The Business of Customizing Old Motorcycles

Adam Kay of Untitled Motorcycles on old school customs and starting a bike-building business.
Untitled builds interesting and usable old school motorcycles in a small workshop under the railway arches in north London. And they’re doing a very good job of it too. So when we read an interview with Untitled’s co-founder Adam Kay in Classic Bike Guide, we jumped on it. It’s a great counterpoint to John Ryland’s piece on building custom motorcycles for a living.

“I do this because I love it,” says Untitled’s Adam Kay. “A few years ago I bought a BMW from Rex Martin, who was running Victory Motorcycles in Kentish Town. I asked him to help me rebuild it into a very basic custom, with a shorter seat and different mudguards.”

An old school BMW built by the London workshop Untitled Motorcycles.
“I started a Facebook page to document the build: a simple ‘how to’ blog. Lots of people liked it, and I still get people writing to me about those pages. People started asking if we could build stuff for them.”

Rex became Adam’s business partner, and Untitled Motorcycles was born.

Old school charm: detail from a BMW built by the London workshop Untitled Motorcycles.
WHAT WAS YOUR BIG BREAK? “A guy who used to hang out at the workshop suggested Rex and I build a couple of bikes to show at the Alexandra Palace Custom Show. I think our BMWs were the only non-Harley bikes there.

“We took the BMW badges off and called them ‘Untitled.’ We put price tags on both bikes, which were way too expensive and took a year to sell. But we got several projects as a result of that show.

“Then we built UMC-002 (below), a BMW scrambler with high-level pipes. It got a huge amount of interest and people started coming to us.”

UMC-002, a BMW scrambler with high-level pipes built by Untitled Motorcycles.
Since then, Untitled has become a highly respected shop, known for its ‘urban’ and rideable street bikes. They’ve been featured extensively online and in the new wave custom bible The Ride.

HOW DO YOU PAY THE BILLS? “As a business, Untitled has always been healthy: we were profitable after our first year. You can make money building custom bikes—and you don’t need to have money upfront to build the bikes.”

Until now Untitled has focused purely on bike building, but Adam is looking to expand operations and build on the brand.

The workshop of London-based Untitled Motorcycles.
“We’re about to start selling bolt-on parts developed from our custom builds. We’re doing a plug-and-go BMW subframe, because the way they’re built allows you to customize them relatively easily. Other bikes you have to cut and weld new tube, and not everyone can do that—or has access to a mate with a welder.”

The BMW rear end will be sold in different versions, from bare subframes through to the full package with fender, indicators, stoplight, and shocks. “The electrical components have four-pin connectors that plug straight into the existing loom. The idea is that it’s all bolt-on, ready to go.”

Modifying a frame in the workshop of Untitled Motorcycles.
They are also designing merchandise. “We could probably make more money from just selling merchandise. But first and foremost, we build bikes. I’m not against selling clothing or parts that have been developed from our bike-building expertise.”

T-shirts and stickers—the standby items in any custom motorcycle shop.
Adam has been astute enough to tap into the American market, but not in the conventional way. “Hugo Eccles, an industrial designer who co-built the UMC-021 (below) with me, recently moved from London to California. He was planning on establishing a custom bike-building business out there, so we formed a partnership. We now have a workshop in San Francisco and our first US build will be a Moto Guzzi cafe racer.”

This stripped-back R100 RT comes from London’s Untitled Motorcycles and it just oozes vintage charm.
SOCIAL MEDIA: DOES IT WORK? “We’ve promoted our business through Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter. You get ‘likes’ but does that translate into business? I think so. People in the USA like our old school motorcycles and that’s purely though the internet. Our web stats show that a big percentage of our traffic comes from America.

“Without the internet I don’t think we’d be where we are now—we’re known worldwide. But it means you also have to be on the computer, answering emails and generating new stuff to keep people coming back. I’ve noticed that people flick from bike to bike. Attention spans appear to be very short.”

The internet also carries a lot of negativity, which can divert attention if taken seriously. But that doesn’t worry Adam.

Adam Kay and Hugo Eccles of Untitled Motorcycles.
“When we started building bikes I worried about it, but not any more. I don’t care who is building a bike—it takes a lot of hard work and real ingenuity. I love the people in this business and the people it attracts, even the ‘haters.’

“At least they offer an opinion, even if it might not be a view you share. And it’s good to create discussion.

“At the end of the day, whatever people are saying online, it’s another motorcycle back on the road—and surely that’s got to be a good thing?”

There’s no doubt the internet is fueling new interest—but why classic bikes, and what’s the attraction of customizing them? “People want things that are niche and vibrant,” says Adam. “It’s about having something to aspire to, and expressing individuality.”

Old school Honda CB350 cafe racer motorcycle.
HOW INVOLVED ARE YOUR CLIENTS? “We’re getting more and more customers coming in to the workshop to help build their own bikes, and we’re teaching them. It’s worked so well, we’re considering setting up a series of bike building courses.

“My dad was an engineer, a hands-on guy building boats and cars, and a part-time rally driver too. He once built a complete MGA from crates of spare parts he’d bought. I’ve been around that stuff all my life, and it’s a similar experience working with Rex. Every day I learn something new.”

And that’s the reason Untitled are willing to help newcomers by encouraging them to participate in their own bikes builds and showing them some of the techniques.

They don't come more old school than this this board track-inspired Triumph T100 SS.
“Customizing a motorcycle is not easy. One of the great things about allowing people access to the workshop is that they suddenly realize it’s not a simple job. And they understand why a custom can cost more than £10,000 to build. Building a bike is a very time-consuming process.”

As a society we stopped doing hands-on years ago. Manufacturers of motorcycles—and cars, electronics and household appliances—use planned obsolescence. Nothing is built-to-last, and it’s no longer built-to-fix either: at least not without a degree in computer science.

Kawasaki KZ100 cafe racer built by Untitled Motorcycles of London.
Like many people interested in new wave cafe racers and street trackers, Adam is amazed that manufacturers have been slow to sell bikes that are easily customized by new riders. And that’s despite companies dipping their toes into the scene with sponsorship of custom shows like The Bike Shed Event.

“It’s great what BMW is doing with the R NineT but it’s also a twelve grand bike. It’s a great base for customization but what young kid, just into biking, can afford that? It’s the same with the Yamaha Bolt. Why not do that with smaller-capacity bikes that can be easily modified and will inspire kids to get into bikes?

“I think that’s why classic bikes have become popular among younger riders. They want to get into doing things with their hands: it’s an untapped hunter-gatherer instinct or something. It’s sad that schools have closed engineering workshop classes. Who’s going to do that kind of work if you don’t get introduced to the basics at school?

“People want to get their hands dirty and they’re bored with modern bikes they can’t touch. People want to feel stuff and modern bikes are so unemotional. The old stuff, you feel it, you touch it, and it’s visceral. Yes, old school motorcycles need looking after but that, in itself, adds value. It’s more of an experience riding old bikes. You can feel an old bike throbbing away.

“It’s got life: it keeps you alive.”

A version of this article by Gary Pinchin appeared in Classic Bike Guide. Reproduced with thanks. Images by Damian McFadden, except Hugo Eccles portrait by Erik Jutras.

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An old school BMW built by Untitled Motorcycles.