Inspiration: Interview

Bike EXIF’s Chris Hunter: Part 2

The theatre of custom

The brains behind the all conquering Bike EXIF website offers his take on what’s new on the custom scene, his favourite builders and how he chooses what bikes to cover.

What do you think the custom scene will look like in five years?

I have to admit I have absolutely no idea. The rate of change at the moment is tremendous. A lot of builders are experimenting with bikes that don’t fit easily into an established category. Sometimes it works, and sometimes not. If I had to place a bet, I’d put my money on the ‘retro fighter’ vibe — superbike underpinnings with classic, timeless styling.

Helrich Triumph street fighter
Chris loved this retro street fighter by Arizona-based Helrich Custom Cycles, built from a 1973 Triumph 750 TR7/Tiger

How do you manage to find all these hidden gems of bikes?

Sometimes we spot a bike that grabs our attention on social media or a smaller site, and we approach the builder with an idea for a feature. More often than not, builders or photographers send details of the bikes to us a few days before they want to ‘release’ the machine to the public.

Who are your favourite builders?

I don’t have any, but there are a small number I particularly admire because their standards are really high and they don’t ‘follow the crowd’. In Germany, I really like Diamond Atelier, JvB-moto and Hookie Co.

There are a few female builders out there, but not enough! In the USA, Sofie Tsingos has made a name for herself as a good builder along with Alicia Elfving, who is mostly a moto-journalist but also knows how to customise a bike.

Everything tends to go in cycles, so what’s the next big thing?

We’ve had cafe racer and scrambler revivals – here are our best five Triumphs – but now trackers are becoming popular, taking styling cues from dirt track racers. But in reality the whole scene is becoming very fragmented and it’s getting harder to put labels on bikes. Many bikes mix up elements of different styles. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Triumph flat tracker
Jason Paul Michaels’ Street Twin flat tracker with its Super Hooligan feel also won plaudits from Chris’s team

What would you say to a friend who wants to become a customiser?

Don’t throw everything away to become a bike builder. Stick to the day job because you need a wide range of skills and specialists to look after the engine rebuilding, electrics or bodywork shaping, which means making decent money from it is tough. You also need to know how to market what you do. Oh, and a professional photographer who doesn’t charge much… and they’re hard to find.

How do I pick the right person to customise my bike?

Research is key, look at photos to see the quality of the key aspects of the work such as welding and wiring. Get references from riders who have used them before. Most importantly, make sure you get a proper contract, laying out what the labour rates are and time frames. If you’re not too worried about commissioning a bike, then why not buy one that’s already been built? 

So is there room in the market for a manufacturer to take a limited-run custom-lab approach?

Yes, I think so. We already see limited editions when models are in the run-out phase, so it’s not a huge leap to produce lightly ‘customised’ bikes with slightly different bodywork or components. I guess the issue would be tooling costs: it’s not too hard to bolt on new brakes or even new forks, but tooling up new tanks and tail units could be pricey. Then there’s the question of regulations, which affect manufacturers more than custom shops.

Should manufacturers open up their own custom arms or is that a contradiction in terms?

I’m not sure that ‘custom’ is the right way to pitch it because it’s an obvious oxymoron. But if you look at car makers like Porsche and Land Rover, plus the more boutique brands, they have programmes where customer cars can be taken ‘off the line’ and built to particular specs. I think that could be a great solution for buyers who really want something special.

Do you feel Triumph is getting its launches right?

Bike-wise definitely, and at the launches themselves I would say Triumph are ahead of the rest.

Thruxton Triumphs
The launch of the new Triumph Thruxtons had “more theatre”

They injected a lot more theatre into the Bonneville and Bobber launches than you normally see. There’s not much sense of occasion in the usual Powerpoint presentation from a marketing manager! I’m looking forward to the next invite.