Does this AJS Porcupine deserve to become the world's most expensive motorcycle?
By Mike Hanlon
May 19, 2011
It seems the world auction record for a motorcycle is expected to fall later this year when a 1954 AJS E95 Porcupine grand prix racer will go under the hammer.
The only thing I can't work out is "why all the fuss?"
The 1949 E90 AJS Porcupine narrowly won the inaugural World 500cc championship, but by 1954 the design was obsolete and the subsequent unreliable E95 never won a race at world championship level in three seasons of trying. That's not stopping Bonhams from talking it up (its claim that the bike is "arguably the most beautiful, graceful and innovative racing motorcycle ever built" is just plain ridiculous) and it is expecting a sale price in excess of US$750,000 which would put it on top of the list of the most expensive motorcycles sold at auction.
Now there's some genuine reasons why the Porcupine might indeed break the record. For starters, the auction at which it will be sold is including motorcycles for the first time - it's the annual Bonhams Pebble Beach automotive auction at Quail Lodge, and the audience is particularly monied.
Beyond that, the last E95 Porcupine to sell at auction fetched GBP157,700 (approx. US$258,500) eleven years ago in 2000, which was then a world record price for a British motorcycle. This motorcycle is a genuine works racer - the one that sold in 2000 was not.
Beautiful it may be, but the claim by Bonhams CEO that the Porcupine is "arguably the most beautiful, graceful and innovative racing motorcycle ever built" is just plain ridiculous as are a number of other claims in the press release which have been regurgitated verbatim by the bloggers of the world.
Indeed, it's my belief Bonhams is overselling this motorcycle. Its claims that it is "one of the most legendary motorcycles in history owing to its brief, sunburst racing success and extreme rarity" is simply not true.
Rarity might increase the value of a motorcycle but it does not make a motorcycle legendary, and the "sunburst racing success" no doubt refers to the 1949 world championship which Les Graham won with 30 points from the Gilera fours of Nello Pagani (28 points) and Arciso Artesiani (25 points).
Hence the win was hardly a decisive one and besides, that was the E90, not the E95 which is the bike for sale here.
Both were referred to as Porcupines, and both were 500cc DOHC twins, but not much else was the same. The E90 cylinders were horizontal. The E95 cylinders were inclined at 45 degrees for better cooling and this necessitated a new frame. The E90 had an open frame. The E95 had a loop type frame with the motor mounted lower. The E95 had a pressed-up crankshaft with one-piece connecting rods and roller big-ends in place of the E90's one-piece shaft and shell-type bearings.
Here's the statement by Bonhams CEO Malcolm Barber which I believe overstates the importance of the motorcycle. "As far as motorcycles go, the Porcupine is at the very top. It is arguably the most beautiful, graceful and innovative racing motorcycle ever built, the perfect blend of technology and art. Comparisons are impossible but bikes of a similar caliber - rarity, significance and worth - could include a 1915 Cyclone Board Track Racer, 1955 Moto Guzzi V8 or a mid-1960s RC Honda Grand Prix. This AJS is an utterly important machine whose appearance at auction cannot be underscored enough." The motorcycle Bonhams is selling is a complete redesign of the bike which won the 1949 world 500cc title, but one which was not competitive at world championship level. It is NOT a significant motorcycle, and comparing it to the 1915 Cyclone Board Track Racer which holds the current world auction record, or the 1955 Moto Guzzi V8 or a mid-1960s RC Honda Grand Prix racer is just a load of bollocks IMHO.
The AJS Porcupine E95 is a beautiful motorcycle but it only won a few national level events and was quite a different bike to the Porcupine that made history by taking the first world 500cc championship. The bike it so narrowly beat in that first championship, the Gilera four, was far more innovative and went on to win six of the next seven titles.
Whether someone will pay US$750,000 for the E95 Porcupine is really the point of this article. It may be that someone will. They may even be well informed, but I can't see why this bike should become the most expensive motorcycle ever sold - it just doesn't make sense. The only thing this bike shares with the 1949 world championship machine is the nickname.
The auction will be held on August 18, 2011.