The Economic, Social and Aesthetic Appeal of the $1000 Motorcycle (or…"Gentlemen Prefer Piles")
Ed Milich
People occasionally ask me “What’s your favorite motorcycle?” My standard answer is “Anything that’s $1000 and Italian”. Now, the aesthetic appeal of Italian design is apparent to anyone with at least one good eye. But why the $1000 qualifier? Allow me to elaborate. One of my current daily drivers is a Y2K Ducati Monster 750 Dork [originally: Monster Dark, now eponymously named] that I found for next to nothing in Hollywood with only 8500 miles on it. Il Monstro Cheapo took a little elbow grease to get on the road, but after a few evenings of fiddling, I was rewarded with a great, practical ride that looks pretty good from ten feet away, makes all the right noises, and pounds the pavement like a 65 horsepower piledriver. Despite the tendency of the American consumer to exalt all things new and shiny and despite the incessant advertising efforts of powersports manufacturers, resourceful riders can still have a lot of fun on a motorcycle for a thousand bucks.

The previous owners of my 750 Monster were a young married couple from Hollywood. They bought it new, and the male (go figure) eventually dumped it at low speed. He then parked it and put it up for sale. I saw their bike ad online and bought it sight unseen over the phone for $900. Within 4 hours, I had a steamin’ pile of Bolognese motorbike to play with. Still, the Monster required a small sweat equity investment before I could blast on it. I first did a valve and fluid service as a preventative measure.  I pulled off the broken headlight and added a cool round headlight from an 80’s Moto Guzzi. I fixed the electrical relay issue that kept it from starting. My buddy Sean Fader, head mechanic at Moto Guzzi Classics even floated me a pair of nice Staintune mufflers [Latin name: obnoxio profundo] that a customer jettisoned because they had a few dents. My Monster now has an exhaust note like a Tyrannosaurus Rex moaning in amour thanks to Sean and to those demented Aussies at Staintune who believe that life begins at 110 dB.  I was eventually rewarded with a bitchen little Ducati that has since performed flawlessly for over 7k miles. Now, this little Monster still sports some crash scars. The tank came dented on either side after being bashed by the handlebars. The front fender is cracked. The shiny Ducati tank decals are long gone, replaced with a revolving display of stickers from bands and skateboard companies.  The seat has a half inch long seam rip. Do I really care about these minor cosmetic issues? Meh. If they get bad enough or if it’s convenient, then maybe I’ll cruise Ebay for cheap replacement parts. I actually kinda like these flaws because they remind me that a.) someone else took the depreciation hit on this beaster and b.) I got a daily diver Ducati for $1k.

The major benefit of a $1000 bike is that you won’t be heartbroken if it falls over in a parking lot, gets dropped by a visiting rider, or gets gently backed into curbside by some jackass in a Jaguar. On a brand new bike, such abuse might leave you heartbroken over the once flawless paint and perfect finish, not to mention the hassle of dealing with an insurance claim, having the bike professionally repaired and losing a valuable portion of the riding season. On a $1000 bike, though, you can easily shrug off the psychic baggage that each new ding generates. One is thus free to concentrate on “the ride” instead of mindless bike worship. In fact, a cheap ride may cure even the most bike-obsessed perfectionist of his desire to exalt his bike as an object of adoration instead of a purposeful transport mechanism. A cheap ride represents freedom from the constraints of materialism. You’re not going to park a  $25000 Benelli Tre on a side street in Manhattan for a few hours while you go shopping for new red velvet handcuffs at Big Bob’s Bondage Boudoir. With a $1000 BMW 100/7, though, you can just kick the side stand down and walk away without fear of transgression from the powers of darkness. Thus, a thousand-dollar bike may bring about a Zen acceptance of the universe’s chaotic forces. Where else but in motorcycling can you achieve true enlightenment for a measly thousand bucks?!

Another aspect of a $1000 ride is that you’re free to customize it any way your twisted little brain desires without worrying about how it will affect the resale value. Any fool with a heartbeat and a gold Mastercard can plop down $25k for a factory custom [isn’t that a contradiction?] that’s the product of someone else’s brainwaves. With a $1k heap, it’s up to you to add the artistic vision. Maybe your muse commands you to paint it with each of those 15 stray cans of spray paint sitting on your garage shelf. …or to string your ride with working Christmas lights during the holidays. …or to plaster its gas tank and side panels with wine labels removed from your last 50 favorite bottles. That’s the fun part- you can easily make a cheap bike your own! After all, which bike are you drawn to on Sunday morning at the café: the 4th one from left in the row of 15 cookie-cutter custom choppers, or the Moto Guzzi V50 with the iron cross tank badges made out of smashed PBR cans and the moose skull duct taped to the handlebars? In short: On a pile: do not buy. Make.

The $1000 bike market will differ depending on your location.  In the Midwest, where exotic bike snazz is in short supply, $1000 classically buys a Japanese pile from the 1970’s or 80’s. In bigger bike markets like L.A. and New York, there is enough froth that $1000 mildly crashed Monsters and other interesting rides turn up from time to time. Keep an eye on your local bike classifieds and you may be surprised at the opportunities that the market presents.

The utilitarian economic elegance of a good $1k bike is obvious. Cheap bikes, however, aren’t for everyone. Are you the type of guy who shivers in his whitey-tighties over the thought of mismatched bolts and fasteners? Do you avoid turn signal bulbs that aren’t stamped with an OEM part number?  Do you flog yourself with a rusty 520 roller chain every time you find a new paint ding?  …Then maybe the cheap ride route ain’t in your trip planner.  If you don’t know what you’re buying, you could also easily get taken by sundry sleazeball sellers. Also, while it may be a way to grab a good fixer for cheap, buying crashed, salvaged, or similar bikes with questionable histories is often a path to unhappiness. I call these situations  “buying someone else’s problems”, and the price should reflect the dour state of such machines. If not, just take a hike.  Unscrupulous sellers may even try to pawn off their salvaged junk as primo stuff. If you’re in doubt as to the honesty of the seller, or the integrity of the machine, again, just walk away. As one crusty but old wise man once said: “There are always more deals out there”.  Also, if your lack of mechanical skills makes you feel like the world’s biggest dipstick when you’re anywhere near the garage, you may want to consider a more refined two-wheeled mount. The cash margin saved by buying a pile can quickly disappear if you have to pay a shop $60-90/hour to work out the bugs.  If you’re mechanically inclined, though, you may be only a suck, a squeeze, a bang or a blow away from starting your new heap up and sharing with your neighbors your appreciation for reverse megaphone duets, trios and quartets.  With the right tools, skills and attitude, $1000 hoopties are also a great opportunity to learn about motorcycle service and maintenance.

I have come full circle in my bike chasing. I started out riding a decent $1000 Honda CB650 that I bought from my shop teacher (Hi, Mr. Zinz) with high school graduation money in the 1980’s. After my moto-mania led me to more spendy masochist magnet machines including a Daytona Moto Guzzi, YB and DB Bimotas, I have returned to my roots and now chase junkers exclusively. Thus I present to you, belover reader, a fairly roundabout answer to the quandary “why I ride piles”. In short: I’d rather have 15 different $1k bikes than a single $15k bike. I’d dent, damage or destroy the nice one soon enough, anyway, and then I’d be bikeless. It would take and extraordinary string of bad luck, though, to deprive me of my 15 runners. Having a stack of Italian piles around simply keeps things interesting for me.