Of Custom Bikes and Trophy Wives


Sideburn's Gary Inman on the co-optation of the alt. bike scene

The annexation of the most vibrant motorcycle sub-culture in decades didn’t take long.

Danish crew the Wrenchmonkees began to get noticed back in 2008, maybe the tail-end of 2007, but 2008 really. That, as far as I’m concerned, is Year Zero for the garage-built bike scene, as espoused by websites like Bike Exif and The Bike Shed – both launched after the Monkees started swinging.

To re-cap, the Danes modified cheap, old Japanese bikes using an open-mindedness of influences few had thought to mash together. Then they rode in the kind of streetwear that hadn’t been linked with sportsbikes. Crucially, because two of the original three Monkees were photographers, they shot their bikes in such a way that when put up on blogger, or the then infant tumblr, these modified bikes caught the eyes of a thousand disaffected motorcyclists. People, like me, who were desperately waiting for a two-wheeled counter-culture that didn’t have to involve American V-twins, Italian scooters or joining a club. Proper culture with art and photography and cross-pollination.

Headder_Rex_1 It’s difficult to overestimate the influence of the Wrenchmonkees (pic: Wrenchmonkees)

It also attracted the butterflies of creative industries, who hadn’t considered owning a bike until then.

The social media revolution delivered the message of the Wrenchmonkees instantly. There was no waiting for imported magazines – the only way hardcore bike fans used to be able to learn about other the bike scenes of other countries.

Bike blogs exploded, because you didn’t need to be a photographer or writer to attract fans. You just needed to be willing to trawl a hundred other websites to cherry pick someone else’s original creativity. Blog fed on blog. It was all free and instantly accessible if you knew where to look.

Blogs, now fairly passé in a scene that is humping Instagram like a randy Jack Russell, multiplied as quickly as bacteria in a petri dish and not only fed the scene, but created the monster. The biggest of all these blogs is Bike Exif, a website that rarely shows a picture of a bike in motion, just purely static images of bikes sat like ornaments. Go figure.

Before the Wrenchmonkees, there was an underground chop scene that would form something of a template – Dice magazine and the Church of Choppers blog proving their was an alternative to back patches, fat tyres, mullets, Saxon and/or Orange County Choppers. Concurrently, and since the 1980s, the Japanese mutated and created within their borders – the language barrier, strong currency and insular nature meaning their influence wouldn’t leach out until it was westernised by Australian magpies and those no-stone-left-unturned bloggers.

But by 2012 the Wrenchmonkees had been signed by Yamaha Europe to build a bike to tour the international motorcycle shows. Meanwhile, Kawasaki UK had approached British start-up Spirit of the Seventies (themselves Wrenchmonkee disciples) to do a number on the new W800 retro.

09213005_spirit-of-the-seventies-cafe-racer-w800 Renders can start on backyard computer screens and alter an entire industry pic: Spirit of the Seventies

A year later BMW Motorrad waded in, hoovering up influential, but decidedly leftfield, builders to modify their new naked roadster, the RNineT. Yamaha re-released the air-cooled single cylinder SR, again using a pool of itsy-bitsy customisation companies to help give the launch some cultural currency.

BMW and Yamaha sponsored Wheels and Waves, the archetypal beard-and-dark-denim love-in held in Biarritz, Triumph sponsored the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, and, as quickly as you could say ‘What do we get out of it?’ the alternative had become mainstream. Now big manufacturers are falling over themselves to get a slice of the scene.

And I’m not embarrassed to say, I didn’t see it coming.

As a documenter and participant in this scene, perhaps I should have, because it’s a perfect storm of 21st century motorcycling – creativity x struggling independents x social media’s free global marketing.

But is it all ‘jam tomorrow’ for the independents creating the interest? And if so, who cares?

For the first time since the British working class streetfighter scene of the mid-1990s – a sub-culture that spawned the definitive Triumph Speed Triple and every subsequent ‘hyper-naked’: Aprilia Tuono; KTM SuperDuke, Ducati Streetfighter… – it is motorcycle customisers, not solely racing or in-house design departments, that are leading development with their vitality. The crucial difference between the neo café racers and the streetfighters is the 21st century scene is clean-cut and affluent enough for boardroom inhabitants to relate to. There’s nothing illegal about the new scene. These people don’t look, or behave, like wrong ‘uns. They are ABC1s. Tasteful and urbane. The defining events do not take place outside a Midlands bike shop or on a wind-battered disused runway – but in hip, cultural magnets – Biarritz, Portland, East London’s Shoreditch.

100614top-i Ducati’s forthcoming ‘scrambler’ is a concrete example of the custom scene affecting the industry (pic: Ducati)

For marketing departments, desperate to find any growth in Northern hemisphere biking, it’s an easy sell. It’s all smart haircuts and expensive denim, an appreciation of art, architecture and photography, a willingness and the means to travel. The holy-bleeding-grail of target audience if you’re trying to shift ‘lifestyle’ products. And the bike manufacturers didn’t have to lift a finger for the scene to become so large they could no longer ignore its potential. What was an exciting niche is now a cliché. Inevitably. But – another question that only time has the answer to – is it a bad thing for ‘the scene’?

The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash – all counter-cultural icons and all on major labels. I upset a friend, the founder of one of the companies approached by BMW to build customs bikes, by wondering, in print, if they had become a trophy wife – the gorgeous, charming, interesting and much younger partner in an unequal betrothal. I won’t name the company here, because I don’t want to offend them again – I didn’t mean to the first time.

At the time I wondered if I’d take the money from a major manufacturer to be in a video cooing over a stock bike. My friends’ company didn’t get hard cash, but a couple of bikes and some travel expenses. They put thousands of euros of their own money into the project bike and delivered a two-wheeled two fingers. They thought I was accusing them of selling out. I wasn’t.

In my 18 years as a motorcycle journalist I’ve been given thousands of pounds’ worth of kit and helmets, and could easily have had twice as much if I’d wanted it – only needing to change the sentence from ‘No thanks’ to ‘Yes please’ before sending a reply. I even was given an ex-demo bike to tart up, so I’m certainly not immune to dealing with manufacturers, but I do know that some collaborations work, but many don’t. I personally got stiffed by one of Converse’s London agencies – asked to be part of some poxy project, I thought it might lead to something.

It did: a tiny bit of me dying inside.

Even then I signed up for more. Last summer Dirt Quake, the race event I co-organise, was held in the USA. Perhaps because it took place not far from Portland, a major American motorcycle manufacturer kindly agreed to send some cold, hard cash to help put on the show. Their money was well spent on creating a motorised pizza and the plane ticket for a man from Wigan to fly to the Pacific North-West to dress as British bobby and bemuse the assembled masses with his feckless commentary and incomprehensible accent.

I know. I sold out.

(Pic: Dirt Quake: Dustin Aksland.)


6 Responses to “Of Custom Bikes and Trophy Wives”

  1. Ian Solley

    Good article Gary and I agree with most of it, although i don’t have the feel of “regret” about the metamorphosis of the scene. Being honest I am just grateful that any scene will have a man in his 50’s, even if I just turn up for the fun bits like W&W, DGR and of course Dirtquake in my Edwin jeans. As for selling out and taking the money as my old Scottish business partner used to tell me know one ever died taking a profit. Lets all enjoy it while it lasts, because it wont.

  2. Dan the Dog

    Yes Mr Inman it’s nice to read some clarity. The main problem with what’s been going on in the last few years is that this new breed of biker takes itself too seriously and so many of these bikes are showponies I’d be frightened to ride. Bikes are spossed to be ridden. That’s why we like Dirtquake so much. Power to you.

  3. But, we all ride such old bikes? Apart from giving the brand awareness a nice massage with a happy ending they never expected – turning a blind eye to the overtly image conscious aspect they are riding upon – the old bike fetish isn’t sooo bad.

  4. The ‘scene’ is wonderfully fluid. It has an inner core which moves much more quickly than the blogger fluff and corporate chaff floating around it, held near to it by electromagnetic charge. By the time it has evolved to it’s next shape, the outer crud is usually trying to catch up. In a time of easy distraction, sometimes tunnel vision is necessary.

  5. Thanks Gary, this is a refreshingly well-considered piece, and your analysis of ‘how it happened’ seems straight.

    I saw it a bit differently from a Cali perspective, with Shinya Kimura blowing my mind at the Legend of the Motorcycle Concours in 2006, then meeting Max Schaaf on the street in 2007, and Ian Barry at the LotMC again in 2008. It was very clear to me that Shit Was Happening; what was unpredictable was the rapidly changing media landscape. As a pioneer moto-blogger (who happily advised Chris Hunter on starting BikeExif), nobody could predict how Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and whatever’s next, would changing not only how people gain information, but how they learn about what they’re interested in.

    Let’s consider a slightly different narrative about the alt.custom scene: it’s fucking amazing that a bunch of bike-wrenching amateurs have gained global fame, nuts-kicked a sleepwalking industry, and pocketed all the mojo in a few short years. We really are having a Motorcycle Renaissance, and this is the best time to be involved with bikes since the 1970s.

    The fun won’t last forever, but I’m happy to be in the thick of it.

  6. ‘It’s fucking amazing that a bunch of bike-wrenching amateurs have gained global fame, nuts-kicked a sleepwalking industry, and pocketed all the mojo in a few short years. We really are having a Motorcycle Renaissance, and this is the best time to be involved with bikes since the 1970s.’

    This. A thousand times, this.

    Everything in life is cyclical; there is a natural ebb and flow to all things, particularly when discussing such ever-movable forces as trend and (do I dare say it) ‘fashion’.

    It’s fair to say that Per and Nicholas over at WM were perhaps the first to manage to swim out on this particular swell before catching that perfect wave; one created from a perfect storm of the collision of economic, fashion and cultural movements of that time. And to be able to pinpoint this ‘new scene’ down to these humble individuals is really quite something. I’m not sure they’d see themselves as being that clear a catalyst but it’s as solid an aesthetic connection as any.

    But trends move. Boundaries are pushed, broken and mutate into other forms. Already the ‘Cafe Racer’ vibe of just a few years ago has become the ‘Scrambler’ aesthetic du jour. One could argue that this was precisely because the latter is so polar-opposite of the former that this was the ‘scene’ already reacting to itself; kicking back at the ‘ton-up boy’ look already starting to be co-opted by the Kate Moss crowd.

    You only have to look at the some of the new builds coming out over the past few months to see that everything is moving on again. The sticker-crazed, slogan-heavy, neon-junkie kids are already pumping out 90’s rave music in some bizarre retaliation/homage to their parents and now fashion is heavily following suit. So too are the custom motorcycles. The GPZ and Katana prices are about to go through the roof!

    But then AC Sanctuary and their ilk were knocking these out of the park years ago. But hardly anyone noticed.

    My – heavily laboured and Monday morning lethargy-infused – point is that the ‘scene’ was always here, and it always will be. It’ll just mutate and bumble along with certain aesthetics being more in vogue than others at certain times.

    The fact that people are riding this recent wave is awesome. The notion that they (we?) are able to influence the manufacturers enough that they’re looking to adopt ideas and ideals from this latest cyclical episode is incredible. And I think heartening.

    Of course the natural reaction to this is to kickback and look for something else; perhaps something so completely opposite that it feels new and exciting. And then we’ll be off on the orbit again…

    Everything old is new again