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#304 Custom and Practice

Aesthetic is subjective. Strength is measurable. But despite all entreaties to common sense, the custom motorcycle continues to exist.

You’d have to be hiding under a stone not to have noticed that custom bikes are hot. No, I’m not talking about the kind of comic-book creations that used to wobble out of OCC each week. Nor the deep-pocket dream machines of Roger Goldammer and Roland Sands. Custom bikes now span the spectrum from crusty shed projects held together with zip ties to exotic café racers and streetfighters based on premium sportbikes. In between are scads of home-crafted customs based on everything from tiny Honda singles to massive modern V-Twins. It seems the only limit is the imagination of the builder and the physics of a single-track vehicle. And even that seems negotiable!
Where did this come from? Have we got so blasé about torque monster boulevard pounders and 200 mph sportbikes that almost any deviation from factory finish is preferable—even if it looks like it was thrown together using plywood off-cuts and plumbing accessories? Or is it the piles of perfectly serviceable Japanese motorcycles in wreckers’ yards calling to a cash-strapped generation looking for a platform to stamp their steam-punk sensibilities on?
And if creating your own custom is beyond your skill set, you can always commission a build from one of the chop shops cropping up in every city. Customizers like Australia’s Deus ex Machina and many of the other builders featured on will sell you one off-the-shelf. Even easier: simply go online and buy a “factory” custom. Harley-Davidson’s online Bike Builder feature, for example, or Triumph’s Configurator will help tailor your ride to your taste.
Editor Campbell (and the gang at the Big Six restaurant in Burnaby, BC—two eggs, bacon, home fries and toast, $4.25) will confirm my preference for stock bikes, so I’ve had to do some mental gymnastics to wrap my head around the current custom trend. And the cynic in me (my dad was world class…) suspects that some less ethical customizers are lining their pockets selling questionable style over suspect substance. Throwaway Japanese commuter twins and singles that would otherwise have been left to rust in deserved retirement are being tarted up and sold as though they were performance icons. Maybe the world’s wreckers are running out of preferred customizing platforms like the formerly ubiquitous XS650.
My other concern is how customizing can affect the structural integrity of a stock motorcycle—1960s choppers with springer forks made out of old curtain rails spring to mind.
Aesthetics are, of course, subjective, but strength is objective and measurable. I doubt many custom customizers consider finite element analysis when scratching out their designs on the back of the metaphorical cigarette pack.
Something that also seems universal in today’s customizing process—at least at the amateur level—is to remove any component that contributes to practicality, safety, comfort or convenience. Random chopping and welding without regard to the structural strength derived from rigorous design and testing seems foolhardy. Similarly, discarding carefully tuned components like airboxes and mufflers often compromises performance—more noise does not equal more performance! Customizers also like to demonstrate their originality of thought and clarity of vision by wrapping headers in heat tape (cheaper than re-chroming…) and fitting the same Firestone car tires as every other builder. Words like creativity, originality, freedom, art and independence are thrown around even when the finished product shows none of these qualities. Outrageousness for its own sake will inevitably turn into a race to the bottom.
Of course, I’ve been around long enough to know this is just a fashion—and fashion is a cruel taskmaster. Five years ago an OCC chopper might have sold for over $40,000. Now you’d be lucky to get 15K. I fancy that’s why today’s customs are often based on prosaic machines with little residual value.
And I guess that’s the heart of the matter for me. A motorcycle as it leaves the factory is a whole: a coordinated expression of production engineering and industrial design, pulled together with consistent and coherent styling. Custom bikes rarely, if ever, achieve this. I’d challenge any customizer to come up with something that looks (and works) as “right” as Corradino D’Ascanio’s 1946 Vespa, Jack Wickes’ 1969 Triumph Bonneville, Lino Tonti’s 1973 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport or Massimo Tamburini’s Ducati 916. These designers honed their talents over many years of training and experience, delivering winning designs over and over again.
And yet…in his paean to his father Big Sid (Big Sid’s Vincati), Matthew Biberman writes about the reverence his father had for the 1971 Ducati 750GT frame he is about to chop so that he can install a Vincent engine. Once the cuts are made, Sid says, there will be no turning back: they’re heading for the land of the righteous.
Sid explains that in the old days, guys would study choppers to see if they could be returned to stock. If they could, they weren’t “righteous.” They were Tidewater Choppers, ready to go with the next change of direction. The Vincati would be a true “chopper,” in the sense that the frame could never be reused for its original purpose.
Was the Vincati a success? Well, you should read the book to find that out. But a Vincent engine in a Ducati frame? I think I would have done it the other way round…
(Big Sid’s Vincati by Matthew Biberman, Hudson Street Press 2009 ISBN 978-1-59463-053-8)

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