Smart Pickers Find Gold in Vintage Bikes

This Raleigh MK1 Pro Burner BMX bike sold for nearly $33,000—proof that picker’s gold lies in unusual places.

Pickers everywhere dream of finding collectible “gold” stashed away in a barn or an attic. It seems almost weekly that the media is abuzz with the latest story of an artwork, coin, first-edition book or historic document found among household goods at an estate sale or thrift shop.

Most of these finds are just dumb luck, but collectors know that gold is often found among commonplace items at estate liquidation sales.

Take vintage bicycles, for example. Every estate has them; they’re as common as pots and pans.

Back in the 1980s, suburban streets and parks were jammed with BMX bikes. Top-of-the-line bikes could be purchased new for a few hundred dollars. Kids outgrew them or moved on to racing bikes or mountain bikes and then on to cars. When that happened, the BMX bikes with banana seats and passenger studs in the rear went into the garage, and decades later they were found, tires stuck to the floor from lack of use, seats mildewed and with a light layer of rust on the handlebars. Estate liquidators hosed them down and offered them for sale.

Rideable bicycles of all sorts are regularly sold at estate sales for under $100; unrideable ones for $10 or $15. Sometimes, though, they sold for $32,928. Or $5,500. Or $400.

Antique bicycles like this 1890s John Deere are rarely found at estate sales anymore.

The bicycle that sold for $32,000 was a 1980s vintage turquoise-blue banana-seat Raleigh MK1 Pro Burner BMX bike. The truth is that, if I had seen this bike at an estate sale, I likely would have overlooked it. I would have been inside looking behind bookcases for a misplaced Picasso.

Not anymore. I see bicycles at every sale I attend, and I intend to take a closer look at them.

Finding the bike that one rode as a child is like stepping into a time machine. Virtually everyone in America has owned a bike at some point in his or her life, and most people have fond memories of their time spent on bicycles.

Back in the1950s, my Schwinn Typhoon and I were inseparable. I rode it to school, to Little League games and to deliver newspapers. I didn’t stop riding it until I bought a 1959 Chevy with my paper-route money.

Bicycles are a popular collectible. Collectors will pay handsomely for the opportunity to handle once again their first set of “wheels.” Pickers know which bicycles are valuable, and they buy them for a fraction of their resale value while everyone else at the sale is looking for first-edition books and porcelain.

The Schwinn cruiser was the most popular bike of the 1950s.

So move over, Michael Wolfe; the competition level is about to go up for finding America’s bicycle treasures.

Let’s take a look at what types of bicycles are being collected, what they’re worth, restoration costs, where to get original parts and accessories and, finally, where to sell them.

Because so many bicycles have been manufactured over the years, collectors find it helpful to divide them into three categories. The first, antique bicycles, encompasses the early high-wheel bikes of 1880 to the early “safety bicycles” with rubber tires and chain drives of the early 20th century. These bikes are extremely rare and are seldom found at estate sales, so we will just acknowledge that they exist and move on.

More common—and highly sought after—are the “fat tire” cruiser bikes of the 1930s through the 1960s. Most Baby Boomers are familiar with these; they had big, heavy steel frames and were often equipped with fenders, cargo racks, headlights, faux “gas tanks” and horns. These bikes were designed to mimic Mom and Dad’s car or, perhaps, James Dean’s motorcycle. Brand names like Schwinn, Western Flyer, Elgin and JC Higgins dominated the marketplace.

A Schwinn typhoon, like this one was owned by the author in the 1950s, might get wallets out for those those filled with nostalgia.

In the early 1970s, dirt tracks for racing bicycles began to appear in California, and the sport of bicycle motocross, or BMX, was born. Bike manufacturers responded to the craze by building stable, low-to-the-ground bikes with lightweight but durable frames, reinforced suspensions and “knobby” tires that would perform well on a dirt track. Popular high-end bikes at the time were Schwinn Stingrays, Raleigh Choppers and Raleigh Burners. Huffy and others made inexpensive copies of the Schwinn and Raleigh bikes.

To the “banana-seat bombers” (a.k.a.: GenXers) who were adolescents in the 1980s, these bikes are now pure gold. This is good news for dealers and pickers because there are still a lot of these bikes around.

Consequently, to find a valuable vintage bike, you’ll have to sort through a lot of bikes. The market has been strong for bicycles since after the Second World War; virtually every middle-class child in America owned one or more bikes. Here’s an easy way to learn which bikes are worth your time and money.

First, take a long look at the condition of the bike and take a few photos. Bikes don’t do well in storage; tires dry rot, seats mildew, metal parts rust. Restoring a bike can be costly and time-consuming, so unless you restore bikes as a hobby, don’t even consider doing so.

A Western Flyer cruiser made for young women might look like a great find, but smart collectors check eBay, Craigslist, and the WorthPoint app to be sure.

If you have access to a smartphone, while you are still at the estate sale, look up the brand on Google, then on eBay or WorthPoint (WorthPoint has a wider range than eBay, so I usually use it first). If you can find a serial number, search with that as well as the brand.

Google provides you with general information like country of origin and dates of manufacture, and WorthPoint will give you sales data for several years. On eBay, it’s a bit harder to find sales data; you have to locate the “sold listings” checkbox, and the sale results listed will only be for the past 30 days.

You’ll find more than just the bikes listed online; you’ll also find parts and accessories. Don’t ignore these. Parts prices will tell you two things: how much it might cost you to buy the parts needed to fix the bike and how much you might get for the bike if you dis-assemble it and sell it for parts. When it comes to collectible bikes, sometimes the parts are worth more than the whole.

Once you’ve assembled all the relevant data, you’ll be able to determine what price this bike might bring if restored or if disassembled and sold for parts. With that information, you’ll be in a good position to negotiate a purchase price with the bike’s owner.

If you’re interested in starting your own bike collection, I recommend that you begin by reading Collecting and Restoring Antique Bicycles by Donald Adams.

If you’re interested in reselling the bike, don’t think that your only options are online venues such as Craigslist and eBay. The Classic & Antique Bicycle Exchange, an online community of collectible-bike enthusiasts, offers free classified ads and a forum in which you can have your questions answered.

Searching through an estate sale for vintage bikes has one serious drawback: at some point you’ll run into the bike you had as a kid. When that happens, your eyes will light up, there will be a tug at your heartstrings and memories of your youth will come flooding back. At that point, a new bicycle collector will have been born—you.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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