2014 was a pivotal year for Alec and Rafe of Old Empire Motorcycles. After well and truly finding their feet and carving a unique niche within the custom world it was the turn of the mainstream and peripheral scenes to sit up and take notice. Bulldog and Merlin continued the theme of striving forwards, whilst drawing inspiration from a golden period of engineering prowess where Britain led the way in ingenuity and craftsmanship. This core passion is what motivates the guys to push that bit further with each build, not to wow the crowds but to see what is possible, to test themselves and learn with every project.
Typhoon was one such bike that left nobody in any doubt that OEM should now be considered to be on a different level, capable of demonstrating stunning creativity with peerless execution. The numerous awards for this bike towards the end of the year cemented this as the view of those within the custom scene as well as those driving it. Now, that is quite a lot of smoke to blow up someone’s tailpipe, but there are two of them so extra is required. This bike, The Lightning MK1, was a project unable to command a stratospheric budget and was to use a much customised donor, OEM had their work cut out to ensure 2015 follows on from the dizzying heights of last year.
The standard Yamaha SR500 is hardly a poster bike to adorn a schoolperson’s (have to be PC these days) bedroom wall, but the English Electric Lightning most certainly was. Developed shortly after WW2, the Lightning could travel at Mach 2 and was used to protect the U.K. from bomber strikes during the Cold War. Luckily there wasn’t ever the need to use one in anger, their superior speed and manoeuvrability provided sufficient enough a threat. Light, agile and fast were the usual adjectives used by pilots and therefore part of the brief for this single-pot 500 from 1979.
Twinshocks are the order of the day at the moment but hardly innovative or cutting edge, so these were recycled and the swingarm modified to enable mounting of a Kawasaki ZXR400 monoshock, well an upgraded Hagon version. The oil-in-frame top tube required strengthening as the shock now pivots from the bottom of the spine. A simple chop and loop of the subframe isn’t really sufficient either for OEM’s discerning customers so svelte, curving tubes provide support for the seat before disappearing under the slim tail section.
The forks received similar levels of attention, the stanchions were shortened considerably and re-machined before adding stiffer Hagon springs and a slug of heavyweight oil. The Bendicts mint looking things on the yokes are of course blanking plugs for the old bar mounts, with another pair to tidy the fork caps. Idiot lights have been machined into the yokes allowing less fussy analog gauges to be used, a neat 48mm pair mounted in aerospace style to a multi-tasking headlight bracket. A good rub with Scotch-Brite gives newish switchgear a more vintage look.
The rulebook suggests a straight line is required from the seat to the front of the tank. Alec used this to prop the tank up whilst reworking the tunnel for a more canted forward and aggressive fit. This not only lowers the visual weight at the bottom but creates a fresh opportunity for parallel lines between the cylinder head and tank.
The top of the tank now has a seemingly reduced profile despite it being an externally standard unit. This is turn allows the understated tail section to make a subtle statement without looking out of proportion. The tail lights are of course made in house.
One result of the slammed front end, diminutive headlight surround and fuss-free rear is that the 19″ wheels look taller and dominate the stance, in the same way that a decent sized set of wheels greatly improve the look of a sports car. The rear hub had to be relaced to a matching nineteen to achieve this, a worthwhile effort. Avon’s classically cut Roadrunners seem made for the bike.
The motor was in good order so needed little more than a thorough service, blasting of cases and a fresh coat of paint. The charging system was upgraded to 12v by West Country Windings and an ultra light Shorai Li-Po battery holds the juice.
Black Shuck Custom were called in to carry out the sophisticated and understated paint job, in silver as a nod to the polished all-aluminium, airborne version of The Lightning. The wafer-thin leather seat is the handiwork of GB upholstery which may not offer five hundred mile comfort, but is again, perfectly suited to the lines of the finished bike.
Neighbours, Barleycorn Engineering produced the clipons and rearsets, which from here look rather tasty. As does the stainless steel, big bore exhaust and bespoke muffler. Keeping the licence plate low and to the left ensures that the side of the bike more often on show is dominated by the fine lines and thumping zorst.
Taking a humble SR500, and budget to match, the guys at OEM have demonstrated again that they have the vision. This is an understated build offering engineering improvements over the standard machine without excessive visual fanfare. And perhaps more importantly than all that, even standing still The Lightening looks like it would be a complete hoot to ride; and isn’t that the whole idea.
If you agree then give Alec or Rafe a call to discuss delivery instructions, as this beauty is for sale. Further details over on their website.
Thanks to Ian Jubbs for the fantastic photography and filmwork – video to be released soon. Modelling by Jacob Young