A great mix of old and new features, this Bonnie may be the perfect British cruiser.
Custom Triumph Motorcycles from Southern Classic Customs
Engine: 860cc, two valves per cylinder, air-cooled parallel twin/60hp @ 6,500rpm (est., at rear wheel )
Bore & Stroke: 79mm x 89mm
Carburetion: Single 36mm Mikuni w/ turnout manifold
Electrics: 12v, battery and coil
Frame: Twin downtube cradle frame, welded steel tube, oil-in-frame
Front suspension: Telescopic forks
Rear suspension: Twin shock absorbers, adjustable preload
Front brake: Dual 317.5mm (12.5in) discs
Rear brake: Single 254mm (10in) disc
Front tire: 120/70 x 17in
Rear tire: 150/70 x 17in
Price: $10,000 to $14,000 depending upon specification
“Bespoke.” A proper British word, it loosely translates to “custom-made.” But custom is a word that’s been thrown around so much that today, when applied to motorcycles, it just doesn’t carry the meaning it once did.
The world of custom motorcycles has grown exponentially over the past few years, and though much of the interest has centered on bikes with big American V-twin engines, not all custom bikes use V-twins. And not all custom bikes are simply “custom.” Some are truly bespoke.
Brian Holzigal, owner of Southern Classic Customs in Atlanta, Ga., builds bespoke motorcycles. Take, for example, the fact that you can’t buy the wild, yellow-framed, Triumph street fighter you see here. It’s not for sale. But Brian will build one like it to your specifications. You can pick the paint, the wheels, the brakes, the carburetion, the engine (and a host of performance upgrades for it) and just about anything else about the bike you’d like to specify. The idea is to build these bikes to the likings of the customer, and to give them something they won’t find anywhere else. And, unlike some custom bikes, these are modified to perform. Some builders modify bikes to make them look unique, but then they’re nearly unrideable by the time they’re finished. Brian’s modifications are done to improve the bike; to make it go better, stop better and handle better. Sure, they look good in the end, but not at the expense of performance.
Brian has been riding and working on motorcycles since he got his first bike, a BSA A-10, in 1969. He started his first shop, British and American Classics, in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, in 1980. But the past 10 years have found Brian and his mechanic and protégé, Randy Huyett, doing maintenance work and full-bore, 100-point restorations on classic, along with building custom choppers and bobbers, Brian’s new breed of Triumph-powered cafés and streetfighers are his hobby and passion. “Everybody needs an artistic outlet,” Brian says with a slight Australian accent. “I guess this is mine.” Brain enjoys the experimentation factor of these bikes. “I build these to see what will work. I like to see what I can do to improve the power and torque of a bike like this while keeping them reliable,” he says.
These bikes are built to perform, which is especially evident in the Bumblebee-painted, radically-styled Triumph street fighter you see here. Note the KYB upside-down forks from a Kawasaki ZXR, giant dual-disc front brakes with Nissin 4-pot calipers and a front wheel from a Moto Guzzi, a rear wheel from a Suzuki sport bike, the lack of fenders and the minimalist overall design. Oh, and then there’s the engine. Did we mention the engine?
Though this particular mill started life as a stock Unit Triumph 650cc parallel twin, it’s now anything but stock. Bigger jugs and pistons give it a bore and stroke of 79mm by 89mm (up from a stock bore and stroke of 71mm x 82mm), and it runs a modified 360-degree Norton crank, a lumpier cam, custom billet rods and more. A 36mm Mikuni sitting on a turnout manifold feeds the engine. Though it has 15-20 more horsepower than stock, it’s still in a fairly mild state of tune, running only a single carb, and has ignition timing retarded slightly for easier starting.
On the other end, the engine exhausts through a custom-fabbed two-into-one, underslung “muffler” with a tip that exits just below and aft of the right footpeg, and it sounds like it’s going to eat you for lunch. It’s been a few months since I had the pleasure of riding Brian’s wild creation, but I can still hear the sound of that beast in my head. The bike has a guttural growl at idle, and as the revs increase it works its way up to a full Rebel Yell. Though I got a chance to sample several of Brian's creations that day, nothing left an imprint on my cerebrum like the yellow and black street fighter did.
Off and riding
I started off my morning by riding a rough-looking, bone-stock 1969 Bonneville T120 that belongs to Randy's father. Though it starts easily, runs well and feels surprisingly tight once moving, it looks like it has led a hard life. Nonetheless, it gives me a nice base line for comparison as I prepare to sample the full gamut of Brian’s handiwork.
Next up was what, from 30 feet, appeared to be a stock "new" Hinckley Bonneville. It wasn't. Built with a stock, single-downtube frame from an early Bonneville, an aftermarket Harley-Davidson Dyna Wide Glide-type front end, a custom-built, widened rear swingarm holding a 180-series back tire, with a widened rear subframe and seat, this was a unique creation. Though it featured a stock Unit 650 Triumph engine, the 5-cog tranny with a left-foot shifter, triple disc brakes and new-school rubber make this bike feel completely different than it did the first time the test rider at the Meriden factory took it for a spin. Change is good. This one goes, stops and handles like it should, though due to its stock engine and slightly taller gearing, it isn’t nearly as menacing as the bikes I'd ride later that day. It is the “cruiser” of the bunch, but a truly enjoyable ride nonetheless.
My meeting with the Bumblebee
Next was the yellow and black street fighter. As I climbed aboard the beast, I yelled at Brian "shift pattern?" as I had several times already this day. The original Bonnie I'd been on was right-foot shift, with first gear down and the other three up. The maroon Hinckley-look Bonnie was left-foot shift, with first gear down and the other four up. The Bumblebee, Bryan soon informed me, was right-foot shift, with first down and the other four gears up.
As I reach for the bars, and as my hands fall to the grips and levers, my feet search for the slightly forward pegs. As you might guess looking at the seat, this is not a bike built for comfort. It's built to move, and move it does, but for as tough as it looks, its ergonomics aren’t bad. For short blasts it’s as comfy as stock early-Seventies Bonnie, but it doesn’t take long before you wish the seat had more padding.
I pull away from the shop carefully, following Brian, who is riding Randy's fathers’ Bonneville. I can hear the nearly-open exhaust of the street fighter echoing off the surrounding buildings in the office park where the shop is located. As I roll along slowly, getting a feel for the controls, already I can tell what a trouble-maker this thing is. We proceed through our first stop sign, where I continue to repeat to myself the shift pattern (out loud, of course) over and over again, then up the hill and around the bend. Brian does his best to pull away and give me plenty of room to play with the thing. He needs more bike.
From nearly idle on up, the torque curve feels flat and stout. It pulls like the proverbial train. Actually it pulls a lot like the cammed and breathed-on 1,340cc Big Twin a buddy of mine once had stuffed in an old Harley-Davison Softail. Yeah. It pulls like that, only it doesn’t squabble when you spin it to 7,000rpm between shifts.
The next stop light causes me a bit more confusion. Still stunned by the sheer torque of the thing, I forget my “repeat-the-shift-pattern-out-loud” routine, so when the light turns green and I go to pull away, I quickly realize I’m not in first gear. “No big deal,” I think, figuring for sure that I’m in second. A little more throttle, slip the clutch, and we were rolling. Only after I run out of gears after two more upshifts do I realize I’d left that stoplight in third gear. How’s that for torquey?
The bike is hoot to ride. Loud, powerful and fast, it has just enough vibration to make you remember to shift now and then. It’s not obtrusive, but definitely noticeable in a way that gives the bike character. The new-school front shock set-up handles every corner you throw at it, and the wide tires offer plenty of grip to play with. The wide, flat bars give ample leverage, and the twin-disc front brakes could probably stand the thing on its nose if I’d try.
So many bikes, so little time
I also rode the sharp café bike featured in some of Brian’s advertisements, and while it’s a looker and mechanically very similar to the street fighter, its single-downtube frame couldn’t match the stiffness and handling of the dual-tube street fighter. Both engines were balanced in such a way that where the street fighter had a bit more vibration at low rpm’s and smoothed out a little as you reved it higher, the café bike was smoother at lower rpms and vibrated more as the rpm’s increased, making it a bear to hold onto as it wound up. I also took a spin on one of his choppers, complete with a hardtail frame, ape-hanger bars and a sprung seat. Though I’m not sure I’d ever own one, the chop was fun to ride, even if it did bend you into a weird seating position due to its low seat, forward controls, and incredibly high bars. But overall, nothing hit me like the Bumblebee.
If it wasn’t for the lack of garage space, and, of course, money (funny how that’s always the problem), I’d have Brian build a street fighter for me, maybe even painted and finished just like the Bumblebee. I wouldn’t have my license for long, but it sure would be fun until I lost it.
Southern Custom Classics
4264F Winters Chapel Road
Atlanta, Ga. 30360
Visit Brian’s website at
www.southernclassiccustoms.com and click on “Photo Gallery” to see some of his other custom bikes.