Considering Owning A Vintage British Motorcycle?

Considering Owning A Vintage British Motorcycle?

Owning A Vintage British Motorcycle

Steve McQueen On A Vintage Triumph Motorcycle 1966
Steve McQueen with a lovely passenger on a 1966 Triumph TR6R Tiger
Thinking about purchasing or building a vintage British motorcycle but not sure where to start? The question you need to ask your self is should you start? Vintage British motorcycles can be very, very complicated and delicate machines. Everyone wants that cool vintage Triumph motorcycle because James Dean rode one, Steve McQueen, Fonzie did, and maybe your grandpa did too. Or maybe it's an investment or just the joy of a owning a British motorcycle. So what's it like owning a vintage British motorcycle? The answer may not be the one you want to hear, but I'll tell you the truth behind owning a classic British motorcycle.

"I quickly saw how complicated British motorcycles where.."

 For starters, I have been around vintage Triumph motorcycles, BSA, and even Norton motorcycles basically my whole life. My Father and I have always done our own work. I have also owned many new Japanese motorcycles along with vintage Japanese motorcycles such as a Honda Benley and a Honda CB360. After working on vintage Japanese motorcycles and switching to vintage British motorcycles, I quickly saw how complicated British motorcycles where. Don't get me wrong here, I love British motorcycles, but for those that want to own one, this is something to take into consideration.
Working On A Vintage Matchless Motorcycle

"You are always 'tinkering' around with it..."

I feel that owning an old Triumph or BSA motorcycle you are always "tinkering" around with it. There seems to be something that always needs to be done. For example, all old British bikes leak oil. No matter how well you seal the cases, over time with use and abuse, oil will find its way out. For those who have never rebuilt an engine, a Triumph, BSA, or Norton Engine is pretty straight forward but at the same time it can be very complicated? Although most classic Triumph motorcycles look the same for example, internally they are not. Sometimes I feel you have to be a machinist to rebuild these old bikes. If you have experience with engines, electrical, or just the basics with tuning, you may be capable of wrenching on your own bike.

"Some could not take the complexity, expense..."

I have seen many new vintage British motorcycle owners give up and throw in the towel. Some could not take the complexity, expense, or perhaps understand how the motorcycle worked. As stated previously, these bikes can be very complicated especially when little issues develop. Each seems to have there own unique personality. Maybe because each one was built by hand? 
Monkey Wrenching On Vintage Motorcycle

 "Be prepared to work on your bike yourself..."

Once a classic British motorcycle has been properly rebuilt, we'll maintained, and all the "issues" have been sorted out, it is a blast to ride. There will ALWAYS be some type of upkeep on an old bike. Sometimes a coil might fail, ignition switch goes bad, light bulb goes out, or the bike won't start, these are all examples that can even happen to a modern bike but you have to able and willing to fix these problems yourself. Most shops today won't even touch an old Triumph, even new Triumph dealerships. Just be prepared to work on your bike yourself and don't be afraid to! There are wonderful sources here on the web that can help you wrench on your bike or if you have any questions. 

"Patience will go a long way..."

Patience will go a long way when owning a vintage Triumph, BSA, or Norton motorcycle. At the end of the day, owning a vintage British motorcycle is not for everyone. Just like Hobby's, try one out and see how it goes. If you don't like it, try something else! My goal is not to detour people away from owning British motorcycles, but is to tell them the truth. Most folks or let alone dealers won't tell you this. If you like to learn and you enjoy a challenge, by all means go for it!


  • Jeremy - author of Barry the Bike

    As an owner of BSAs, Triumphs and a Norton Commando, I can fully agree with the comments given.

    Many riders today just want to get on a machine, use it and then just put it away for another time. This type of motorcycle ownership is entirely possible with a modern machine. Today’s motorcycles can be treated in the same manner as a car. The owner never has to do anything involving maintenance – just take the machine to the mechanic every time it needs a service – an then just ride.

    The British machine is demanding. To assume you can just jump on the machine and ride without any thought of maintenance is not going to work. They will quickly become unreliable.

    To illustrate my point, Indian bought out their Vintage Chief in 2014. It had real leather seats and bags. Riders did not like it as it required regular caring. Indian resorted to a reconstituted leather the next year. The reason was that riders just wanted to ride, not spend time caring for their machines – even an Indian.

    A British motorcycle requires far more effort than caring for some leather. Bolts need to be regularly checked. Magnetos need to be checked as timing on early machines is not a set-and-forget situation. Cables can stretch, so adjustments have to be regularly done. And then there is the oil leaks!

    To sum up – you have to be very committed. It is best to join a club, with advice be easily at hand. Unless you are very experienced, looking after a classic British motorcycle without support is very hard and is not recommended.

    If you are committed, willing to join a club and have a desire to learn mechanics – a classic British motorcycle is a fantastic machine to own.

  • Russ

    Heck, I think I know her.
    She was a preachers daughter who asked me for a ride when I was in the service in Virginia.
    I was riding my 1966 TR6R on my trip to Nebraska and back.
    Even then there were helmet laws and my triumph had Dunstalls and it attracted LEO’s without pretty ladies on the back.

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