What Happens in Vegas

 

What Happens in Vegas

 

A Visit to the 2010 MidAmerica Auctions in Las Vegas, Nevada

 

Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction

 

Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction

1914 Excelsior Autocycle

Vegas. The word means “meadows” in Spanish, but capitalized with “Las” the word conjures up images of the gangster Bugsy Siegel, get-rich-quick fantasies, boom-and-bust cycles, Wayne Newton and faux Egyptology.

But once a year since 1992 this Disneyland of outlandish architecture, glittering neon and gambling halls plays host to the biggest auction of vintage and collectible motorcycles on the planet, a three-day extravaganza of bidding and buying that makes vintage bike connoisseurs sit up and notice.

Through a convoluted sequence of events, I found myself in Las Vegas for this year’s auction, held by MidAmerica Auctions at the South Point Resort Hotel some miles south of the famous Las Vegas Strip.

I came to witness the scene, not to buy or sell. My own vintage bikes - those that I am willing to part with - are humble old machines, untamed, unwashed and unrepentant. I’ve been into vintage motorcycles since they were just “motorcycles,” and I ride ‘em hard and put ‘em away wet. I’m no more likely to be in the market for a pricey collectible bike than I am to strike it rich playing blackjack. But here I am, enjoying the ultimate fantasy: wearing my bidder’s card proudly, peering and frowning at every flashy investment bike presented for my rigorous inspection, discerning where Value lies, and pretending to ponder which machines I might deign appropriate to add to my prodigious collection.

Arrayed in parallel rows on the convention center floor are nearly five hundred motorcycles, from board track racers nearly a century old to once-common British sporting bikes of the vertical twin era, from straight-four road burners to lightweight two-stroke road racers to scooters to motorized bicycles. This is by far the largest and most diverse assemblage of fine two-wheel machines I’ve ever seen, and they’re all for sale!
 
The bidding commenced on Thursday evening, and though weary from five hundred miles on the road, I watched the action intently for several hours. Before presenting the first of the motorcycles, a few items of motorcycling memorabilia were offered to the eager crowd. A monkey wrench once owned by Steve McQueen sold for $1500, and immediately I’m in way over my head. I once paid $15 for a set of three locking pliers and had buyer’s remorse!

From the memorabilia to bicycles and scooters ($1600 - $2250), soon we were into the real motorcycles: Ariel, BSA, Simson, and a Triumph X75 Hurricane that sold for $19,000. After three hours of non-stop action, a Whizzer Delivery Cycle sold for $3500 and it was time for me to leave.

In my naivety, I’d booked a hotel room miles from the Strip, thinking to avoid the clamorous noise and blazing lights of the City That Never Sleeps. Alas: my window was right next to “The Fremont Street Experience,” a covered fantasia of light and sound presented as a pedestrian mall. This $70 million canopy, over a quarter mile long and festooned with 1.5 million lights, blasts a multi-sensory barrage at the thousands of tourists swilling beer at all hours while unimaginably loud music blares down at them from countless loudspeakers. This assault of light and sound repeats hourly, ending each cycle with the iconic “VIVA LAS VEGAS” belted out by, of course, The King. Sleep eluded me and I cursed the night.
 
In the morning I returned to the South Point. To reach the convention center, it was necessary to walk through the cavernous casino, where hundreds of electronic “gaming” machines flashed and glittered and jingled their seductive songs. At 9:00 am, only a few early birds were offering up their money to the greedy machines, and their languor was disconcerting. I was there for the real action, though, and eagerly worked my way through the gambling hall to the convention center above.

The auction scene is a high-tension carnival show, amazing to experience. The auctioneer himself commands all eyes, waving and pointing while he maintains a non-stop yodeling cadence of indecipherable patter. Four or five pit men (and women) stand facing the crowd of potential bidders. Each time a bidder pops up in the crowd, one of the pit men pounces on him and “manages” him throughout the bidding. The pit men keep the auctioneer apprised of the competing bids, and work hard to squeeze out every last dollar, massaging (sometimes quite literally) the players to keep them bidding up, up, up!

The most animated of the pit workers was Angelo Lopez, who worked the crowd so frenetically that I wondered at his stamina. Leaping, gesticulating and flourishing like a manic matador, his fierce intensity was daunting. I had planned to toss out a gratuitous low bid on a Vincent, just to say I’d done so. But Angelo’s seriousness of purpose dissuaded me, and my bidding number lay dormant as the real buyers angled for position and delighted or dismayed sellers whose hopes were pinned on a big payday.

A few scooters, assorted Japanese bikes, some British singles were auctioned off - rolled up on the stage, sold to the highest bidder, rolled down the other side. A 1914 Excelsior Autocycle reminded me that every old bike has its stories. This one was bought new by a gold prospector who struck it rich. He eventually went bust, losing everything but this motorcycle, which has been in the family ever since. Never started since 1930, it sold for $19,500.

Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction

On and on, one after another: An Indian Chief, some Kawasaki two-stroke triples, more British machines, a Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, a number of Harleys. A very unique 1950 Riedel Motoren R100 Emme. This innovative post-war machine, with single-sided fork and swingarm, sold for $7800.

Seven or eight Ariel Square Fours went by, selling for $11,000 to $24,000. A 1913 Flying Merkel board track racer, restored to perfection, was bid up to $65,000 but did not sell. A Munch Mammoth, though, sold for $69,000.

And so it went, with the desirable collector bikes selling for high prices, or failing to meet the seller’s reserve, while the few “rider” bikes went at virtual bargain prices: A Norton Commando SS for only $5000, while a restored Mustang Model 8, apparently collectible but certainly not to be ridden, brought $7500. Clearly, bidders had little interest in buying motorcycles to ride them.

The prize bike of the auction was an unrestored 1950 Vincent Black Lightning,  the model that Rollie Free famously rode to 150 mph in his swimsuit.  The owner of this Lightning shipped it over from Oslo for the auction. Well-used and somewhat grimy, the bike’s rarity and racing provenance guaranteed that investment-minded bidders would dig deep in an effort to own this very special machine.  The pit workers primed the pump, bidders fought for supremacy, and before the dust settled the top bidder had committed $240,000 to the cause.

Alas, a mere $240K would not pry this old warrior from the hands of its Norwegian owner, who had set a reserve price of $275,000 on the machine. The staff of the auction company were understandably let down that the bike didn’t sell; with a seller’s fee of 6% and a buyer’s fee of 7%, selling that Vincent would have earned MidAmerica a tidy $31,200, not a bad paycheck for ten minutes of work.
 
Total sales for the Las Vegas auction added up to $3,884,122.00. Without working out the commission details too precisely (the seller’s fee varies according to sales price and some other specifics), MidAmerica Auctions has to have realized at least $500,000 in commissions and fees from this event. A fine payday for a lot of hard work.

Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction

For three days I enjoyed the ultimate escapism: Wearing my bidder’s number proudly, pretending I might be the next owner of a perfectly correct, $100,000 machine, mulling over the investment value of each and every pristinely restored or nicely patinaed original that passed under my discerning nose.  But by 7:00 Saturday night, the auction site was deserted, the deals had been done, and I was only a fly on the wall as it all went down.

After the excitement of the auction weekend I was spent. I’m not Hunter S. Thompson, I’m a country mouse, living a quiet life high in the Rocky Mountains. The incessant noise and bright lights of Las Vegas rattled my nerves, and the non-stop intensity of the auction exhausted me. It was time to leave the clamor of Sin City and get back to the woods where I belong.

Sunday morning I checked out of my hotel early and was on the road by 7:30 am. Leaving the city of dreams, the sun not yet high enough to light any but the tallest of the towers of Mammon, the night’s neon was faded and dreary, surrendering to incipient daylight.

I didn’t have any dreams fulfilled, but I didn’t come here with dreams. My dreams lay elsewhere, and elsewhere is where I was heading. I pointed the Buick north, leaving the casinos and the low smog blanket in my mirrors. Seven hundred miles east lay my quiet little village and my small garage, jammed with a satisfying assortment of motorcycles: the Norton Commando I still ride after twenty-seven years together, the Moto Guzzi LeMans I built from parts, a Moto Morini Camel for exploring the trails, a BMW R1100S and Ducati ST2 for touring. Let others invest; I’m content to ride.



Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction





Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction





Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction





Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction


RC Herman
Crestone, CO    March 2010
(All photos copyright RC Herman)