Mark Graham Column - Feb 2005

Fed up with mass-produced customs? Then why not build your own lowrider

Nobody wants to read about other people's problems - but here we go anyway. I think I want to build a lowrider. It's a stupid idea, but it won't go away. It's possible that what's really happening are Harley issues - but I'm in denial. Either way I've got no money so it doesn't really make any difference what I want. And how much bother is building a bike from scratch? It's a bloody nightmare. We all know that.

I blame the Triumph Rocket III for causing all this bother. There's still something irredeemably crap about factory customs, and no amount of elevated engine capacity can compensate for that. But the lure of propulsion from an outsize engine is a powerful one. Triumph is by no means the first to say bollocks to previous perceived capacity ceilings and build something truly outlandish. Some people in Bristol, England have already had a good go too.

Bill Chaplin, who ran BC Customs out west, had a mate called Kelvin who built a Ford Sierra Cosworth-engined solo, displacing two litres, but with a fully operational turbocharger. Then, unhappy with its sluggish performance, he assembled a big-block V8 Chevrolet-engined trike. This leviathan was a full seven litres. It drove via a single-speed transmission featuring a differential from a Scammell truck or some such. The front end was bolted direct to one end of the substantial iron block and there was a sort of tractor-seat device for rider accommodation.

There was also a 3.5-litre Rover-engined solo that appeared at a TT sometime in the early 1980s. And who could possibly forget an Aussie-built V-twin constructed from one sixth of a 24-litre V12 Rolls-Royce Merlin aero-engine sometime during the late 1970s? That was a mere four litres.

What all these monsters had in common was a genuine home-brewed vibe to them. Chrome-plate was mercifully absent, idiotic name-tags like Marauder did not apply, and the constructors weren't punting 'lifestyle' catalogues full of ghastly bolt-on gewgaws and leatherette saddlebags.

The troubling thing about building mass-produced motorcycles designed to somehow represent the free-thinking, free-wheelin' custom mindset is just what an uphill struggle it must be. How do you replicate one-offs when you're building them on a bleeding production line?

This is precisely where the catalogue comes in, but it's a poor substitute for a lovingly hand-built frame or a paintjob deeper than an ocean trench. Harley-Davidson cunningly gets round the problem by building 800 versions of the same bike and then calling them all by different names.

Other smaller constructors charge interested parties vast amounts of money to dream about what they might want and then get people who actually know what they're doing to build ostensibly one-off bikes with all the punter nonsense removed on grounds of either safety or crimes against basic aesthetics. The only true way for anyone to go about satisfying their cravings for something special is to raid non-factory parts catalogues and cobble something together from there. But what do you do if you want a double Austin Maxi-engined hardtail with a power take-off for a disc harrow?

You have to build it yourself, and that's where the problems begin and end. The only decent and honest way to go about satisfying these idiotic delusions is to draw what you think you want on a piece of paper and then cry. I know because I have done it. And no, you can't see the sorry mess.