The Wildest Custom Motorcycles Meet Dockside In London For Bike Shed 2018
Photography by Will Broadhead
In amongst the back streets of a tropical pre-summer day in London, the silhouettes of Victorian cranes hang black against the sky as dusk turns into night. The warehouses and street furniture allude to this particular dockland area’s past, sat in amongst the gentrified buildings that now house upmarket apartments in what was once a center of industry that connected London to the rest of the world. My visit to Tobacco Dock wasn’t to scope out real estate though. I came to cast my eyes over a renewal of another kind, involving engines and rubber-shod spoked wheels. It is the return of the now well-established Bike Shed Motorcycle Club Summer Expo, displaying some of the finest pro and shed-built custom bikes the bespoke motorcycling world has to offer.
The concept of a modified bike isn’t a new one of course, the tonne-up boys and rockers that made a playground of London’s north circular ring road and its transport cafés were doing this sort of thing to try to wring the best performance out of their BSAs, Triumphs and Nortons well back in the last century.
But whilst the basic idea isn’t a new one, it doesn’t mean there’s a lack of creativity here, and the café racer and custom bike scene has only gone from strength to strength in the last ten or so years. To use the term “café racer” these days seems woefully inaccurate for this large group though, with flat trackers, dirt bikes, choppers, brats, bobbers and all manner of sometimes unclassifiable machines being built, the onus of the Bike Shed Motorcycle Club (BSMC) and others involved in this world now being to encompass anything custom and cool. No idea is a bad idea, and if you’ve built it, then you can come!
This all-inclusive vibe was apparent immediately as I arrived at the show, with people from all walks of life present. Once inside, it was clear that there was something for every moto fan housed under the pitched ceilings of this antique but recently renovated warehouse space. In amongst the retail stands, stages, DJs, and bars were rows upon rows of ultra-cool custom builds. You see, despite the sales space, at this show the bike is still king. In fact, it’s somewhat of a tribute to the work the Bike Shed and other clubs like it have done in pushing this scene forward, that the bigger manufacturers like Triumph and Ducati now want to be involved, with off-the-shelf solutions to those that want a ‘tracker or a café.
From a few old Honda CB shed builds that seem to be entwined in the roots of this scene (certainly for me, I built one!), to the professional and exquisite examples on display in these halls today, the custom bike world has come a very long way, in a very short time.
But what is it that makes these machines so alluring? Why are there 2,000 people visiting on this particular evening, not to mention many thousands more over the weekend, to see forty-year-old BMW R65s and other vintage motorcycles that have clip-ons and megaphones attached? Well, for me, that description doesn’t even scratch the surface of the fabulous jobs the builders are doing these days. The devil is in the details, and for this enthusiast the enjoyment comes from “zooming in” so to speak, with camera or otherwise.
These are wonderfully engineered motorcycles, with attention to detail that is second to none and in most cases delivered with a class and an elegance that separates them from the bodge and novelty of amateur efforts. These are clean builds and whilst there is the pre-requisite CB500/4 with racing seat and clip-ons, it’s done so damn well it holds its own in amongst the more original and outlandish creations on display here. It is a wonderfully curated collection, something that has become somewhat of a hallmark of the BSMC show and certainly evident in the years that I have been coming.
Of course, each year there seems to be one particular build style that is in vogue, whether that is a reflection of the scene at large or created by the Bike Shed when putting the exhibition together, it’s still great fun to find out what the “new thing” is this season. To my eye it seemed to be a combination of small-capacity motorcycles and dirt bikes that had captured the builder’s attentions.
Whilst a Honda CB125 may not burn everybody’s wick, it reminded me of a time when the likes of Ducati were putting out beautiful small-capacity machines such as the Monza, one of which was on show. Big may be beautiful, but good things come in small packages and to add one more cliché, variety is the spice of life. The Bike Shed Motorcycle Club manages to satisfy all of these old adages with its collection, but is as fresh and as vital as it has always been.