Andy Tiernan buys bikes. Classic bikes, that is. He also sells them at the rate of around 250 machines per annum with an average yearly turnover of £1million. Trading from what used to be Framlingham Railway Station, Suffolk, he's by far one of the most active and most familiar faces on the British classic bike scene. In fact, if you’re in the British classic bike scene and don’t know Andy, you’re not really in the scene at all. You just think you are.
Tall, slim, and genial, 62-year old Tiernan isn’t showing much sign of slowing. Having just returned from a week-long, saddle-sore biking sojourn at the Irish Rally (48th Irish National Vintage Motorcycle Assembly), he’s more or less slipped back instantly into his usual motorcycle business habits having just disposed of a replica Brough Superior for seventy grand.
“That’s not an everyday occurrence”, he admits. But every once in a while, some seriously big money passes through his fingers.
“Generally,” he says, “the bikes I trade in sell for between £4000 - £5000. But the price range is typically anything from around £1000 to maybe £20,000, the £70K Brough replica notwithstanding.”
Aiding and abetting his commercial endeavours are wife, Jo (who looks after the office and bookwork), Justin Faithfull (who handles after the IT side of things); and Perry Mann (part time mechanic and road tester).
▲ Justin Faithfull is every bit at home on the www as he is in the workshop. If you don't believe us, go check his fingernails. Digital grease and Castrol oil. It's the future for yesterday's tech.
Information technology and classic bikes
But wait a minute. An IT man? In a classic bike shop? Well that’s because Tiernan recognizes that in order to trade behind the times, you have to keep up with it, and as such he’s got perhaps the biggest website of any British classic motorcycle trader. It’s updated constantly, details all his bikes, provides general servicing advice, shares customer feedback, offers transportation help, carries a memorial page, maintains an events listing, and has an up-to-date calendar. He also regularly post words and pictures sharing his personal and commercial adventures.
Justin (image immediately above) isn't only into digital technology, incidentally. He knows his way around classic bikes and is apt to get his hands greasy when the situation calls for it. But "time-saving" computer technology takes up most of his time, and that's what helps keep Andy Tiernan ahead of the game.
▲ Perry Mann getting up close and dirty with a pre-war classic. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But a lot keep's Andy Tiernan in business, and Perry's dealt with them all at one time or another.
Andy Tiernan trading origins
So how did he get into the business?
“Well, I sold my first bike when I was 12,” he explains. “But it was actually 1972 when I ‘formally’ started trading,” which makes Tiernan one of the longest serving classic bike dealers in the country. “I was operating from my mother’s house in Kesgrave, Suffolk. At the time, Kesgrave was the biggest bungalow village in the UK. I’d wanted to establish a premises of my own in Ipswich, a mile or two further west. But instead, in 1979, I rented a place at Martlesham Heath. This was actually an old RAF experimental station that closed in 1963.
“There was just me and an assistant operating from an ante-room of an aircraft hangar. I was selling parts mostly. But some bikes too. And then, in 1985, I moved to where I am now in Framlingham, which is a nice market town and which has been very good to me.”
▲ Andy Tiernan keeps his stock list up to date and compiles a report on everything he sells. He know his stuff, and he understands his market. Check his website. There's always something interesting.
Tiernan's premises at Framlingham Station
Framlingham Station was closed in 1963; a casualty of the infamous Beeching Report which shut down hundreds of UK stations, ripped up thousands of miles of track and, for better or worse, helped introduce containerization.
Tiernan’s current premises are large and sprawling; a dusty, rusty and oily mechanical cornucopia filled with nooks and crannies and boasting numerous features of the original railway architecture.
“It’s actually around 5,000 square feet,” he says. “And I’ve got some more space, but I sub-let that.”
He’s also got some eye-popping bikes tucked away here and there that aren’t necessarily for sale, and he keep a large inventory of spares (crankcases, gearboxes, carburettors, magnetos, etc) that he uses to maintain his sales stock and keep it moving.
▲ It gets pretty crowded down at the Tiernan emporium in Framlingham, Suffolk. This old railway station has a great vibe and is well worth a trip if you're within a hundred miles or so, or have access to a computer.
Pre-war motorcycles, general stock and customers
He specializes in pre-war motorcycles. Currently, that’s where the best money is, and he’s shrewd enough to stay ahead of the game. Old BSAs feature predominantly in his stock, but he’s also been known also as a “Panther man”. At the time of writing, his sales line-up features a range of Triumphs, a trio of Excelsiors, a Velocette or two, a brace of Matchlesses, a couple of Nortons, a Rudge and a Sunbeam. At any one time, he’s holding around 40 to 70 machines, and if you need a sidecar to go with your choice of wheels, he’s always got a handful of “chairs” ready to roll.
Tiernan runs a pretty comprehensive workshop too and road tests and writes a report on everything he sells. His philosophy is that the customer wants to know, and has a right to know, and that probably helps account for the fact that so many of his buyers come back year after year. They trust him. But he doesn’t offer a guarantee as such.
“How can you guarantee a 70-odd year old bike?” he says, wistfully.
Nevertheless, he looks after people and will happily buy back machines where there’s a serious problem, or a problem that he can’t rectify.
He doesn’t buy or sell Japanese bikes, note, and doesn’t buy or sell anything with hydraulic brakes—not that he’s got anything against such machines. It’s simply that hydraulics are a convenient cut-off point.
“And I’m not too familiar with Norton Commandos,” he explains, “even though the early models have cable brakes. I’ve got nothing against the bikes. They’re good motorcycles. But they’re just not something I’ve had much to do with.”
▲ There are tons of motorcycle parts dating back half a century or more. It's not really for sale, however. Andy uses it to keep his bikes running. Staying mobile is the name of the game.
Old V-Twins, however, from BSA to Royal Enfield to Brough to Indian to Matchless to Harley-Davidson are exactly the kind of stock he likes and understands. His ideal bike? That would be a 750cc BSA Y13 V-twin. Not fast. Not sexy. But quintessentially British. And classy.
Tiernan’s customers are mostly UK residents, but each year more than a few handfuls of bikes go to France, Holland, Austria and Switzerland (not necessarily in that order).
“There are still plenty of people around who have money in the bank and low interest rates to contend with,” he says. “But there’s almost no cheap stock anymore for dealers. You’ve usually got to pay the money. The full asking price.”
He doesn’t import bikes from overseas. It’s all homegrown hardware. But in spite of the stock acquisition issues, he’s optimistic about the future. The last few years, he explains, haven’t been bad for him, and (a few worrying sales dips aside), the buyers are still out there, and still spending.
▲ Ner-A-Car. Oddities such as this turn up frequently. Andy was flogging a BSA car not long ago, and then a Raleigh Karryall van, and more recently we saw a Smiths Motor Wheel on the stock list. It comes, it goes, and many years later it often comes back as a trade-in.
Shows and autojumbles
So what about shows and autojumbles?
“I do attend quite a few,” he says, “but usually not for serious trading. I occasionally take a bike to an event and sell one, or buy one, but shows are really a meet-and-greet thing; a chance to catch up on what’s happening and chat to old customers and make new contacts.”
We regularly bump into Andy at anywhere from Kempton to Copdock to Stafford. He gets around to a few rallies too, notably the Irish Rally, and he's got a huge web of friends and contacts out there in the real world, and in cyberspace.
IT man Justin helps handle the email and social media stuff, but Andy presses his own flesh and is never short of a friendly face or another deal.
The best years, and the worst years
The best years, he recalls, were around 1989 when media magnate Eddie Shah paid £44K for an estimated £20K Brough Superior. Friendly rival and entrepreneur Peter de Savary had just paid £20K for another classic, and suddenly the prices across the country rocketed. The fuse was lit.
“After Shah bought the Brough,” Tiernan recalls, “we all had to rush home from the auction to re-evaluate our stock and adjust prices. That was an exciting time.”
And the worst moment?
“That would be when one of our staff, Dave Berry, was hit by a speeding driver and was killed. It was in 2006, and Dave was riding to work on a BSA B33. The driver was given 28 months and a 4 year ban. That was a sad time.”
So what does Andy Tiernan do when he isn’t working? Well, he likes to travel, and if he can mix that travelling with a little honest graft, then so much the better. That’s why he doesn’t think too hard about retiring.
“But the wife does,” he says. “However, how many old bike dealers ever do retire?”
It’s a good point.
If you visit a classic bike show, either at home or abroad, and spot a guy in his early sixties with a shock of grey hair and wearing a red boiler suit and standing beside a bike, usually chatting to friends and associates, chances are that that’s Andy Tiernan.
Can’t miss him, and you wouldn’t want to.