When Revival Cycles invited me to the Handbuilt Motorcycle Show last year, I didn’t have the heart to admit I’m somewhat of a purist. I had to stop myself from blurting out that I think an amateur restoration pays homage to the spirit of a motorcycle better than even the best custom builds. Now, after getting a chance to see some of the best bikes at the 2022 Handbuilt Show, I’m glad I kept my mouth shut. Turns out I’m less of a purist than I thought.
I couldn’t have known that when Tim Rand — who runs the Revival retail store on South Congress — said to come up for the next show. The crew planned for the show’s return at the end of 2021, but the pandemic pushed it to 2022. And the custom bikes finally came back to Austin in April, the very same weekend MotoGP ran at COTA. Yup, Austin is spoiled for motorcycles.
I mean, other than the Barber Museum, where else can you see this many incredible bikes crammed into 34,500 square feet? That’s not a small space by any means, but the old Austin-American Statesman printing floor was packed with some of the most outlandish and impressive custom bikes I’ve ever seen.
So many motos! So many restomods and custom builds! I almost wished I’d worn my helmet so the visor could narrow my field of view, and I could focus one bike at a time. The bikes spanned from Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki to Norton, Vincent, Ducati and Indian. There were a few Harleys, also a handful of electric motorcycles — which I really dig. And a ton of BMWs.
That’s mostly because BMW sponsors the Handbuilt, with another few bike and gear companies pitching in, too. Depending on who you ask, the strong BMW presence is either a blessing or a curse. As biased as I am, I’ll let you decide which. But that many classic BMWs in a room often leads to a debate between riders like me, the purists, and riders like those who built the bikes on display.
There are two schools of thought. According to one, you shouldn’t mess with a motorcycle: just leave it alone. Love it for what it is and ride it. That goes for performance or design — or both. For purists, a bike will never be as perfect as when first assembled. Restoring an old bike is like time travel on a small scale: units of time caught within its wheelbase flow in reverse. And while restoration can be exhausting and clumsy, it’s a tumble back towards perfection.
The other school is the counterpart to the purists. This school subverts the perfection of a stock bike, and its riders encourage messing with design or performance. Many builders believe the past deserves reverence but not at the expense of the future. If a thing insists on surviving, it must be willing to evolve.
That’s the underlying theme of the Handbuilt: to keep some bikes alive and make them better than they were. So, I took a couple of riders to task, courtesy of the folks at BMW North America. Thanks to Motorrad’s Mark Peine, I had the chance to ask Parker Zamarelli and Duc Tran what gives them the right to ruin classic bikes. OK, maybe not. But I wanted to know why bikes — maybe even more than cars — lend themselves to redesign. To revival, as it were.
Parker Zamarelli’s Slash 7 was a wreck, wasting away in a yard for 20 years; a tree had grown through its swing arm. Parker bought it, dragged it on a trailer and took it home. And over the course of three years, he rebuilt it. He chased after old parts or used CAD programs to draft new parts to be 3D printed and milled on CNC machines. Some of it was not all that pleasant, he said.
JR: What is it about motorcycles that makes them more of a medium, or canvas, for modification than a car?
PZ: A motorcycle — compared to a car — the motor is the most visual part of it. It’s the staple, and everything else is built around it. Whereas a car, the motor is inside and it’s tucked away. Motorcycles just have so many more layers than a car. A car has one layer, the outside. And I guess the inside, the interior and the motor. But you can see everything on a motorcycle just by looking at it.
JR: Yamaha designer Atsushi Ichijo said motorcycles are closer to airplanes than cars, because planes are designed strictly for aerodynamics. Air literally shapes them. There’s a constant behind their design. Are bikes the same?
PZ: BMW made airplane motors before they made motorcycles. The boxer “Airhead” motor is actually a small airplane motor, and then has a driveshaft that comes back to your back wheel, which is like a propeller. That’s what attracts me to BMW so much, because I love airplanes. An old biplane’s got the propeller and then it’s got ten cylinders in a circle. Add cylinders and it’s still the same motor. They just cut it down to two. So, BMW went from making airplane motors to, ‘let’s just drop that and start a motorcycle company.’ And their design and their engineering is over-engineered. It’s impressive.
JR: Was that a pain in the ass when building, or learning your engine?
PZ: Yeah. It was a little bit of a pain in the ass. But it’s so niche and intricate. I love them. I’m rebuilding an R90 S, and I tell you what, I hate the damn thing. It was, like, BMW’s first sports bike. It won a bunch of races when it first came out. They’re kind of rare. So, I found one for really cheap, and I snagged it up and it hadn’t ran in twenty years, but it’s still totally worth restoring.
JR: Parker, you are undaunted. What draws you to these bikes?
PZ: They’re just so different than anybody else’s design. They’re just weird, or quirky. And they’re super reliable. I have another bike that has 110,000 miles on it and it’s never been rebuilt. I just change the oil and I ride it.
JR: Your bike has knobbies and fork gaiters. Was that the look you wanted from the get-go?
PZ: It’s supposed to be a low, tracker-looking bike. I had a vision, and then that vision changed, like, 20 times through the course of building it. The first vision was to build a rat, a complete rat! [laughs] Because it was so decrepit when I got it, that I was, like, ‘I can’t build anything nice out of this. It’ll just have to be a rat.’ See, I love the /2. It’s very classy. It’s got a plunger frame with a nice solo floating seat. I was trying to capture that classiness and put it into this bike. The paint job is a classic BMW smoked paint. It’s kind of like an R90 S, but with a different color scheme. It’s black, with a nice blue coming through the black with silver pinstriping. The classic BMW pinstriping.
JR: Do you think all your builds will have the famous BMW pinstripes?
PZ: Oh, I have no idea! I don’t think that far ahead. [laughs] My R90 S is just going to be a restoration — to save it. That’s all. I’m not going to do anything custom with it. Just make it usable, functionality-wise. I’m not repainting it or anything like that.
Huh. Funny thing about the R90 S being a project to restore and not to mod.
After a while, I finally broke down and told Parker about my old bike at home, which I plan on keeping stock — except for maybe a pair of Öhlins rear shocks, a lighter exhaust, lighter wheels, bigger brake calipers, a better carb and a wider air intake. You know? A few little things that make a bike better at being a bike.
Performance, as the apotheosis of functionality, is behind Duc Tran’s build. He’s a fellow Texan from Austin who loves cars and bikes. A true Jalop! Duc rebuilt the BMW’s engine, because it sat for a long time as a collector’s bike. He swore to honor the integrity of his Airhead, but modern components lured him away. In original form, his “toaster tank” R75 had a Grenada Red gas tank that drew his attention, but Duc wanted a different look with another focus.
JR: So, if you’re a fan of the original, then what’s the idea behind the changes?
DT: The /5 is becoming such a collectible model. Especially the toaster tank model. So, I definitely didn’t want to chop it up. I made it to where it can be brought back to original, stock form. I have the stock toaster tank — the Grenada Red toaster tank. I got the seats. I got the rear subframe, all the lights. I gave it LED lights, a bolt on subframe and front and rear aluminum fenders that can always be taken off. Because it’s worth a heck of a lot more in original form than in semi-custom, restomod form. That was the motivation: a clean and simple restomod with leather aesthetics. I didn’t want a bobber look, cause there’s too many bobbers out there. All the Airheads — 90 percent of Airheads — are bobbers. The appeal of the /5 is the toaster tank, but I wanted a clean and simple look, so, I just felt the red tank was too much color popping out. Too vibrant. I didn’t want that to be the centerpiece of the bike.
JR: What did you want the centerpiece to be?
DT: I wanted the centerpiece to be more the leather and some of the small, custom touches.
JR: What’s your favorite custom touch?
DT: It would probably be the leather bag and seat I made, and then I added a leather strap to hold the gloves on the other side. Mine’s the only bike here with a pair of gloves. [laughs]
JR: Safety first! What else changed, not for aesthetics but for performance?
DT: The bike’s shocks were too cushy; it didn’t corner very well. It so happens Öhlins made a pair of shocks that are specifically for Airheads, only one pair. They’re pricy, but they add performance to the ride and definitely look badass on the bike. The other thing is the mufflers. These are from Cone Engineering. They’re stainless steel. They fit perfectly into the header pipes. They’re lighter than the stock, shorter than stock. They’re cleaner. And they sound awesome.
JR: OK. Back to the custom bits: what was the process of the build?
DT: I stripped the tank down to bare metal. Took a sandpaper pad and gave it a brushed aluminum finish. And then I felt, well, that’s a little too plain. I wanted a little touch of color, so I came up with the idea of painting the M color stripes onto the tank that go through the roundels. Just a splash of color.
JR: What M model inspired you?
DT: Ah, the M3 by far. I always dreamt of the M3 growing up in high school but they were pricy back then. Especially the E36 M3.
JR: Duc, what do you think about people who say don’t modify a bike?
DT: You know, I value the purist’s opinion. I get criticized sometimes. ‘Oh, that’s only a 200-mile bike, max!’ ‘You shouldn’t have done that!’ ‘Should’ve kept it stock — it’s more valuable stock!’ You know what? My answer to that is to each their own. And at the end of the day, I did what I wanted to the bike but still respect what BMW did.
JR: What is the relationship between the original designer and people like you, who build and redesign? Are you at all related? Do you see yourself along the same continuity of people who’ve dreamt this bike and saw it materialize?
DT: Yeah, I think there’s an aspect of that because of our way of thinking, and the approach to the design and what we want to do. We want to maintain the heritage of what they did, and respect the design they came up with. But you wanna do enough to add your custom touches, and make it a little bit your own, and still keep the overall look of the bike. Enough to where someone can say that’s a BMW /5 and recognize the original designer’s intent.
The irony of the red tank being too much color, then the bare aluminum not being enough wasn’t lost on me or Duc. As a fanboy, I can appreciate the BMW M colors as well as the other subtle nods, like roundels on the carburetors.
And Duc may have been right to strip most of the red away. The tank doesn’t monopolize the view, but now sits in harmony with the boxer engine. The engine and tank together adding a dimension to the design that it lacked before. And the mods, overall, adding miles to the bike’s life as a better version of itself.
I think purists know this deep down: that building can revive a bike. Just like builders never fully abandon their love of stock bikes. The two schools overlap more than they care to admit. But riders from either one will still wave at one another on the road, which is where all bikes — handbuilt or stock — belong.