Courtesy of The Petersen Automotive Museum

The "Custom Revolution" Is An Amazing Motorcycle Exhibition

Check out the Petersen Museum’s impressive display

It's an aggressive claim we've made at the ­Petersen Museum—that what's happened in the motorcycle scene in the past 10 years amounts to a revolution—but there's no denying that the custom world has been turned upside down, taking the motorcycle industry with it. Thanks to a nudge from Gordon McCall of the Quail Motorcycle Gathering, the Petersen approached me in mid-December 2017 with an idea for a "handmade motorcycle exhibit featuring LA builders." It was a solid concept given the number of apex motorcycle customizers in the area—Shinya Kimura, Max Hazan, Ian Barry, Go Takamine, etc. The Petersen wanted an opening date of March 1, and despite that impossible timeline, when I tossed that idea to my team at the Vintagent and the Motorcycle Arts Foundation, they bit hard.

Since its 2015 transformation into a vortex of wheeled awesomeness, the Petersen Automotive Museum is perhaps the only properly curated vehicle museum in the world—meaning the bulk of its space is devoted to rotating exhibitions, with a bit of scholarship behind them. While a few motoring museums rotate their stock, most don't, becoming dusty parking garages with crap sightlines and no explanatory context. Motorcycle museums are the worst of all (there, I said it; forgive me friends with museums, but you really need to up your game). To be asked inside this esteemed institution as the first guest curator and the first outside team to organize the catalog, graphics, title cards, and exhibit design was quite an honor. We ran with the original pitch, asking for more time, a bigger budget, and global reach. Bryan Stevens, the Petersens' director of exhibitions, liked the idea, and the concept developed into the first museum exhibit of the worldwide "alternative-custom" scene that exploded with the "Bike EXIF generation" in the 2000s.

Salt-flats racer
Vaporware rock star Doruk Erdem inspired Bonneville fabricator Mark Atkinson to transform a compelling computer study into an actual salt-flats racer.Courtesy of The Petersen Automotive Museum

With that expanded brief came the name: Custom Revolution, because the custom-motorcycle world has completely changed in style and substance over the past 10 years. While custom motorcycles have been around 100 years, their relevance to the motorcycle industry has waxed and waned in parallel with their popularity. Today's scene is incredibly popular around the world in a way we haven't experienced since the 1970s, with a similar explosion of creativity: the shows (Wheels and Waves, Handbuilt, Art and Wheels, etc.), magazines and websites (too many to count), books (The Ride — Gestalten, in two editions, etc.), clothing, films, cafes, and on and on. It's a booming situation that OEM factories noticed years ago as a possible escape hatch from the doldrums they'd been sinking into since 2008. By hooking up with young builders and their fans, and stealing a bit of the scene's mojo, several factories created their biggest-selling models. BMW hired Roland Sands to design an R90S homage using its unreleased R9T model, and became a major sponsor of Wheels and Waves. The deluge began; Ducati followed suit, as did Yamaha, Triumph, and Harley-Davidson.

BMW Alpha
With no construction details, it took tremendous builder skill, and a thousand design decisions, to transform Erdem’s social-media sketch into an accurate and functional reality, and all credit goes to the man with the hammer: Mark Atkinson’s BMW Alpha is beautifully built and totally awesome.Courtesy of The Petersen Automotive Museum

The big factories have all sponsored young customizers by giving them bikes and a little cash to create something a corporate design team couldn’t, in effect outsourcing design and generating PR by leveraging the builders’ indie cool. And, being young/broke motorcycle customizers, the offer of $10,000 to $20,000 to do what you love but for a corporate sponsor, is irresistibly tempting. I’ve heard a few regrets from small shops after the baby is delivered to the show circuit, and their name is attached with some degree of embarrassment. Then again, other more-established builders have no trouble collaborating with the big boys. Without this mingling of unregulated creativity with commercial savvy, we’d never have the Ducati Scrambler, the BMW R9T, the Triumph Thruxton or Bobber, or the Royal Enfield Continental GT, all of which have become the lifeblood of their respective brands.

The idea for the Custom Revolution exhibit dates back nearly 10 years during second-mezcal discussions with Ian Barry, when Falcon Motorcycles was making its first big splash, appearing on the cover of the LA Times magazine and winning awards. I’d met Shinya Kimura in 2006 at the Legends of the Motorcycle Concours in Half Moon Bay, and his Needle (2005) blew my mind; it’s a totally hand-hewn masterpiece, simultaneously artless and ­exceptionally skilled in execution, with lots of rough edges—wabi-sabi. Shinya’s work had an entirely fresh perspective, and it sat on the lawn at the Ritz-Carlton surrounded by custom bikes in the then-dominant style, based mostly on oversize S&S V-twin motors, with fat rear tires, tons of chrome, and gauche paint schemes. The Needle sat there quietly, like the stone destined to fell Goliath.

White phantom
Dirk Oehlerking’s amazing “White Phantom” started life as a 1986 BMW R80RT, but via the magic of his Kingston Custom shop in Heidelberg, the ugly stepsister was transformed into Cinderella. The Phantom’s body pushes all the best custom-bike buttons, modern and vintage, while the brass details and intake/exhaust ports are killer.Courtesy of The Petersen Automotive Museum

The Legends Concours is where I later met Ian ­Barry, Vincent Prat (Wheels and Waves), and artist Conrad Leach, and it was clear to all of us we were witnessing the birth of new movement. My spidey-sense said it would be huge. I started the Vintagent that year, and in 2007, some guy from Australia named Chris Hunter, with a “fixie” bicycle blog, contacted me for advice on switching to a custom-motorcycle site concentrating on this new scene. I encouraged him with the caveat that a daily blog is a two-headed beast; regular content attracts a lot of attention, but finding good work to feature daily would be tough. Both proved to be true, but with time, the popularity of Bike EXIF (and other great blogs such as Pipeburn) overwhelmed unfortunate trends (pipe wrap and Fire-stones), and stoked an enormous, global alt-custom scene.

In 2009, the scene was still small, and the idea I kicked around with Ian Barry was a three-person exhibit at an art museum, featuring the work of Ian, Shinya, and legendary Japanese builder Chicara Nagata. They were the first people I approached for Custom Revolution, and while Chicara’s health wouldn’t permit his participation in the show, Shinya Kimura is the only builder with two bikes on display, and Ian Barry ended up designing the physical layout of the show in a difficult space, including the three creatively suspended bikes.

The Petersen Museum had three important ­conditions for the choice of our machines: They had to be high-quality, appeal to the non-motorcyclists who make up the bulk of its visitors, and be within a fixed budget of $40,000. The limited budget meant only a few bikes could be imported, but with a little help from BMW, we included builders from around the world, including Indonesia’s Thrive MC, Vietnam’s Bandit9, Spain’s El Solitario, Japan’s Heiwa MC, and Germany’s Ehinger Kraftrad, Kingston Custom, and Krautmotors. In all, we have 26 machines, with 22 or 23 on display at all times.

Uwe Ehinger
Uwe Ehinger uses software skills developed in the automotive and CG industries to 3D-model his mix-and-match engines, laying out the geometries virtually, and calculating stresses on ‘running’ motors.Courtesy of The Petersen Automotive Museum

It’s a diverse survey of the best of what’s ­happening, with bikes based on 17 different brands, including three electric bikes (Alta, Mission Motors, and BMW), modified in every style. I think the Petersen got its wow factor; the bikes are all fascinating, beautiful, jaw-­dropping, and occasionally strange. Combined with Ian’s layout and Nico Sclater’s (Ornamental Conifer) wall graphics, it’s a motorcycle exhibit the likes of which you’ve not seen since the Art of the Motorcycle show at the Guggenheim in 1998.

Oishi Yoshio
Proof of concept for a radical custom design rarely means racetrack success, but Ronin Motorworks put it all on the table with this bike, a one-off racer dubbed “Oishi Yoshio,” after the leader of the legendary 47 samurai.Courtesy of The Petersen Automotive Museum

The world needs more museum exhibits about ­motorcycles. It’s been 20 years since the Art of the Motorcycle rocked the world, giving bikes a new sheen of respectability. A single show at a respected art museum impacted motorcycling in a thousand ways, almost all for good—it also sent vintage-bike prices through the roof. Regardless, it’s time for more shows. To that end, Sasha Tcherevkoff, Corinna Mantlo, and I founded a nonprofit —the Motorcycle Arts Foundation—to create exhibits like Custom Revolution, and support/promote the arts on two wheels. The Petersen exhibit was our first effort; its success reinforces that we’re on the right path.