Buying Motorcycles In The USA

Date 24.8.2015

Presented by
  • Motorcycle Trader



If you happen to be mining for motorcycles made in the US then direct your focus to buying over there, not here. There, you’ll find multiple examples of best-in-breed, saliva-generating two-wheeled gems, and the journey plays a huge part in the process.

Let’s also be very clear with regards to British marques in the US: they’re also readily on tap.

Old Triumphs, BSAs… (insert your favoured breed) float on the digital sea foam.

If we consider the post-war Triumph twins, of which a staggering 70 per cent were sent to the US, then buying Stateside makes perfect sense.

The birth of the larger 650cc Triumph twin, for example, was squarely targeted at the longer-distance highwaymen of America.

There seem two possible trajectories for getting a motorcycle from the US back to your garage down here. Firstly: It’s 3am, with limited waking hours left, you become unexpectedly inspired to shop online beyond our coastline. Blood charged, mouse tightly gripped, sporting only your jocks and a lager-stained chest, you key stroke from eBay, to Craiglists and across the local car sales sites.

Instantly, not knowing it yourself, you’ve adopted the gait of a man without boundaries, a shopper who has let go of all budgetary limitations. All of a sudden, the game feels fresh again. You start to realise that the US has deep pools of classic motorcycles and amazing volumes. What you have suddenly found, dear readers,
is America’s best friend: choice.

Sooner or later, in an uncharacteristic click, you buy – you panic. Indignant, a head full of promise now, “it was the bike I always had to have”, “the one I’ll never part with” the one that, well, you get my point. Let’s be honest now – in life things just look more enchanting the further away they are.

Secondly – and it’s always a better story – you pack your bags, clear your schedule and head to the airport. You arrive on the other side with bed hair, jet lagged, confused and slowly you begin to navigate the back ways, byways through the west of the United States.

Then there’s the clincher: getting it onto a large floating vessel and across the Pacific. For the sake of adventure, let’s focus here on taking you through the US to buy the classic you hand-picked from so many worthy counterparts.


Let’s get real here. Being there, ploughing unknown highways to buy the bike of your exact requirements is where it’s at. Old Skool with a ‘K’ all the way. There’s no substitute for eyeballing the goods there and then.

Firstly, if you’re going to travel there, it’s going to cost you more. Unless you have a direct line on exactly to what, where and when you’re going to purchase it, you need to allow enough time and a comfortable stay over there. Sleeping in your car with Del Taco wrappers for a blanket will quickly tire. If you give yourself only a few days you’ll end up with a bike that’s seemingly perfect at the time but a gut-churning reality check once back home.

Yes, there’s a lot for sale in the classic arena in the US but the pioneer days of Californian discount nuggets are over. And we all lament the bottomless excess of the 1980s and ’90s. Buying a classic bike over there is more challenging now because we have to compete with everybody else in the world.

You’ll need to cover long distances. If you’re not up to ploughing north bound along the Interstate 101 without a cup to piss in then it’s not for you. Americans drive, walking is for the French after dark. If you are not a confident freeway jockey, retire from this folly now.

You also must accept that the market in the US is fast, oddly cash-based and Americans prefer to shake the buyer’s hand. This may seem behind the times but I’m referring now to local, neighbourhood, old-style sales. Folks who’ve advertised something (not on eBay) at a genuine hard-to-beat price want to deal with you in person – not over the phone – and they want ‘dead presidents’ – cash.

More than I ever thought, if you drive a long distance and you don’t have a pocket full of greenbacks then you’ve already lost buying power.

Here’s the next thing. Most of the better deals, sadly or otherwise, will be made via a middle-age man. These semi-greying Vikings were born without endless online distractions; their preference is meet ’n’ greet. The demographic is B.C. – Before Computers – and the rewards for meeting and spending time with these characters can be absolutely life-enriching.

My most recent purchase was a blast. Charging through the Sierra Nevada on a hot lead in southern Arizona to meet a cat called Rowdy with a well-turned-out old Harley Panhead, was a rendezvous that was film-worthy.

You don’t often get to sip beer out in the desert with a guy who spits out more stories than a Murdoch newspaper. Adorned with his Vietnam veteran’s tour cap and biker gang garb, he reeled off some of the funniest two-wheeled anecdotes a man could happen upon. His history with the 1948 Panhead was documented along his workshop walls in a series of portraits of he and his dirty-looking biker buddies.

Not the new unscratched Harley leather-embossed weekend warrior type but the kind of proper old-guard biker who was beaten half to death by his pals for the humble crime of washing his dirty Levis. So let’s face it, in these days of hiding behind our phones and technology, there’s another way of navigating the world: by hoofing it about and actually shaking hands. If it worked for Jesus then it’ll work for you, too.

The history wrapped up in these old bikes only really surfaces when you bother to ask what has unravelled over many decades in the seller’s garage.

You buy old things because, well, they are old and have steeped themselves in the history of peoples’ lives. Clicking the ‘Commit to buy’ button will not fill you with pride like the ‘commit to another beer’ button in the garage of a seasoned bike engineer, like my encounter with Rowdy.

No matter how many unspent machine gun rounds lay scattered across his work benches, no matter how many of his pals had taken ‘extended’ 25-year holidays to unmentioned correctional camps, you’ll never really connect with a classic bike if you have no connection to its original journey.


Now let’s wipe away the travel story mist and get pragmatic with the things you need to know.

In the US you need to walk away with the title, the pink, whatever you want to call it. Understand this, he who carries the title owns the bike. Do not underestimate this – proof of ownership in the US weighs very heavily on where that title is. Do not lose it. Do not smoke it. Do not play a last round of Five Stud for it.

A bill of sale may suffice depending on the state you purchase it in but leaving the water will almost always require a title. My advice, do not purchase unless you have a ‘clear title in hand’ as they say over there. No title no party.

You then need to carefully check that the VIN code on the title matches that on the bike. Check carefully then check again. If you are going to handle all the shipping yourself then you need to quickly then obtain an Import Approval from the Australian government.

After that you’ll need to pay customs duty, GST, customs and border protection quarantine clearance from the Department of Agriculture. Prior to this, ensure the bike is steam cleaned to remove any filth that may pose a quarantine risk, dump the fuel, the oil and if it most likely has asbestos brake shoes or pads rip them out, too.

You want your ride to get through customs and quarantine quickly. Time on the docks very much equals money – your money.

If you decide to have a shipping agent manage the entire process he will do all this for you, as long as that is stipulated in his contract, read the details very carefully. He will need the VIN code and you will have to pass the title onto him, or his US shipping company. Send the title by registered mail only.

Also be clear that Los Angeles is not your only stomping ground – be prepared to travel much further. Rust is everywhere these days, so all bets are off. The market is too competitive to avoid the cold climate rust belt. Ohio, Dakota, Northern California and the like are your friends; if you only shop in Southern California you will be stymied by what has become a narrowing field.

A caveat: the further east you travel your trucking costs are going to pile up and if you ship out of New Jersey from the other side then good luck – it will take twice as long and add almost half the cost. You live near the Pacific so ship out of LA every time.

Qualifying all this, however, buying sight unseen, for me, has been 100 per cent successful over dozens of international transactions. Most people, no matter where they’re from, are honest, but don’t think for a moment, that it’s completely safe or without complications. There’s no substitute for being there and kicking actual, not virtual tyres. Be brave, eat too many ribs, and good luck over there.

Nick McGee is a classic motorcycle and car repairer, restorer and writer.

Import approval information and application forms:
Mandatory considerations: