TALK TO Kevin Brennan about old bikes, and it does not take long before you come to appreciate his passion for carburettors and a naturally aspirated motorcycle engine.
It could be something languishing in a shed, or a barn find; in fact, anything that requires care and attention to detail. From initial sketch to completed design, Hipster Motorcycles can take a timeless classic and transform it into a retro-cool machine or adopt the full restoration route, according to the customer’s needs, which is precisely why the business has grown to become a one-stop custom shop for so many riders, particularly in Lincolnshire..
Kevin’s father, a works engineer, came over from Ireland in 1957. With a love for classic cars, his son grew up around engines. Kevin, however, chose architecture as a career, but having completed a three-year university degree, he concluded that the profession was not for him and instead pursued a career in sales, working for the VKR Group, well known for its Velux windows, blinds and shutters. As part of the marketing and business management team, he was involved in political lobbying in Parliament.
Always at the back of his mind was that burning passion for motorbikes. “Aside from working on my own bikes, I also worked on those for other people, but that had always been on a part-time basis. Whilst I continue to maintain a passion for 70s bikes, particularly the Japanese marques, I went through plenty of different phases. I had a nice Ducati 749, which I sold about three years ago, plus Fireblades and R1s and a BMW GS, which I really enjoyed.
“When someone first starts tinkering with bikes, there is limited scope on what they can achieve, depending on what machinery they have. Electronics sometimes can get in the way and unless you are into engine re-mapping, which I am not, it is difficult to customise to a level that the customer really wants.”
With Japanese bikes such a focus of his attention, Kevin admits to never having much been into British bikes. “Closed shop is a strange term, but this area is extremely well serviced by a lot of talented and knowledgeable people, and I do not profess to be one of those. I think that’s due to the fact that I never grew up around bikes, as my father was never into them. Even today, whilst I do get the odd British bike in the workshop, I do not go out purposefully to attract them, although it is a very valuable sector with a lot of money invested.”
About a decade ago Kevin realised the growing trend amongst younger people looking for something a bit more unique, and the desire to move into more classic styled biking, but with a modern twist, and that is where he began to focus his efforts. He has a penchant for old commuter bikes such as the CB175, a standard bike manufactured by Honda from 1969 to 1973. It had a 174cc (10.6 cu.in.) four-stroke, straight-twin engine with a single overhead camshaft, two valves per cylinder, dual slide-valve carburettors, and dual exhausts. “I probably go through three or four of those a year in terms of restoration,” he says.
“A lot of the time it comes down to having the facility to help people with projects, translating one’s passion for work. I always say every biker is a home mechanic. We like to put our bike on a paddock stand in the garage and clean it and change things, but beyond that it gets into the realms of needing specialist equipment such as bike and tail-lifts, anything really that could make things easier.” Initially having set up shop in Bourne, Lincolnshire, Kevin started to create attention before deciding to move to a unit on Sleaford’s Enterprise Park. Coming up to four years this Christmas since the relocation, he has not looked back since.
“People simply turn up when I open the doors. It doesn’t take a lot of promotion to create a brand locally and really that’s where our focus lies. I believe there is a growing demand for specialist workshops such as ours. Admittedly, there are plenty of motorcycle franchises, dealers and general service garages out there, but not many that try to offer what we do. Generally, the custom scene in the UK has followed that of America with choppers and bobbers, and being very heavily Harley focused. That’s not where we have focused our attention, as we aim more for the younger, slightly trendier hipster market.”
Kevin finds that finances play a crucial part in any restoration project, and a number of customers work on a rolling financial basis. “Customers will advance at the pace of their budget and for me that’s great because they end up with a bike they really want, and it gives them an opportunity to think about design.”
A classic example is a Honda CX500, which has been on a lift for nigh on a year at the shop. Hipster recently took delivery of a set of Ducati upside-down forks for the bike. The owner acquired them secondhand in very good condition, but they still cost £1200. A pair of wheels would come from America and that is a further £2000, so money can roll on very quickly if one is not careful.
Next to the CX500 stands a Kawasaki Zephyr 1100, which had been dragged out of a shed after 20 years. Kevin managed to get it running within a week. It had a factory immobiliser and trying to strip that out was hard work, but having achieved that, he cleaned the carbs and it is now running, although there is more work to be done. The exhaust design has changed three times. The seat has gone from being a twin to a slightly smaller seat to a race seat with a saddle that’s going to be covered with Alcantara, so the design is ever evolving.
“If we take time we can be fluid,” says Kevin. “It is when people make a commitment from day one. For example, the CX500 initally started with the idea of fitting Öhlins monoshocks, but within a year you have got hundreds of people out there following that route, so the owner came back and said he wanted to go dual shock, so we have now started to see how we can re-fabricate the frame to accommodate that. We will then get the owner to sit on the bike because it is a custom bike and has to fit him, his riding style and his size. He is quite tall so we have lifted the frame and the tank, and will lift the whole stance of the bike at the rear end, which will be reflected in the wheels and the rear suspension.
“I believe the biggest investment you can make is at the design stage. However, it is not a financial investment, but one of time. Unfortunately, bikers often come along with an ambition and vision of what they want the bike to look like. It is not until you start cutting and changing things, and they sit on it, that they realise it is not quite what they wanted or where they thought it might go. So, the more time you spend at the design stage the better, because when you start buying in brand new parts it can get very expensive.”
Kevin’s interest in design comes from having studied art and architecture at university. He is happy to invest his time in making sure the customer is happy, and will go through four or five different sketches before they get to understand where the bike is going in terms of the look. “The sort of market we are in does not have 40 grand to spend on a CAD drawing carried out by a company in London, so we have to tailor the work to suit that. Having previously run CAD teams, I appreciate what a great tool it is, although sometimes it can limit flair; it is only as good as the line you put on the drawing and you cannot change it as easily as something that is three dimensional, such as a bike.
“When I do a mock-up of a frame I will use copper tube because it is easier to bend and manipulate, and we can use that to fabricate the design, because sometimes aesthetics are as important to owners as function, if not more so. Most people that have a bike for modernisation or restoration, will normally also have a bike they use daily. One customer has a Ducati Monster that he rides every day, so what they are looking for is something that expresses their personality, and that is exactly what we are trying to achieve for them. I have the luxury of having retired early so I do not have the same financial pressures that other companies have, so all I have to do is cover costs and that then offers me the luxury of time.“Because I want to enjoy my work, I will pick projects that suit me. The customer has to be someone I can work with; someone who understands what I do and why I do it. I will always say to people, I am not going to be the quickest because I want to take the time to get it right. It is not about getting it done and invoiced, but rather the customer going away happy and recommending me, which is the best and least expensive form of advertising.”
One of Kevin’s customers had a 1980 Honda DR 400 that he pulled apart, but by then had exhausted his knowledge, experience and expertise, so instead brought it to Hipster in pieces for Kevin to complete the customisation.
If any painting is required and is relatively small and easy to manage, then Hipster will handle it. Recently a customer brought in a pair of tanks for a Harley-Davidson WLA. The WLA was produced to US Army specifications in the years during and around World War Two and was based on an existing civilian model, the WL, and is of the 45 solo type, so-called due to its 45cu.in. engine displacement and single-rider design.
Kevin often adopts a trial and error approach to his work. “If something does not work out we will pay someone else to do it. We learn every day, and there is a lot of expertise out there one can learn from. I have up to four people that I can call upon to come in and help whenever is necessary. Whilst I use a lot of machinery to move things about, there comes a time when you need two people.”
One of Kevin’s cherished bikes is a 1974 Honda CB350 Twin, a 325.6cu.in. OHC parallel twin cylinder, four-stroke. With its reliable engine and dual Keihin carburettors, it became one of Honda’s best-selling models. “I built it five years ago. It was supposedly a running bike. I rode it round for a couple of months, but it had a lot of problems and a lot of rust. Originally I was going to restore it, but then I wanted to create something more of the style of a 50s or 60s café racer, so I tried to keep as much originality as I could, such as the front drum brake and existing clocks. I put ace bars on it, which was a challenge because the bike runs all of its electrics through the bars. We adapted the frame and went for the café racer seat. It will not run at the moment because it is dry. We took it to a show where it was on display in a marquee, so has no fuel or oil in it. Whilst it has been under wraps since we moved here, occasionally I will show customers what can be done.”
Scooterboys also pop into Hipster, where Kevin has seen about eight going through the workshop in the last couple of years. Hipster has a reputation as the UK’s largest supplier of spares stock for the Capri, a fact recognised by the Capri Scooter Club of Great Britain. Not complex machines, they do possess their peculiarities. The Agrati-Garelli 80cc Capri marque was made famous by the successes of its racing two-strokes in the 1920s. Garelli resumed post-war production with the Mosquito clip-on power unit and before long was producing proper motorcycles once again. In 1958 the firm merged with Agrati, another Italian concern that was already producing the Capri scooter in a range of engine sizes, through 50cc, 70cc, 80cc, 125cc and 150cc. Faced with intense competition from Piaggio and Innocenti in its home market, the Capri was widely exported, the majority being sold abroad.
Kevin managed to acquire a Capri as a project bike. “It is nearly all paint and not a lot else,” he says, tongue-in-cheek. “The engines have very simple electronics and are even simpler because they do not run batteries, so are pretty straightforward to work on.”
I asked Kevin about his passion for Janapese bikes as opposed to UK marques. “In lots of ways Triumph saved the British bike industry by what they produced, and have to be applauded for that. They treated it as a business rather than a passion, and investors will put money into that. So much of the British-built market did not move on. They got hit heavily when the Japanese came in because the bikes were twice as quick, half the weight and twice as reliable. Others have tried and failed for other reasons and that is quite sad to see. When you see brands such as Norton end up in the situation they are in yet again, it is a great shame. It has a good, if not better brand name than Triumph, but it needs to do something different with its business model.
“If you look at a lot of the modern bike manufacturers and what they have done with their range, going down the retro-styled route, that has done a lot of good for them. Of 10 bikers I know, for example, only two are riding sports bikes in the same way they would have a decade ago. The majority are riding something a little bit different now. When I started riding there were less cars on the road. You saw a lot more bikes, and the roads were safer in lots of ways, even if the conditions were not. The volume of traffic was different; the speeds of the bikes that was achievable was different; and the amount of street furniture was different. Today, riding a bike is a dangerous pastime and therefore requires a different mentality. You have to treat it with a greater level of respect than perhaps I would have done when I was younger. The roads are great fun around here, but they are also very dangerous.”
When I mention to Kevin that I very much enjoyed a recent test ride on a new BMW R nineT, he mentioned that a farmer had brought in an older version that had been languishing in a woodshed for 30 years. “When we brought it in here and fired it up, it filled the place with sawdust, despite us previously having blown it off with air before we brought it in! The owner simply wanted it restored to the point where it still looked like a 1974 bike. He wanted it running, useable and reliable that was it.”
Should you fancy having the cobwebs – or sawdust – blown off an old bike and have it tweeked, fully restored or given the retro look, pop min and see Kevin, he is always happy to chat. And say hello to his wife Karen and their lovely Bichon, Bridie, too!
HIPSTER MOTORCYCLES, Unit 19 Pride Court, Enterprise Park, Sleaford NG34 8GL