The essential guide to British custom builders
Custom bikes and custom bike building have never been more popular, or more accessible. The rise of factory bobber cruisers – like Triumph’s Bobber or Harley’s 883 Iron – are one reason, with these pared-down, high-fashion machines ripe for further owner accessorising. But they’re just one style among a wave of custom-oriented bikes.
Places like The Bike Shed, magazines like Built and events like Wheels and Waves have all helped raise the profile of customs of all types. Most of the mainstream brands now offer style-conscious machines. Buying an off-the-peg custom is easy. Retro fans can re-live the spirit of the ’70s with Yamaha’s XSR700 and 900, Triumph’s Bonneville, BMW’s Rnine T or more – many of which are best sellers. Street scrambler buffs are spoilt for choice with Ducati’s Scrambler family or Yamaha’s XT500-inspired SCR950.
If your taste is for a more sporty café racer, there’s plenty of choice here, too, such as Triumph’s Thruxton and the new Racer version of the Rnine T, Want to go further? To own a truly original, bespoke one-off?
Well, thanks to the rise of the custom scene, that’s never been easier, either. There are more custom builders than ever, some high profile, some less so. Here’s our guide, in no particular order, to some of the UK’s leading builders, what they do – and what you can expect.
Down and Out Cafe Racers
Based in Rotherham, Down and Out have grown in three years to be one of the UK’s biggest custom bike builders. They create around 50 machines a year, with Triumph, Yamaha and even Charley Boorman among their clientele.
Down and Out were set up by Shaun Walker, who began building bikes as a hobby around 12 years ago from the garage at the rear of his house. He told MCN: “After building an old Honda CB450 and a Yamaha TR1, a trip to London to one of the very first Bike Shed shows started us on the road to where we are now.
“We’re not just bike builders; we make parts in our workshop, too, mostly for BMWs and Triumphs. This gives our customers a chance to build a bike themselves. We pride ourselves on our high quality, and we work with our clients to give them the best service possible.”
At: Unit 2, The Boilser House, Alma Road, Rotherham, South Yorkshire S60 2HZ
Tel: 07879 332447
Lion's Den Motorcycles
Based just outside the M25, near Potter’s Bar, up-and-coming custom builders Lion’s Den were set up by Dan Thomas. He’s produced a series of mostly Brat-style chopped-down roadsters and café racers based on 70s and 80s air-cooled Japs, with his latest being the Dirt Racer recently seen at The Bike Shed.
He said: “Motorbikes have been central to my life for a long time, and being able to build one-offs makes every day exciting. It’s all about pushing myself, the boundaries of design and what’s possible. This results in a truly bespoke piece of craftsmanship, and is the attitude I apply to all my builds. Without exploration, new and exciting ideas would never come to the fore. I take pride in being a part of such action.”
At: Bayford Hall Farm,Bayford Lane SG13 8PR
Tel: 07932 692358
Side Rock Cycles
Side Rock are based in Bournemouth and were set up by Pete Hodson to specialise in building custom café racers, street scramblers and Brat-style bikes – mostly BMW Airhead based, although many other makes and models are used. Pete told MCN: “Coming from a road-racing background, I know how a bike should feel and handle, so all my builds have to ride well on the road and are not just for show.
“To me, rideability and attention to detail are key to a quality build; a bike has to stand up to close scrutiny. Scruffy, untidy builds are not my thing. I work closely with my customers to ensure the build is exactly what they want. I don’t advertise, and I think the bikes speak for themselves.”
At: Howton Close, Bournemouth BH10 5LW
Tel: 01202 575871 or 07976 877079
Warr's King's Road Customs
Warr’s King’s Road Customs are the builders within Warr’s Harley-Davidson, Europe’s oldest Harley dealer since 1924. Based on London’s King’s Road, the team is masterminded by Head of Design and Custom, Charlie Stockwell, 37.
The Harley factory-trained technician of 21 years told MCN: “We’ve long been building custom Harley-Davidsons with the approach to deliver not only a very beautiful custom motorcycle, but one that performs as well as the original bike we start each project with. It’s important to us that the bikes retain the heart and soul of the donor vehicle. Motor, transmision, main electrical system and chassis all remain as the factory designed it. That way, each bike – no matter where in the world – can be easily understood and worked on by any trained technician. The customer then continues to get good service.
“We do, of course, fabricate custom bodywork, saddles, exhausts and front-end components, and use the industry’s best brands for parts such as wheels, engine covers, grips, pegs and much more.”
At: 611 King’s Road, London SW6 2EL
Tel: 0207 736 2934
Debolex were founded by Calum Price-Tidd in 2012 and have produced an impressive series of retro-inspired customs. Calum said: “Our build process is similar to that of the 50s and 60s motor-racing era, where makers would remove the heavy steel bodies from their saloon and sports cars, and replace them with a lightweight aluminium body, while simultaneously improving the chassis and engine performance. We have adopted the skills of those early coach-builders, and developed our own techniques applied with our design to create unique customs.
“We start with a donor stripped to the bones, then each panel is hand-shaped from aluminium, giving us freedom over the design and creating natural, flowing lines. Performance and functionality are a priority for all our builds; the result’s a reliable, high-performance custom in a lightweight one-off aluminium body.”
At: Unit 6, 232 Selsdon Road, Croydon CR2 6PL
Tel: 07969 589496
Kevil's Speed Shop
Kev Hill (geddit?) set up custom shop in Torbay eight years ago. Initially specialising in pared-down BMW boxers, he’s moved on to high-end builds for the likes of David Beckham and TV actor Matt Bardock, and has exported bikes to the US, Japan, Canada, South America and mainland Europe.
“With the growing rarity (and prices) of donor boxers, Kevil’s have diversified to produce a wide portfolio of café racers, street scramblers, bobbers and Brat-styles based on bikes as varied as the R nineT, SR 400 and 500, W650, Honda 250s and 400s, and even Dominator 650s. Right now, a CBX1000 is in the process of being turned into a café racer with a modern twist. Kevil’s also have completed custom bikes for sale, donor bikes ripe for conversion and even offer finance and global shipping.”
At: 69 Torquay Road,Paignton, Devon TQ3 2SE
Tel: 07862 122131
Andy Malham, boss of Thundercity Motorcycles, Leeds, told MCN: “I have a ‘less is best’ approach to customs. All bikes look great when you get them on the bench and take off all the ugly junk. The tank, seat, clocks, headlight, taillight and indicators all go in the bin. Then it’s just a matter of deciding what goes back on. The paint is easy. There are four colours in my palate: matt black, satin black, gloss black and now wrinkle black. My customers quite often have totally different ideas, and that’s not a problem as long as they have money!”
At: Unit 2, Haines Park,Grant Avenue, Leeds LS7 1QQ
Tel: 0113 240 6332
Sickboyz are a multi-award-winning custom motorcycle manufacturer based in London. Founder, Wade Poulson started with a very basic dream to build a couple of chops for fun, and then realised that the UK custom industry would benefit from a London-based custom bike shop.
He explained: “Our services range from building bespoke custom motorcycles to bolting on an air cleaner. We have been featured around the globe with articles in national media, had several front covers of prominent UK and European custom motorcycle magazines, and also been featured on The Motorbike Show on ITV4. We have built a reputation for quality and value for money, and with our clothing range people have really bought into the whole Sickboyz brand.”
At: Unit 1, The Paddock, Reigate Road, Ewell, Surrey KT17 3BZ
Tel: 07040 900957
Shaw Speed & Custom
Shaw Speed & Custom is part of Shaw Harley-Davidson, one of Harley’s leading UK dealers. Dealer principal Steve Willis told us more: “The Speed Shop is in its eighth year, and rose to fame after winning the 2010 World Championship of Harley-Davidson Modified Harley class at Sturgis.
“With the growth of the Speed Shop, Shaw’s have provided custom motorcycles for clients around the world in places including Angola, Beirut, Barcelona, Paris, Milan, Switzerland, Miami, Stockholm, Monaco and more. We have also collaborated with Bell & Ross on two unique builds, as well as Playboy and the Rockstar energy drink, and have built machines for premier footballers, celebrities and even superbike champion Shakey Byrne.”
At: Holmes Hill, near Lewes, East Sussex BN8 6JA
Tel: 01825 872003
Old Empire Motorcycles
Founded by Alec Sharp and Rafe Pugh, OEM are based near Diss, Norfolk, and specialise in creating a handful of exclusive, one-off customs each year based on a variety of donors. In addition, they do a range of accessories and parts, such as handlebar grips and brass fuel caps.
Alec told MCN: “Our influences are classic aviation, nautical and motor vehicle design, which we like to mix and match with the new and innovative to create what we think of as an Empire Style. Whether it is taking an older bike and spinning modern elements into its functionality, or using a new donor and simplifying it down to bare essentials to reveal its true character, the process of turning the mundane into the unique is a skillset we’ve honed. The custom scene changes and evolves continually, so it was important for us to set a firm foot down that every Old Empire bike stands the test of time.”
At: Unit 1 Hall Farm, Church Road, Redgrave, Diss, Norfolk IP22 1RJ
Tel: 01379 898987
Untitled’s Adam Kay caters for those bored of modern bikes that all look the same. He said: “People want to get their hands dirty. They are bored with the antiseptic modern world. But a bike is visceral – especially old ones. You can feel an old bike throbbing under you. It’s got a life, and it keeps the rider alive, even when not riding it.
“I like to keep a bike looking simple even when the build isn’t. I work out how the owner’s going to use it – commuting, touring or Sunday blasts. But I still want it to be used every day. That’s what makes my builds stand out – everyday use with classic styling.”
At: 15 Rosemont Road, Hampstead, London NW3 6NG
Tel: 07989 134297
Voodoo Custom Cycles
Founded by Russ Hardy, Voodoo specialise in making affordable but great-looking bobbers out of Japanese V-twin cruisers, particularly Honda’s Shadow. Russ said: “When I was living in Cyprus, I noticed a guy cruise past on a bobber and thought how cool they looked. So as soon as I got home I started researching. After a while I came across the style of bike that was to my taste – Honda Shadows – and the search was then on for a donor bike!
“The reason for the Honda was price – not many people can afford a ground-up build or even a Harley, but I knew I could make a cool-looking bobber from the Honda.
“After I built it, every time I rode it someone was trying to buy it or complementing it, so a lightbulb went off! On my return to England (four years ago) I decided to build one and see how the UK market reacted. After over 10,500 views on eBay in four weeks, Voodoo Custom Cycles was set up, and we’ve gone from strength to strength.” A Voodoo conversion costs £4000 plus donor bike.
At: Unit C1, The Croft, High Street, Whetstone, Leicestershire LE8 6LQ
Tel: 0116 275 1843
Mobile: 07902 872490
Krazy Horse were started by Paul Beamish in 1996, when he couldn’t get the bike parts he needed locally. The Bury St Edmunds-based company’s grown steadily ever since, and now occupies three premises (the latest in London). In addition to a reputation for high-quality, bespoke, award-winning customs, which the dedicated team have been building for over 20 years, they’re an agent for Indian, Victory, Norton and MV Agusta. The spacious showroom, café and workshop are a destination in their own right.
At: Lamdin Road,Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP32 6NU
Tel: 01284 749645