A little practicality in life goes a long way. Back in the good old days no intelligent motorist would dream of embarking on a journey without a basic tool kit and some spare parts, or at least a fair lady for companionship just in case her tights were required to fashion into a temporary fanbelt. Motorcyclists weren’t so different but in today’s stripped-down, clean and hidden custom world even something as tiny as the tiniest of indicators will find itself banished from a build.
Recently the humble tool roll has seen a handcrafted resurgence with talented and creative folk producing often decedent luggage for one’s carefully selected vintage spanners and feeler gauges. Problem is, where do you put such a thing? Skinny fit selvedge denim leaves barely enough room for a man’s own tool, let alone spare ironmongery. Rose tinted spectacle wearers and builders of fine machines inspired by a purer time, Alec & Rafe of Old Empire Motorcycles teamed up with fellow British maker, ODFU Clothing to produce a simple, low capacity commuter with a modicum of practicality sewn in.
Both OEM and ODFU prefer a clean, balanced look with subtle changes leaving the eye uninterrupted from taking in the workmanship on display. A Suzuki GN400 from 1980 was selected as the donor, air cooled simplicity with enough welly to raise a smile. First things first, the motor was given a thorough check over, service and a blackening of the barrel and head. Scotched engine cases suggest an earlier vintage at a glance, Japanese silver paint from that era seemed to have cheapness particles stirred into it, so good riddance. A blasted and refurbed carb draws breath through a K&N and the single slash-cut exhaust supplies the soundtrack.
Factory handlebars and clamps are rarely an attractive fair on these bikes, so Alec machined ally plugs to deal with the void left in the yokes by relocating the handmade clipons. Whilst on the lathe simple warning lights were turned and mounted either side of the electronic speedo, combining old fashioned necessity with low profile, modern tech.
Discreet fairings are seeing a return, again practical. OK, so perhaps in this instance a passing wasp might be deflected into your chest rather than stomach but the wiring behind is kept hidden and the eye is introduced more gently to the top line of the bike. Crikey, that sounds pretentious, but slightly old fashioned so it stays.
One thing Alec does really well is achieve that big wheel look, a sure fire way of making any vehicle look more purposeful. Slamming the forks can leave a fuel tank looking Quasimodo’s rucksack so Alec turns his attention to the underside of the tunnel allowing a much closer fit to the frame’s backbone, and as near to the headstock as the steering angle allows. Not only does this look low and lean, but the bone line ends up being dead-flat and in profile and you can draw a shallow, imaginary arc from the front tyre, over the tank and down the back wheel. I blame Chris at BikeExif for sharing Charlie Trelogan’s Guide to Building a Café Racer, my retinas now sit behind grids, angles and swooping lines. Whatever your take on aesthetic perfection, wheels looking big is a good thing.
In this instance the hoops are only 18-inchers, with vintage-patteren Dunlop K70s for grip. The Osprey is intended for solo expeditions so a chunk of tube was trimmed from the rear and looped back around, with a neatly curved tail incorporating the now obligatory invisible stop light. Under the seat a bantamweight Shorai battery powers a brand new wiring loom, upgraded to 12v to give the Bates headlight a fighting chance of piercing a grey British morning.
It’s a shame that legislators insist on motorcycles having to wear such huge number plates in this day and age, speed cameras can probably read your jean size at 40mph let alone the digits on a giant yellow airbrake. Alec deals with this bureaucratic carbuncle by positioning it as close to the kerb as possible, and shrinking it slightly of course. “It’s a vintage motorcycle officer, ahem”.
Kevin Wilson of ODFU (one down, four up) is a bike guy through and through but his craft is from the more gentile end of the custom scene as they produce hand-printed clothing to their own designs. For this collaborative bike cotton wasn’t going to cut it so Kevin worked out patterns to be incorporated into the Osprey’s frame, taking the place of the original side panels and battery/airbox. The thick leather tool rolls are hand-dyed and riveted, complete with their pre-loved contents looking as if they were liberated from a pre-war Indian rather than produced a few weeks ago. Buckled straps allow for easy removal, not just practical but and unfortunate necessity given the blight of light fingered scroatbags that infiltrate all corners of society. Enough leather was treated to upholster the seat, after all, a gentleman always prefers his ride to have matching collars and cuffs.
Before anyone gets their bloomers in a twist, this bike has been designed with style in mind. So yes, ugly suspension travel has been sidelined in favour of an aggressive stance. The Osprey doesn’t ask to be pinned in 4th across the nearest whoop section and Britain’s decrepit roads wouldn’t be that much more enjoyable on a CRF450 so Kevin will ride accordingly. Added to that, Alec has reengineered the fork internals to make sure what suspension there is available is a plush as possible.
There’s good reason why OEM’s bikes receive such accolade and plaudits, they look purposeful, well made and are produced by young guys using techniques more of us wish we could master. Keeping trades, traditions and crafts alive from a time when things were made to be as good as possible rather than as cheap as one can get away with is surely only a good thing.
I’ll give the last word to Alec; “Although not one of our most elaborate builds to date, everyone in the shop agreed the Osprey is possibly the best balanced motorcycle we have built to date concerning form and function. It showcases all the details that both OEM and ODFU care so much about, along with purpose of two small British brands working together to create something a little special”.