CUSTOM & STYLE: Las Vegas Blowout

The E.J. Cole motorcycle collection fetches a record-setting $13.5 million.

McQueen 1915 Cyclone studio side view

The big Las Vegas vintage motorcycle auctions make a splash every January, a 27-year tradition of sticking a thermometer in the old-bike market to see what’s cookin’. Prices this year were tepid, with few big sales, but it seems the deep-pockets were merely waiting for March, when Mecum Auctions returned to Vegas for an extraordinary sale of one man’s collection of 220 rare American machines. There had never been a second Las Vegas date until this year, because there was no real urgency and no real market, it seemed, for another big sale. All that thinking went out the window last weekend.

E.J. Cole’s motorcycle collection has been whispered about for decades, and well-heeled suitors have shown up at his doorstep time and again, only to be rebuffed with impossible demands for piles of cash. Talk heated up last fall, as it seemed Cole was ready to cut loose, and several auction houses plus a couple of wealthy collectors negotiated in good faith, only to leave the table shaking their heads. After every approach failed, the 89-year-old Cole, for some unspecified reason, finally budged. His deal with Mecum Auctions, while rumored to have included sale price guarantees and millions in cash, was apparently far simpler than that—just sell the bikes and see what they fetch.

And what they fetched was occasionally eye-opening, although mostly in line with expectations. That $13.5 million total sale (a record for any motorcycle auction) was an accumulation of a whole lot of $100,000-plus machines, and three that crossed the $300,000 threshold. Star of the show was Steve McQueen’s old 1915 Cyclone board-track racer, which was basically a $842,000 OHC V-twin engine housed in a $10,000 Indian chassis. It was a “bitsa” machine, but no matter—the $852,000 sale price was a world record, the most anyone has ever paid for a motorcycle at auction.

Second prize was the most expensive Harley-Davidson ever sold, a 1907 "Strap Tank" single with poetically beautiful original paint. Really early H-Ds are always expensive, but the condition and provenance of this third-year-of-production model was peerless; a rare no-bull blue-chip machine that sold for $715,000, which would have been a world record…had it sold before the Cyclone. This Strap Tank and the Cyclone were both rumored to be the elusive "Million Dollar Motorcycle," but cooler heads prevailed and both fell within their estimated sale prices.

Another killer machine—there were so many—was an original-paint 1911 Flying Merkel board-track racer. Board-track machines are so compelling to the American psyche that an industry has grown up making reproductions of 8-valve Indians and Harley-Davidsons and Flying Merkels and Excelsiors; the market for an office-wall quality repro 1915 Harley “8-valve” racer is around $45,000, but so few real ones come to market it’s hard to gauge value these days. But with a solid history, the 1911 Flying Merkel established a benchmark at $423,500. What looked like rusty old junk 30 years ago has definitely acquired a golden sheen.

This 1915 Cyclone Board Track Racer, once owned by Steve McQueen, fetched $852,000. That?s the highest price ever paid for a motorcycle.

This 1907 Harley-Davidson Strap Tank sold for $715,000, an all-time high for a Harley-Davidson.

This 1911 Flying Merkel Board Track Racer, in original paint, was raced on the East Coast before World War I and stored for 70 years. It fetched $423,500.