To Preserve Patina, or Not? That is the Question...

Patina: it's the new 100-point restoration. You can't fake it, manufacture it, or go to school to learn how to apply it. Originality only exists once for a motorcycle, and once it's disturbed it's gone forever. And in 2009 it will likely be more valuable than ever.

In 1986 or 1987, I discovered a British magazine called Classic Bike at the long-gone Appletree Bookstore in the Gallery Shopping Center on Kingston Pike. This was around the time Money magazine did a cover story about British bikes as fun investments, and Triumphs and BSAs were suddenly hot. There were very few U.S. publications concentrating on vintage motorcycles, so those Classic Bike issues were a taste of a whole new world of interesting machines.

Bikes featured in the magazine were often the product of extensive restorations, variously described as "frame-up," "professionally restored," or "nut-and-bolt" (often with non-original stainless steel fasteners). Thankfully, this was before the more recent TV chopper fad co-opted and overused the term "build" as a noun. Bikes featured in the magazine often displayed finishes more perfect than anything that was ever pushed off the assembly lines in England.

Fast-forward to the new century: current favorable descriptions are more likely to be "100 percent original," "completely unmolested," or "factory paint." Documented historical significance and a finish that bears testament to a life of use trumps fresh gleaming paint and polished alloy every time. Like Paul Newman, original bikes wear their years well, and are more essentially real for them. Fast Eddie didn't need collagen implants, and the board-track racers at the Wheels through Time museum don't need no stinking fresh paint. Authenticity has value.

But how much wear does a motorcycle have to display before it's okay to monkey with the original finish? It depends on the machine, of course. A 1917 Indian PowerPlus with even a shadow of the original tank emblem should probably be left alone. Some folks already recognized that 25 years ago.

Some motorcycles never had movie-star looks or desirability to begin with. Commuters had to ride something to work or to class. Repainting a faded brown Guzzi 850T isn't likely to knock anything off its value, and there's something satisfying about bolting freshly painted sheet metal on a bike (unless, of course, I painted it). Projects that start as beachfront yard ornaments or boxes of rust will require elbow grease, chemicals, and blast media. If the previous owner had an affinity for black Krylon, there's no choice but to repaint.

Or is there? A new-old-stock Guzzi LeMans tank sold on eBay a couple of years ago for $1,100. The seller, a Guzzi parts dealer, told me "The paint was awful; typical '70s Guzzi." Authenticity, not quality, drove the price. For other models, NOS or nice used bodywork might be a more affordable option, and a way to keep a bike original if the rest is presentable.

The skillsets required for restoring bikes and collecting original machines are completely different. Mechanical work, painting, plating and polishing can be learned and perfected. But more and more, the correct tool for collecting vintage bikes in their factory finishes is money, and a bloodhound's nose. Florida bike nut Troyce Walls showed up at the Barber Vintage Festival a few years ago with a Rikuo, a Japanese-made Harley, in the condition you'd expect for a 50-year-old motorcycle. Rare in the U.S., Rikuos take some serious hunting to find and cash to acquire. I doubt Troyce will ever "restore" it, and he can ride it around without fear of scratching the paint.

There are other freak occurrences that result in "new" old bikes, like the seven-mile 1978 Yamaha SR500 Knoxvillian Jack Higday bought a few years ago. It's completely original down to the Mag Mopus tires, but has no patina at all. Not only is it completely unmolested and unrestored, it's almost unridden. Jack has kept it in ready-to-ride condition, and the odometer now shows a whopping 21 miles. "I'm just keeping it for now," he said.

Some folks enjoy the challenge of saving a bike headed for the scrap heap, and for them the reward is the prevention of waste. For others the joy is finding and preserving original milestone motorcycles. Many enthusiasts do a little of both, fixing those bikes that are past "patina" and preserving those that aren't. One non-monetary advantage of originality: you have the perfect answer for that unsolicited-advice-giver who insists your Triumph is the wrong shade of Jacaranda Purple.

Fred Sahms is a curmudgeonly Luddite who has been soiling his fingernails with old motorcycles for 25-plus years. His garage is located somewhere in North Knoxville.