OLD EMPIRE MOTORCYCLES
Independent bike builders
I could see the farm buildings as I exited the village on a narrow road between fields. I was in rural Suffolk, and it struck me as an unusual location for our next feature on specialist bike designers and builders. It's not the usual place where curious two-wheel passing trade might drop by. But farms are into all kinds of diversification these days, so why not a motorcycle business?
Old Empire Motorcycles (OEM) is run by Alec Sharp and his partner, Rafe Pugh. They're an odd couple in the nicest possible way. Alec's family have run the farm as tenants for several generations, and Alec chose to go travelling rather than university before setting up OEM. Rafe contacted Alec after seeing the OEM website. He travelled to Suffolk by train and cycle, said he was interested in using his marketing and advertising skills to help. They talked, and decided they could work together.
The business has only been running for four years, but what's been achieved in terms of design imagination and engineering skill is remarkable, and their bikes have garnered a whole bunch of awards. Alec doesn't have a conventional motorcycle background. He rode field bikes around the farm, and learned to spanner and weld them back together, but, as a young person, he was never allowed to ride on the roads.
We chatted while looking around the two workshops, where bikes in their various build stages were elevated on benches. Alec knows it's a cliché, but he really was influenced by the Easy Rider film and the culture portrayed. He approached a local dealer and offered to start at the bottom - 'sweeping the floor', as he puts it - and progressed from there, putting himself through courses and learning all the necessary skills and attributes to be a bike builder.
In the main workshop, there were three bikes. The first was a Yamaha-SR400-engined special, which was being built for a customer in Jersey who had just become interested in motorcycling and was learning to ride – the limited road mileage in Jersey probably doesn't warrant big ccs. The engine was new, and Alec pointed out the matt alloy-sculpted-and-machined handlebar controls they had made for the bike.
On another bench was the first Harley-engined model they had tackled. A design they have named "Fury" for a customer in Sweden; with the stand out feature being the long teardrop tank – not sure how those nobblies will ride, though. The third bike was a CB360-Honda-engined special, imported from California. A 1976 model that's had a total engine rebuild and is one of their "gradual builds", with the customer paying for each stage as it's completed.
I almost forgot Alec's latest acquisition: a Ural outfit that was originally sourced in Bulgaria. It's a monstrous piece of metal in every sense of the word. It's been outside - and at the mercy of the elements - for years. A project and a challenge, if ever there was one.
As I've found out with visits to other special builders - Kevil's Speed Shop, Three Wheels Better, and Metal Malarkey - we've presented in this series, modern computer technology plays a vital role in enabling these very individual and idiosyncratic machines to be conceived and built. It is the important communication tool, enabling the customer to update and make decisions as the build takes place. OEM uses WhatsApp to interact online with its customers.
While incorporating up-to-date computer-based technology with communication is vital at OEM, finding people with the skills needed to create bikes such as these is not easy. Hands-on practical engineering and mechanical knowledge struggle to find a place in the educational run of things, compared with the priority given to computer-based knowledge and application. OEM is fortunate to be able to call on a number of older part-time workers in the area, who can turn their hand to "metal bashing" and craft skills.
I asked Alec why he chose the title Old Empire Motorcycles for his company. It's a combination of the title of a favourite beer, Marston's Old Empire, and invoking a period in the history of British industrial history when engineering design and craft manufacturing skills were predominant.
There were bikes in the second workshop too; largely completed. A Ural-engined low rider with a BMW tank that was going to be ridden to Spain by the owner, a private yacht captain – good luck with that one. In the corner, a Victory-engined "beast" was awaiting the final touches. Then my favourite of the assembled bikes, the Typhoon, a very radical motorcycle which hosts a Ducati 900 engine and looks as if it should be playing a starring role in a science fiction saga. It's entirely the product of Alec's design imagination and has been sold – look out for this one parked up in Shoreditch.
In the relatively short time that OEM has been operating, it has created a niche for itself in a niche market. Alec and Rafe are in their twenties, and it's encouraging that younger people are captured by and devoted to the business of building bikes. Having one's own ideas translated into a custom motorcycle built - with precision and technique - by people with know-how is an expensive option involving many hours of labour time. Fortunately, for OEM, there are enough people out there who want that individual and stand-out machine.
OEM is working on a range of merchandise available in the near future. If the bike designs are a taster, it should be worth waiting for. Check the company out at www.oldempiremotorcycles.com.
What are your thoughts about these bikes? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
09/02/16 Seen some of their work in the custom magazines over the last couple of years. Some beautiful work.
10/02/16 They will be at The Revolution Show
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