Rise of the custom motorcycle

yamaha bike

Published on 29 December 2017 by Robert Drane

Like so many other trends, customisation has its origins in sport. At the turn of the 20th century, when motorcycles were little more than bicycle frames with rudimentary engines attached, riders were already modifying their machines to make them go faster and handle better.

Unpaved roads and the crude sporting facilities of the time – based on dirt tracks and, later, wooden board tracks – saw the appearance of the first mass iteration of customisation, the ‘cut down’. Modifying early bicycle-type framed bikes to give a lower centre of gravity for sporting activity, ‘cut downs’ are seen as the first widespread adoption of what would become the trend for customisation in motorcycles.


Building the ‘bobber’

By the 1930s, ‘bobbers’ were making an appearance. Sporting riders would remove any weight deemed unnecessary to improve performance. Fenders were removed or chopped, large fuel tanks and other non-essential items were replaced. Soon enough, non-racers began to imitate the style and the ‘bobber’ craze was born.

By the 1940s and ’50s, the combination of returning military men and the widespread availability of cheap ex-military motorcycles saw an increase in customisation, partly driven by the custom car world and influences from drag racing and hot rod culture. By the 1950s, ‘Kustom Kulture’ was in full swing with choppers making their first appearance. Chopping and reassembling the frame and cycle parts was a step further from the mainly cosmetic modifications involved in the ‘bobber’ craze. Raked forks, smaller fuel tanks and custom paintwork became widespread, epitomised by the bikes in Easy Rider that influenced an entire generation of riders. In Britain at the same time, bike customisation took a different path with ‘ton up boys’ literally racing from café to café – the café racer was born.

By the 1970s, the customisation scene was moving in a different direction. British bikes were cheap after the fallout from the death of the British bike industry, so Triumphs, Nortons and even Vincents were widely available for modification, particularly as the bike market became dominated by models from the Japanese ‘big four’. As used Japanese bikes in turn became widely available, the custom scene moved to using these as base models, usually with accident-damaged plastics and bodywork removed. The ‘streetfighter’ craze was born.


The modern custom

Despite these changes, by the beginning of the 2000s motorcycle custom culture was still heavily dominated by modified Harley-Davidson and derivatives, such as American Ironhorse and Big Dog. Orange County Choppers and the Teutul family shot to prominence with the American Chopper TV series, swiftly followed by the Biker Build-Off series and other spin-offs focusing on bike customisation.

By 2008, the global recession had dealt a severe blow to the style of customisation based on big-tyred theme bikes, and customisation was reborn with a new stylistic direction. No longer was the scene dominated by V-twins; now smaller capacity bikes customised across a variety of styles were the order of the day. The café racer was reborn as the signature ’hipster’ bike of the new era.

Café racer styling is still wildly popular today, joined by a diverse and eclectic selection of custom styles including Brat-style, pioneered by Japanese customiser Go Takamine; performance-driven design as exemplified by Roland Sands Design; and a host of styles influenced by flat-track racing, scrambling, board track and influences from BMX and skateboarding. Raked front forks and big rear tyres were out; minimalist design, Firestone tyres, pipewrapped exhausts and open carbs were in.

By this point, motorcycles had intersected with fashion, music, style and art. Now the motorcycle custom scene is bigger than ever, widespread and fashionable – the antithesis of its roots back in the days of cut-downs, bob jobs and choppers.

Trends come and go but one thing stays constant – it is the bikes we craved as teenagers and young adults that are the most prized. With the demographic of motorcycling now an older market, heroic old sports bikes like the Honda CB750, old Fireblades and other Japanese and Italian bikes from the 1980s are in. As the ‘hero’ bikes of the era become less easily available, smaller capacity bikes and models that were once unpopular become desirable. Honda CX500s – at one time widely derided and practically given away – have become desirable bases for custom builds, along with the current bike du jour, air-cooled BMW twins.


Factory-made 'custom' bikes

As custom bike culture becomes more accessible and mainstream, manufacturers have sat up and taken notice. Now OEM manufacturers have embraced the custom trend through retro vintage models and ‘factory custom’ bikes. Realising that customers want great looks, simplicity and classic styling without the unreliability, build quality and poor suspension a real classic may have, they realise that modern riders are happy to buy new custom bikes rather than build or restore them.

One of the first to attempt to hitch a ride on the custom wave was Ducati with its ‘Sport Classic’ range; a launch that was ahead of its time but now these models are highly sought after. Subsequent models – especially the Ducati Scrambler and now its café racer derivative – have been the best selling bikes in the company’s history, opening up a completely new audience for Ducati as the hyper-sports bike boom becomes a much smaller market. Similarly, the Royal Enfield Continental GT harks back to the 1950s and ’60s when the original version was on the bedroom wall of teenagers. BMW has launched the phenomenally successful RNineT range of bikes, based on a single platform but with a range of ‘factory custom’ derivatives. Triumph is riding a wave of success with the Triumph Bonneville and Bobber, Honda has the CB1100RS and most manufacturers now have retro or ‘classic’ models in their range.

Companies like Mash, Herald, SWM and Sinnis are following a slightly different road to the same end, utilising Chinese-made versions of Japanese air-cooled engines with modern chassis and suspension components to bring retro styling to a wider and younger audience.

Big manufacturers are also riding the wave of custom popularity by aligning themselves with hot custom builders via OEM programmes. Yamaha have their ‘Yard Built’ programme, Harley-Davidson has its ‘Custom Kings’ and BMW, Triumph and many others are heavily involved with the independent custom scene. Smaller companies are bridging the gap between mainstream manufacturers and customisers, with small runs of bespoke limited edition custom bikes appearing from companies like Deus ex Machina, Wrenchmonkees, Kaffeemaschine and many more.


The modern custom

These trends seem to be reflecting a cultural change where artisan and hands-on work is more valued by a younger audience of millennials who have grown up in a computerised technical age. Many now want to use their hands and take up an artisan craft, and an old bike is an ideal entry point for this. The possibilities of learning the necessary skills have been opened up through YouTube tutorial videos, while eBay helps with the sourcing of bikes and parts. Social media means trends can become global immediately; meanwhile, custom trends are disseminated worldwide by websites such as Pipeburn and BikeExif where ‘hot’ bikes can get thousands of views almost instantly.

Owning a custom, classic or retro bike also opens up a world of events and activities such as the Malle Mile, Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, and The Trip Out. Additionally, venues such as The Bike Shed, enthusiast shops and members-only workshops draw more young people in, opening their eyes to the possibilities of bike building as an art form and social activity.

Custom bikes are no longer niche or subject to the stereotyping of previous generations. Today, consumers are moving away from mass consumption to bespoke, individualised goods. Meanwhile, young millennials with some basic skills, a few tools and a donor bike can go for the same look as a high-end custom bike. It is now all about being able to do it yourself, or at least looking like you can.

The love affair with customisation has not gone away, it has mutated in different directions with different audiences; but most importantly it looks set to continue. Long live the custom.





Top image - Yamaha

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