Fell asleep watching a documentary on PBS of archival film from the 60s and 70s last night. Like gearheads everywhere, I note the vehicles as well as the story… Despite being shot in some poor neighborhoods, I saw few cars over  decade old in the documentary. And from my memory of the 60s and 70s, that wasn’t unusual- I drove  a ’52 Ford to school a few times in the late 60s, and it was usually the oldest car in the lot. Then I bought a ’61 Corvair in ’68, for the princely sum of $125. That was followed by a ’66 english Ford Cortina GT, ’62 VW van, and ’66 Volvo 122S; All less than ten years old and bought for $200 or less. Even though every one of those cars was less than a decade old and all but the Corvair had less than a hundred thousand miles on it, I paid less than ten percent of new price for each. When I was prosperous enough to blow $500 on a new 100 cc. Kawasaki dual sport bike in 1970, I was lucky to unload it a year later on a distant cousin for $300… Yup, 40% first year depreciation, not unusual then. Why the quick depreciation and cheap used vehicles? We had an economy so healthy back then that almost any adult could afford a new or late model vehicle. With so many folks able to buy new, there just wasn’t much market for used vehicles.

“Truck” magazine out of England has to be the greatest all time trucking rag. Besides actually road testing trucks with a load, they carried articles from trucking journalists around the world. One of the things I noted in the articles from third world (poor) countries was how old trucks were hung on to forever. The only operators that could afford new vehicles were the big companies, and they were often foreign owned. Most everyone else was dirt poor and paid dearly for the big company’s cast off trucks and ran them forever. And in an economy where few could afford new, old vehicles held their value and were literally run into the ground. One still sees this practice today, as used trucks with little value in America or Europe are exported to third world countries where they sell for a premium.

With the current recession on top of past recessions that we never really recovered from, the U.S. is taking on the characteristics of those poor third world markets. The average age of a car in America has doubled from five to over ten years. Out in rural Minnesota where I live, high paying jobs are rare and thus a new car is a rare treat. In fact, local dealers are asking as much for “Certified Pre-Owned” couple year old cars as I can buy a new one for with supplier discount.

The same economics are tweaking the motorcycle market… The local dealers here order new bikes only when they have a sale, which are few and far between. In Naples, I saw a dealer with a few new bikes, a couple clusters of helmets and riding togs on the floor, and that was about it. They had a high profile location in a shopping center, but half there floor space had been converted to selling car tires. I suspect the strange inventory concentrations were a reflection of what suppliers would still advance them credit, and the car tires had to be a desperation move.

In this twisted market I towed an empty trailer to Florida in hopes of towing it home with a nice BMW, Guzzi, or Buell aboard. “Twas not to be… I searched craigslist.org for everything south of the Cross Florida Canal and found prices far above what I’m used to seeing. There were rare exceptions, like the Buell “tuber” with no title, asking $800. That produced a feeding frenzy that reportedly resulted in said undocumented Buell being sold for the $800 asking price at midnight just a few hours after it was listed. The buyer reportedly had no idea if the bike was stolen or if the alleged executor of the estate was telling the truth and really couldn’t find the title card.

And some bikes didn’t seem to appear for sale at all. Looking for a BMW airhead, it seemed I saw every BMW bike but an airhead on craigslist.org. I checked the ibmwr.org listings of airheads and parts for sale and got a glimpse of the dynamics of the market. Ninety percent of the listings for airheads were less than a month old… Back in 2004 I bought an R80ST that had lingered there for three months, and that was not unusual.

Quite simply, the laws of supply and demand are pushing used vehicle prices up, and that won’t change until the economy improves to the point where the average citizen can buy a new vehicle every five years or so. In the meantime, there’s no point in spending $3k or more on a two decade old bike. In fact, with such inflated used bike prices, new 250s at $4k and 650s at $5k look tempting…