A Life in Sheds: Interview with Henry Cole
Henry Cole’s autobiography A Biker’s Life was published in October. In it he details his love of British bikes, sheds and the thrill of individual adventure. We caught up with Henry to talk shop.
Words: Charlie Bliss
You would be correct to think that Henry Cole has spent a great deal of his energy rebelling against a vision of society he inherited – a vision of aristocracy and elitism with which he never seemed comfortable. And his heritage comes with a certain pedigree. Henry is descended from William Ewart Gladstone, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, and was educated at Eton College. And yet, the trajectory of his life has entailed more riding on desert racers and bobbers than riding on coattails, more horsepower than executive power.
“I grew up in what I can only describe as a posh world. I was subjected to a load of very eccentric people in tweed – my relations. One of whom was my uncle Dick Redbeard. He was this raving, wonderfully eccentric old bloke who lived up in Liverpool. He came outside one day and he goes: ‘Do you want to come and have a look in my shed?’ It was the smell that hit me first: old oil and a bit of leather.”
Little did he know, but that first visit to his uncle’s shed was a watershed moment. What he discovered in there would resonate for the rest of his life. Henry remembers seeing around 10 British bikes, including a BSA and perhaps a Triumph.
“Immediately in that shed I kind of felt at home. I felt as if I could hide away and there were these things in there which had absolutely nothing to do with that society that I had been brought up into. That was the instigation of my love of classic bikes, restoration and an alternative lifestyle of shed running.”
Life at full throttle
Henry has led what you could reservedly describe as an eclectic life. After Eton, Henry tried his hand drumming in a punk rock band before moving to London and falling in with the drug scene. He then ran a production company and became a war cameraman filming in war-torn locations like Bosnia and Libya. After battling with and overcoming heroin addiction, Henry directed a film, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and later became involved in music cinematography.
Stitched throughout this varied tapestry was Henry’s constant devotion to motorcycles. Today, Henry is best known for his work as the presenter of a number of popular motorcycle-centric television shows, including The World’s Greatest Motorcycle Rides and The Motorbike Show. Another is Shed and Buried. Co-hosted by Sam Lovegrove, the renovation show follows their quest to uncover vintage vehicles hidden in Britain’s sheds. And when you root around in as many sheds as someone like Henry, you are bound to come across a few real gems.
“My favourite find of all time is my Quartermaster drag bike from the 1960s. I go into this shed with Sam and in the corner we see this thing that just looks like a torpedo. It’s a T100 Triumph with a supercharger on it running on methanol. We completely rebuilt it and I’ve got an eighth of a mile record of about 100 miles an hour at Elvington [on it]. I think I can get it up to about 130mph. As shed finds go, that’s one of the best we’ve found.”
When he’s not rummaging around in sheds, Henry can often be found riding – either breaking world land speed records or touring the world. Henry even competed at the final BMF Rally in Peterborough at Moped Mayhem.
“I was at Moped Mayhem, racing. I went up there and filmed with Chris Walker and Pete Thorne who installed the bikes for The Motorbike Show. We had a great time. Actually we got half way around the race and another load of lads had blown their bike up which they’d spent months preparing. So, we gave them our bike to carry on the race and I said, ‘Look mate, just take it home. It’s fine, have it.’”
The bike whisperer
Giving away his ride willy-nilly might suggest that Henry has no emotional connection with his bikes. In fact, he feels such an attachment to his motorcycles that he often talks to them!
“I spend a huge amount of my time on a motorcycle on my own. And the reason why I have a whole collection of motorcycles is because I ride different bikes and I ride them for different moods. My mood is relative to the conversation I have with my bike.
“I have a lovely little Norton ES2 called Mavis. Mavis and I go for our little spiritually relaxing rides around the Cotswolds. I don’t take Mavis more than three or four hundred miles. But I have a very different conversation with her than I do with my American chopper!
“Even though they are obviously bits of metal, you have an affinity with a motorcycle. It is strange but I do talk to my bikes and I will continue to do so.”
Best of British
Perhaps it is symptomatic of his bloodline and his quintessentially English upbringing, but Henry has an undeniable penchant for motorbikes from the motherland.
“I’ve always had a thing about British, as well. I’m so proud to be British and to promote the Great British craftsmen and women we’ve got in this country.”
Continuing in the grand tradition of Métisse, Norton and Triumph, Henry established Gladstone Motorcycles with Guy Willison in 2013. With a tagline that reads: ‘Handmade British motorcycles for discerning hooligans’, it is clear that Gladstone is not your ordinary manufacturer.
“We are creating what we believe to be beautiful bobbers. What we are desperately trying to do is our microscopic part of continuing that passion for British engineering, British styling. We love it. We live for designing a bike that is aesthetically pleasing.”
When Gladstone came along, it was the first bespoke British manufacturer to be established since 1984. Henry and Guy recently conceived, designed and built a restyling of Norton’s Commando 961 Street with a limited edition run of 50 models – every one of which sold out before the launch. Enjoying this kind of success, how does Henry think Gladstone fares as a classic British marque?
“We don’t think we’re anywhere close to being an iconic British brand, but one day… You know, when I’m dead and gone one might come up at Bonhams and someone might pay some decent money for it and I’ll roll around in my grave and go, ‘I told you so!’”
Why we ride
Heritage, tradition and the legendary status of British motorcycling aside, when it comes down to it, what does Henry think of the state of motorcycling in the UK?
“Motorcycling, to me, has become a hobby. If we really looked at it, it could become incredibly utilitarian. People would use it. If only we weren’t taxed. Why aren’t there incentives to get people out of their cars to commute on motorcycles and scooters in London?
“If you’re in a car, you’re comforted by your airbag and all that kind of stuff. If you’re cold you put the heating on, if you’re hungry you have a wine gum, if you fart you wind the window down. But you’re still the spectator. You’re looking out at that windscreen at what’s going on. As a motorcyclist you are taking part in that scenery, you are part of that scenery. And also you are an individual on a motorbike.
“It’s not about making a statement and showing off in your Ferrari and all that kind of b*****ks. It’s about you at one with the road and living life how you want to live it and that’s why I ride a bike. Period.”
A Biker’s Life: Misadventures on (and off) Two Wheels by Henry Cole is available now, published by Quercus Books.
The Motorbike Show returns in March on ITV4 and Shed and Buried is back later in the year.