Five years ago, Alec Sharp was an out of work 24-year-old with an idea.
Today, Old Empire Motorcycles is one of the UK’s most respected custom builders, with a waiting list almost a year long. FTR investigates…
For many city-dwelling bikers the thought of owning a motorcycle workshop is a recurring, mouth-watering fantasy.
But growing up on his father’s farm outside the historic market town of Diss, in the rural east of England, Alec Sharp was in a fortunate position. “I had access to basic fabrication equipment and the opportunity to tinker with stuff”,” he says.
In his teens, Alec had built several bikes, and aged 19 spent four years working at Solo Choppers in Stanton, Suffolk. But by 2009, just as the financial crisis hit, he was in between roles. The crash hit a fabrication company that was renting several large sheds on his father’s farm. Overnight, the firm moved its equipment out, leaving a lot of empty space.
“The idea was to convert the units into storage spaces, but one of them had a mezzanine floor so wasn’t suitable. It was an opportunity too good to pass up, so I sectioned it off, and started developing my workshop,” he says.
Old Empire is about being very British…
Alec spent a year building up the tooling and benches, juggling spare hours around paid work. And as the workshop and his dream gradually took shape, the next part of the jigsaw was a name…
“There’s a beer called Old Empire brewed by Marston’s Brewery, though I can’t remember if I took this as inspiration, or it was a coincidence!” he laughs. “Old Empire is about being very British, though. I like the styling of a lot of classic machines, and I wanted to use as many British craftsmen in our builds.”
The first Old Empire motorcycle rolled out of the workshop in 2011. Using the internet as its shop window, OEM made its first sale in 2012, and with design themes based on Great British automotive, aeronautic and maritime history, the company rapidly built a name for itself.
Three years ago, partner Rafe Pugh joined OEM, bringing content creation, promotion and branding skills that complement Alec’s mechanical ability. “I was getting lonely working in the shed alone all the time, even though we have some people come and help part time, says Alec, “Rafe also helps out with some leatherwork and other bits, but his expertise is in knowing how to present what we build.”
We mix and match everything that’s already been done to create a unique style
“We want to have our own style, and I like to think we mix and match everything that’s already been done to create a unique style. It’s never about building a bike in a particular style, although we’re always pushing our abilities.”
Builds have included the Royal Enfield-based ‘Pup’, the Kawasaki W650-derived ‘Merlin’, and the Ducati SS-powered ‘Typhoon’ which won several trophies for OEM, including the 2014 Salon Privé award for ‘extraordinary motorcycle’.
And as OEM’s reputation has grown, it’s opened the door for concept builds with manufacturers. The most recent such collaboration was with Triumph and OEM’s radical reworking of a Bonneville T120 Black last year.
Wanting a nod to Steve McQueen’s off road Triumph racers, and a back-to-basics vibe, OEM stripped the Bonneville, shortening the fork tubes, adding customised risers, custom shocks, Renthal Fatbars, a hand stitched leather and suede seat and a radically chopped exhaust that flicks out under the rider’s foot.
The bike is typical of OEM builds in that it mixes classic styling (such as the company’s signature dyed leather grips and pegs) with modern technology such as the mobile dash display which runs the Torque app. Information from the T120’s ECU is transmitted via Bluetooth to the rider’s phone, displayed on OEM’s own custom dashboard.
“We had loads of interest in the Triumph including a lot of motorcycle press,” Alec says. “I’ve commissioned one big build off the back of it, and a small commission as well.” Several of the parts used on the build are also available to buy through OEM’s dedicated webshop.
These days the pressure on Alec to consistently produce unique and eye-catching builds is continuous. “We’ve got six projects on the go currently, which is too many really. Ideally, I’d work on three at a time,” he says, and with major builds taking up six months or more, it’s no surprise that OEM’s order book is one space short of being full until 2018.
Every bike we do is another leap forward in terms of bettering ourselves
But not content with consistent acclaim for one-off builds, OEM’s latest project shows no sign of reducing the pressure on the workshop.
“We’re refounding an old British motorcycle brand, OK Supreme, in partnership with a previous customer. OK was active from 1882 until the 1930s, it competed in the TT regularly, and broke a lap record in 1930,” Alec says. “We’re going to produce a limited batch of 10 bikes, each slightly different but based on the same machine.”
With a price point of around £20,000 per bike, the refounded OK Supremes won’t be the cheapest bikes on the block, but then OEM has never been about budget builds. And the company’s strict focus on classic British design and quality craftsmanship shows no sign of changing in the near future.
“Every bike we do is another leap forward in terms of bettering ourselves,” Alec says. “And we’ve been extremely lucky to find customers who believe in what we do, and allow us to follow our vision.”