Not many custom builders have been invited to display their bikes in Harrods and the Saatchi Gallery. But then again, England’s magnificently named Old Empire Motorcycles is not your run-of-the-mill custom shop.
They’ve only been operating for a couple of years, but Alec Sharp and his crew have quickly made a name for themselves with a handful of unusual, creatively-styled builds. This is their seventh, a Yamaha Virago 535 called the ‘Bristol Bulldog’—in honor of the stocky 1920s biplane fighter used by the Royal Air Force.
“We thought the name was apt for this particular build,” says Alec. “Stockiness was a key design factor in the overall look and stance of the motorcycle.” The 535 was never going to be a sleek machine: it has a different frame to the larger versions, which are favored by US builders such as Classified Moto and Doc Chops.
To get the short, compact look, OEM fitted a set of USD forks and re-laced the wheels onto 16” rims shod with Avon SM MK2 tires. “The original riding position is feet forward with the controls mounted on what are effectively engine crash bars,” says Alec. “They look quite good so we left them alone, and heavily reworked the rear end.”
The fuel tank and miscellanea such as the pump, filters and electrics are all mounted under the seat of a Virago 535, so OEM got rid of the ugly ‘mustang’ type tank and replaced it with a retro Japanese sportbike tank of unknown origin. The detailing is equally well thought out, with velocity tanks peeking through the top of the tank, a small mesh cowling surrounding the twin headlights, and hand-tooled leather for the side panels, grips and peg inlays.
Much of the original rear frame is gone, and the rear suspension is now a pair of custom-made struts chromed and painted to match the front end. After fabricating beefy 2.5” stainless pipes (with internal baffles), OEM bundled the Virago off to Black Shuck Kustom for paint. The finish is a subtle matt silver with gold mesh, which works beautifully with the Scotch-Brited aluminum.
“She runs like a dream and goes like the clappers,” says Alec. “The ride is ‘firm’ but she handles surprisingly well, considering the tires.”
Top marks to a young builder making waves with a unique style. Who’d have thought a humble Virago 535 could look so good?
Head over to the Old Empire Motorcycles website for more inspiring, retro-themed builds.