Hot wheels: customised motorcycles take off in Asia

A small band of designers andhands-on enthusiasts are bringing the culture of motorbike customisation to new parts of Asia, writesMark Sharp

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 6:41pm

Tucked away on the eighth floor of a Chai Wan industrial building, Angry Lane looks like a subculture boutique teleported from Causeway Bay. The sleek space is decked out with racks of casual shirts, shelves of colourful helmets, and cabinets displaying leather goods, watches and jewellery. But it's the motorbikes that take centre stage. These belong to brothers Guillaume and Benoit "Ben" Barras who, along with fellow enthusiast James Dixon, founded the motorbike customisation business.

More than that, Angry Lane, which officially opens next month, reflects the owners' lifestyle and love of clothes and accessories that can't be found in Hong Kong's cookie-cutter shopping malls.

The trio are also among a small number of enthusiasts helping to kick-start the culture of motorbike customisation in parts of the region where it is far less established than in Japan, Asia's spiritual home of the motorbike. The annual one-day Hot Rod Custom Show in Yokohama attracts thousands of visitors, and Ben hopes to show his bike there next year.

"We are in the fashion and graphic industries, and have always wanted to set up a workshop or lifestyle brand around custom motorcycles," Ben says. "We'd been talking with James about this idea and he shares the same passion, so we started to make a plan that gave birth to Angry Lane."

The brothers have been tinkering with bike design since their teens and have since 2009 been distributors for Easyriders of Japan, one of the region's pre-eminent producer of custom motorcycle parts.

"Today, people want to be different. You can easily get custom shoes, custom handbags, custom suits," says Ben. "At Angry Lane, you can get a custom bike, a custom helmet that matches the colours of the bike, and even your own high-quality Swiss watch."

Brands stocked at Angry Lane include luxe, retro-looking helmets by Ruby of France, shirts by Deus Ex Machina and Lick My Legs, and leather and denim goods by Black Needle, a custom design brand owned by the Barras brothers that draws inspiration from motorbike culture.

Their approach to customisation is stripping bikes down to the bare essentials, revealing the raw beauty of the machines while incorporating their own design sensibilities. "We like bikes that look naked. We remove as many useless parts as possible, all the plastic, such as covers," Guillaume says. "We cut off useless frame parts that exist just because they were needed for factory production. The bikes always get a new tank; it can be as cool as it can be ugly, so design concepts are very important."

Guillaume's 883cc Harley Davidson Sportster XLH, a 1991 model, is fitted with '70s-style Z-bars, a triangular headlight, and coffin-shaped petrol tank made in Japan and covered in denim and embossed leather made by Black Needle. It has old-style tyres, a brass rear light and a denim seat made by his brother, among other features.

Ben's 500cc Daytona Triumph from 1973 has also been radically transformed. "Basically, 70 per cent of the bike has been modified, including a lot of custom parts made only for this bike. It's a show bike; the list is endless."

Dixon has a 500cc Yamaha SR cafe racer, one style of bike the trio is keen to work with and which inspired the Angry Lane name. They were discussing the cafe racers of '60s Britain, and rockers' practice of racing their bikes from London's Ace Cafe to the Hanger Lane junction. Dixon misheard Ben's French accent, thinking he'd said Angry Lane, and the name stuck.

Cafe racers are narrower than regular bikes, often with turned-in handlebars and tanks shaped so that the knees can be tucked in, making them more convenient for Hong Kong's busy and narrow roads.

Angry Lane is able to work on several bikes at the same time for servicing and modifying at its workshop in Tuen Mun. For full customisation, they hope to release a new bike every one or two months.

"We find the bikes on the local market, and import them from Europe, the US or Japan. We are always on the lookout for new bikes to bring in and modify," Dixon says. "We redo them under our own Angry Lane brand name: this is the core business, but being distributors of parts and having a full-time mechanic's workshop, people can always come with a bike for changing a headlight, a seat, or ask us for a special customisation."

The customisation scene is quite new to Hong Kong, Ben says, but they believe it will grow. "Lots of people we meet embrace the vision we have and share the passion for personalised products, whether it is accessories, garments or vehicles."

Their vision is shared by Deus Ex Machina, founded in Sydney in 2006. Two years ago, the group set up Deus Bali. Its Temple of Enthusiasm, in the village of Canggu, is a huddle of Balinese structures housing a workshop, showroom, art gallery and cafe/bar. Besides the stripped-down motorbikes, Deus also makes surfboards. Echoing the ethos of Angry Lane, Deus says it is bigger than a brand; it is a culture. It also has an Emporium of Postmodern Activities in Venice Beach, California.

Beijing-based Daryl Villanueva is another creative industry professional with a passion for motorbike customisation. After giving his Honda Cub a remake when he was based in Ho Chi Minh City, he decided to rebuild his own bike after moving to the Chinese capital. Last October, after completing his first project, he set up a custom workshop on the outskirts of the city.

"After spending many months looking for the right builder and the right bike, I gave up looking and decided to build my own," says Villanueva, who works in the advertising industry. "I loved building Loki, our first bike, so I decided to try my hand at entrepreneurship and set up Bandit9. It was the best decision I ever made."

Villanueva specialises in local Chang Jiang models with his three-man team, whose skills range from mechanical and web/graphic design to photography.

"These things just don't give up. They're made to survive war. Rain, snow, mud, extreme heat - the Chang Jiang just keeps kicking."

His latest creation, Nero, is almost totally matte black, from the engine to the frame, wheels and tank. The bike is a Chang Jiang 750 and took six months to recreate. "It was a very ambitious design. The hexagonal tank and fender alone took three months and were made by hand. A hundred cuts, 30 blisters and 10 scrapped tank designs later, we finally got what we wanted. Even the paint was our own concoction. We wanted to get the deepest matte black possible."

Villanueva says Bandit9 has received many requests for bike makeovers, but he wants to focus on "game-changing home runs" with fewer products versus building a lot of mediocre bikes. "Bandit9 needs to be patient and grow. It's still figuring itself out. That's the fun part."

The name Bandit9 reflects Villanueva's aspiration to put his own individual stamp on the bikes he rebuilds. "It originates from the idea that bandits, pirates and outlaws are the kings of innovation and individualism. They're not afraid to try. They're not afraid to fail. It's a philosophy I try to push within our humble company. I think of each build as an experiment. If I'm not afraid to fail during a build, an alarm in my brain goes off telling me that I'm not pushing myself."

Villanueva says there isn't yet a large custom bike community in Beijing, other than outfits offering re-sprays. But that is not a direction he wants to take. "Bikes should be an expression of the rider. Something that I'd like to do in the future is match the bike with the right rider. This probably doesn't make business sense, as it might alienate potential buyers, but I'm going to try it." [email protected]