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What is a custom motorcycle?



Streetfighter | Special | Chopper | Bobber | Bagger | Tracker



to modify something to suit a particular individual or task
to alter or adjust

to change


Custom bikes

A custom motorcycle is a motorcycle that's been significantly and (arguably) obviously modified to look, handle or perform differently to the way it left the factory where it was built.


The word "custom" is, however, as much a fashion statement as a technical description inasmuch as it suggests a certain formalised (if unwritten) style or approach to that bike building.



Put another way, if a bike is modified to be hip or cool or glitzy or stylish or have an "attitude", you can think of it as custom motorcycle. This might include looking tough or macho. It might include using radical or unlikely engines. It might include exaggerated and complex paint jobs. It might include unlikely geometry. It might include highly polished metals and lashings of chrome. It might include a deliberately unrealistic approach to practicality. It might be provocative and/or artistic. It might be simply weird.


Bikes that fall into this category include choppers, bobbers, brat bikes, trackers, baggers, and possibly cafe racers.




Egli Fritz W cafe racerAlternately, in the classic bike world another kind of custom motorcycle is generally referred to as a "special". The difference here is that enhanced performance is generally the goal rather than style—but that doesn't mean that a special can't also be stylish.


Therefore, a highly-tuned Vincent T-twin engine transplanted into a Norton Featherbed frame and underpinned by enhanced suspension, upgraded brakes and lightweight wheels, etc, might be better described as a "special" rather than a custom bike—although it could be argued that such a bike actually falls into both categories. It depends on exactly how far is strays in one direction or another, style-wise.


BMW custom bikeSo a motorcycle with an extended front fork, lashings of metal-flake paint, a high performance engine and acres of chrome is probably going to be referred to as a "performance chop". But a cafe racer (clip-ons, rear-sets, megaphone silencers) with the same metal-flake paint job is still likely to be thought of simply as "a special".


There are no clear lines here except the ones offered by convention and general agreement, and those lines are constantly being challenged by new thinking in custom bikes (not that there's an awful lot of new thinking at the moment).


The simplest way to know what type of bike a given motorcycle is, is to build it, ride it to a bike show and ask half a dozen people how they'd categorise it. They might scratch their heads for a bit, or they might make a very quick decision. But there's every chance that you'll get your answer.




Streetfighter motorcycles can be equally difficult to categorise. The term arose back in the 1980s when people began to modify high-powered, large-capacity Japanese bikes by making them as outrageous as possible but without spoiling the handling or performance characteristics. Actually, an unspoken prerequisite was that performance really ought to be enhanced, not merely left alone.


Therefore, an 1100cc Honda fitted with an uprated front fork, a lightweight swinging arm, beefed-up brakes, a turbo-charger and a paint job that would dazzle Stevie Wonder would almost certainly be described as a streetfighter.


The bike might be heavily engraved, might be dripping chrome and polished aluminium, might have a highly convoluted exhaust system, might be heavily detailed and might roll on extra fat rubber. And it might carry a transplanted engine from another marque. But whatever else it features, macho muscle will almost certainly be at the heart of it. And one more thing; streetfighters usually boast three, four or six cylinder engines.



Building that custom bike

Festival of Jurby


As for which type of bike you might want to build, you're perhaps best advised to simply fabricate whatever suits your style, budget and imagination, and worry about what type of bike it is when you enter it for a motorcycle competition—if that's the direction you're headed.


And don't confuse any of this terminology with the phrase "factory custom". This is a misnomer and is widely used by the bike industry to impress its more naive customers that the company is hip and cool and on message, custom-bike wise.


Just remember that broadly speaking, most aficionados would agree with this statement: If you build more than one, it's not a true custom bike. If you build more than a handful, it's a production bike.


Hint: click any of the images to find out more about the bikes or the stories behind them.





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