BOBBER BACKLASH: where it all began….

” She said / There’s something in the wood shed….”   She was right….

August 2014

Fed up with self styled shed builds? Does the sight of yet another mutilated R90 make you want to smoke crack? Everyone, from major manufacturers to clothing retailers, trying to portray themselves as cutting edge by getting in on the act really doesn’t help. Something went badly wrong when Caff got ousted by that poncey Café. Had enough of Bike Exif mutton dressed as lamb? I’ve got news for you. You’re not alone.

A burgeoning scene which had seemed like a very necessary reaction to mainstream utilitarian blandness has rapidly degenerated into a predictable and tedious dollar chase, relieved only by those who have seen through the emperor’s new clothes, foregrounding the absurdity of it all.

Where did the whole scene come from, and how come it already feels a very long way from anyone’s shed?

We all know about stripped down ex military bikes post WW2, and anyone this side of the pond who subsequently started biker life on one of Meriden’s incontinent steeds will be all too familiar with shed culture  – even if they all they had was a piece of pavement or a back yard. For Brits, the origins lie not so much in stripping down as patching up. Choice didn’t come into it: they were nearly all shed builds back then, especially if they were made in a factory in the Midlands. Maintenance was not an option – it was a necessity. In such a climate it is easy to see how the original caff racers were spawned in the late fifties: it was second nature to be working on your bike. We were still messing around with them (in default mode) by the time the industry died away with the 70s, exposed by a merciless new sun risen in the East….

What is less often considered is the cultural shift engendered by Japanese dominance. Gradually riders were weened from the intimacy of endless strip downs, to a point where a new generation of bikers were anything but shed reared – with a growing dependence on the service department. There was an amazing leap forward in the 80s in terms of engineering, facilitating the dominance of sportsbikes. Which were duly thrashed and crashed. And lo – from the wreckage something stirred: the streetfighter.


First imagined in Andy Sparrow’s Bloodrunners strip (1983), fighters leapt from its pages – blipping and farting into 3d. Suddenly people were seriously applying spanners to newish machines in the back yard (again).  Fairings were expensive items to replace, and often hideous to look at: some bikes looked meaner stripped down, more authentic. The major problem, and one which has been passed down to the current generation of shed builders like a rogue gene, was that many fighters were a pain in the arse to ride, often literally so. It’s so easy to mess with a motorcycle and end up with something which ultimately fails to perform as well as the original incarnation. Ducati’s Monster (1992) showed the world how it could be done, but it took another decade for other manufacturers to really get it, despite intermittent efforts. Time was effectively called on the streetfighter when Aprilia’s Tuono (2002) was unleashed: the daddy had arrived. It was just so much better than anything anyone in a shed (or on a production line) had come up with, despite it’s apparent simplicity. It was a symbolic machine. The brash styling and untamed RSV motor  heralded the great European design renaissance, which left the Japanese for dead by the arse end of the noughties: naked bikes were the first sector to experience the new domination. Others would follow.

The current mania for shed builds may have fighter roots, but both stylistically and chronologically there is a gulf between the genres. The latest shed thing really started to gain momentum around five years ago (Bg alluded to it in a 2011 piece). Prior to which, no one had been buying airhead BMW’s with an eye for a lowrider conversion. The build scene in the States was still very conservative: chrome infested and fat with it. Stylistically, the only game in town outside the showroom was the rat minority. Rat bikes were utility gone punk, an alternative universe away from Orange County excess, Bloodrunners re-imagined by Malcolm Maclaren – a very British concept.

ratstuff bg con

And then the current changed again.

You can talk to a lot of people involved in the new shed culture thing and come out none the wiser as to how it all began, but there are common perceptions. By the start of this decade, the electronics revolution was well underway, and the writing was on the wall for aircooled production bikes (courtesy of ever tightening emissions legislation). And in general, new bikes were getting heavier, fatter. A few people were yearning to go back to a simpler type of motorcycle – it was becoming nigh on impossible to buy one new. Even Royal Enfield were embracing technology. The simplicity ethos struck a chord, initially with older riders who remembered a time when FI was something found only in high end four wheelers. And biking was full of older riders – the demographic most likely to have access to disposable income. Increasingly iffy roads (and knees), augmented by tighter speed limits and increased penalties mediated against the sportsbike, or indeed the new generation of super nakeds. The rise and rise of the ‘adventure’ bike, crammed with rider aids, was a useful tool but didn’t exactly move the soul – it’s always hard for a compromise to do that. Enter the new breed of shed builder.

This time round, it wasn’t about making something decent out of something dodgy (as had been the case with the original caff racers), nor was it a salvage job ( the origins of many a fighter). A cynic might suggest that it was about making something dodgy out of something decent. In fact, what really distinguishes current shed building from the projects of yesteryear is money. This time round, there are buyers out there, looking for a lifestyle statement. One which says that you value retro simplicity – and have the resources to pay for it. There’s nothing wrong with this, but what it means is that this generation of  builders have seen the potential and gone pro. And among the mundane efforts which end up being less of a decent ride than the original source material, there are some genuinely interesting creations out there. To Bg eyes, the best of them have inherited something from both fighters – a recognition of the need for speed – and rats: a distaste for mainstream aesthetics…  This 749R demonstrates the fighter DNA in the current scene – it’s basically a 749 with the fairing removed and no visual compromise: it doesn’t have to be another airhead. That attitude owes something to the rat aesthetic as well, although I’m guessing the exhaust alone cost more than the entire rat fleet combined……


For most bikers, a shed build – pro or otherwise – can only be justified if it significantly out performs the sum of its parts, yielding something demonstrably superior to the original (generally speaking the bike where the motor originated). And that includes how it performs visually: a reaction is part of the deal. It’s OK to keep the mods really simple, because cutting and welding does not necessarily mean better. But imagination is the key ingredient…..

What is less easy to tolerate is the effect the good, the bad and the ugly have had on the market. In the UK it’s become impossible to source a clean R90 for less than four grand. Taking inflation into account, airhead boxers have at least doubled in value in three years. But when they emerge from the ‘shed’, freshly hacked, do they really stand up to their new and far heftier price tag? Are they actually more interesting that the image they portray? We’re going to be riding a few notable examples, always the acid test. Watch this space.




1 thought on “BOBBER BACKLASH: where it all began….”

  1. Spot on. Not sure when this piece was written, but the obsession with questionable retro shows no sign of abating. Maybe now the manufacturers have colonised the trend it will slowly disappear…..

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