Old Empire Motorcycles are famous for adhering to a classical style and embracing a period in transportation engineering history where the quest for perfection and improvement outweighed the pressure of fiscal efficiency and time constraints. Problem is with such noble aspirations is that in today’s ever changing world the bank manager doesn’t care whether something is artisanally crafted in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. He wants you to have produced x units in y time in exchange for a massive ROI.
Alec & Rafe didn’t set up OEM to follow the herd but there have been compromises in order to maintain their heralded heritage aesthetic. To save the laborious process of repairing old, worn out bikes before they get down to the real work they’re now opting to carry out their radical transformations on brand new donors, allowing budget to be funnelled into the making their mark, rather than sinking funds into making old engines and transmissions sort of new.
An enquiry hit the OEM inbox requesting a build similar to the GN400 based ODFU Osprey but with shiny new mechanicals. With Euro 4 emissions regs encroaching on the motorcycle industry nearly all manufactures have abandoned production of large capacity air cooled singles. Thankfully Yamaha have their retro heads screwed on and are dragging their SR400 kicking and screaming into modern times, even if it is strangled of any useful performance – in standard trim at least. Uncorking the potential within is fairly simple.
First job as always was to bin the buearacrat friendly and style deficient carbuncles that adorn new bikes, leaving a decent looking engine and rolling chassis for Alec and Rafe to decorate. But a superficial tart-up job isn’t what OEM pride themselves on, stance is one of their main areas of expertise.
Alec explains “To get ‘the stance’ the forks were shaved and lowered by an aggressive 3 inches which we have learned should not be done without first modding the yokes. Our first set of 3D machined upper and lower yokes we created specifically for this project with a 1 inch offset top and bottom to keep the fork travel sensible and help us get that all important boneline. After looking around for suitable bars, we ended up in the same position of not particular liking anything available so it was back to the Post-It Notes and crayons to sketch up some suitable examples. Made in 3 parts they are fully adjustable and the bars are screwed into position then locked off, the idea being to imitate the ‘sleeved’ and brazed bars of old. We think they look pretty good.” Pretty good, I think they look rather excellent.
The fuel tanks on OEM builds rarely escape the grinder either. To achieve a low and lean top line the internal tunnel has been modified to lower the whole vessel, just to the point where it matches the subframe angle. Alec is one of those perfectionist types who’ll spend an absolute age working on something that you may not even notice, until he points it out. But once he has you wonder why the manufacturer didn’t think of it in the first place. Some tanks on pervious bikes seem to hover impossibly. Any old fuel cap wouldn’t cut the mustard so an Old Empire CNC machined version keeps petrol from spoiling the meticulous paint job by Black Shuck Kustoms. Jaguar E-type Opalescent Gunmetal if you want to copy. Good luck though, the airbrushing and pinstripes are a BSK forte.
Yamaha might have saved some coin by dredging up an old model and merely swapping the carb for a polar bear placating EFi system and ECU but they certainly didn’t blow their beans on sexy switches. OEM could have ordered some micro push buttons from the eBay and had their chum Will from London Motorcycle Wiring do the business on a super neat install. But where’s the stress and late nights in that? Not the OEM way.
Instead, Alec and Rafe set about designing a modern housing to incorporate modern buttons but to the brief that the whole lot needed to look old. CAD drawings, a pallet full of aluminium billet later and here you have some rather tasty switchgear. Capped-off by laser cut leather ringlet grips and machined end caps. All available on the Old Empire website. Ah, no. Far too easy. The boys have set up another company specialising in exquisitely engineered and decadent accoutrements for the classically discerning. If you’re the tight, miser type who loves a bargain perhaps run along and put the kettle on. If splashing out on unnecessary but very desirable things floats your boat, check out the Old Empire Trading Company.
Jesting aside, there is a serious reason behind the decision to offer an OEM flavour without having to order a bike. Not everyone has twenty squillion pounds to spend on a one-off, totally bespoke custom motorcycle. Whether it’s OEM or any other builder the maths are simple. Shiny parts + loads of time = a chunky invoice. Now, chunky to one person is a bargain to another but to achieve the standards people have come to expect from today’s pro-builders either you need to be a seriously talented DIY-er with loads of equipment or accept that quality costs money. Plus the fact that these creative types like a free reign to explore the far reaches of their skillset. If you just want a bike exactly like thingumybob’s one, go do it yourself and add some fancy parts at the end.
If you are lucky enough to posses the proficiency and patience to build a decent bike the option is now there to add a touch of class with some of these retro-fit parts.
Before all of these embellishments could make int onto the Snipe there was a heck of a lot more fabrication work to do. Another area in which OEM bikes excel, partly thanks to the talented hands of Will Valentine of the aforementioned London Motorcycle Wiring company. When not elbows deep in leccy spaghetti Will can be found pounding away in the metal room and rolling wonderful curves on the English Wheel. He has various techniques for ensuring symmetry and even radii but the real skill is coordinating hand, eye and the imaginary image of the finished product. Will manages this with quite some aplomb after years of making fuel tanks, tails, fairings and almost any bodywork; usually from aluminium.
The resulting café humped tail section is removable, revealing a modest pillion and beneath. It’s all well and good using a new donor but if you go and engineer-out all the practicality the customer isn’t going to be totally satisfied. I’ve seen this bike up close and this compromise is very well executed. Four fasteners along the sides negate the need for an overly complicated secret fixing. Ah, wrong again. Lift the seat up entirely and a couple of days of Will’s life are nestled alongside his desire to live. Bunch of perfectionists, the lot of them.
Fuel Injection might sound fancy but unless it’s a mechanically fed, foot-long velocity stack on a 1970s Can-Am race car there’s a good chance it will look shit. Will made an aluminium side panel, Black Shuck painted it, now you can’t see the fiddly bits.
Airboxes are also unsightly but arguably necessary. Some whizkid engineer somewhere in Iwata was paid good money to tell his fluid dynamics software how to make the perfect airbox for that particular engine. Rather than mess with that the guys went old school. They machined a wooden buck and pressed thick bridal leather over it to form side satchels. These cover the black plastic nicely and not only add additional practicality but also help visually balance out the low and streamlined profile. An empty rear triangle might have been all the rage last year but the Snipe looks balanced and perhaps beefier than its displacement might suggest.
The front cowl might look fairly simple but if you shine a light through the tinted screen you’ll see a salty residue from Will’s last remaining drops of sweat. When Alec, Rafe and Will brought the Snipe down to our Shoreditch HQ for the bike’s launch night I had to have a poke around. I was trying to work out how the nose section was all mounted, Will’s blood was still effervescing so I thought it best to talk about the weather instead. Suffice to say that the Bates headlight is held in by fabrication magic and Tourettes. In a good way.
All of this craftsmanship warranted an upgrade in performance at the very least. An open exhaust was imperative and kept simple. A short stainless pipe with minimal baffling hugs the engine and truncates in line with the rear of the cases. It’s loud but doesn’t visually dominate.
Apparently I’m wrong about the airbox designer, the intake tracts have been binned and the lid drilled to encourage better flow. Local dyno and rolling road wizards X Bikes were given the task of trying to find the spare ponies that Yamaha had let loose in order to pass emissions regs. A Power Commander bypasses the fun police ECU and the recirculators and restrictors have been removed. OK so our friend the polar bear is going to be pissed but the Snipe now performs as a 400 single should with a crisp throttle response and a healthy surge of power.
Reigning in the extra poke is a Harrison floating brake disc and machined brake caliper. The fins probably only shed a few degrees but they look racy. Modern tread patterns can’t be found in the tracks around the OEM HQ. These Dunlop K70s are more than up to the task and wipe the years off the 2015 donor. Seeing as the forks had received so much attention replacement shocks were needed. K-Tech are a British company managing to squeeze proper tech into a range of classic suspension components, leaving garish and gaudy coatings where they belong – on the eBay. The Bullit shocks are nitrogen filled and self-adjusting, without the requirement of a large external spring. How that works I’m not sure but mounted upside down they match the cerakoted fork legs and apparently perform really well.
Old Empire Motorcycles seem to have come of age since weening themselves off the addiction to making worn out stuff like new before making it look ancient again. The fit and finish is every bit as good as the other top level outfits riding the custom wave and the guys have stuck to their aesthetic code to produce yet another striking motorcycle that would look as good on a giant mantle piece as it would at full tilt around a sweeping country lane. Well done chaps, a splendid job. Again.
To order parts and merchandise click here