Rat Bike: The Curious Tale of Nick Heij’s Dnepr MT11

Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11
People come across bikes in the most unusual ways. We see barn finds, family hand-me-downs, and even the occasional generous gift from a stranger.

But this weirdly appealing 1970 Dnepr rat bike has one of the strangest tales of all. It now belongs to Belgian Nick Heij, who lives in Antwerp—some 2,000 kilometers away from the factory in Kyiv where the Dnepr was built.

Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11
Nick takes up the tale: “A Russian guy who was hanging around my local bar asked if I could help restore his bike. He always saw me arriving on some kind of old motorcycle, and that had motivated him to buy a bike as well.”

Nick agreed, parked the Dnepr in his garage, and helped the Russian work on the bike. But eventually the visits from the Russian slowed down, and stopped.

Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11
Almost a year later, the bar owner told Nick that the Russian had been offered a job in London, and was leaving Belgium soon. “So I gave him a ring and said, ‘What about your bike?’”

The Russian offered the bike to Nick for the same price he’d paid for it. “But it’d been standing at my place for a year and I’d worked on it, so I gave him a ‘take or leave it’ offer,” says Nick.

Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11
The Russian accepted, and the Dnepr became Nick’s new side project. It’s not the kind of build we normally feature on these pages, but we love the 1970s style and rat bike patina. (And the handy reverse gear, to make maneuvering sidecars easier.)

“Taking on a Russian bike was new for me—my preference is for old English bikes,” says Nick, who operates under the Piston Jockey moniker in his spare time. “The build is a mashup of different influences: scrambler, chopper and a slice of dirt track.”

Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11
Somewhat aptly, he’s called it Baboesjka, the Dutch term for Russian babushka nesting dolls.

For those not familiar with Dnepr, it’s a marque with a similar history to Ural. The bikes can trace their roots back to the BMW R71 (and the Soviet M-72 copy) but were built in Ukraine, and the engine casings have a much more angular look to them.

Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11
The MT11 was hugely popular in the Soviet Union, despite a tendency to snap its crankshaft, and was imported into the UK from the 1970s to the 1990s, rebranded as ‘Cossack’ or ‘Neval.’

That helps with spare parts availability, and Nick had to buy a few to get the air-cooled 649cc engine running again. “It also gave me the opportunity to use some parts I’d had lying around for years.”

Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11
Nick’s given the engine a complete overhaul, using new Schaeffler bearings, BMW R60-spec pistons and rings, and valves and springs from a Ford Fiesta. (Yes, really.) This should restore horsepower to somewhere in the mid- to high-30s, helped by a new BMW ignition coil.

“Most big parts on a Russian bike are solid,” Nick reveals. “It’s the small parts that aren’t reliable to start with. I didn’t need to make a lot of changes to make these things fit—I just had to measure correctly.”

Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11
The heavy stock exhaust system is gone, replaced by simple stainless steel straight pipes, with the frame slightly adjusted to hold them in place. Nick has built new stainless air intakes for new Dell’Orto PHBG carbs too: “The original carbs are good for 5,000 km and then you need to replace them!” The ‘airbox’ is actually an old, recycled alternator cover.

Nick’s also raised the gearing to give a slightly higher top speed, since the engine is relatively torquey—and in 21st century Antwerp, the bike is not likely to be plowing through mud in first gear.

Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11
The mechanicals might be pristine, but the rusty, dented bodywork is in keeping with the rat bike aesthetic. “I’ve always loved bare metal, so I went for that style,” says Nick. “But I gave it a little twist by bluing the metal before the clear coat, to give it a more rustic feel.”

The tank is from a small Motobécane, which Nick had lying around in his garage. He’s matched it to an its-bitsy bikini fairing with a 1970s style rectangular Hella lamp. The stainless bars are custom too, with internal brake and clutch cables to keep the front end uncluttered.

Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11
There’s a one-off leather seat and fender, with a nod to the ‘crazy frank’ chopper style. Nick reinforced the Dnepr’s frame under the seat, modifying it to take a small box for the electrics.

He then narrowed and shortened an old Harley rear fender to fit, and shaped the seat pan and foam before giving it to his friend David Thys to complete the upholstery. The small rear brake light is from a WW2-era military-spec Harley-Davidson WLA.

Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11
The chromed, sleeved shocks are from a later Harley FL and Nick has fitted new 19-inch rims shod with Heidenau K37 tires—a vintage-style dual sport option popular with owners of older Urals.

This Dnepr is not going to win a trophy at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering, and it’s never going to get a megabucks studio shoot for a glossy magazine. There’s not an LED in sight, either. But it’s an honest machine with curb appeal by the bucketload.

Is it time we had a rat bike revival in the custom scene?

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Rat Bike: Nick Heij’s custom Dnepr MT11