Gary Inman reports from the margins of creative bike culture
Three-chords, crap equipment, not much talent, lots of enthusiasm. Young men and women have been in garage bands since skiffle was The Next Big Thing, but it was only during the wave of 1977 punk that the garage bands broke big. Top-selling punks may not have had the same skills as the Stones or Fleetwood Mac, but they offered an alternative that was lapped up. A similar revolution is happening in motorcycle customisation.
Like punk rock often said it was rebelling against the overblown excesses of ten-minute guitar solos and prog rock, the new generation of custom builders are the antithesis of American Chopper’s fat tyre monstrosities, and showrooms full of 190mph traction-controlled superbikes. And, though the movement started before the global meltdown, its growth has mirrored the fall in sales of big ticket bikes.
The new wave customs are neither chopper nor café racer, but they borrow cues from all genres. They tend to start with unloved, cheap Japanese bikes – though the burgeoning scene is sending prices of air-cooled, spine-frame Jap stuff roofwards. Anything from the 1970s onwards is fair game. Singles, twins, fours; two-stroke or four; Jap, Brit, German, Italian: animal, vegetable or mineral. This isn’t a cult with a basis is performance one-upmanship. It’s creativity and originality (without straying into parody or overt gimmickry) is what pushes the boundaries and attracts the four-figure facebook ‘likes’.
One reason this style of custom is becoming so popular is due to the fact they’re relatively easy and cheap projects to complete by someone, anyone, with a few spanners. You don’t even need a garage to be in this garage band. Inspired hopefuls see bikes being fawned over on the Net and, like a thousand oiks of previous generations watching Top of the Pops in the late-70s, think ‘I could do that.’
Wheels, brakes and suspension can be changed, but aren’t always. Rake, trail and wheelbase all tend to remain the same. No one is building one-off frames or investing in forced induction or race tuning. Replace the tank, seat and bars with stuff picked up cheap online or at the autojumble. Paint is simple or non-existent. Steel or alloy tanks stripped bare and lacquered or left to ‘weather’ are popular.
Next, junk standard airboxes and exhausts and fit filters and new silencers. If you’re more adept, make a new sub-frame for the stripped-down back end. Fit new tyres – chunky is best — and a tiddly taillight. Voila! But, like a punk band, however much you sneer and spit, if you haven’t got the chops you are going to fail. For the garage-built bike scene, if the stance of bike is hinky, it’ll still look like an unloved bike with a rusty petrol tank and knobblies, however hard you try. There are plenty of those around.
The godfathers of the scene are the Wrenchmonkees. Based in a cellar in the outskirts of Copenhagen, they modified a trio of big, four-cylinder Kawasakis back in 2008, before moving onto twins and singles. It’s no coincidence two of the original trio of Monkees were professional photographers. They shot and disseminated their tough street bikes in a fresh, urban style. The Monkees themselves – Per, Nicolas and Anders – didn’t look like stereotypical motorcyclists from any pigeon-hole, either. They wore a gene-defying mixture mountaineering Gore-Tex, full-face lids, dark jeans and skateboard shoes and rode in cities, not the unrealistically empty racetracks of mainstream bike ads.
A new generation of motorcyclists saw them on a new generation of website – blogs that would cherrypick inspirational images from all over the web and mash these images of bikes up with architecture, art, cars, tattooed femmes and historic style icons. The Wrenchmonkees didn’t look out of place.
Coincidentally, Deus puffed spores of goodness from their sweet-smelling Sydney HQ. Though not garage-built, their big dollar Yamaha SR500-based builds were close to faultless and had a cleanliness only a truly well-built road bike can achieve. They’ve influenced a thousand builders from Beijing to Bristol, some who copy on the cheap, others who have moved the game on. People who wouldn’t dream of wearing full leathers and riding a superbike or pulling on a cut-off denim and riding a chop realised there was a bike scene waiting for them. They just had to make it. And they have.
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