Death Machines of London - Airforce
By Ross Sharp - 15 Jan 18
"Countach!!" Seeing as Lamborghini laid claim to the use of that expression some years ago I went with the cruder yet similar Holy shit, that's nice! The first words I uttered when Death Machines of London unloaded this work of art at last summer's Bike Shed London 2017 show. DMOL aren't the shy and retiring types and have been pushing themselves with each build, and not little pushes either but giant shoves. The Airtail was gorgeous, Up Yours Copper a fusion of radical and finesse but this latest, Airforce, is on another level. Built in homage to Giovanni Ravelli, a WW1 fighter pilot, motorcycle racer and co-founder of Moto Guzzi, this project was inspired by the biplanes and futurist movies of his era and officially released yesterday as a celebration of his birthday. Motivated by the mantra of "what would Giovanni do?" the DMOL team burnt huge quantities of midnight oil to meet the May Bank Holiday deadline but in doing so have, in just two years, cemented themselves as one of the UK's standout custom workshops. So, what went into making such a jaw dropping machine? Well, this could take a while. Pop the kettle on. The donor is a 1982 Moto Guzzi Le Mans MKII which had languished in southern Italy after an altercation with a truck. Handily one of DMOL's crew, Max Vanoni, makes regular trips back to his homeland and returned the sun faded and sorry stead back to their Greenwich HQ. After a thorough inspection the engine was found to be in fine fettle but completely overhauled anyway. The cases, barrels and block have been vapour blasted and left unpainted or finished to match the forthcoming raw aluminium bodywork. Cylinder heads have been ported and polished to a proven spec used not only on the Airtail Guzzi build but also on a host of Italian exotica that frequents DMOL's base at the renowned Ray Petty Meccanica. 36mm pumper Dell’Orto carbs breathe through stunning aluminium CNC machined velocity stacks and feature DMOL's signature custom brass mesh filtration. A clean sweep of stainless exhaust header pipes disappear into the belly pan, exiting unencumbered by silencing at the rear.
Tonti frames are so close to perfect that they're rarely messed with but the Airforce needed a fast stance to suit its rakish looks so the headstock was removed and a new one machined and grafted-in at a slightly slacker angle. Increased three degrees to 30 the silhouette now easily achieves the 100mph standing still look. The rest of the frame was de-tabbed and smoothed but the original swingarm is superseded by a modified one from a Guzzi California. This has been braced to provide a monoshock mounting for the bespoke, mirror polished Hagon spring/damper unit. A special 'Airforce grey' paint was mixed for the frame, swingarm and front rim to reflect the classic aviation inspiration.
Finding a clean looking USD fork was imperative to achieving a cohesive and balanced aesthetic. A chunky set-up from something fast and modern would have overweighted the front, visually. Instead, a slender pair of legs from an Aprilia RS250 have been used, although with uprated springs and valving to cope with the Guzzi's extra weight. Solid steel discs designed and manufactured in-house especially for the project are gripped by Brembo four-pot calipers but not actuated in usual way. An RCS master cylinder is mounted out of sight and operated by cable from the utterly gorgeous inverse levers.
Not just any levers either. No, these barend pivoting versions even have their own product code IN01 as they'll soon be available as an aftermarket component for the discerning and ambitious customiser. The grips and throttle sleeve though are one offs, lightly knurled on the lathe. Throttle actuation happens internally via one of the cables mounted to the inboard end of the clipon handlebar. Footpegs and the paddock stand mounts are also an in-house job but the Stucchi gear shift linkage is off someone else's shelf, modified of course.
The wheels needed to play their part in the illusion of stationary speed so aluminium 21 x 3.00 rims are laced to California hubs. The rear is cloaked by a thin, aluminium spinning, produced using the same process as manufacturing drum cymbals. An absence of a rear brake is intentional, the hub capped-off by an engraved plate. It'll be a brave pilot who's given the keys to such a machine and thankfully form has overruled function on this occasion. Moaning from keyboard warriors on this matter is like suggesting Mona Lisa should have had bigger knockers - pointless. Period Firestone tyres sport the bare minimum of grooves and look the part.
I used the word key, how silly me. Of course Airforce doesn't have a key. DMOL figured that if Ravelli had made it to his 130th birthday yesterday he'd be a fan of the Foo Fighters, a band named after equally brave aviators. So, a guitar jack plug destined for a Marshall amplifier was modified to incorporate a proximity sensor and when inserted under the seat mobilises the ignition circuit. Neat! Motogadget's M-unit lives at the heart of a minimal harness but with so little wiring visible you'd swear the bike was just a show piece. But trust me, those slash cut pipes don't lie, that 850cc twin sounds glorious.
Bolting on a Bates rear light wasn't exactly going to cut the mustard so a light unit had to fabricated, from scratch. The housing is aluminium and slots near seamlessly into the tail. Inside Perspex strips refract light from a small array of bright, but not overly so, red LEDs. A single xenon projector headlight provides both a high and low beam of crisp white light, it's diminutive proportions perfectly complimenting the flowing shape of the front fairing. The hue is matched by the dimmable glow that surrounds the custom velocity indication instrument. Speedo just seems to dull a word for a component of such beauty. An etched nickel, silver and brass plate sits atop the mechanism and is mounted in a conical aluminium binnacle.
And about that aluminium. The decision from the outset not to paint the bodywork left the DMOL crew nowhere to hide. Using the traditional technique of forming the aluminium sheets over wooden bucks was the only way to go. The painstaking process of annealing, beating, rolling, welding, sanding and hammering the metal into the intricate and svelte shapes took weeks. In fact the whole bike took 112 days to produce. Despite these near computer render quality photographs the aim was for the completed bike to look and feel handmade, tiny witness marks from hammers and rasps evidence of the toil. Every surface has been hand finished with gradual grades of Scotchbrite which looks fantastic up close. Subtle, hand-stiched Italian leather running along the centreline of the fuel tank, down to a wafer thin seat pad the only break in texture. Apart from the concave nose section of the fuel tank which has been mirror polished to reflect the inside of the front fairing which has a high gloss paint finish. Perhaps the guys should rename their outfit Detail Machines of London.
The belly-pan is double skinned provided a separate route for the slash-cut exhausts making for a lovely aeronautical detail. This part differs slightly from the piece exhibited at Tobacco Dock. Not 100% happy doesn't compute in DMOL's world so it had to be remade, hence the delay in finally photographing this wonderful machine. The levers too, they needed remaking to achieve the horology levels of finish you now see here (to be fair the pair fitted during the show were pretty damn nice too).
But perhaps the best part of this story is that Airforce is, as of yesterday, on display at our Shoreditch HQ where, as long as your hands remain in your pockets, you'll be able to see all that detail for yourself - provided you're planning to be in London over the next couple of weeks.
There is one problem with this bike though. It's now January and we're wondering how on earth DMOL are going to be able to top this at Bike Shed London 2018.
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Previous DMOL builds on the Bike Shed Archive
Photography by Ivo Ivanov
About Giovanni Ravelli
14 January 1887 - 11 August 1919
Ravelli and Carlo Guzzi served together as pilots in the Italian Air Corps during WW1, where they met mechanic Giorgio Parodi and discovered they shared a common passion: motorcycles. They then decided they would start building them together. Unfortunately Ravelli was killed in a test flight accident and never officially joined the company. So, to pay tribute to him they set the Airman Eagle as the centrepiece of the logo of their new company, Moto Guzzi.