The one-time diversion of outlaw motorcycle gangs, custom-motorcycle building has become the epitome of cool – an art, profession and lifestyle that encapsulates the aspirations of freedom-loving, fun-seeking men everywhere.
Custom junkies include Keanu Reeves, who builds and sells monstrous 2032cc customs in a garage outside Los Angeles for $100,000 a pop; Billy Joel, who owns a motorcycle shop and museum on Long Island; and Orlando Bloom, who last year forked out $80,000 for a V-twin street racer that took 500 hours to build.
"Custom's heyday was back in the sixties and seventies when the outlaw motorcycle sub-culture in Southern California started making custom choppers," says Mike Lelliott, co-founder of Saint, a new Australia motochic clothing label.
"But in the naughties the perception of motorcycles changed from being dangerous into something that gives you a sense of freedom. When I'm out on my bike with my mates, making noise and dicking around, we feel like we're like kids again, riding our BMXs around the neighbourhood – not grown ups."
The revival can be traced to the 2004-2014 American Chopper reality TV series that dramatised different creative styles and the conflict between father and son builders Paul Senior and Paul Junior. The phenomenon also owes a debt to Sir Anthony Hopkins' touching portrayal of the late and great Kiwi motorcycle builder and racer Burt Munro in the 2005 motion picture The World's Fastest Indian.
But in the nuts and bolts of the business, Australia's own Deus Ex Machina's wrench monkeys have a reputation for building the finest custom motorcycles on the planet, including Orlando Blooms' V-Twin.
Formed 10 years ago by pop savant Dare Jennings, the co-founder of Mambo, Deus played a pivotal role in articulating the zeitgeist in the cross-over space between surf, skateboard and motorcycle cultures.
"I got into bikes in the sixties," Jennings says. "I'd just read Hunter S Thompson's book on the Hells Angels and I saw a local hoodlum riding around on a Harley Davidson. So I bought the bike off him and started customising it in the garage."
As motorcycles went high-tech in the eighties and nineties, the industry lost its romance and its hold over Jennings. "Motorbikes were still close to my heart, but I disliked the way the design element had become so uninteresting," Jennings says. "It was all about performance."
But during a chance trip to Japan in the early naughties, Jennings came into contact with the 'bosozoku' – urban motorcyclists based on British rockers who rode around in gangs on customised motorcycles and scooter as a form of rebellion.
"These guys were riding around on vintage bikes and wearing vintage clothes but somehow it looked contemporary. It looked interesting and new. So I came up with the idea to bring it all back with Deus. We weren't the only ones to do it, but I think we put custom motorbike culture into a context that helped young people relate to it better."
Built not bought
This Saturday, Deus and a motley crew of custom motorbike builders from around Australia will showcase their trophy bikes at the fifth annual Deus Boundless Enthusiasm Bike Build Off.
"The first build off took place five years ago in a car park on Parramatta Road where we challenged contestants to build a custom bike with the most, using the least," Jennings says. "Someone who'd spent a lot of money would be judged badly, while a kid who scavenged a whole lot of parts would be judged very well."
The concept proved so popular it's gone global. Deus Build-offs are now held concurrently in Milan, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Bali, while the flagship Sydney event has moved to more salubrious space: the Pavilion building on Bondi Beach.
The 2016 bike build off has 51 confirmed entrants, a third more than last year; and two new categories: the Honda CT110 'postie bike' category and an invitation-only professional category. There's also an interesting new sponsor: BMW.
"Custom was once a niche but in recent years it has exploded," says Miles Davis, Australian marketing manager for BMW Motorrad. "It's very much in trend."
In 2014, the German Marque joined a long list of manufacturers that have cashed in on the custom phenomenon with an off-the-shelf version called the RnineT, an air-cooled twin cylinder that harks back to the early days of the boxer engine.
"BMW has been making motorcycles for 90 years but until the RnineT came along we had not given our heritage enough representation," Davis says. "As a brand, we'd been focused on innovation and performance, but we'd been missing out on an important part of the market.
The RnineT turned out to be one of our bestsellers in its release year. "There was a six-month waiting list. We couldn't make enough of them."
Work of art
But over time, BMW did. Today, you can buy a RnineT in Australia sans waiting list for less than $22,000. That's around third of the $60,000 price tag Deus has placed on The Heinrich Manoeuvre, its mongrel dog interpretation of the RnineT.
A contoured yet aggressive cafe racer-style bike with a large capacity white alloy tank that is a work of art in itself, The Heinrich Manoeuvre is one in a series of beautifully hand-crafted machines you can see this Saturday at the Bondi Pavilion from 2pm – 8pm.
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