4-12 December 2021
NEC Birmingham

The Custom Zone at Motorcycle Live is supported by Back Street Heroes – so who better to ask to tell us all about the different custom bikes out there than the editor of Back Street Heroes magazine, Nik Samson.

When it comes to custom bikes, proper custom bikes, there’re an almost infinite number of styles, genres if you will, and if you’re a newbie to the custom scene, the myriad variations can be a little much for the ol’ grey matter.

Thankfully, us lot ‘ere at BSH, Back Street Heroes, the UK’s original and longest-serving (established 1983) custom bike magazine, are here to give you a basic education – a quick rough guide that’ll allow you to sound uber-knowledgeable down the pub, assuming that, in these Covid times, we’re ever allowed in a pub again.

So, here’s a swift whistle-stop whizz through the main styles. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

CHOPPER (PROPER)

The proper chopper is what many folk aspire to – long forks, a big back tyre, a low seat, and a chuffin’ great engine that rumbles an’ growls away beneath you. Proper choppers come in a huge range of different styles in themselves, but the purest of these are the Swedish-style choppers – a style so exaggerated they’re almost caricatures of choppers, with forks so long their front wheels are almost in different time zones.

The one we’re using, as an illustration, is the personal bike of Simon Harris, the head honcho at Attitude Cycles in Southampton, one of the most prolific custom shops in the land, and is based around a rare four-valve Feuling Harley-Davidson-style vee-twin engine, a one-off frame, a set of 80-spoke wheels (with a 240-section rear tyre), and a set of forks that are nearly two feet longer than a normal set!

CHOPPER (NEW SCHOOL)

There’s been, of late, a resurgence in chopper building, but chopper building in a very particular style – that of an almost mythical time in the 1970s when all choppers had quite long forks, inadequate front brakes (if any at all), handlebars so narrow your thumbs almost touch, fuel tanks moulded onto frames, and curvy king n’ queen seats with towering sissy-bars.

The bike you see here belongs to, and was built by, Max Whitelegg during the time he worked for So Low Choppers, a company with an excellent reputation for creating ‘new school’ choppers, and is ridden by him most days as he commutes across London for work.

CAFÉ RACER (TRADITIONAL)

Styled on, and growing out of, the bikes ridden by Rockers in the 1950s and ‘60s, the traditional café racer was the first race-rep, built by guys who loved racing, and wanted to make their bikes look, and go, like those they saw being ridden on race-tracks each weekend by their heroes. Just about any bike could be made to look like a café racer, but the pinnacle of the breed was the Triton – the faster Triumph engine in a better-handling Norton chassis.

The bike you see here uses a modern Hinckley Triumph engine in a replica Norton Featherbed frame, and has a host of useful updates that bring it into the 21st Century, but still look just as they did back in the day. It was made for a customer by Made in Metal Motorcycles in Stafford.

CAFÉ RACER (NEW SCHOOL)

As we move further into the 21st Century, the meaning of the term ‘café racer’ has changed from an alloy tank track-styled machine to almost any minimal bike with low ‘bars, a brown seat, no front mudguard, and oversize tyres. That may sound disapproving, but it isn’t – this relaxing of the de rigeur café racer look has meant that, because they’re a lot easier, and a lot cheaper, to build, more and more folk’ve got into entry-level customising, and now the new school café racer is possibly the most popular style of custom bike in the land.

The machine you see here was built by Old Empire Motorcycles, and uses a twin-cylinder Honda engine in a modified frame, with late model USD forks, and a host of neat styling touches.

CLASSIC BOBBER

‘Bobber’ is a term that’s frequently misused… really, really frequently misused. Bobbers were, back in the day, a US thing – big ol’ Harleys and Indians that’d been lightened in order for them to stand a chance of keeping up with the smaller and lighter, and therefore faster British imports (Triumphs, Nortons, BSAs etc.). They were, if you like, the first streetfighters…

These days, though, the term’s used to describe almost any custom bike that’s not a long-fork chopper, but us lot ‘ere at BSH reckon a bobber, a classic bobber, should really have a rigid frame, stock forks, skinny wheels and drum brakes, and a minimum of added-on bits. It should still be a stripped-down motorcycle, without fuss or frills, and should cause both custom freaks and classic bike fans to nod appreciatively at the sight of one.

The one you see here is Hayden Mummery’s 1960 Triumph Tiger 100, built at home by him in a tent at the back of his mum’s house with just a 12v car battery to provide light and power to his drill/grinder/etc. – not the ideal workshop to build any kind of bike, but especially an old and potentially finicky old Brit!

DIGGER

Diggers were a popular style of bike in the 1970s that were long and low, had coffin or prism-shaped fuel tanks, long springer or girder forks, moulded bodywork that flowed seamlessly, florid engraving, and wild paint schemes that used paisleys, day-glo, fluorescent, metal-flake, candy, and pearl paints. Diggers were made famous by the late Arlen Ness, but plenty of other folk’ve built them too.

This one, using an Ironhead Sportster engine, was built by Martin Bradbrook with the help of P&D Customs in Sussex, and given its wonderfully intricate paint by Surrey Customs, and beautiful engraving by octogenarian the master engraver Don Blocksidge.

FLAT-TRACKER

Flat-track bikes, road-going flat-track bikes, are race-reps – no ifs, no buts, they are. They’re styled on the bikes built to race on the huge dirt ovals and banked race tracks of North America – bikes that were stripped to their bare minimum, including the removal of the front brake, and ridden by men with cojones so large it’s amazing they can walk. No, seriously, how do you fancy throwing a bike sideways on a dirt surface at over 100mph, and controlling it using nothing more than the throttle, and a steel shoe on your left foot? And no front brake, remember?

Road-going flat-trackers, and their derivatives (street scramblers etc.), are a lot less insane, and, like Range Rovers and other ostensibly off-road 4x4s, rarely even get their tyres dirty, but they look like they could, and that’s the point. The one you see was built in South Africa, using a KTM 950 SMR as a base, by Wayne, and brings the original idea kicking and screaming into the 2020s. Okay, so the front mudguard, and the front brake, are surplus to racing requirements, but stick on steel shoe, and bung it slipways!

RAT

This is where we open up a real can of worms – what is a rat? It is, again, a term that’s changed its meaning over the years; originally a bike that was allowed to deteriorate naturally, kept on the road with minimal maintenance, repaired with whatever was lying about, and cleaned rarely. These days it’s come to mean any scruffy bike painted matt black, and actual rats, real rats, are few and far between.

The one you see here belongs to Vargo and was, once upon a time, a Honda PC800 – a horribly insipid machine covered in more Tupperware than you’d find in a TV chef’s pantry. While basically stock (engine, running gear etc.) it now looks as though, to paraphrase an old saying, it’s been covered in magnets and ridden slowly through an agricultural reclamation yard. Vargo adores it, though, and rides the hell out of it, and doesn’t give a stuff whether you like it or not – the correct rat attitude!

STREETFIGHTER (ORIGINAL)

Another genre that can cause almost apoplexy amongst internet know-at-alls – despite whatever a streetfighter may be these days (some even call them crashed race-reps, butchered classics, or even café racers… no, I have no idea what planet they’re on either), when the term was first coined back in the 1980s (by BSH actually), it referred to a rigid-framed (no rear suspension) bike with a monstrously powerful Japanese engine. The first bike to bear the title was, incidentally, an XS1100 with twin Weber carbs, and a triplex chain conversion.

The one you see here is Jamie Anderson’s Hard Up Choppers-framed Bandit with not one, but two turbochargers – a system built by the renowned Dave Dunlop of Fast By Me Turbos. It’s stupidly powerful for a bike with no rear suspension (close to 200bhp at the back wheel!), but docile enough to be ridden to work come rain or shine – something Jamie does regularly. Mind you, give its head, and it’ll strip the tread from the rear tyre in less than 800 miles, so it’s not that docile, y’know?

To see more bikes like these, buy Back Street Heroes magazine, on sale on the first Thursday of each month from all good newsagents, supermarkets, and petrol stations. To subscribe and get the mag earlier and cheaper than it is in the shops (£3.30 instead of £4.40!), or to get a digital edition to read on your iPad or tablet, go to the BSH website at www.backstreetheroes.com.