Custom vs. Production

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This piece was originally published as a comment on Paul Crowe's website, The Kneeslider titled, "We Don't kneed Any More Custom Motorcycles, We Need More Prototypes" in December 2015. It has been edited to make sense on it's own, but the original article and comments are well worth the read.

Janus holds an interesting place in the motorcycle industry because, while we build each motorcycle to order, and offer many custom options, our motorcycles are production vehicles with identical components. The customization is more a product of the scale of the operation than of the production process itself. We are often told that our motorcycles are too expensive and we work every day to make them more affordable, but if we were making them as one-off pieces, without jigs, fixtures, and tooling, they would be astronomically more expensive. Building a successful, road-legal motorcycle from scratch costs, well, a lot—and we do it as efficiently as possible! That being said, we do most of our work by hand and use a great deal of what I’m sure most would describe as antiquated equipment, simply because it is what is most efficient and affordable for us because of the size of our operation.

This discussion was initiated over the concept that we should not eschew "state-of-the-art" equipment in the development of new motorcycle technology. Of course it could be said that Ducati certainly isn't stuck in the dark ages, however, even many of the most high-tech new motorcycles from major manufacturers are using very old technology (take for example the telescopic fork). There does seem to be an inclination among motorcycle builders, especially custom builders, to view the whole process as though they were a medieval blacksmith, right down to the clothes and facial hair.

I am a classicist. By this I mean that I seek to pursue the best of a tradition. In motorcycling terms, this means that I do not think that we should be bound by the avant garde to build something that "looks" cutting edge, even if we are building a machine. We should be held to the examples of the greatest motorcycles of all time. However, this does not mean that we should avoid disc brakes, or liquid cooling, or ABS--no, this simply means that we should use the best tools available to us to create products whose basis for judgment lies in all the best motorcycles that have preceded it, not the other shiny newfangled bike that the other manufacturer just launched. A look at any of the great motorcycles of the past 100 years will prove that innovation is an integral part of the industry. Racing has always been the proving ground for innovation in the vehicle industry and will continue to offer a place for technology to be developed and honed.

I think, however, that the argument is not so much about a dichotomy between the imagined “old school” builder and alleged "new" CNC monkey, but really the question of what “stock” and “custom” actually mean. Old (or young) readers who enjoy building things with their bare hands using minimal technology should not take offense. If you are building a hand-made masterpiece in your garage using the most Ludite equipment imaginable, you are impervious to criticism already! This is a therapeutic activity that can often lead to personal improvement and communal enjoyment. But there is a crucial distinction to be made between this and the wonderful tradition of the trade of manufacturing production vehicles.

In my mind, the current boom in custom motorcycles exists, not so much as an expression of individuality, but as a protest against something in the state of today’s motorcycle design and manufacturing. Again, I do not say this to downplay the craft of custom builders—the outpouring of design and fabrication surrounding custom motorcycles is truly marvelous. 

 Shinya Kimura at work on "Spike", his reinterpretation of a 1946 HD knucklehead. Image courtesy  Pipeburn .

Shinya Kimura at work on "Spike", his reinterpretation of a 1946 HD knucklehead. Image courtesy Pipeburn.

But unless we are discussing art-pieces such as the work of Shinya Kimura, Chicara Nagata, Max Hazan, or Ian Barry, etc., it seems to me that a functional, ridable custom motorcycle is a product, and as such, is actually the builder’s vision of what a perfect production motorcycle would be in some alternate universe (think how often the builder's brief involves imagining an alternate reality in which this bike could exist. Icon has built some incredible custom motorcycles with a wild array of alternate realities as their backdrop). I’m still thinking about what the factory sponsored custom R9Ts mean, but I think it’s very good, almost as though BMW is extending its design arm out to the world in an attempt to find what is missing in modern production motorcycles.

Motorcycles are so wonderful because they are a perfect pairing of practicality and aesthetics. If motorcycles were all pure art, they would lose all their mechanical purposefulness. The odd quirks that the designer must work around to ensure that the thing actually moves down the road are what make it so captivating. Individuality and “stock” go hand in hand. What is truly worth having endures. In this sense, a “custom” is what every great bike becomes if it is truly loved and ridden. Motorcycles customize themselves. 

 

 "Super Kim", a heavily modified 1925 supercharged Zenith. Image courtesy the  Vintagent.

"Super Kim", a heavily modified 1925 supercharged Zenith. Image courtesy the Vintagent.

A custom is really just a stock bike that has been loved or abused enough, or both, that it has adjusted to the form and function of the rider. No motorcycle that is “ridden as the maker intended” will remain stock. In fact, it actually gains potency by virtue of having once been “stock”. It is in this way that we can find in a perfectly ubiquitous model, like the Honda CB such a wonderful canvas for the custom builder. And in the same vein, it is how motorcycles such as “Super Kim”, the 1925 supercharged Zenith uncovered in Argentina some years ago, are so captivating and is another angle on why most racing includes homologation rules stipulating that certain numbers of the vehicles to be raced must be manufactured. 

                  Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang illustrated by Robert Burningham.

                 Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang illustrated by Robert Burningham.

If Ian Fleming’s Caractacus Pott had simply built Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang from scratch as a one-off, it wouldn’t have been nearly so captivating as being the only car produced by a car manufacturer that went bankrupt! The difference between production and custom is tremendous, and Paul Crowe’s article does a great job of attempting to explain how and encouraging the custom builder to try.

Now, a discussion of the current “retro” trend in motorcycles, and most other things for that matter, is a separate argument that I look forward to having!

Richard Worsham
July 26, 2018