It’s easy to be cynical about the current mania for ‘real retro’ – the plethora of cafe racers, bobbers, street trackers and scramblers currently manifesting as an alternative to the conventional, dealer based route to motorcycle ownership. Taking an angle grinder to an ageing, airhead boxer and throwing some tasty hoops, K&Ns and upgraded suspension at it still leaves you with an elderly, revless lump plus complimentary iffy gearbox. And everyone knows that when push comes to shove naked bikes struggle to hold decent speeds as the pilot tries to disappear behind all the protection offered by a Cibie headlamp. But such criticisms entirely miss the point, one that anyone involved in the bike trade would do well to consider.
Because this is the sector of the market which is by far the most vibrant, attracting a desperately needed younger demographic and even women – yes, really – into bikeworld, consumers with whom the mainstream has totally failed to engage. This isn’t coincidental: there was more evidence of individual style on show at the Shoreditch event than in a dozen showrooms. The builders I spoke to there all had solid order books: you’d be waiting several months for one of Kev Hill’s boxer re-incarnations, for example. So why exactly is this the scene that has attracted new blood, while entrancing older riders and generally keeping people busy and in work? What is the substance behind the style?
The Bike Shed Motorcycle Club is an alliance of bespoke builders with little interest in the kind of trade one traditionally associates with specials – overblown, overwrought, overweight and overchromed. The word that kept coming into my head while wandering around the event was analogue. Analogue stuff can generally be fixed by its owner. The word also implies not only a lack of control systems and electronics, thus enabling fettling and encouraging shed based development: water cooling is generally deemed surplus to requirements and sensibly so – we’re not chasing hot lap times, we’re looking at something much more organic. Simplicity is a key component of real retro.The bikes tend to be minimalist and low on plastics and chrome. They’re funky in a way a new CBF 600 could never be, despite its technical superiority.
Broadly speaking, there are two emergent design strands in real retro. One is to do with practical fun: take Urban Rider’s XR400 based street scrambler (below). The simplicity is there, but crucially weight is minimised. You are left with an elegant, lightweight urban assault weapon.
The other design impulse is towards something more formidable (and heavy): a real world street bike capable of cruising high miles in comfort at the expense of top speed. The many boxer builds fall into this category. We’re talking about a characterful gentleman’s conveyance, robust and understated. Untitled Motorcycles do a nice line in solid, understated builds that look like they’re going to last another lifetime (below).
Kev’s approach airhead approach (below) is slightly more show, but that shouldn’t disguise the sheer amount of work that goes into his creations. It’s always nice to see someone unafraid to mix and match (check our Blitz feature if you like brand confusion):
The scene surrounding these machines combines elements of rat, steampunk, dandy and rocker – we’re talking about people who for a variety of good reasons find the mainstream bland and tedious. Ben Part (Davida photographer and Sideburn editorial person) had an interesting take: essentially all mid road motorcycle media stuff is the same. It’s always the same issue, the same edition. Dealerships are essentially all the same. Ordinary bike meets are all the same. Take culture out of biking and you are left with a soulless and meaningless branded experience. However, corporatism is never far away. Deus were selling branded sweatshirts at a reduced price of £75. Mammon always lusts to gain entry, and Shoreditch is his stamping ground….
The artwork was not confined to sweet looking Davida helmets or branded merchandise: it spread over bespoke signed jackets (like Nico’s design – aka Ornamental Conifer – featured at the top), petrol tanks and panels, bikini fairings and an ageing GSXR. The latter was particularly interesting, since it marked the acceptance of sportsbikes into the world of real retro. The scene needs to embrace this class of machine, since in doing so the sportsbike can be transformed into something visually vibrant and rich, rather than being a predictable end in itself. The idea of shed builders, yard artists and dreaming designers turning their hands to 90s sportsbikes is interesting, exciting and ever so slightly terrifying…..
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