How a new wave of custom bike builders
are helping riders stand out
It’s long been said that motorcycle riders are rebels at heart. But a new generation of bike builders are creating custom rides that let owners flaunt it like never before, with many of the craftsmen and women choosing Honda as their starting point.
The growth of Britain’s custom bike scene has been a full throttle, flat-out and fearless ride that highlights the energy and enthusiasm of the motorcycle crowd.
Yet its roots reach far back in time, to more than a century ago, when motorcycles were being taken apart and reworked by riders who wanted to win races being held up and down the country.
Over the past decade, increasing numbers of self-taught custom bike builders have been joining the scene where a pin stripe is found on bodywork rather than a Saville Row suit, a bob-job is a style of bike rather than a boy scout offering to carry out a good turn, and the only knee-down moment comes when the owner first sets eyes on their commissioned creation and sinks to the floor in admiration.
Anthony van Someren – who goes by the name Dutch - is something of a mover and shaker on the scene. The former media executive turned his back on a 25-year career in television and publishing, after launching a blog with friends, about the customer bike scene, in 2011, that led to them running live events, from 2013.
“I think the blog was attracting around 255,000 unique users a month,” recalls van Someren. “The shows went down so well, and were so well attended, that I realised there was a whole crowd of motorcycle riders that were completely uncatered for.”
“The feedback from the shows was ‘Why hasn’t anybody done this before? It’s the nicest motorcycle show I’ve ever been to.’ One of the questions I kept being asked was, ‘Where did you get all these young people and women from?’”
Van Someren believes around 80% of all advertising from bike brands, which drove the media at the time, was driven by manufacturers of sports bikes, adventure bikes and retro, Harley Davidson-type bikes. “There was nothing for the rest of us.”
After the success of the live events, he pulled together a 76-page prospectus for investors, approached investors and pitched the idea of The Bike Shed – an inviting space that set out to deliver hospitality and community.
Today, it’s a thriving venue in Old Street, East London. Online, the brand pulled in around seven million unique users during two weeks of its most recent live custom bike show. And next on the To Do list is the launch of a Bike Shed in LA.
Van Someren believes that the custom bike scene has succeeded because it taps into the interests of riders.
“We’ve just come through a decade of superbikes influenced by Moto GP technology. Motorcycles moved so far away from the middle ground, and had all sorts of features that nobody cared about. The custom scene showed that people wanted a reliable engine and gearbox, in a chassis that just has a tank, wheels and lights on it. People want that older aesthetic.”
George Harris, a custom bike owner, agrees about the aesthetic. “It’s fashion; everyone wants to be seen as cool. They want people to say, ‘Wow! That guy’s got style,’ or ‘Look at what that girl’s done to that bike.’”
The 26-year old from Cobham, Surrey, sold his Ducatti 899 Panigale and bought a Honda CX500 that had already had some customisation carried out by the previous owner. Harris took it to Wade Poulson, founder of Sickboyz Customs, after a recommendation on the bike scene, and set about adding his personal touch to the bike.
“I will never find the same bike pulling up next to me at the traffic lights,” says Harris, who has spent around £1500 tweaking the CX500. He rides it most weekends, hooking up with a group of around 30 riders who use WhatsApp to arrange a meet.
“More people are getting into the movement. When you go to a bike meet, there are customised bikes everywhere, and it’s really nice to look at other bikes or get the feedback from everyone looking at yours.”
Russ Hardy is one of those helping fuel the movement. The former builder worked in Cyprus and after a hard day of graft, would spend sunny evenings at a local marina with friends who rode Harley Davidsons that cost as much as £20,000.
“At the time I didn’t have the money to spend on something like a Harley. One day, a guy rode by on a Suzuki Intruder bobber; it was basic but caught my attention. I started to research a project bike and found the Honda Shadow.”
After months of hard graft, Hardy had created his first custom bike. At the marina, motor bike enthusiasts and tourists alike would head for Hardy’s ride. “It would annoy my pals who’d spent all that money on their Harleys! It was a nice pat on the back when I saw that.”
On returning to Britain, he built another, advertised it for sale on eBay and within a month it was snapped up – after being viewed by more than 10,000 people. He set about forming Voodoo Custom Cycles, Whetstone, Leicestershire.
A background in graphic design, studied at college, helped Hardy picture a vision for his signature style of bike. He didn’t want something outlandish; instead, he wanted his bikes to look like they would belong in a Honda showroom, if put there.
Even so, it took a couple of years to get the look right of the popular Honda Shadow-based machines and find skilled craftsmen – such as his powder coater, who works on the frames, and painter.
“They understand what I expect,” says Hardy. “It’s my name on it, and if your work’s good enough, it speaks for itself.”
Once out there, Voodoo CC’s bikes are one of the company’s best adverts. “People phone up, having seen one at a show or out and about,” says Hardy. Many are pleasantly surprised at the price – from £4,000 plus a donor Honda Shadow.
It’s that accessibility that has helped crank open the throttle for Britain’s custom bike scene. As Harris puts it, “You could be very wealthy and buy a lovely bike off-the-shelf; people will respect that but you won’t get the kudos of riding a custom.”