Buying a TT Special!
So you've read all about them and decided you fancy a TT Bonneville! Here is some information you might find helpful before spending a hefty sum on the bike of your dreams (only to find you've bought a dog!) While this is oriented towards the purchase of the higher value Triumph Competition models, it may be useful to anyone considering purchasing a classic motorcycle.
TT Specials fetch considerably higher prices than US T120R Bonnevilles on account of their greater rarity, their desirability and, to many, their iconic status. This has resulted in quite a few which have been hastily assembled and sold on to make a quick buck - often with restamped engines and/or frames. The TT Specials, particularly those from the 1965 model year onwards with the classic downswept TT pipes, are very attractive motorcycles and it’s very easy to get carried away and spend a lot of money on something which doesn’t end up being quite what it seems. In the UK prices at the low end for an old wreck off eBay kick off at around £9,000. The most expensive one I’ve ever seen advertised was the Aubergine/Gold 1967 one restored by Ace Classics and featured in ‘Classic Bike’ which had a whopping price tag of £35k as I recall. A realistic price for a TT restored by a recognised professional with experience restoring Triumphs would be between £20k - £25k. Personally, having seen some appalling restorations, I would be very wary of buying one which had been rebuilt by an amateur, or by persons unknown.
UPDATE OCTOBER 2019 - Common consensus seems to be that prices for T120Cs and T120TTs have peaked and have stabilised, or are even falling. Certainly the ones I see advertised in the UK tend to be less expensive than they were a couple of years ago and they don't sell quickly. It took me a lot longer to sell my professionally restored 1966 TT (the best of all the ones I had) which I advertised last autumn than it did my 1965 T120C and T120C TT the year before, and I had to drop the price considerably. The days of realising £20k or more for a TT seem to have long gone, quite possibly as there are more on the market (including fakes), with people cobble together the old wrecks they have lying around to sell and make a tidy profit.
Amateur restorations tend to be advertised for between £13k – 18k in the UK – a lot of money for not a lot of bike. A better option is to buy an unrestored wreck and either restore it yourself (if you have extensive experience in restoring Triumphs and the correct equipment to do so) or pay a professional to do the work for you. Depending on how much work is required, you can expect the bike to cost you £18,000 - £25,000, including original purchase price. If you carried out the work yourself, you might save £3,000 or so (going by Terry’s very reasonable labour rates) - however, unless you are a recognised and accredited professional, the resale value is likely to be correspondingly lower.
Amateur 'budget' restorations are the worst buy as they cost a lot more to start with than an unrestored basket case and you frequently have to redo what work has been done - if you want a concours job. Almost all amateur restorations will have a powder-coated frame. This (in my and many others opinion) is totally inappropriate for a 1960s Triumph, which would have left the factory with a stove-enamelled frame. A frame smothered in plastic is very easy to spot and what's worse, it's very difficult to remove the muck, incurring additional costs. Add to that the difficulty the additional thickness of the finish poses in assembling close-fitting components and possible earthing problems. It also is all but impossible to authenticate a frame number smothered in plastic. There is really only one advantage to powder-coat: it's cheap and readily available.
A cheaply restored bike will no doubt be fitted with a poor quality reproduction seat which will need replacing, cheap shocks (generally the wrong size), a poor quality and/or incorrect paint job and will most likely not have the original carbs or Dunlop rims. Putting all these things right - and whatever else has been done to it - will cost as much or more than had you purchased an unrestored bike. Unfortunately, sellers are well aware that hastily giving an old bike a quick makeover will enable them to maximise profit - hence the large number of cheaply restored TTs on the market, "done up to sell", with powder-coated frames and pattern parts. As a result, unrestored ones at a reasonable price are becoming increasingly rare.
Almost all TT Specials (certainly in the UK) will be fitted with replacement pipes provided by LF Harris - because that's all that is available. While the majority of LF Harris parts are high quality, their TT pipes and T120C/TR6C high level pipes are poor copies of the originals and stick out like a sore thumb. The art of pipe bending has clearly been lost over the years and the pattern ones available are considerably more angular than the originals - particularly the TT pipes, which have lost the curving grace of the originals (see the photo on my home page of Wade Schield's original paint 1967 model year TT for an example of original pipes). LF Harris T120C/TR6C high level pipes are also more angular and identifiable by the fact that the timing side one does not obstruct the points cover (which I suppose is a bonus). Apparently they were made "to the original factory drawings" - which is odd, because they really do vary significantly from the originals. Unfortunately, pattern pipes on a TT - particularly in the UK - are the norm, originals being rare as the proverbial.
Whichever way you do it, buying a restored TT Special is never going to be cheap. Classic bike prices have increased dramatically over the last few years, and the TT Special is right at the top end when it comes to Triumph prices. New spares prices too have soared in price - but sadly, not in quality. New old stock parts are few and far between and what little supplies remain (and we're scraping the barrel here) are sold for extremely high prices. 10 or 20 years ago, restoring old motorcycles was an affordable hobby and something many people looked forward to doing in their retirement– it’s fast becoming the preserve only of those with plenty of money to spare. And now the NOS spares are running out, it’s becoming very difficult to restore an old Triumph correctly at all. Consequently, there are many restored bikes out there which have been completed on a budget by people who don’t really know what they’re doing and are very, very poor examples of the original.
Before making a purchase, it makes sense to conduct a thorough investigation into the authenticity of the bike and its originality. The very first thing to check is whether the engine and frame stamps match and are original. A TT Special with mismatching numbers, or numbers that have clearly been modified or re-stamped, isn’t really a genuine TT and its value is dramatically decreased. There are many old bikes in circulation with non-original stamps. Within the last few weeks someone contacted me for info on his TT Special and the photos confirmed a very suspicious looking frame stamping - I have seen many others which have been similarly modified. Non-original frame/engine numbers are very common on TTs, probably because many were raced, engines blown up and replaced or frames crash-damaged and swapped out. Those that weren’t raced on the track were generally ridden hard on the road and suffered similar fates to those used as race bikes. Then there are instances where TTs have been put together from a more common road-going Bonneville or Trophy for fraudulent financial gain – though this tends to be rarer than some would have you to believe.
Engine and frame stamps
Frame stamps are the most difficult to assess, particularly if they’re covered in paint or (worst of all) powder coating. I recently read on a Facebook group someone advising others to use a punch to deepen the characters in the stamping before powder coating a frame to ensure they remained visible - something others seemed to agree was a good idea. Fantastic! So now the stamp remains visible once it's been covered in plastic - but anyone who has any knowledge of Triumph stampings will immediately be able to tell that it's been tampered with and in one fell swoop you will have halved the bike's resale value! (There's a simple answer to this: don't use powder-coat: if you can't find a stove-enameller - another lost art - have it painted with two-pack).
It’s considerably easier to identify a non-original engine stamp. First of all, check for any signs of grinding and ensure the crankcase flange is flush with the edge of the barrel base above the number, and has not been ground down to remove the original number. Also be wary of any indentations round the number, or very smooth surfaces around it where it may have been polished (though this isn’t sufficient reason on its own to consider a number false). Signs of grinding (if they can be detected) or inconsistent lettering should also be a warning sign with the frame number. The following notes describe some features of frame and engine stamps used between 1963 - 67 which should help you identify suspicious stamps.
1963 model year
The stamp is on the left hand side of the headstock and includes no model prefix – just “DU” with a 3 or 4 digit serial number stamped below. The “DU” is a block stamp and the letters should be aligned. The serial number was stamped with individual number stamps and may not be aligned or evenly spaced (though ones I’ve seen for ’63 are all quite neat). TR6 frame stamps are similar, with no model prefix and the “DU” stamped above the serial number.
“T120” followed by “DU” and the 3 or 4 digit serial number, on the left hand crankcase below the barrel (position remained unchanged in subsequent years). “T120” is a block stamp and characters should be fairly well aligned and evenly spaced. “DU” is on the same line as the “T120”. No serifs on the “1” in “T120” – but any “1” in the serial number should have a top and bottom serif.
1964 model year
For 1964, the stamp was moved down from the headstock to the left hand side of the frame downtube, where it remained in following years. “T120” block stamp followed by “C” single stamp. “1” in “T120” has a top serif (though this is often very faint). The “C” is slightly bigger than the other characters and may be stamped at an angle.
“T120” block stamp followed by “C” single stamp, “DU” block stamp and 4 or 5 digit serial number. “C” larger than other digits. No serif on “1” in “T120” but both top and bottom serifs on any “1” in the serial number (this style of “1” with top and bottom serifs continued to be used until the end of TT production in 1967).
1965 model year
Frame and engine stamps followed the same pattern as in 1964, though all serial numbers were 5 digit.
1966 model year
Part way into the production year, from December 1965, the “T120C” stamp was demised and replaced with a “T120TT” stamp on frames and engines (from DU 31141, although the engine number is recorded as “T120T” in the engine record – it seems likely that this is an error, as the assembly and dispatch records confirm it is a TT. The first engine recorded in the engine record as "T120TT" is DU31191. It’s possible that engines DU31141 – 31190 are stamped “T120T” - if someone reading this has one, please get in contact!) [UPDATE 6TH JANUARY 2018 Two owners of bikes in this batch have been in contact with me and confirmed their engines are stamped "T120TT" and not "T120T", with photographic evidence. This was clearly an error in engine record.]
The T120C Competition Sports Bonneville scrambler had been demised prior to the 1966 model year, and since only the TT Special remained, a “T120TT” stamp clearly seemed more appropriate. For 1966, on engines and frames, this was created using existing “T120” block stamps together with “T” single stamps. The single stamp “T”s are – like the “C”s before them – significantly larger than the other characters, and frequently at an angle. Other than for the “TT” in place of the “C” from engines built on 9th December 1965, the stamps for 1966 model year TT Specials had the same characteristics as in 1965.
UPDATE 6TH OCTOBER 2019 I formerly believed that the "T120TT" block stamp was introduced at the start of the 1967 model year. I have now seen evidence that it was in fact introduced, for engines only, during the last few days (maybe the last day itself) of 1966 model year production. The first "T120TT" block stamp on an engine I have seen is DU39731, engine built on 26th April 1966, the last day of 1966 model year production. For the first time, the “1” in “T120” on the engine had an upper serif. The characters are all well aligned and uniformly spaced.
The last (genuine - I've seen a later one but it's been tampered with or is a re-stamp) stamp with the block "T120" and individual"T"s is DU39429, engine built 22nd April 1966. [ANYONE WHO HAS A TT IN THE RANGE DU39430 - DU39730 I WOULD BE KEEN TO HEAR FROM YOU.] So from the evidence I've seen, the "T120TT" block engine stamp was introduced in the final days of the 1966 production year, between DU39430 - DU39730.
1967 model year For 1967 a single “T120TT” block stamp was used, initially for the first batch (the Aubergine/Gold ones built in September 1966 with serial numbers prefixed DU45* and DU46*) for just the engine. The "T120TT" block stamp on the engine always has a serif on the "1".
The first batch still had individual "T" stamps for "TT" on the frame, generally bigger than the "T120" block stamp, though there seems to be quite a bit of variation in these frame stamps. The last combination of block stamp "T120TT" on the engine and block stamp "T120" + individual "T"s in the "TT" suffix on the frame I've seen is T120TT DU46131, engine built on 14th September 1966, the last day of production for the first batch, within the last 65 of the Aubergine/Gold September 1966 ones. The "1" in the "T120" has a serif, though it's not always clear.
The first "T120TT" block stamp I've seen on a frame is for T120TT DU53845, engine built on 15th December 1966, the second day of production for the second batch of 1967 model year TTs, in December 1966. The "1" on the frame stamp on the ones I've seen does not appear to have the upper serif. The stamp clearly needed some force to make an impression, and the frame numbers from this period often show “ghosting” from where they have been hammered twice (or the stamp has bounced from the impact).
So for 1967, the first batch with serial numbers prefixed DU45* and DU46* would seem to all have a combination of block "T120TT" stamp for the engine and block "T120" + individual "T"s for the frame. Thereafter (DU53* and later) for 1967 the block "T120TT" stamp was used for both frame and engine. The stamps used were not exactly the same it seems, and while there was a serif on the "1" in the engine stamp there does not seem to be one on the frame [this is from what I've seen regarding the serif - I could be wrong, it's difficult to be sure with frame stamps].
December 1966 build 1967 model year T120TTs
The report from the 1966 US Sales Conference held at Meriden on 10th - 11th November 1966 (grateful thanks to author Lindsay Brooke for his copy of the report) contains the following minute: "Johnson Motors requested that 300 T120TT models for December production be fitted with the 1965 type frame as the 1966/7 frame, whilst ideally suited for normal road conditions, is not acceptable by TT riders. This matter was investigated and confirmation given that the request could be met." The 1966 frame had a more relaxed steering head angle than the 1965 frame which gave it greater high speed stability on road and (asphalt) race track, but was slower steering, making it unpopular with TT steeplechase riders. The headstock for the '66 frame had two fairing mount brackets brazed on the front, making it readily identifiable.
The factory records indicate that 298 T120TTs were produced in December 1966 for JoMo. Every one of the 50 or so JoMo T120TTs I've seen from this batch, without exception, has a 1965-style headstock, without the fairing brackets. All the non-JoMo T120TTs from the batch I've seen have the brackets. This would suggest that the JoMo bikes had the earlier, steeper-angled headstock (though the rest of the frame would seem to be standard '66), meeting requirements specified during the conference. However, I have seen no written confirmation of this frame customisation for the JoMo T120TTs, nor mention in parts manuals or service manuals. Many Triumph restorers, former dealers and even ex-employees refute the existence of these machines and do not accept that these bikes are genuine T120TTs - the jury is most definitely out on this. Maybe something will come to light but for the time being, whatever the circumstantial evidence, these hybrids cannot be claimed (as some owners like to) that they are "rare versions" of the 1967 model.
Once you have determined that the frame and engine stamps are genuine, either visit the VMCC library in Burton upon Trent and check out the original copies of the records held there yourself, or have the VMCC conduct a machine details check. This is the time to check out whether the motorcycle did indeed leave the factory as a TT Special.
I was recently contacted by the owner of what he believed to be a 1965 TT Special. The previous owner had restored it – after a fashion – to TT specifications, without headlights or silencers. It had genuine frame and engine “T120C” stamps and was supplied with a factory record certificate from the Vintage Motor Cycle Club, confirming it was a T120C and had been dispatched to TriCor as such. However there was no indication that it was ever a TT Special – it was recorded in the dispatch record as a “T120R” (evidently an error – there were a few inconsistent entries in the batch), but in the other two records as a “T120C”. Other information indicated it left the factory as a very rare East Coast Competition Sports scrambler – the owner was very pleased and has sent the bike to Terry Macdonald for a full nuts and bolts restoration to original scrambler specification.
More common are the number of East Coast T120C TTs which have been restored as Competition Sports scramblers. A fallacy common amongst restorers, prior to publication of David Gaylin's "Restoration Guide" and public access granted to the Triumph factory records once the Vintage Motor Cycle Club took them into their guardianship, was that all West Coast T120Cs were stripped down TT Specials and all East Coast T120Cs were street scramblers with lights and silencers. Millenium Motorcycles in the UK are currently advertising a nice example of one of these - a 1964 T120C which the factory records indicate left the factory as a TT Special racer with ET ignition and a 17T gearbox sprocket but which has been restored to Competition Sports spec. Curiously, it's advertised (for £20K!!!) as a "Rare West Coast competition model"! Nice as it looks, it can't really be classed as anything more than a replica.
The Triumph owners club (TOMCC) hold a microfiche copy of two out of the three production records held by the VMCC but the copy is not particularly clear and I have received misinformation (regarding a build date) from them as a result. I also know of bikes which have been restored to the wrong specification as a result of incomplete information thus provided. A TOMCC check is free to members (but may be inaccurate) while the VMCC charge around £25 I believe and will supply a printed certificate with the record information. The three factory records (engine assembly record, assembly record and despatch record) together provide the information to determine which model variant you have. Be aware that neither a VMCC or TOMCC certificate in any way authenticates the bike. The VMCC certificate simply provided details from all the records for a given serial number; the TOMCC ones provides details from a subset of the records - taken from a poor quality microfiche copy which is difficult to read and can lead to inaccuracies. TOMCC do not even ask for photos of the engine and frame stampings. Vendors often imply that these certificates provide evidence that it is what it is being sold as. They don't in any way. The key factor here is authenticity of the engine and frame stamps - and there are many very suspicious ones in circulation (I've even seen photos in books of obviously non-genuine stamps!)
I also have copies of all three factory records for the Competition Bonnevilles and Trophies built between 1963-67 and can provide the same information provided by the VMCC together with additional analysis - but I do not provide a printed certificate which could be useful should you choose to sell the bike. I also have a large number of photos of engine and frame numbers I use for comparison purposes.
Engine assembly record
From 1964 – 1965 the “T120C” prefix was stamped before “DU” and the 3 to 5 digit serial number on both the T120C TT Special and the T120C Competition Sports. In 1963, only “T120” was stamped on the engine with no model variant suffix, and just the “DU” serial number on the frame.
It is impossible to determine which variant of Bonneville a 1963 model is without reference to the factory records and there are quite a few T120Cs which have been restored as T120Rs and vice versa for this year in circulation as a result. The full number, including model prefix and variant indicator, was written by hand in the engine assembly record, which listed batches of engines as they were built. The record also includes notes for T120s where engine build specifications differed from the standard road specification.
TT Specials (before those built in December 1965) usually have a “T120C” engine number and one or more of the following notes written in the engine assembly record: ET - for energy transfer ignition, as fitted to the TT Special alone of the production Bonnevilles; 17T – indicating a 17 tooth gearbox sprocket, fitted by the factory only to TT Bonnevilles; 11:1 (12:1 for 1963 only) – indicating the compression ratio. Any entry in the engine assembly record for a T120C with one or more of the above notes beside it will almost certainly be a T120C TT Bonneville
The much rarer East Coast-only Competition Sports Bonneville scrambler is also recorded as ‘T120C’ in the engine assembly record. These tend to be grouped in batches of up to around 25 built at the start or end of a much larger production run of TT Specials, before or after an even larger run of T120Rs or TR6s. The key indicator in the engine assembly record notes that can be used to identify the scramblers is “18T” – referring to the 18 tooth gearbox sprocket fitted only to the Bonneville scrambler in the 650 range. Up until the first 1965 model year batch built in August 1964, scramblers also had miscellaneous notes referring to their low output alternator, such as “L/O alt”, “L/O coil condition”, etc.
The assembly record contains information relating to when the actual motorcycle was assembled, usually within a few days (or on the same day) of the engine being built. Of the three records, the assembly record tends to be the least informative, usually containing just build date, order number and with an entry for the model. In 1963, TT Specials and Competition Sports scramblers were recorded as “T120C” or “T120” in the assembly record. Between 1964 – 66, TT Specials were recorded as “T120C ET”, “T120 ET”, and sometimes just “T120”. In 1967 they were recorded as “T120TT”. T120C scramblers are recorded simply as “T120C” and on occasion, “T120”.
The dispatch record contains information relating to when the motorcycle left the factory, its order number, invoice number, which distributor it was supplied to and model variant. In 1963, TT Specials and Competition Sports scramblers are recorded as “T120C” in the dispatch record. In 1964, TT Specials were designated either “T120C” or “T120” in the dispatch records. All Competition Sports scramblers were recorded as “T120C” that year (and all went to the East Coast distributor, the Triumph Corporation that year and in 1965, though two were shipped to a Mexican dealership in 1963). In 1965, TT Specials are recorded as “T120C TT”, “T120C/TT” or “T120TT”. Bonneville scramblers are recorded generally as “T120C” though there are a couple of “T120” entries – and a few scattered “T120R” entries – which I believe are errors. In 1966, TT Specials are recorded as “T120TT” other than in the first batch from August 1965 when there are a few “T120C”, “T120CTT” and “T120C/TT” entries.
Thus one can appreciate the need to reference all 3 records to determine for sure whether the bike is a TT Special. I have copies of all records relating to TT Specials and Bonneville Scramblers built from 1963 and will provide information in exchange for clear photos of engine and frame numbers. Having established the authenticity of the machine, the next task is to evaluate it. Many are advertised as “concours restorations” with an asking price of around £20k. In reality, the vast majority of these fall way below concours standards. The first question regarding a restored bike the seller needs to be asked is, “Who carried out the work?” If the answer is, “I don’t know”, then tread very carefully indeed. If you intend riding the bike, just remember that you are potentially entrusting your life to work carried out by some amateur in a shed using sub-standard pattern parts bodged together with a hammer and pair of mole grips. No matter how pretty the bike might look on the outside, you have absolutely no idea what’s been done inside the engine and gearbox.
I bought a 1965 TR6SC JoMo desert racer engine off a guy in the US who I’d met at the Barber rally and corresponded with for a while (a pleasant chap by the name of George Zilm). George seemed a knowledgeable enough chap with a garage full of old bikes including several Triumphs. The engine had been restored by himself and a friend (Garry D. Little, who worryingly carries out paid restoration work). The engine duly arrived, with gleaming polished cases and the exhaust ports covered in some blue film that looked surgical and very professional. George and Garry had made a great job of it - or so it seemed! I passed it to Terry Macdonald, who was working on one of my other bikes at the time, just to take the head off and give it a quick check over – expecting him to find a decent rebuild had been carried out. The thing was a grenade waiting to explode! The crankcases were warped, everything misaligned, a crack in the gearbox housing, barrels needed resleeving, cams were worn – the list was endless! Extensive machining and alloy welding was required and almost every part in the engine had to be replaced – in the end that engine cost me over £3,500. It scares me to think what would happen had I just slotted it into a frame as intended and ridden the thing. The two "restorers" clearly had no idea of how to rebuild an engine and displayed a total lack of competence. They'd even left a piece of paper with their initials and the date inside a space in the engine, and were clearly proud of their work! Be warned: there are plenty more hobbyists like George and Garry out there. Their bikes will often have gleaming paint jobs, sparkling chrome and a a mirror-like finish on their alloy covers - but look a little closer and you'll soon find evidence of bodgery and incompetence, provided you know what to look for!
Evaluate the bike externally – does it conform to original specification, if it’s supposed to be concours? Is it missing important parts – such as the air filter(s), brake torque bar? Does it have incorrect parts – the wrong rocker caps, incorrect seats (especially common on poor ’67 ones is a pattern seat with chrome trim, usually badly fitting)? Is the paintwork a) the right colour scheme for the year and b) the right pattern (a common mistake is to have the lower scalloped lines on ’64 and ’65 tanks showing from the side when they should disappear under the tank)?
Quite often restorers use some kind of metallic paint to emulate the “flamboyant” finish provided by Triumph (which is more difficult to implement and involves spraying a base layer first and a partially translucent top layer to give a “candy” finish). Mudguards up until1967 should have razor cut edges front and rear as opposed to rolled ones (although some do argue that alloy ‘guards with rolled edges were fitted on TTs in 1966 – they certainly weren’t before then). The Triumph logo on the rear of the seat wasn’t introduced till part way into the 1966 model year – though many like the look of it and use it anyway on earlier bikes, strictly speaking, it shouldn’t be there if the bike is concours. Replacement seat covers are often smooth vinyl – the originals were textured (only RK Leighton’s supply the correct ones now I believe). Are the handlebars the correct US ones (often referred to as “Western” or “Semi-Western”)? Are the carbs the original Amal Monoblocs, with date stamps? Are the wheel rims genuine Dunlop chromed ones? Many are replacement pattern ones which may be good (Devon rims certainly are) but the hard-to-find originals add value. If you intend riding the bike, avoid ones fitted with the original 11:1 pistons (unless you have a ready supply of av gas) – likewise those with ET ignition.
Has the frame been powder-coated? In the '60s, all Triumphs left the factory with stove-enamelled frames. Today, stove-enamelling is very much a dying art and the vast majority of restorers (certainly in the case of amateurs) opt for powder-coating - essentially melting plastic coating onto the frame. It's tough, durable, cheap and widely available. However, it's much thicker than paint or stove enamel and can make reassembly of parts where there is a close fit (e.g. unipiece air filters) difficult. It's also almost impossible to remove, should you decide to refinish the frame - bead blasting won't touch it and it needs to be either burnt off or stripped in an acid bath. Furthermore - despite improvements in quality over the years - it doesn't have the finish of stove enamel or paint, and to me at least, a plastic-coated frame on a '60s bike just looks wrong. "Purists" - that mythical breed of (largely) Northern English, "Classic Bike"-reading old codgers who home in on old motorcycles and bluntly inform their unsuspecting owners of all the "incorrect" aspects of them - hate powder-coating! Less discerning types are often more ambivalent (on a personal note, I detest powder-coating and believe it has no place on a 1960s Triumph).
TT Specials and other US Competition bikes are eye-catching, iconic machines. There is a huge amount of misinformation and romantic nonsense propagated about them on the internet, in books and in magazines. Before buying one, it might be worth reflecting on why exactly you want one. Do you really want to "be like Steve McQueen", as I've seen in an advert for one high-priced shabbily rebuilt one? (Maybe go to acting school?) Are you looking for an "investment opportunity"? (Shares will be more profitable.) Do you fancy yourself as a hot-rod street racer? (Buy a Fireblade, for less). There are all sorts of reasons for spending a lot of money on these old bikes, some valid, others misguided. It's easy to get carried away with all the hype that abounds about classic bikes as a whole, and the TT Special in particular - buyers just need to be aware that the vast majority of these bikes are not worth anywhere near their advertised prices and that in their 50 year plus lifetime they will have been used, abused and butchered by "enthusiasts" before being sold on to gullible buyers for crazy prices.
I've had a few people contact me through this site recently asking for advice on TT Specials (complete machines and basket cases) they've either bought or are keen to buy. These are iconic bikes and people tend to get a little carried away and rush into buying one without first having the frame and engine number checked out and without really knowing what they're buying. There is at least one TT Special currently for sale by a dealer in the UK which has clearly been restamped; there was a box of bits (allegedly a T120C) being sold in the States which had a restamped frame number; one guy imported what was sold to him as a 1967 TT but the numbers on it were for a T120R and had clearly been restamped; someone else bought a 1964 TT at auction in the UK restored by an American - factory records indicated it left Meriden as a T120C Competition Sports scrambler (not so bad, as these are much rarer and more valuable than TTs anyway, but disappointing if you had been caught up in the TT myth and had your heart set on one). There seems to be a lot of very dodgy Competition 650s doing the rounds at the moment. I understand the 1967 amateur restoration TT with a very poorly restamped engine which was on sale for £20k a few years ago but didn't sell will be back on the market soon, so another one to watch out for.
I've seen quite a few, at best, average TTs for sale on eBay and elsewhere in the last few months, restored (after a fashion) by amateurs for around the £15,000 mark. These are really not good purchases. Generally smothered in powder coat with invisible frame numbers, engines and gearboxes rebuilt by someone whose mechanical ability is completely unknown, these are often sold as bikes to be ridden. At first glance, they can look convincing, but when you look deeper, to the trained eye, the flaws start to appear. If you buy one of these "restorations" you're essentially paying several thousand pounds extra for a bike someone else has cobbled together without knowing what has gone on inside the engine and gearbox. No "serious investor/collector" who knows anything about classic bikes will want one of these, and many purists won't buy anything with a plastic coated frame anyway. If you do decide to strip and have it restored properly, it'll cost you just the same as it you'd started off with a good unrestored one which will cost you thousands less.
Be very wary of frame numbers that can't be read - ask the vendor to remove the coating so you can assess it (and if he won't, walk away - it just isn't worth spending a lot of money on a bike which nobody in their right mind will buy off you as the stamp is hidden, or worse still, turns out to be non-original).
Don't be fooled into thinking that because a machine comes with a VMCC or TOMCC certificate (or worse still, one of dear old Harry Woolridge's "Certificates of Authenticity") it means it's genuine. The VMCC ones are accurate representations of information held in the 3 factory records. The TOMCC provide information from microfiche copies of some of the records (not always accurate, the copies are poor quality and difficult to read and mistakes can be made - and in my case, were). VMCC request photos of engine and frame stamps - but they do not carry out a detailed examination in comparison with photos of others from the same batch. TOMCC do not ask for photos - nor did Harry Woolridge. None of these certificates are evidence that the bike is what it purports to be - and I don't think either the TOMCC or VMCC claim they are.
Don't be influenced by references to Steve McQueen - his TT Special looked nothing like the bog stock factory original ones that you find for sale (see post on this site for what it did look like) and nobody will think for one moment that you're him! The publicity shots of him looking a bit uncomfortable on a standard '66 TT in the California desert was one he was testing for a magazine (and given it was still fitted with underslung TT pipes, hardly suitable for desert riding anyway).
Any advert referring to a TT Special as a "Factory Desert Racer", or similar, is evidence that the vendor knows absolutely nothing about these bikes - so treat any other information given with suspicion! TT Specials were built to be used as TT Steeplechase race bikes. A few people (including McQueen, as above) had them modified into desert sleds, true, but that wasn't there intended purpose. The true "Factory Desert Racer" was the West Coast TR6C (or TR6SC) Trophy Special built between 1963 - 66 and exported to JoMo on the West Coast (much rarer than TTs).
If an advert says it's a West Coast model, it's probably an East Coast one - and vice versa. Check with myself or the VMCC for despatch record information.
There are really only two roads to TT Special ownership worth pursuing, and neither is cheap:
1). Buy a machine restored by an accredited and respected professional like Terry Macdonald. Or......Terry Macdonald. This will cost you big bucks.
2). Buy a good original unrestored machine from the US (or UK - but be very wary, there is a lot of junk being imported from the States and sold on eBay), import it yourself and have it restored by a professional. This will cost you big bucks. Plus.
Unfortunately, it's becoming very difficult to source and unrestored T120C or T120TT now as they're usually "restored to sell" because the profit margin on a cheaply restored one is much higher than on an unrestored one. Professionally restored ones by accredited experts like Terry Macdonald seldom come on the market, so often the only option is to buy an overpriced amateur restoration. This makes them more expensive to buy initially and equally (or more expensive) to put right - if, like me, you like things to be done properly. Fortunately (for vendors) there are many buyers with cash to spare who aren't too fussy and ready to pay the price just to own a TT.