We visit the S&G Cycles bike auction for the vintage motorcycle sale of a lifetime

Every now and then, you need to do something for no particular reason other than you've never done it before and it may be fun. Sometimes you need to go to an event just because it may never happen again. As soon as I saw the advertisement for the auction of the S&G Cycles collection, I decided right away that it fit both of these descriptions and I wanted to be there.

The June 25 auction was to be held in Columbia, Tenn., so travel was easy and relatively inexpensive. And the collection that was being put on the block was so large and diverse that it was hard for me to imagine that one person owned it all.

The website that promoted the auction was a perfect tease that just pulled you in so that you would want to know more. Pictures of the collection showed dust-covered bikes lined up side by side in a dark warehouse. The harder you looked, the more you saw. In the pictures you could see some bikes clearly, but in the background you may see an old Triumph, or the fender of a BSA, or the forks of a Harley Springer. A few weeks before the auction, they published a list of the bikes, just in case you were wavering on coming down.

I talked my buddy Dan, the proprietor of the Time Warp Tea Room, into making the trip with me. Dan is a vintage-bike guy, so it didn't take too much arm-twisting to get him to go along. Besides that, Dan had spotted a rare Triumph Cub in one of the pictures, so he was in. It turns out that we had quite a few folks from Knoxville making the trip.

The size of this auction and the number of people attending necessitated that Wednesday was for viewing only, and the actual auction would be on Thursday. We rolled into the quiet town of Columbia and followed my MapQuest directions that showed nothing but a star next to some railroad tracks in the middle of town. As we drove through a neighborhood that reminded me a lot of North Knoxville, I began to wonder if I had screwed up—but we made one final turn and saw the large, white block warehouse that is S&G Cycles. All of the side streets around the building were lined with pickup trucks, and trucks towing large trailers. Men in search of the deal of a lifetime were filing into the front door.

Entering the building, we walked into an old showroom area with a grease-stained hardwood floor and a large glass counter. The walls were covered with parts, pictures, and other miscellaneous bike stuff. There was a picture of Abraham Lincoln with the caption that he was wanted for War Crimes against the people of the Confederate States of America. On a table below it were brochures for other bike auctions, vintage bike magazines, and a program for Columbia's upcoming Mule Day festival. We signed in, getting our bidder numbers and the updated list of the bikes.

We were very fortunate in that we were able to meet Sam Goodman, the owner of the shop and this massive collection. The shop, now known as S&G Cycles, has been in the family for three generations. Sam's grandfather, Earl Jacobs, started it in 1919 as a Harley-Davidson dealership. In the front lobby was a great picture of Grandfather Jacobs sitting on a brand new 1952 Harley K-model. Sam dropped the Harley-Davidson franchise in 1973 when, in his words, "They became too hard to deal with." But he kept the bike shop open.

Mr. Goodman is a 50-ish gentleman with a long beard and glasses, and was dressed in a mechanic's shirt with suspenders. If we wouldn't have been introduced I would have thought he was the owner's mechanic, not the owner and mechanic. Even though his shop was being overrun by hundreds of strangers, he still took the time to talk to anyone who had a question, and was genuinely happy to do it.

Sam was quick to point out that his shop wasn't closing. "I'm just thinning it out," he said. When I asked how he had acquired such a collection of different bikes, he told me that it just sort of happened over the years. "People are always calling me saying that they've got this old junk bike and would I like to come look at it, or ‘I'm taking this bike to the dump, if you want it you can have it.' I'm always buying stuff. It's a sickness!" Sam said with a good-natured laugh. He said he still has over 300 bikes in the basement.

The best story Sam told us was one of a phone call he got from his friend at the junk yard. "They were getting ready to crush this car, and found a bike in the trunk. They called me and I went down to look at it. It was a disassembled '37 Flathead Harley. I got it and brought it home, and then realized that I could have had the car, too! When I called back, the car had already been crushed, but I still ride the flathead."

As we walked from the showroom into the warehouse, we were instantly in a sea of bikes. There were bikes everywhere. Too many. There were bikes in the warehouse, bikes outside along the fence, bikes lined up in the yard, and piles of parts that use to be bikes on pallets and on shelves. There were bikes that looked like they had been lost in a barn for years, and with a little love could be almost new, and bikes that looked like they had been stored on the bottom of the ocean and should have been left there. Most of the bikes here were in what is referred to as "unmolested" condition, meaning that they had not been restored, repainted, or re-chromed.

Men walked around with cell phones pressed to their ears describing bikes to people back home, and no doubt trying to determine what they were worth—and that most important figure, their Maximum Bid. You must remember, everything is worthless until somebody wants it. If two people want it, then it may just become valuable. As a friend who used to work at auctions told me, "When they start bidding with their heart, there is no telling what it will go for."

As we worked our way though the warehouse, you could see the large white event tent set up in the grassy area behind it. This is where the top bikes were displayed. Indians, Harleys, Triumphs, Royal Enfields, BSAs, Hondas, Cushman Scooters, and bikes I had never heard of such as Lilac and Simplex circled the perimeter of the tent and formed two lines down the middle. Ahhh… it was a wonderful thing.

There was actually too much to take in. With this many bikes you had to focus on what your priorities were and keep moving, because you only had this day to evaluate what you wanted to bid on.

One bike that had everyone's attention was a 1934 Brough Superior. Brough Superiors (pronounced "Bruff") were made in England from 1920 to 1940. Known as "the Rolls Royce of Motorcycles," these side-valve V-twins were the first super-performance bikes made, and were guaranteed to do 100 mph, a bold statement in 1924. In fact, a Brough set the World Motorcycle Speed record in 1928 with a speed of 129 mph. Besides being very fast, they were also extremely expensive, costing the equivalent of an average man's salary for a year. It is estimated that only 3,000 were built over a 20-year period, and only 104 were built in 1934. How one found its way to Columbia, Tenn. is beyond me.

Crowd buzzed over Brough Superior

Auction day was bright and sunny, and already hot by the 9 a.m. start time. The auctioneer was Jerry Wood whose company (J. Wood and Co.) specializes in motorcycle auctions. They run the vintage auction at Daytona Bike Week each year, so they know what they are doing. Jerry himself was personally starting the festivities on this day. Dressed in a blue dress shirt with rolled up sleeves and a loosened tie, Jerry sat on top a step ladder with a microphone while his assistant held up a portable speaker. Over 600 people had registered to bid, and they were ready, and the excitement level was climbing almost as fast as the temperature.

The big-ticket items were going off first, and the crowd pressed into the big white tent to see what was going to happen. Somebody made the wise decision to drop the tent walls to cool things off, and to allow more people to see inside, but it had little effect on the temperature. Jerry Wood welcomed everyone, and after briefly covering the rules of the auction, the bidding started promptly at 9 a.m.

Everyone there paid attention when the Brough Superior came up as the seventh bike on the auction block. With a bike this rare you just don't know what it will bring—it really depends on who is there to bid on it. The crowd buzzed as the bidding went up in $5,000 increments, and kept climbing. In less than a minute it sold to a new owner for $46,000 (plus a 10 percent buyer's premium, and Tennessee sales tax, if you were a Tennessee resident). Honors for second-highest bike in the auction went to the next bike up, a 1933 Royal Enfield that hammered down at $27,000. Needless to say, I didn't win either of these.

I liked the way Mr. Wood called the auction. He talked fast, but none of the classic cattle auction-type jammering that comes to mind when you think of an auctioneer. He was easy to follow, and it was clear what the price was. As soon as one bike sold, they immediately moved to the next one. There were no congratulations to the winner; they had bikes to sell.

Despite moving rapidly, it took one hour to auction off the first 42 bikes. Obviously, this was going to be a long day. After the initial excitement of the big-money bikes, the crowd started to break up and congregate around the bikes they were interested in, and let the auctioneer come to them. As soon as one bike was auctioned off, the bidders would drift away, and the bidders interested in the next bike would come forward.

Sam told me that there were bidders at the auction from England, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia. Since the good old American dollar is taking a pounding on the world market these days, people from other countries can get a lot for their money over here. It's sad to say, but many of the truly rare bikes that were sold here won't be in the U.S. for long. We met one gentleman from England who had been touring the U.S. buying British bikes and already has a large sea/land container he is filling up with bikes to send back across the pond.

It was very interesting to see what sold for big money, and what didn't. Small bikes like Cushman Scooters and old Honda minibikes sold for four and five times what they sold for new, while '70s-era Harley Sportsters barely brought $2,000. After a 1977 Honda CT90 brought $900, the guy next to me laughed and said, "Hell, I remember when I sold a whole pickup load of them for $50 each."

So what did I bring back? Sad to say, but nothing for myself. I had my eye on a sweet little '71 Honda CB100 for my wife, but before I could get my bidder's card out of my back pocket, the bid went from $200 to $900. The Triumph Cub and a Sears Moped passed by Dan's self-imposed limit in similar fashion.

All was not lost though. A fellow member of the Time Warp Vintage Club asked us to bid on a 1960 Allstate 150 which he needed for parts.

Sears and Roebuck department stores sold various scooters from the 1950s through 1979. Sold under the name Sears Allstate, these were built by Italian manufacturers Vespa, Gilera, and the Austrian company Puch. While they aren't known for ground-breaking technology, they did sow the seeds of motorcycling addiction for tens of thousands of youngsters over the years.

Our unnamed buyer, let's just call him "Butch," said that this was his first bike when he was 16 years old. "I bought it used from the service manager at Sears for $200. New they sold for $349," he said. "It took me 35 years to find another one. They didn't import a lot of these."

After winning a ferocious but quick bidding war (yes, somebody else wanted it), we proudly rolled the once-mighty machine through the crowd as if we were displaying a trophy. In a few minutes our new-found treasure was loaded in my truck and on its way back to Knoxville.

This was my first bike auction, but I guarantee you it won't be my last. It was great fun, even if I didn't buy anything. I would like to go to one where there were more early '80s bikes are available, ones like I started riding on. I'll just have to remember to not let my heart hold my wallet.