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Custom: XLCH Sportster Custom

New thoughts and attitudes about motorcycling are spilling out of neighbourhoods where counterculture thrives and it’s possible to embrace the term “vintage” without reverence. 

The Essential Philosophy of Owen Williamson

The first time I met Owen Williamson, his 1971 XLCH Sportster custom was drawing a steady stream of inspection. The setting was an arena parking lot in Tsawwassen, BC where the 22nd annual Classic and Vintage Motorcycle Swap Meet and Show ‘n’ Shine was already in full swing. Though the lot was packed with motorcycles of every description—vintage, custom, exotic, high-end production—Williamson’s unconventional build was clearly the outdoor attraction, that Sunday morning in April. Its deeply-scalloped pin-striped tank, off-side two-into-one pipes, the oil tank fashioned from the bottom halves of fire extinguishers, a shifter handle made of guitar-quality mahogany and a headlight from a vintage Vespa with a wooden inset where the speedo used to be set the lures deep. “I have a belief in organic elements: wood, brass, copper, leather,” says Williamson, referring to the lively mix of materials, that included no chrome.

I found myself returning to it again and again, completely absorbed with its post-industrial presence and exposed, mechanical viscera:  the countershaft sprocket and final drive on full display, the eccentric plumbing of an externally oiled top end, the cantilevered rear brake linkage, the Joe Hunt magneto and an aircleaner from Williamson’s ‘66 straight six Comet, capping an SU HS6  late-’50s automotive carb (possibly from a Triumph or MG), together create an impression of skin torn off to reveal a body’s vital internals.

This impression conforms with the builder’s interpretation. “Motorcycles are totally biomechanical,” he says. “They have a voice and each voice is different. Break it down and it’s just like your body: the lungs have to breathe and fluids help it live.”

What came as a surprise though was learning how the XLCH Sportster custom had fared at the British Columbia Coalition of Motorcyclists’ Westcoast Custom Motorcycle Show in March.  “Dead last in the Sportster class,” says Williamson, with not a trace of resentment or disappointment in his voice. A man with a philosophical bent, the heavily tattooed and pierced Williamson takes the judgements of others in stride, but he does admit to feeling some frustration when the BCCOM panel singled his bike out on “safety issues.”

Though Williamson now shrugs off the criticism with a chuckle—“It was a one-brake, fenderless chopper.”—I can’t help but relish the irony for him. The BCCOM custom show is typically front-loaded with impossibly raked and stretched big-inch monsters with zero ground clearance. Safety issues? For me, that’s laughable.

Perhaps it’s possible that the seemingly inescapable “politics” of motorcycling today and the sheer volume of richly-chromed, fat-tired customs now on television and on the streets have polarized expectations of what a custom motorcycle should look like. I’m not particularly crazy about the lack of a front brake either, but it seems to me that Williamson represents an emerging breed of biker: one that references the alt.Indie hardcore metal, skateboarding, Youtube culture. It’s an unfamiliar mindset for riders of a certain age (mine, 52) and if there’s a sense of rebellion or even flat-out irreverence in the presented works of younger riders, should that come as a surprise? Isn’t the essential nature of a biker comprised of a rebellious spirit, or is all that imagery from the 1950s—leather jackets and ducktails—just so much myth? 

In Williamson’s XLCH Sportster custom, I see a return to those sensibilities, but he cites other, more contemporary influences: “I’m fascinated with the style the Japanese have brought [to the custom scene],” he says. He’s not talking about Honda or Kawasaki, but rather about builders such as Zero Engineering’s Shinya Kimura, who molds his hot rod road warriors from classic material: Harley-Davidson Knuckle, Pan and Flathead engines. “His love for the beauty of quality formative parts and utilitarian goods is never ending,” says Kimura’s bio. 

The works of Indian Larry and Chica also influence Williamson. “First and foremost, Chica,” he says of the Huntington Beach, California street artist who, like Kimura, prefers to work in a medium that fuses Old School style with modern technology.

You see all this in Williamson’s bike, which started as a swap meet basket case: a frame containing a registered motor and a Rubbermaid container full of parts. The best of the pieces he mated to a performance motor he’d found in Texas. The 66-inch motor contained an S&S 4 5/8 stroker kit, Andrews “Y” grind cams, and ported and polished dual-plugged heads. The power train is bolstered with Barnett clutch plates and topped with an all-stock gear ratio because, for his purpose, he saw no value in changing the ratios. “You get a big pull in first and second while three and four are so leggy. For me there was no point in close ratios, unless you wanted to go racing.”

The front end is an eBay purchase, that was then completely resurrected by Williamson to fit his own feelings about working with “found” objects. 

“History has an inherent cool factor,” he says. “I like rebuilding old parts because they’ve had a life outside you and adventures of their own.”

The leather seat was a swap meet find too, which was then retooled by a friend. Still another friend applied the leafing and pinstriping, but the frame was painted by Williamson with a “nine dollar can of Tremclad.”

But why are his handmade pipes routed to the left? I wondered.

“Oh, that’s because there’s too much stuff on the right-hand side; there are supports for the carb,” he says. “Besides, who else has left-hand piped Sportsters?” 

The pipes themselves, says Williamson, have their look because black and tan pipes are one of motorcycling’s “undeniable truths.”

WILLIAMSON IS A WELDER BY TRADE; HE HOLDS DOWN A DAY job at a shipyard in North Vancouver. But he also runs a small custom shop—Heathen Choppers—located in a particularly edgy part of gritty East Vancouver. 

Despite shockingly bad press, it is completely possible to live a normal life on the east side—long blocks of neighbourhoods populated by proud working class people of diverse ethnic backgrounds have infused the area with a rich sense of community. It gets spotty in places though—cross over East Hastings and you’ve entered a physically decayed, exhausted transition zone that practically defines the term “bad neighbourhood.” Hookers, junkies and lost souls who’ve run out of options in life wash up here. But, it’s also a place of energy and industry, where artists and players of a kind of thrashing metal music—a genre indiscernible to me—book space in lofts and warehouse corners to hone their craft, anticipating a time when they might rise higher than a continual round of gigs in late-night underground, subculture clubs. 

It was in this environment that Williamson’s XLCH Sportster custom was built. 

Like Chica and Kimura, Williamson says he too is vintage-oriented.

“If you gave me a new Harley-Davidson, I’d probably sell it and get something I really wanted,” he confesses. In that regard he may not be alone, but for reasons my generation might not understand. Segments of a younger demographic are beginning to lash out against the twin towers of “zero-down financing” and mass consumerism in this era of George Bush, global economy and relentless religious divides. As a means of rejecting all that, they’ve invented their own model; it’s a kind of laissez-faire economics, in reverse. Williamson offers an acronym. His working fundamental is “DIY,” which means: do-it-yourself.

In our July issue, in his column ‘English Speaking, CB Vintage Motorcycles Editor Robert Smith, also pressed into service to photograph Willamson’s bike, contemplated the arrival of this nose-thumbing breed: “How attractive does motorcycling look to what the industry would like to be its target market: teens and twenties? Not very,” wrote Mr. Smith. “I suspect a counter culture emerging, a cynical rejection of the Rolex riders and their showy, stodgy and ponderous lifestyle statements.” 

A harsh condemnation of his own generation to be sure, but Robert touches what are likely some very raw nerve endings for many of us: we know we spend too much and in our fashion we may have lost sight of the very energy that once drew us into motorcycling in the first place. Now, all the talk seems to be about politics, safety, more horsepower, more options, and “touring accessories.” 

All this while a younger, edgier prototype is “making do.”

Williamson admits he’s seen all this too, but harbours no bias. 

“My personal philosophy is that motorcycles are like sex. Everybody likes to do it, and there are just as many ways to do it as there are people. Riding is all, and I don’t begrudge what people ride, if that’s really what makes them happy.”

Clearly, this is an optimistic man. If any doubt of that remains, it has to be pointed out that he doesn’t even bother locking his XLCH Sportster custom. And the bike’s electricals are as basic as they come—a four-wire system with a no-key ignition.

“If you can start it, you’re welcome to steal it,” he says. “I just have a deep hope that people know better … but if I’m really nervous about the area I just pull two of the plugs.” 

It’s difficult to reconcile this with conventional attitudes about property. But there’s a purity in it too, that has nothing to do with lifestyle and trends but simply about a relationship with mechanical things.

“Take motorcycles away and  I’m not much of a biker,” says Williamson.

by John Campbell Canadian Biker Issue #234



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