last week i saw an ad for a suzuki gs550, which is the former standard for 1980s malaysian police motorcycles. the bike in the ad still had the paint job and gear of a police moto. the inner voice sitting next to me hated how it looked, but imagine the chips theme song going off in my head. it could be possible that i spent a few moments considering the use of the bike's police lights in KL traffic and i might have re-imagined a pre-teen fantasy of helping ponch and john during a chase.
given there are few in country who could recognize the chips fantasy ride in action, i thought i was safe from an immediate need to modify the bike, but the desire to do it was still there. so if i wanted to do this the next step was to find a builder who would be able to help me get it to the modernized cafe vision. there is a emerging cafe racer community, and there are custom builders beginning to pop up, supporting conversions and rallys.
the first place i dropped into was is an american chopper boutique in bangsar. they sell harleys as the primary business, but allegedly also do service. their website promised full service maintenance and rebuilds. the shop is on a street i slip down a few times a week, but i have never seen any activity. the place normally looks closed; i have only seen people moving around outside once or twice. but i decided to start here, they are the most convenient location and being in bangsar i assumed would be expat easy.
the shop was dead quiet when i walked in. it was clean, spacious and well polished, with 6 or 8 new harleys parked around the show room in a dark and calming environment that was more art gallery than motorcycle shop. there were guys hidden in back, we had a good conversation and they know their stuff about motorcycles. but they have no history of building a custom bike. there were no cafe bikes in the shop and none of them ride one. they knew the theory behind the project, but were focused on explaining to me that "sometimes shit happens". this was clearly a warning that the project could be longer and more expensive than the estimate. malaysian pace meets expat target, i learned these lessons years ago when i built the office. i fully understood the between the lines reality.
the process they suggested was that once i purchased a bike we would make sure it runs and from there the conversion would be 3 - 4 months with a rough-estimate cost of 15 thousand RM. when i challenged the time, i was told that once we have all the parts together it would be at least a month to put them together and maybe some work following that to shake things out. i left the gallery with a mental picture of 4 - 6 months and 20 - 30K RM as the cost. added to the cost of the bike, my expat easy gallery would deliver me a ride in time for merdeka with a probable cost of 40K RM (13K USD).
the next option was to try to dip into the more localized solutions. rather than going expat easy, i would need to move toward a malaysian solution. a similar cultural revolution that drove the british cafe racer culture in the 1960s is happening in malaysia now. people are embracing the freedoms of speed and individuality. middle-class locals cannot afford triumphs that cost 3 times what they do in the US. the desire to ride something more than the average 125cc scooters is there, and old bikes rebuilt and customized for individuality is the solution. even if i can afford the higher price, i am not going to pay it. this is what has driven me in the this direction, so it must be time to go there.
google maps and a sense of direction led me into an area of KL i have never been. kampung pandan is behind embassy land but not quite as far as ampang. finding the shop was surprisingly easy, maybe i am just getting better at working with less than complete information. the hardest part of the adventure was squeezing my car down the road in front of the shoplots. seconds after smashing my side mirror against another cars with a loud shock of attention, i saw the shop with greasy guys lingering outside.
the rest was amazing easy. the shop was jammed with people and bikes. it is considerably less polished than the bangsar art gallery; clearly a work space rather than show room. i counted at least 9 project bikes in various states of construction. bikes of all shapes and sizes in the process of conversion to cafe trim. custom seats and bars being fabricated in the open proved that there is a culture of conversion in the shop. the owner is a former lawyer who clearly loves cafe, he pointed to his personal ride that had a new seat being bolted on. he was open that he is not a mechanic, but introduced me to the american kid he has working for him to assist with the build process. if the bangsar shop was a motorcycle version of datin louis vuitton shop, this shop was more borneo ink with metal.
i felt at home almost immediately. sam and i chatted about what they do, and how they work. he told me he had a stream of bikes to source from. if i wanted i could put half down and in a week he would have a bike for me. if i wanted that one i could sign up and we could begin the build, otherwise the shop would keep it and he would find another. he shared that his standard customer is very price conscious, so some of the things i was asking for could be done but for a price above the 1.5K RM he would normally charge. all in i am estimating 15K for the bike and the build, he said one month, i am fine with two if that's where we end up. anything short of 4 will be a major victory.
both of these shops have only been around for only a few years. the one in bangsar is old malaysia; they are focused on expats and upper class older riders. the kampung shop is new malaysia; focused on the younger crowds who are in the process of moving upwards. they have to build because we can not buy. the crazy import fees need to be avoided, they can get former police motorcycles and convert them to something fun and cool, rather than just purchasing something, to be shown like a branded hand bag, they are building something unique and personal. welcome to the rocker culture.
i rode the brat over to kampung this morning to give them the downpayment on the project bike. i should be able to go back next weekend and see the bike. the process has begun. i am happy to support this business and the cultural shift it represents. i know what i will be doing on weekends for the next couple of months. i will balik kampung to help the guys create my vintage motorcycle. i know exactly what i want. i can picture it, and can't wait to do a ton.
vintage hip, cafe cool; rocker culture over louis vuitton for sure.