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17th October 2014

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Buying Classic Bikes - Part One

Sometimes finding your next classic project bike isn’t as simple as impulse-bidding on eBay. Stu Thomson goes on an Italian adventure...

It started out as a holiday in a camper van with my 1956 Triumph T100 in tow, down to the French Alps. I planned to go and see my older brother who was in Italy for a month. I asked him if there were any old Italian motorcycles for sale near him. He went to investigate and practice his Italian…

Soon came a message: ‘I have found a couple of places we could visit where there are possibly some bikes for sale.’ Great, I thought, not quite sure what to expect. He also me a couple of photos to whet my appetite. They did pique my interest: most of the motorcycles I could see in the photos were Italian and from the mid-1940s through to the late 60s and a few looked newer or older than that.

I stowed the Triumph and removed all excess baggage from the camper. It is only a small camper – for small people – but being optimistic I reckoned I could fit two small motorcycles in the back. At a push. There’s room to sleep two in the back and motorcycles are about the same size as people lying down (bizarre logic, I know).

Before setting off I did a little homework by looking at Italian eBay to see what these kind of bikes were going for. The price range seemed to be from €400 to €600 depending on the model. The MVs and other rare machines go for a little (and sometimes a lot) more. Parilla Hi-Cams are like hens teeth, with prices reflecting their rarity.

Sammy Miller Museum Moto Parilla: yours for €6500, try getting one of those cast alloy toolboxes, very rare

The drive down to middle Italy took about eight hours from where we were in the Alps and the route was interesting – through the Mont Blanc Tunnel. There is now a speed limit of 70kph in the tunnel and one has to keep a distance of 150 metres between vehicles, which is regulated by a gating system at the entrance. This means at busy times there will be a queue and on the way back we queued for 90 minutes on a Sunday afternoon. The tunnel costs €42 one way, and a little less for a bike at €28. But if you were on a bike in the summer you would probably travel into Switzerland, past Martini and over the St Bernard Pass over the old road which is a great route.

Our route was down between Turin and Milan, then to Genoa and then past Florence. In total there were 128 tunnels! The SatNav got rather confused on several occasions as there were no signals in the tunnels. By the times we arrived past Genoa I felt like a mole seeing light for the first time after a long stay underground!

Italy of course does not just have motorcycles, it has unusually good weather, excellent wine and of course excellent food and very friendly people. It is just the driving that is crazy…

Sammy Miller Museum Quite a collection three rows of rebuilt bikes all in a nice dry showroom.

During the course of our stay, my brother and I visited two motorcycle collectors. The first was where the guy had a museum / collection of sorts in an old shop showroom. There were around 200 Italian motorcycles, all rebuilt and all just as they came out of the factory or probably better, looking at the superb finish on some of the models .

A lot of the models I had not even heard of – Perugina for one, and he had a few of those, but others such as Taurus, Setem, Motobi, Moto Guzzi, the early models as well as the Lodola, Dingo and Astore; Bianchi, FB Mondial (ohc model) Parilla high-cam, Gilera, and all the early Lambretta and Vespa scooters. I think he had a full set of all Lambretta models starting with the Model A with a vertical engine inside an open frame, c1947, finishing with a GT200 which is very rare now as it was only made for the English market in the 1960s. I used to have one of those in my youth!

I was quite amazed at this private collection. He also had many trophies he had won for events and shows across Italy. My brother asked on my behalf if any of the bikes were for sale (my Italian is virtually non-existent but my brother has had some practice). The owner said yes: the Parilla in the entrance. It was an OHC 175 model was €6500. That was way out of my range as were many of the other rebuilt models. In any case I was looking for projects, not finished bikes.

Classic Italians on Now...

We then asked if he had he any bikes which needed restoration and we were shown to a large garage. These would be ‘small price’, he said.

Sammy Miller Museum The first garage with about 40 bikes in all states of repair

In this garage there were about 40 bikes, all Italian and all needing lots of work. His prices unfortunately started at €1200 and went up from there. One of the larger machines was a Cimatti twin 175cc for around €2200 and it had some important parts missing. Again this was a lot more than I wanted to pay. More importantly it’s a lot more than they are really worth, even in Italy. The owner kept looking at a vintage motorcycle guide before he quoted prices.

We explained that unfortunately these were a little too expensive as very few of them were fully complete. He then said he had ‘a few more bikes’ a short distance away – so off we went with him to have a look.

‘A few’ was an understatement – at an estimate I would say he had at least 150 machines. They were nearly all complete but all were in a state where lots of work was required. Despite their condition – you guessed it – they all still seemed to have a minimum price of €1100, more than I wanted to pay. I asked if there was anything he would negotiate on. Turned out I could have a Guzzi Galletto for €800 or a Guzzi Zigolo 98cc for €900 neither of which I was interested in or were very appealing to me. I was so surprised at this I forgot to take a photo. My impression was that he was in no rush to sell anything at a reasonable price.

Sammy Miller Museum A couple of more recent Moto Guzzi police bikes here, plus a bicycle. How did that get in there?

So with some disappointment we departed – but I left an offer of €800 for a FB Mondial four-stroke that looked possibly worth the price. It was all there except the taillight and was not too decrepit.

After this visit we had to go back and have a glass of wine to recover. As expected, the owner did not phone me to accept my offer which was probably far below his expectation…

Next time: another collection. Another purchasing opportunity?

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