1950’s motorcycles were all about performance enhancing features which were being demanded by consumers from manufacturers the world over.
The Second World War was slowly becoming a memory and business was on the up across the board. It was time to be excited again and really pick up from where the motorcycle industry had been left pre-war.
Let’s take a look at 11 of the greatest Classic Motorcycles to come out of the 1950’s.
Table of Contents
- Triumph Tiger T110
- Triumph Bonneville
- Honda Super Cub
- Vincent Black Prince
- Harley Sportster
- Harley Hummer
- Yamaha YA-1
- Royal Enfield Super Meteor
- BSA Sunbeam
- Ducati 98
- Matchless G12
Triumph Tiger T110
The 1937 500cc Speed Twin was the first true vertical twin designed by Edward Turner which not only set the standard for Triumph but every other British manufacturer too. Year on year more power was demanded by the public and Triumph were doing all they could to squeeze out as much increased performance as possible out of the 500cc engine.
In 1949 Turner punched the bore from 63mm to 71mm and stretched the stroke 2mm to 82mm on the 500cc engine. The result was the 649cc 6T Thunderbird in 1950.
Following on from there came the release of the 1954 Tiger T110, named on the claims it could do 110mph and also known as the ton-10. It was built to try and satisfy the demand for more performance from American riders who craved faster machines.
The engine was the new 649cc unit instead of the earlier Tiger 100 model that had the 500cc engine in it. Both models remained in production at the same time.
The Tiger T110 set new standards in both performance and looks. It easily topped it’s claimed 110mph making it the fastest production bike of 1954.
It was also the first production Triumph to adopt a swing arm rear suspension system already favoured by many of their competitors. Another first was the Tigers centre stand.
The T110 was an instant hit in its intended market of North America and it soon replaced the 6T Thunderbird as Triumph’s premier motorcycle.
Both the Tiger 100 and Tiger T110 were pre-unit construction until 1960. This meant that the engine crankcase, primary case and gearbox were all separate components bolted together with brackets in the frame. The gearbox could be rotated in its mounts, as a way to access the primary chain for adjustments.
Today there are a few more Tiger T100 (500cc engine) models from the 1950’s around than it’s bigger brother the T110; not many of either are currently available in the US.
Prices for the T100 sit at around £8,000 and at £12,000 for the T110.
The Triumph Bonneville concept was set in motion on the heels of Johnny Allen setting the world record in 1955 at 193.3mph for the world’s fastest motorcycle on his Triumph. Shortly after in 1956 setting the record again at 214.17mph that stood until 1962.
Edward Turner claimed Triumph to be ‘the world’s fastest motorcycles’ and a production bike was needed to live up to the title.
So, the Triumph Bonneville 650 first hit the road in 1959 and was designated the name T120 continuing the tradition of naming after the bike’s claimed top speeds.
The engine was a 649cc vertical twin which was based on the existing twins of the T110 and TR6 however, it had a twin-carb head and an extra carburettor and delivered 46HP. The four-speed gearbox originated from the 1937 Street Twin.
From 1959-1962 the Bonneville had a pre-unit construction.
The US was Triumph’s biggest market and the reception of the Bonneville wasn’t great. The styling wasn’t what the American market wanted which was a stripped back TR6 type street racer machine, not the full fenders the Bonneville had similar to the Thunderbird; so, Triumph addressed this pretty quickly in 1960.
The Bonneville started out with the T110 frame which had earned the nickname ‘whip iron’ as the swing arm wasn’t properly supported in the frame and had a tendency to flex. This too was upgraded in 1960.
Although changes to the Bonneville came thick and fast in the early 60’s adapting to the markets demands; the 1959 model was the birth of a classic that still retains its legend in the modern models today.
With such a reputation the 1959 Bonnie is coveted by collectors today and the few that are available are priced around £25,000 or $22,000.
Honda Super Cub
The Honda Super Cub is having a revival with Honda putting a new version back into production in 2019. The history is rich and its value under-estimated in terms of the impact it had on Japanese motorcycle manufacturing. The total sold units for the Super Cub are now around the 100 Million milestone.
Takeo Fujisawa co-founder and partner of Honda thought that motorcycles as a means of transport were the way of the future and therefore needed to be robust, easy to work on and have parts available for repairs as common as bicycle’s.
He wrote 15,000 letters to Japanese bicycle stores and explained his ideas and the principle that Fathers would pass down to their children how to look after a bicycle and so the same needed to happen for motorcycles. Slowly Fujisawa had created a network of Honda dealers.
The 1958 Super Cub came from a need for transport that outperformed walking or cycling, it needed to have enough power to get anywhere and big wheels for rough roads. It also needed an economical engine and be cost-effective all the way through from production to consumer use.
A 50cc four-stroke engine that was easy to maintain, was Fujisawa’s vision. He had studied lightweight motorcycles and scooters in Europe and realised he needed something even simpler for ‘everyman’ to be able to use and maintain.
Honda’s clever marketing scheme and research meant advanced sales of the Super Cub paid for its production, from tools required to the very plant they were built in. Fujisawa’s plan of a Honda network had succeeded and not only was the product built exceptionally well, after care support was available for owners across the country, a rarity at the time. This contributed greatly to its success.
For the amount of units sold to date there are not many currently for sale from the late 1950’s to 60’s. Those that are available are priced between $2,000 and $4,000.
The lack of availability of the classic models is down to two things; the first being they are classics and current owners want to keep hold of them and secondly, they were built as practical vehicles for use and so there just aren’t that many surviving bikes around.
Vincent Black Prince
Phil Vincent once referred to his motorcycles as ‘two-wheeled’ Bentley’s.’ Frankly, I am inclined to agree with him, particularly when looking at the Vincent Black Prince.
Only 132 Black Prince models left the Stevenage factory before all motorcycle production ceased in December 1955.
The Black Prince released in 1954, followed on from the Black Shadow and used the existing suspension and 998cc V-twin engine but had an all-new aerodynamic body kit.
The Black Prince had a full enclosure with panels that provided leg shields and a fairing that provided hand and body protection from the weather, the idea being the rider could ride to work in a suit.
Care was taken to ensure riders could access the engine and the rear section was on a hinge to access the back wheel and drive chain. A lever was installed that could be used from the saddle to activate the centre stand.
Everything about the Black Prince was thought about, to provide not only top of the line performance but ease of use and absolute quality styling.
In 2014 a Black Prince was put up for auction by Bonham’s and despite being in several boxes, it sold for £91,100. It can be assumed that the value of any remaining Black Prince Vincent’s left, has even more so increased since then.
The Harley Sportster was first released in 1957 and has continued to be a staple in Harley’s line-up ever since. I have a soft spot for these and actually became more attached to my fiancé’s 2019 Iron 883 than he did, until he sold poor ‘Dolores’.
The Sporty has been in production now for 64 years making it one of the longest motorcycles in production in the world.
It has made its mark on many areas of motorcycling, from hill climbing, flat-track, drag racing, land speed racing etc. To being the custom bike builders dream, great entry level Harley and great bike for women riders.
Warner Riley and George Smith put together the sportster engine that in 1970, took the land speed record for Cal Rayborn on his streamlined machine, it reached a top speed of 265.49mph.
1,983 Sportsters were built in the first year of production with a new OHV pushrod 883cc air cooled engine. The number of units quickly rose in the following years but with a significant 40% increase just one year after its initial release.
Harley Davidson fans were quick to embrace the sportster as the first American sports bike that could rival the British offerings, particularly when Triumph released the Bonneville in 1959.
It’s rumoured this is the last year (2021) for the Sportster with HD planning to drop it from the line up.
Today original Sportsters can be expected to sell from $13,000-$20,000.
The term Harley Hummer now gets used to discuss all Harley Davidson, American made, lightweight motorcycles produced between 1948 and 1966 at the Milwaukee factory.
However, the Harley Hummer was only produced from 1955 until 1959.
It was created out of the 1948 ‘Model 125’ a small, light, two-stroke 125cc derived from the German manufacturer DKW, whose designs were forfeited to the allies as a result of War reparations.
The engine was a first for Harley, being a two-stroke, the owner had to mix oil with gasoline, failing to do so would lead to engine failure. The small bike delivered just 3HP and a front suspension that was just large rubber bands later upgraded to a hydraulic system. Harley claimed it could do 90mpg.
It proved a popular bike with farmers, paper boys, beginners and those with limited income.
By 1955 the Japanese motorcycles were making a claim in the American market and they had a reputation for reliability at more affordable price points. So, with the help of an employee ‘Dean Hummer’ the actual Harley Hummer was created, hoping to compete with Japanese rivals and capitalise on the success of previous small machines.
American made and stripped of essentials, the idea was to be competitively priced against its Japanese rivals.
No battery, horn, turn signals or brake lights were just some of the missing parts from the Hummer.
In the end though sales weren’t great because foreign bikes required less maintenance, were more economical, more reliable and Harley couldn’t compete.
Production only continued until 1959 and Harley shifted their focus on to their more successful mid-size and large V-Twin bikes.
You can pick up a Harley Hummer for around $5,000 now in the US, they are significantly harder to find in the UK and mainland Europe.
The YA-1 was the first motorcycle created by Yamaha Motors. It was a spark of brilliance that started the legacy Yamaha would have on the motorcycle world and what an entry it was.
1955 and motorcycle styling was predominantly all black, the YA-1 made its entrance with chestnut red colouring earning it the name ‘the red dragonfly’. It was powered by a 125cc, air-cooled, two-stroke, single-cylinder engine and delivered 5.6HP and had four-speed gearbox.
The bike like the Harley Hummer and BSA Bantam was loosely derived from the DKW RT125.
The bike won the 3rd Mt. Fuji Ascent Race in July of 1955 and took the top three places in the ultra-light class of the 1stAsama Highlands Race later in the year. The bike was priced beyond what most college graduates in Japan could afford at the time but Yamaha still managed to sell 11,000 units in 3 years.
The small capacity machine was soon followed by a 150cc and 175cc as popularity and demand grew.
Today if you can find one, they are priced between £5,000-£8,000 in the UK or up to $12,000 in the US.
Royal Enfield Super Meteor
One of the most interesting notes about the Royal Enfield Super Meteor was that it was one of the first motorcycles to be fitted with ABS as a test.
In 1958, Dunlops Maxaret ABS system was trialled on the Super Meteor and it was shown to improve braking distances especially on rough road conditions. However, Royal Enfield’s Technical Director at the time wasn’t impressed enough to roll it out across the range. They could have been ahead of the game by around 50 years.
The Super Meteor was a performance improved Meteor which was originally produced in 1952. It was another example of manufacturers responding to the American market of wanting bigger displacement and higher performing motorcycles.
It had a 692cc OHV twin engine that was in its essence two Bullet 350 pistons stretched in a 500cc twin case. It was a bike that competed with other competition at the time including Triumph’s offerings.
1954 saw the Super Meteor updated with a new cast alloy headlight nacelle and 1956 saw the Super Meteor receive a new frame, improved clutch and strengthened crank.
They are more available on the market today than others in this list and more reasonably priced. You can buy a Super Meteor for around £4,500 or $5,800.
The BSA Sunbeam was designed by Edward Turner, it was a joint project under the BSA/Triumph coalition period which enabled it to take advantage of the vast joint dealer networks.
Turner announced the BSA arrival into Scooters in late 1958 and drew on the performance, speed and handling from Triumph motorcycles to attract motorcycle enthusiasts.
It was an unexpected diversion for Turner as fast, race winning, performance bikes had come to be expected from him. He saw a niche in the market however, and ran with it.
The Triumph Tigress was identical to the BSA Sunbeam all but cosmetically. Green paint or two-tone red and cream with a BSA badge donned the Sunbeam; while shell blue or two-tone mimosa and ivory paint and Triumph badges decorated the Tigress.
The Sunbeam was available with a 250cc four-stroke twin engine or a 175cc two-stroke, single cylinder.
The four-stroke engine was a completely new developed parallel-twin and with gears rather than chain-drive to the engine. It was economical on fuel and could do 70mph which meant that it sold reasonably well.
The downside for the Sunbeam and Tigress was that the build quality wasn’t up to standard and it earned quite the reputation for high repair bills.
Compared with many other options in the list the Sunbeam is cheap to pick up today averaging in the UK between £1,000-£3,500.
It may require some restoration work and lots of tinkering to get it to a good working standard, but this piece of history is sure to put a smile on your face and its speed not to be underestimated either.
The Ducati 98 first came on the scene in 1952. It was introduced as a basic model that was to give the rider a bike that was durable, versatile and simple to maintain.
There was to be 5 generations of 98 models over the following 10 years. The 98, 98 Sport, 98N, 98T and the 98TL.
The design was artistic and modern, it had an open spine pressed steel frame and a forward-facing exhaust and rear facing carb. The engine was a 98cc four-stroke OHV, single cylinder. The 98 had a three-speed gearbox until it was later designated a four-speed.
The 98 Sport was one of Ducati’s most popular bikes in the range despite only having 6.8HP a far cry from Ducati’s race specs today; it was considered Ducati’s first attempt at a sporting model.
Today the 98 and its variations are pretty hard to come by, the 98 Sport is the most coveted. Parts are scarce and expensive for restoration projects and resale value is low making it not top of the list for collectors.
I couldn’t end a list of classic fifties motorcycles without a nod to the Matchless G12.
Another British bike born out of a crying need from the American market for fast, stylish, great performing motorcycles.
It is worth pointing out that Matchless and AJS were amalgamated at this point, so on the whole for every Matchless model there was an AJS equivalent, with different livery and badges.
Prior to World War II, Triumph had produced the Street Twin which shook the industry in terms of having created a revolutionary vertical twin cylinder engine that performance wise, simply knocked everything else out of the way.
Following the War, all British manufacturers were playing catch up, and Triumph was already ahead again with the development a 650cc engine.
It was 1958 before Matchless responded in kind and bumped up their 500cc G9 to 650cc and called it the G12. The step in between was the 600cc G11 which had gained respect of it’s owners for its fortitude and performance; this put the G12 in good stead for a captive market.
The 650cc engine required a different crank throw as the only way to increase the performance of the 600cc predecessor was to increase the stroke. Vibration was an issue and could snap the cast iron cranks so it was upgraded to a nodular iron crankshaft. The G12 was best sitting at 65mph but could have a quick blast at 75-80mph.
It was a strong contender in the fight for best British high-performance bike; but ultimately it didn’t have the BSA/Triumph star power so sold fewer units than its competition.
There are a few G12’s still alive and kicking today with a price tag between £4,000-5,500 in the UK or $5,800-6,500 in the US.
Maybe stylistically not appreciated in their era, but they were certainly solid, reliable machines, so in terms of owning a 50’s classic that you can ride today, a G12 wouldn’t be a bad bike to invest your money into.