last detail. It's almost impossible to read Lawrence's account of the encounter with the RAF bi-plane on a country road and not wish to relive the experience and this can now be done with more authenticity than previously possible - at a price - approximately US$150,000.
Just how the marketplace will treat the modern day Brough Superiors in terms of retained value will be interesting to watch, particularly given that original Brough Superior prices are now entering the stratosphere. There is absolute agreement by everyone who has seen the quality of the modern day Brough Superiors that they are better than the original Brough Superior. Many of the castings for the modern day Brough are produced in the same factory which produces castings for Audi and Lamborghini.
Whatsmore, at US$150,000, the new Broughs will run harder and longer and represent a significant saving in the purchase price in comparison to original Brough Superiors. Take for example, this original Brough Superior for sale at Iconic Motorcycles in the heart of the Cotswald. It's asking price is roughly double that of one of the new Broughs. It is a rare 1927 Pendine racing version that has been restored with a view to earning its keep as a working vintage bike in period racing, but is it really worth twice the value of one of Mark Upham's modern day Brough Superior.
So there we have it. Brough Superior is unquestionably becoming the most sought after motorcycle marque for collectors worldwide, and at the same time there are authentic replicas being produced for the first time ever. All those with theories on what will happen to the pricing should post to the comments field, and may the most logical and eloquent posting win the day.
Finally, what would George say? My bet is that he would be so "over the moon" at the quality of the castings, the impossibly miniscule tolerances and finer degree of craftsmanship of the new machinery, that he would declare it indeed, a superior Brough Superior.