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R.M. Sotheby's brings motorcycle icons to the auction block

Some of the most impressive works of machinery ever set on two wheels will share the spotlight at RM Sotheby's Moto-Icons: From Café Racer to the Superbike sale in Cernobbio, Italy.

Part of RM Sotheby's Villa Erba automobile auction, held during the region's Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este weekend, the rare offering comprises one judicious collector's assemblage of 20 stunning motorcycles.

The group spans a century of technological development and ranges from a beastly 1928 Brough Superior SS100 to a rocket-like 2010 MV Augusta 500. Here's a chronological spin through a few of the highlights.

1928 Brough Superior SS100 "Moby Dick"

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Easily the rock star of this collection, the 1928 Brough Superior SS100 "Moby Dick" wordlessly explains why George Brough's works were known as the "Rolls-Royce of motorcycles."

Attention to detail abounds, from frame to engine internals, especially in this one-off edition that features a 1140 cc hot-rodded motor whose modifications — oversized cylinders, higher-lift cams, lightened valves— boosted it from 33kW to 48kW, helping Moby Dick hit 185km/h. In 1931, Motor Cycling magazine called the bike "the fastest privately owned machine in the world."

One of five examples from the marque in the Moto-Icons auction, this legendary Brough, estimated value from approximately $US550,000 to $US770,000 (about $A743,000 to $A1.04 million), has benefited from a restoration done under the watchful eye of Roger Bilbe, whose father raced Moby Dick in period. One last historical footnote: T.E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia, took his last fateful ride on an SS100. (rmsothebys.com)

1954 BMW RS 54

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BMW's first motorcycle, the R32 released in 1923, set a high bar for the one-time airplane engine manufacturer. Exuding both grace and power, the black and white marvel was the progenitor of nearly a century's worth of models that made both consumers and racers swoon.

The RS 54 takes pole position among coveted BMW competition bikes, and this artfully restored example, estimated value from approximately $US102,000 to $US137,000 (about $A137,800 to $A185,000), is just one of 24 made in 1954.

Using the engine, gearbox, and driveshaft from a celebrated sidecar racer's bike, onetime BMW factory rider Kurt Busch ensured that frame number 549010 returned to glorious form, replete with a 500 cc 2-cylinder powerplant (driven by transverse shafts and conical gears) that powered many a Tourist Trophy victory over the years.

Best of all, the RS 54, starkly elegant in black and white, harks back to the bike that started it all for BMW while also holding its own alongside BMW Motorrad's modern marvels. (rmsothebys.com)

1957 Gilera 500 "4-Cilindri"

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Legendary British two-wheel racer Geoff Duke wasn't content with his retirement years and asked Italian manufacturer Gilera to return to the 500 cc Grand Prix scene and provide him with a winning machine.

The result was an order of three 4-cylinder cycles and the birth of Scuderia Duke. The 500 on the block, estimated value from approximately $US418,000 to $US495,000 (about $A564,600 to $A668,600), is the last of 15 total Gilera made for the circuit that season.

Frame number 15 has had a string of famous riders hunched over its flaming red gas tanks, including Derek Minter, John Hartle, and Phil Read. Despite their prowess, the 500s struggled against more evolved machines from Honda and Bianchi.

After Scuderia Duke packed things up in 1965, this bike spent time in a variety of top collections. In 2014, it once again hit the circuit it was born to race on, lapping the fabled Paul Ricard track near Marseille, France, during a weekend classic-bike ride. (rmsothebys.com)

1963 Norton Manx 30M

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More than 100 years ago, the famous motorcycle manufacture Norton won the very first Isle of Man TT race and went on to be a key figure at arguably one of the world's most fabled two-wheel contests for decades. Its stunningly beautiful Manx model was configured, in part, to win that celebrated TT competition.

The Manx 30M at the sale, estimated value from approximately $US55,000 to $US77,000 (about $A74,300 to $A104,000), comes from the tail end of this model's production run, and is believed to be legendary racer Jack Ahearn's winning ride from the 1964 Finnish Grand Prix.

After a few more racing campaigns, this Manx made its way to a collector, in 1994, who undertook an extensive restoration. Although the frame needed to be partially replaced, its correct frame number survives.

Those details matter to collectors, but the stunning beauty of the Manx — its architectural balance and watch-like assembly — ultimately will be what causes paddles to rise. (rmsothebys.com)

2010 MV Augusta 500 3-Cilindri

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Fans of contemporary Grand Prix motorcycle racing are familiar with the hallowed name of Valentino Rossi, whose exploits have earned him nine major titles. But before him, the Italian that made cycle fans holler was Giacomo Agostini, whose two-wheeled triumphs in the '60s and '70s remain the definition of excellence.

Agostini etched many of his 15 titles aboard an MV Agusta. The 2010 500 3-Cilindri (3-cyclinder) at auction is the last of six tribute bikes the company created with Agostini's collaboration.

This example, estimated value from approximately $US220,000 to $US275,000 (about $A297,200 to $A371,500) is a faithful copy of Agostini's winning machine from 1972, and it was rendered with such precision that the racer himself claimed it for his own — hence his signature on the dustbin fairing.

With its powerful 500 cc engine, moulded fiberglass seat, and 18-inch (45.7cm) Borrani wire wheels, the bike maybe the best opportunity mere mortals will ever get to riding in Agostini's shadow. (rmsothebys.com)

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