One of the great things about motorcycles is that they are still accessible to change by the everyday rider. Unlike cars, computers and most other consumer products, increases in sophistication and the inclusion of advanced technologies have not separated the owner of a bike from the simple joy of home-brewed modification.
While for most this means bolting on accessories or performance products, there are those garage inventors who take it upon themselves to design their own, rideable prototype motorcycles. The question is are they True Believers or just plain crazy?
The garage tinkerer is intrinsic to the motorcycle experience. But so is the one-of-a-kind custom builder. I am not talking about the army of stylish hipsters or leather clad chopper guys who grind an existing frame and build it up using parts from other production bikes. I refer to the type of person that designs a bike from the ground up, fabricating frames, bodies, even sometimes whole engines, from scratch.
They are the true holders of the term “custom bike builder”.
Throughout the motorcycle world there have been countless of such custom builders, but what is particularly interesting to me is not so much the bikes as understanding the motivations behind these people. What drove them to go to such great lengths to satisfy their motorcycle habit.
Looking at the past thirty or forty years of bespoke motorcycles, certain patterns become visible. For many, constructing a dream machine was an obvious exercise in the pursuit of new levels of performance. Some sought wealth, toiling at inventions in the hopes of building a new commercial empire. For others, the journey was spawned because they could not find the bike they wanted so they chose to build it themselves. Finally, some simply build one-of-a-kind motorcycles because it is something enormously fun to do.
A Faster Horse
High on the totem of justifications for building a one-off motorcycle is the search for speed. And perhaps the best known and most venerated ground up custom builders was John Britten. Britten’s desire to push the performance threshold of large displacement twins drove him to craft, with the help of many others, one of the most remarkable motorcycles of any kind in the modern age.
The Britten V1000 was literally made from scratch. Not content to make his own carbon fibre chassis, Britten chose to design, manufacture, test and assemble almost everything himself. The motor was bespoke, including the pistons, crankshaft, exhaust and a large part of the electronics. The body was hand crafted, the suspension forks hand laid up in carbon fibre and cured in his home-built autoclave oven. Britten even made his own wheels!
John Britten’s obsessions were weight and component efficiency. He demanded that every part serve these twin goals, which is a pretty common trait among motivated engineering types, but his methodology was entirely unique. Rather than depend on hard calculations, simulation or the deep knowledge of establishment players, he decided largely on his own what to prioritize in the design and development process, mostly by instinct.
In a similar turn of events, American architect Michael Czysz led a small team of five to design, build and race a 120 hp electric superbike in just three months, to compete in the world’s first modern electric motorcycle race at the 2009 Isle of Man TT. Like Britten, the motorcycle was bespoke, from the frame, to the high voltage battery, to the patented front suspension. Also like Britten, he failed in his first attempt but came back a year later with another, all new motorcycle design full of newer still engineering ideas. Czysz would go on to win the electric TT category four times.
The Britten V1000 and Motoczysz E1PC are without a doubt some of the most amazing motorcycles ever made, partly because they became extremely competitive in a very short time, but mostly because of their origins. Using the resources available to a middle-aged, full-time employed family man, Britten and a small team developed a very well resolved design that could race evenly against privateer Ducatis armed with factory race parts. Michael Czysz, an architect, crushed venture-backed companies armed with dozens of full-time engineers and technicians in just his second year.
There are many other examples of ground up builds that were spawned by the need to go faster. Ex formula one racer and team owner Dan Gurney built his foot-forward Gator because he was convinced that the lower center of gravity made for a better handling bike. Spanish engineer David Sanchez created the BOTTPOWER Morlacco and later a host of bespoke racing and road bikes, while I and a team of enthusiasts attempted to find speed in frugality with the Amarok P1. All of these projects existed to find speed and in doing so satisfy the builder’s ego, to prove them and their ideas right at the altar of racing.
There’s Gonna be a Revolution
Every now and again, someone comes out of a dimly lit workshop and emerges into the brilliant light of the internet with a prototype motorcycle they promise will revolutionize the world. These types of project are typically born from some technical innovation, such as a patentable method of production, engineering layout, or material application that allows the one-of-a-kind prototype to do something others can’t.
The electric motorcycles that popped up in large numbers between 2008 and 2012 were a mixed bag of True Believers and commercial opportunists. Some, such as Zero Motorcycles founder Neal Saiki were driven by altruistic beliefs in the superiority of electric drive, some, myself included, saw battery power as a new avenue of design and engineering to explore, others simply saw the chance to cash in.
As exciting as they were, many of the first wave of electric motorcycles made little sense to consumers, given the cost and relative performance. But that didn’t stop hundreds to try and convert their own motorcycle to electric power and the bold to go at it from the ground up. The finish quality and engineering ranged from the sublime OEM levels of execution of the Mission R, to the downright scary.
While these projects rarely raise much money, they do raise a lot of eyebrows. From whacky leaning three-wheelers, to the low slung foot-forward designs, bikes made from bonded bamboo fibre and bikes powered by diesel, there is no shortage of genuine innovation in the motorcycle universe, but very few of those radical projects deflected the course of motorcycle history.
One garage theme that consistently emerges among the others is the idea of adding passive safety features to motorcycles. The motorcycle, as it exists, is a thoroughly unsafe vehicle at any speed, lacking any passive occupant safety features whatsoever. A car’s passenger cell, crumple zones, airbags and seat belts are all passive safety technologies. They go to work only once a collision is taking place. While a motorcyclist is able, arguably more than any other motorist, to actively avoid a collision situation by using the superior maneuverability of motorcycles, if they should actually participate in a collision the rider is on their own.
One approach is to simply wrap a motorcycle in the loving embrace of a steel safety cage, which is what Hungarian designer László Pere has done. His design, which he calls “the coolest and safest motorcycle in the world” places the rider into a car seat with a seatbelt, and surrounds him in heavy gage tubing. It is undoubtedly safer in a crash than a normal motorcycle, but given that his Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign raised just $40 out of $40,000 he wanted for prototyping, the market obviously did not agree.
Other efforts applied similar thinking, but with the addition of a third wheel. French engineer Philippe Girardi has spent many years and developed a number of three-wheelers with the aim of reducing motorcycle related road deaths, an admirable pursuit. Starting with the logical reasoning that a leaning three-wheeled cycle would eliminate a majority of tip-over and slide related accidents, he created first the Pulsar, which took full advantage of a surrounding roll cage, then more recently the Torga, which replaced the roll cage with a wearable fairing/crumple zone.
Leaving aside for the moment the near complete failure of three-wheeled cycles to provide dynamic stability throughout the 120 year history of the motorcycle, the wearable crumple zone may actually be the most significant safety innovation in the last few years. D30 deformable armor, now available in most quality riding suits, is proven to reduce impact injury a lot.
But it didn’t come from a garage builder, and it certainly didn’t ask motorcyclists to wear the front fairing strapped onto their chests. Safety in motorcycles is a serious business, but despite heroic and truly well intentioned efforts, the garage inventor is unlikely to produce the needed breakthroughs.
New and Improved Does Not Equal Payday
Building a complete motorcycle from scratch is a huge task for an OEM, never mind a guy in his garage. So it’s not surprising that many a builder focuses on a single area of motorcycle engineering, be it a radical new motor design or a completely new way of doing suspension. This inventor has more chance of getting their dream into reality, but they still have to sell it.
Speaking from experience, the chief problem with trying to sell advanced engineering concepts to major motorcycle manufacturers is that they can do whatever you did better and cheaper themselves. No matter how brilliant an invention is, Honda or Yamaha and their army of IP lawyers can always find a way to circumvent the newcomer’s patent, or else find ten places where it infringes on theirs. Rather than face crushing litigation the newcomer quietly disappears.
The other main problem is that often these inventions answer questions that the market didn’t ask. Esoteric engine layouts like inverted three cylinder of the Nembo 32, or the pushrod “baby block” V-4 of the Motus found few admirers, at least those admiring enough to open their wallets.
There are rare happy occasions when the inventor of a better motorcycle stands in the sun however. American James Parker succeeded in licensing his patented RADD type center-hub steering front suspension system to Yamaha for the (albeit ill-fated) GTS-1000; and Australian company Orbital licensed its two-stroke direct injection technology to Aprilia, KYMCO and Canada’s own Bombardier.
Ernst Degner, to continue the two-stroke theme, managed to impress the world with his superior disc-valve system so much so that Suzuki helped the man orchestrate a defection from communist East Germany to Japan, with the proviso that he help them develop their own version. The scandal of this illegal technology transfer is legendary, and the subject of a great book.
By far the best reason to build a home-made motorcycle is personal satisfaction, and this category of garage builder deserves the last word. Unlike the others, these people are not toiling away hundreds of hours in the hopes of building a commercial empire, winning a prestigious race, or to change the world. They build because it gives them joy.
One of the best places to find these inspirational projects is on Paul Crowe’s website The Kneeslider, where every so often, whenever Paul finds a worthy subject, a home-built project gets presented to the world. Even less often comes one that is mind-blowing in scope and execution.
Perhaps the best example of this is Aniket Vardhan’s Royal Enfield Musket. An Indian who came to America with a study visa, he designed and manufactured a V-twin cylinder motor to fit into an Enfield Bullet. When that turned into a more challenging mod than he expected he modified the frame, by which time he was making a new wiring loom and oil system.
The Musket V-twin is not a true one-of-a-kind motorcycle, because it uses a lot of existing Royal Enfield parts and, thanks to the overwhelming reaction to his first bike, he is making batches of them for sale to customers. The key point is that when Vardhan set out to do this, he just wanted an Indian motorcycle with a thumping 1000 cc V-twin, but no one made it.
So he did.
He hand carved wooden patterns for aluminum engine castings, designed and machined his own crankcase, and figured out the firing pattern, built a bespoke electronic ignition system, and so on. The project took years, and untold hours. Many disappointments, disasters, and a lot of money later, he had one bike that was unlike any other. The broad grin on Verdhan’s face, visible in photos and videos, is the sincere proof of why he did it.
The Voices Told Me To
Every once in a while, a garage build appears that channels the passion people have for motorcycles in a way that big commercial factory efforts cannot. Unlike the committee contrived products presented to the buying public by multinational OEMs, the pure garage build reminds us how deeply personal motorcycling is.
We ride motorcycles because they are personal vehicles. We can and sometimes do share them with a passenger, but they are always considered tacked on after-thoughts, like the passenger accommodations themselves. The design, execution and purpose of a motorcycle is singularly focused on satisfying the rider, the person guiding the handlebars.
Similarly, the one-of-a-kind homemade motorcycle is a singular vision, one person’s idea for a motorcycle. There almost always are many people involved getting it done, but the project grows from the seeds in one person’s head. When it is done well, it is inspiring. When incomplete or misguided, embarrassing.
Motivations vary for why persons chooses to start so ambitious a project. It makes little sense to design and build a one-of-a-kind motorcycle, given the complexity, enormity of the effort and near impossibility of besting what is already out there. Certainly from a health point of view, both financial and biological, it is always foolhardy.
But we continue to do it.
I did it, and will likely do it again. The compulsion to do over what already is, but in your own way, is a siren song impossible to ignore. The custom motorcycle is a labour of love: the love of oneself, the love of one’s own ideas. And as long as there are people in love with their own ideas, there will be garage built motorcycles. Long may it be so.