“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” – Hunter S. Thompson
The first time I saw Ben was at Bushwacked 2013 – a custom bike show and party organised by HairyBush Bike Builders in aid of the teenage cancer trust and held in Staffordshire, GB. The posters boasted of a weekend of “bikes, beer, bands, camping, food, trade stalls, kids entertainment, prize giving and all the usual stuff.” How could I pass up on such an event!? Ben is the founder of HairyBush Bike Builders – specialists in building cruisers, choppers and other custom motorcycles, including quality custom parts and artwork. Ben is an experienced Fabricator and Machinist. He also insists that he is merely a part of what makes up HairyBush Bike Builders. This motley crew of motorcycle enthusiasts are talented, intriguing, peculiar and above all, authentic. After seeing them in their natural habitat at Bushwacked, surrounded by beer, bikes and good friends, it was immediately clear to me that in a world of pale imitation, HairyBush are the real deal.
The second time I saw Ben was a year later at a charity ride out consisting of 200+ bikes. Sitting astride his massive red custom chop and accompanied by ‘Beard’ on his old shovelhead, they appeared to embody what being a biker meant for me – and I mean a biker in the true sense of the word; a biker that is seldom portrayed in any movie, book or TV show. With a complete absence of ego, existing in moments, road-worn and eternally searching for a good time, the guys at HairyBush struck me as free spirits, bonded by their love of moving through open spaces on two wheels together. I imagine they’ll be laughing aloud at this over-sentimentality of who they are as they read this but from the outside looking in, this is how I perceived them on a personal level.
When I decided to interview HairyBush Bike Builders I didn’t know what to expect, or even what to say. These were people I had seen about a few times but never actually spoken to. We’d been to a few of the same events but I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. Would they even respond?
The only thing that’s different about us and other bike builders is that I don’t really give a toss if I make any money.
Sometimes it can be difficult to get through to such a tight-knit group of individuals, who have managed to nurture and protect such a unique individuality through keeping the circle largely closed; an individuality that is hard-earned from a dedicated life on the fringe. Despite my insecurities, I tentatively drafted an email and clicked send. The next day I got an email back a short friendly email that read “Yeh sure anything you need, thanks for supporting bushwacked .x Ben”
The conversation that followed gave me a tiny glimpse into that rare subculture we all wish we belonged to – those rare few who fearlessly strive for the visceral and real and prioritise living life over making a living. They make no compromises and answer only unto themselves. And Kate. They answer unto Kate.
As we talked, the strong identities that made up this group began to shine through and when I asked Ben exactly who the people that made up HairyBush Bike Builders were, this is exactly what he told me:
Mo the hippy – “He helps me in the workshop and I’ve known him since we were kids. He is truly a great influence to have around you. He’s a hippie, he only eats one meal a day and that meal consists of vegetables. (But sometimes he eats for hours. I’m not kidding, you should see it. Fuck knows where he puts it!)” Mo lives in a campervan, he doesn’t want a house. He cycles everywhere – he even cycled to India once. Yes, ACTUAL India. From here! He’s written a book, and he’s a fantastic artist… and he travels to the Netherlands every now and then to be injected with Kambo tree frog poison – a traditional Shamanic substance that is used to strengthen and heal mind, body and spirit.”
Cakey – “He’s a former customer that just stayed around and has been involved with everything ever since. We’ve been on many adventures! He totally lives life and I very much admire him for it. He’s usually heard saying “go on, do it/buy it. You’re only here once!”
Kate – “She’s a bulldog/mother hen that stops us breaking too many laws.”
Beard – “He’s a lovable fucktard. He’s ginger, rides an old shovelhead and he lives on a narrow boat. We take the piss a lot -but he just won’t fuck off!”
How long have you been riding bikes?
“I’ve been riding bikes since I was 16. I first learned on a ‘tuned’ FS1E, a 50cc yamaha bored to 65cc. I was hooked straight away.
I never bothered with a licence until I was 18 – just drove around on anything I had. If we got pulled, we’d just give a false name and address and sell the bike. I did it like this for years (it’s not big and it’s not clever – I know that now!) but in those days the police didn’t have computers and unless you were doing something really stupid they’d just give you a ‘producer’ and send you on your way.
The way me and my friends saw it was that if you did get caught, the fine was most times less than the price of tax and insurance – so we never bothered.”
How often did you get caught?
“Oh a few times. Quite a few times! Haha! I had a supplementary part to my licence with extra points on. When I did decide to do things properly my insurance was astronomical for the first few years.”
How long have you been building bikes?
“I’ve been building bikes professionally since 2008. I still have the first chop I built, which is the red one that you saw me on at the ride out.
Prior to that, all of the bikes I built were back street budget kind of stuff – mostly Kawasakis. We were obsessed with Mad Max at the time, so all we did was buy Kwakas and tune them up. I always used to race my mate Mo – knew him since we were kids. We both had Z1000’s, highly tuned, big-bore, cams, carbs, zorst etc. It was always a competition who’s was the fastest… mine was, of course! Hah!”
When did you start HairyBush Bike Builders?
“I started HB back in 2008. Immediately after my first bike got featured in 100% Biker Magazine and won a few shows people started approaching me and asking me to build stuff for them. I had my first full “commissioned build” in 2010 for an Indian guy. The Baba Deep Singh bike won loads of stuff and made front cover/centre spread in the magazine.”
What is special or unique about HairyBush Bike Builders?
“I wouldn’t say we were special; Britain is loaded with talent. The only thing that’s different about us and other bike builders is that I don’t really give a toss if I make any money. The bikes that make money are the quick ‘bolt together’ chops you see, which are just a mass of parts from a catalogue -the only custom elements are making the parts fit together. This is not really what I would call a ‘custom’ job.
It’s the bikes that don’t make money that are the real “one-offs”, where everything on the bike is handmade with care and attention. Unfortunately, if you added up the hours it takes to make stuff and figured out an hourly rate to charge a customer then nobody would be able to afford it! So I often end up just charging a set wage at the beginning of a project, which usually results in me working for free most the time because projects inevitably run over a deadline and I refuse to compromise quality in order to get a bike built fast in the estimated timescale.
The trade-off for all the hours that I put in is that I won’t build anything I’m not into myself; if I don’t like the ideas a customer has – I won’t do it. I’ll work for free but I am NOT working for free doing something I won’t enjoy!”
Why do you ride?
“I ride ‘cos I just fucking love it! Sunny day, loud bike -you really can’t beat it. There’s no posing about it; I don’t wear waistcoats with bloody badges all over it and fucking fingerless gloves or bandanas, and I haven’t got one of those chain things that hangs from my belt to my wallet! I don’t embrace the whole “Sons of Anarchy” scene; I’ve been there, done it and it doesn’t suit me. I just escape on my bike and go – anywhere… especially if there’s beer at the end of it.”
Why do you think others should ride?
“I think everyone should ride – so much so that I’ve bought or given bikes to people I know to use – just so they can feel what I feel. It’s too good a feeling not to share.”
How did you guys all meet?
“I’ve got the same small group of friends now as I had just after school, but there has been a few new friends that have joined our circle. I don’t make friends that easy; the way I see it -I’ve got enough friends now, I can only make enemies haha!
On a serious note, anyone in my circle helps with work. I seem to be blessed with having talented creative, positive and mostly mad people around me. If you saw one of our outings you’d agree… we’re not “normal.”
What made you start up Bushwacked?
“Bushwacked has been a focus for our madness, and quite honestly one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life, a true testament to the people around me. We started it because we were touched by Stephen Sutton’s story.”
(Stephen Robert Sutton was an English blogger and charity activist known for his blog Stephen’s Story and his fundraising efforts for the Teenage Cancer Trust charity for the aid of teenagers with cancer. As of 16 September 2014, Sutton had raised over £4.96 million from over 340,000 donors, more than four times his target. He tragically died in 2014 at the age of 19 from colorectal cancer, only after grabbing the attention and the hearts of the community. After his death, Sutton was posthumously recognised for his activism with awards including an MBE and an honorary doctorate from Coventry University. The yellow ribbons that symbolise his story still adorn cars, street lights, road signs, fences, bikes, gates and roundabouts in his home town. The Stephen Sutton ride out takes place every year in his honour.)
“Stephen went to school with my son. As soon as I heard about how he was motivating people and just doing massive positive things for the good I felt that I needed to do something to help. To be perfectly honest I don’t care too much for charity usually but I am totally in admiration and awe of how Stephen has accomplished so much in such a short period of time. I’m not just talking about the money he’s raised which is amazing, but I mean the overall positive attitude and fantastic community spirit he generated that still lives in the area to this day. His motto was “make a difference.” Well he sure did that! If I can create anything close to that overwhelming positivity and love with my friends and family I’ll die happy.
“So we did Bushwacked for him, we raised a bit of money for charity and had a fucking EPIC party at the same time. All positive memories!”
What is it about Custom Bikes that appeals so much to you?
“Custom bikes are about mixing art, craftsmanship and functionality. For me, they are the ultimate expression of how I feel at the time of building. I’ve always admired beautiful, well-made chunks of metal that have above all have a purpose. I like people to look at them and think “how the fuck did he do that!?” or “why the fuck did he do that!?” or “I haven’t got a clue what that does but I fucking love it.”
Do you build each bike as if it is your own?
“Yes every bike I build is built as if it is for me and I definitely have issues letting them go. In fact, I think I’ve offered to buy back almost every bike I’ve built on completion!”
Do customers ever ask you to do things during a build that you find cringeworthy?
“If I don’t like the bike I’m building I won’t build it. I actually turn work down quite often. I just can’t prostitute myself and build a bike just to make money if I don’t fancy it.”
Sum HairyBush Bike Builders in 3 words.
“Easy… EMBRACE THE MADNESS.”