After years of bubbling just below the surface, the 'café-racer scene', this once underground segment of the custom-bike world now finds itself cresting the mainstream wave; shows on Discovery Turbo, the celebrated launch of bikes such as BMW's recent NineT and the resurgence of old, classic brands as trendy fashion labels (see the recently launched, Kate Moss-fronted Matchless clothing line; £1629 for a jacket anyone?) are testament to this.
Yet beneath the high-fashion, clichèd veneer lies the true motivation and energy behind this recent surge of interest - the actual bike builders themselves. And they’re doing the same as they have ever done; working tirelessly in their garages producing the fruits of their passion; beautiful, custom motorcycles.
Having bicycled for thirty mins through the streets of Copenhagen onto an old industrial estate to the south-east of the Danish capital, I find myself in a red-bricked courtyard at the outskirts of town. I know that I'm in the right place because beside the door, stood on its kickstand next to a rack of bicycles is the daily ridden bike of Per Nielsen, a moody, aggressively stanced machine that used to be a Kawasaki GPz1100. This is Wrenchmonkee bike #1, built in 2008. There have been over sixty others since and Per along with his business partner Nicholas Bech now boast a waiting list of over six months for customer orders on exclusive bikes from the Wrenchmonkee stable.
Their most intriguing project to date has been bike #55 - the 'Monkee Fist' - a commission from Yamaha for the Milan motorcycle show of 2012 based upon the notorious muscle of the XJR1300. It was the bike that kick started Yamaha's 'Yard Built' programme and the big brother to the 'monkee's latest - albeit more modest - creation, an interpretation of the celebrated SR400, the single cylindered 'thumper' that has just turned thirty five years of age and is scheduled to finally reach European and UK shores in early 2014. It's the reason that I've been met at the Monkees' workshop by Shun Miyazawa, Product Manager for Yamaha Europe. Perhaps more importantly it marks the true beginning of a fascinating collaboration between the two David and Goliath brands that could mark a dramatic new approach for both companies.
'The whole aim is for Yamaha to help the customer get unique parts, but parts - specifically not supplied by us - but by somebody else who has, lets say, a different design point of view,’ says Shun whilst relaxing on a sofa, surrounded either side by skateboard memorabilia and glossy prints of Wrenchmonkee-built bikes, ‘We’re allowing the design possibilities to be much more than just the stuff coming direct from Yamaha.’ He’s talking about the soon to be launched ‘Yard Built Kits’ that are to be manufactured by German parts specialist Kedo and sold directly by the Wrenchmonkees themselves.
‘I would say that this is the major difference compared to a manufacturer like say BMW, who seem to be trying to push out what they think is cool. But to our knowledge our customers are looking to make their own, personal touch.'
It’s a conceptual difference of which Shun visibly appears proud as he leans back, placing his arms wide across the back of the sofa,
‘So I came to the Wrenchmonkee guys and they were tasked firstly to supply the vision of what they believe in. So they did that with the ‘Monkee Fist’ XJR - but this was an extreme vision. So, after that they were asked to make components taken from this concept bike and begin making them available for any kind of customer who would like to transform their own XJR into something very, very unique.
And that’s the whole theme of the yard built scheme. It’s not about producing a super-concept, show-off bike. It’s about supporting our customers by offering them parts that they can get inspiration from. This is the ‘Yard Built’ discipline. It is relatively easy to make a super-nice show bike but the challenge comes later when trying to turn this coolness into reality.’
Per underlines this direction when talking about the previous XJR build, 'The basics of the bike are exactly what we like - it’s an inline four, it’s air-cooled, has twin-shocks, a steel tubular frame... It’s a bike almost like the ones they made back in the ‘70s. So it’s a great bike and has great potential to be even more individual. We had to change the wheel sizes, to make it feel ‘right’ in our opinion and we wanted to do spoke wheels too but there wasn’t anything on the market that we liked. So we made our own hubs, disc carriers and wheels from scratch. And this is where the costs arrive; CNC machining hubs from scratch, getting the wheels built, getting the hubs to fit the R1 discs, calipers and front forks… It was a challenge.’
‘Oh and we’re fond of carburetors too’, he continues, ‘which have an injection system that isn’t meant to be seen. Most modern bikes cover them up and hide them but we wanted to make it all visible, so all these small clamps and tubes and brackets and stuff had to be taken and painted. There’s all these small details which you wouldn’t even think would be part of the ‘customisation’. We spent days just cleaning up the screws and wrapping up the wires and stuff like that’.
'So, how much would it take for me to leave today with the Monkeefist?' I ask. 'Well, I think our ‘break-even’ is around €35,000. It’s over €10,000 in custom-made parts alone. How do you put a price on a one-off?', Per replies. 'We worked on it constantly for almost two months. But perhaps for you we can cut a deal?' He chuckles in my direction but I'm not certain that he was joking.
The underestimation of manufacturing costs was a mistake that they weren't prepared to make again with the 'Gibbon Slap', the offroad-inspired SR400 build; another Yamaha commission that - by the time you read this - will have been unveiled at the Milan show along with further details on the SR400 European rollout.
Nicholas explains how the approach for this build differed, ‘Well we’ve still changed a lot of parts for this bike. Actually everything from the wheels, front brakes, fenders, brackets, engine covers... We made a rack for luggage and have had a swedish company make bags for us too. Oh and we changed the exhaust, the lights, the saddle, handlebars, footpegs... Er, yeah, so actually everything’, he cautiously laughs, realising that this is supposed to be their more refrained build.
‘But we’ve tried to do it in a way that keeps the spirit of the original. And - importantly - we’ve done it in a way that fits in seamlessly with the original parts. We wanted to give it a factory feeling, so all of our individual kit parts would blend with the existing ones. The most important thing is that we haven’t cut the frame. Even the lacquer is the original Yamaha black’.
Both Shun and the Wrenchmonkee founders are resolute in their belief of the 'Yard Built' plan proposed by Yamaha. For Per and Nicholas it's a great opportunity to extend their ethos behind the builds and to cast their strong, Wrenchmonkee aesthetic across a larger audience; and maybe - just maybe - begin making some money from this dream that they've dedicated the past five years of their lives to realising.
For Shun and Yamaha the direction that they're taking towards making customisation accessible to a wider market feels no less noble, 'The strength of Yamaha's [aftermarket parts] offering at the moment is in our technical performance upgrades. We're pleased with this, this is our strength. So what we want to do is combine this with other, simple opportunities for our customers to turn their base machine into something that they really like and fits into their own lifestyle. Something that isn't necessarily 'Yamaha'.'
The cynic would propose that this is simply a way for Yamaha to opt out of having to provide a catalogue of thousands of approved parts along the lines of those from the kings of 'directed customisation' Harley Davidson, but Shun sees it differently,
'The 'Yard Built' concept actually started when we realised that as Yamaha we have certain, inherent limitations. We obviously design bikes and develop accessories but this is always done from Yamaha's perspective by Yamaha's designers and we naturally take inspiration from our own story of our past products.
The XJR1300, the recently launched SV950 and the SR400 are all developed under our 'Sports Heritage' banner and we take inspiration from Yamaha's past bikes and bring them into a modern context, with modern technology and modern components. And - again - we're happy with that because we want to push out what we believe in, but at the same time we see more and more demand from customers looking for something that hasn't been forced from the manufacturer. They are looking for the possibility to make it much more their own'.
It's upon this 'unforced' view towards customisation and personalisation that both parties instinctively agree.Throughout the entire day with the 'Monkees they consistently speak of allowing the customer's individuality to shine through, that these 'Yard Built kits' (manufactured with Yamaha's blessing) aren't an instant way to simply swap a Yamaha aesthetic for a WrenchMonkee one. Rather they're a route through which to open up the potential for an individual to begin making more changes themselves.
'There is no, one kit', says Per as he shows me around a nearly finished 'Monkee Fist' bike, produced exclusively atop a stock XJR1300 and enhanced with 'Yard Built', Kedo-machined parts, 'We don't want people to build wrenchmonkee replicas. Sure, they can buy everything from us and do that if they wanted, but really this is about giving them easier options. They could go out and mill the exact same, finned engine covers but we know from experience that it's expensive. By buying the component from us they get what they want and save money; money that they can put towards something else’.
Per is convinced that this enabling method towards customisation is the right direction, ‘We don't really want to provide painted parts either if we can help it. We'll paint and finish components if the customer requires it, but we like the idea of these kits being the gateway for people towards finding their own local painter or powder-coater, or maybe even trying it for themselves!'
I leave thirty minutes or so after a quick test-ride on both the Gibbon-slapped SR400 and the Monkee-fisted XJR1300. It's just long enough to get the breath back into my lungs after an exhilarating time on the brutal, punishing XJR. With the electronics ripped-out the power delivery is incredible, and silky smooth gearing sees the eyes tear-up from the acceleration. The growl from the Spark exhaust turns into a scream as I drop my wrist and change through the gears. The riding position is as extreme as the suspension; both have been lowered and tweaked to reach the very limit of acceptability. 'We like to be able to feel the bikes we make', Per tells me with a smile as we switch machines and he offers me the humbler SR400, 'as a rider I've always wanted to be part of the machine'.
I'm conscious that I'm now piloting a bike that's set to be shipped from Denmark to Milan in less than twenty-four hours and is destined to be shown at exhibitions around the world - without pause - for the next six months. I'm also aware that I have no immediate frame of reference by which to compare the Wrenchmonkee's interpretation as I have never ridden it's donor compatriot either.
The fact that this version handles nimbly but too firmly for my liking, and perhaps needs a little tweaking on the throttle response doesn't really matter of course. These are things that can easily be adjusted to suit your own preferences in your own garage on successive Sunday afternoons. This echoes perfectly the direction both companies are taking with this project.
With the hope that the Wrenchmonkee, Yard-Built kits will be made available from Yamaha dealers, it's a brave signal to their competitors that both are extremely serious about ushering in a new attitude towards the customisation market. It's the perfect antidote to the exclusive, 'too cool for you' attitude that has permeated the self-professed 'scene' up until now. It’s also - simultaneously - a sneaky 'two-fingers' up at the corporately managed, 'brand approved' catalogues from other manufacturers at the same time. It's exactly the kind of rebellious yet inclusive spirit that gave rise to the original café-racers vibe all those years ago.
Those with bikes in the garage - even new ones - are being actively encouraged by a major manufacturer to get stuck in and to really make them their own. The old boys, getting the tonne-up between the cafés of north London would most likely approve.
This is a longer version of the article that appeared in the 11th November issue of MCN. It is available as a digital issue on iOS and Google Play.
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