Vintage Vs Classic

By Jeffry L’H. Tank

When people refer to older motorcycles we often hear the terms “Classic”, “Vintage” and “Antique” used almost interchangeably, so I thought I’d try to sort out what, if any, differences there are between these terms, or at least what they bring to mind.

First off lets look at the way these terms are defined in Webster’s. According to Webster’s the term classic, when used as adjective is defined as:

1 a: serving as a standard of excellence : of recognized value b: TRADITIONAL, ENDURING c: characterized by simple tailored lines in fashion year after year <a classic suit>”.

Now lets look at “vintage”, which in its first form really refers most often specifically to the year when a certain wine was produced, but also has the following meanings:

1 of wine: of, relating to, or produced in a particular vintage
2: of old, recognized, and enduring interest, importance, or quality : CLASSIC
3 a: dating from the past : OLD b: OUTMODED, OLD-FASHIONED
4: of the best and most characteristic -- used with a proper noun <vintage Shaw: a wise and winning comedy -- Time>”

And finally we have the term antique when used as a noun which Webster’s defines as:

1: a relic or object of ancient times
2 a: a work of art, piece of furniture, or decorative object made at an earlier period and according to various customs laws at least 100 years ago b : a manufactured product (as an automobile) from an earlier period”,
or as an adjective:
1: existing since or belonging to earlier times : ANCIENT <antique trade routes to the Orient>
2 a: being in the style or fashion of former times <antique manners and graces> b : made in or representative of the work of an earlier period <antique mirrors>; also : being an antique
3: selling or exhibiting antiques <an antique show>”

OK, now we have a basic starting point and while they all appear fairly similar in meaning in that they all refer to something old, do they really all mean the same thing? Well, I guess that depends on how broadly you wish to take the definitions. In my view there are indeed differences when referring to motorcycles or motor vehicles in general. While there are any number of Antique machines still in existence, not all may qualify as Classic, or Vintage, at least in the stricter sense. Lets take an example from the car world, the famous, or perhaps infamous, Edsel of the late 50’s, it would certainly qualify as Antique but would it really qualify as Classic using the definitions above? Perhaps not to most, though I am sure there are a number Edsel owners who would beg to differ. In the general sense, though, I think it falls short of the definition of Classic, and I don’t think it would fit Vintage very well either.

Using the definitions above we can see that there are differences between Antique and Classic or Vintage. I believe that what it boils down to is simply that something can be an Antique without fitting the concepts brought to mind by the other two terms. Now, here again there may be some who would say that an antique also refers to something of value or that the item has to meet other requirements to be termed antique, other than simply being old. However if we look again at the literal meaning of antique it says nothing about “quality”, only about age. Here is where we start to see a distinct difference, classic does refer to quality as well as age, antique simply means old. The difference is that many people have taken antique to include “quality” as a requirement, as in Classic as defined above, especially say, as a dealer in antiques. Certainly this is not unusual, words or ideas have often been “adapted” to mean something more than their proper definition.

So, then what qualifies a motorcycle as Classic or Vintage, not just Antique? Basically it has to have some intrinsic value. It could be because it has set some standard of excellence in design or performance, it exemplifies the styling of the times, or perhaps set some entirely new style that others followed. But what if it created a following simply by the avid devolution of it owners due to simply being an “oddity”? Does this alone make it a Classic, such as the example of the Edsel? That is kind of a gray area, to me it does not, but apparently, to others, it does.

So is it a big deal whether an older machine, say 25 or more years, is referred to as a Classic, Vintage or simply an Antique? To most people, probably not, but being around them as much as I am, and riding machines that are currently 26 and 31 years old, I got to thinking it would be fun to see, just what, if any differences there are in the terms, and how it applies to motorcycles. I guess the bottom line is that there are differences in the terms, and I, for one, see a difference between them, but for many they probably all work equally well.

Just for reference here’s how the Vintage BMW group defines the terms, as you can see they break it down by year:

“Classic (1970-on, at least 25 years old), Vintage (1948-1969) and Antique (1923-1945) BMW motorcycles”

So there you have it. Now, lets look at some examples of classic, and not so classic motorcycles.

1928 Indian Scout
Now here is a true Classic in every sense of the word. The Indian Scout set a standard that many others, including Harley-Davidson, followed. They were the first to “mass produce” a V-twin, in 1907-09 and there are a number of examples still running today.
1928 Indian
Note the V-twin engine as shown in the detail, truly classic as evidenced by it’s continuing popularity today. 1928 Indian


Here is another prime example of a classic machine, the well known and beloved American Harley-Davidson. This is, I believe, a early 30’s model. HD, as we probably all know is the longest running production motorcycle company, 100+ years and counting, and enjoys the highest popularity in the US. 1930 Harley Davidson


Another classic machine, this time from overseas, an Austrian entry called Puch, famous for their single cylinder, twin piston two-stokes engines, simplicity exemplified. Puch was famous for this design of having two pistons, moving together, sharing a common cylinder and more importantly, a common combustion chamber! Yes you read that right, for an explanation go here. This looks to be a 40’s or 50’s model. Puch


This is a Suzuki 500 twin two-stoke called Titan made from 1970 till the mid 70’s. Very fast, clean simple lines and was popular here and oversees, but again I’m not sure if this is truly a classic. While it was the largest displacement twin-cylinder two-stoke imported into the US it didn’t really set any trends or feature any innovative designs. Two-stoke twins were rampant overseas, and still are popular in countries where air pollution standards are lower than the US. Fun machine but not really classic. Suzuki 500


Thanks for this picture goes to Rat Bike Zone (
OK, this one is strictly for fun. Not even sure if it is a motorcycle! <grin> Though it does appear to have two wheels, and I am assured that there is a motor in there somewhere, a 1940’s HD, to be exact. Wow, you gotta love it though, and it won 1st price at the Rathole Show at Daytona bike week. I personally love rat bikes, they are the epitome of self-expression in the motorcycling world, but unfortunately it would hardly qualify as classic, though then again….
Rat Bike


© Jeffry L’H. Tank

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