05 March, 2012

Rajputana Custom Motorcycles

It's very hard to say anything about India without it quickly descending into hack cliché, the kind of vapid wordery that is too trite for even an airline magazine. Old versus new, the emerging middle class, space programmes and poverty, blah, blah, blah. But there's a reason everybody ends up doing it anyway, because it's true. You just can't help it in the end. Gahhhh!

I was thinking on this as we rode to a very exclusive address in downtown Jaipur to pay an impromptu visit to Rajputana Custom Motorcycles. Rajputana are quickly gaining a reputation for some of the most exciting Royal Enfield custom motorcycles being made in India right now, fusing the old and new school. 

As we negotiate a crazy intersection underneath another of the enormous elevated highway projects that seem to be underway in every Indian city today an elephant lumbers past us into the middle of the road, scattering traffic, against the lights of course. Goddamit India! Do you have to keep doing this?

It's not the most typical address for a custom bike shop. Civil Lines, Jaipur is a world away from a dodgy industrial estate, it's a world away from Jaipur to be honest. A wide, spotless tree-lined avenue, substantial houses behind even more substantial walls. Walls wearing nameplates of retired military types and senior politicos... what on earth are we doing looking for a bike 'shop here? Like the most exclusive addresses in India there's a sentry post on the end of the street so I decide to ask the soldier inside if he can confirm if I'm in the correct place. Holy Shit! I thought these guys were decorative... he's got a large selection of AK-47s behind the sandbags ready to go, these fellas clearly don't mess about. He directs us a few yards down the street and we tentatively walk in amongst the residencies. This can't be right. Just as we come to end of a smart cul-de-sac looking gormless yet suspicious (I'm mentally picturing our soldier friend just checking that he has sufficient assault rifles available in case the terrorism threat has a new secret weapon - idiot foreigners) I ask a local lady about Rajputana... the tone of my voice already suggests that we've got the address quite wrong but her eyes light up and she directs us to the door of a nearby house.

Down a ramp into the basement and all becomes clear... there's a goddam bike workshop down here (mental note: resist temptation to use the words Cave or Aladdin). Erm, is this Rajputana? I ask nervously.It's a bit bloody cheeky turning up at anybody's place of work unannounced. A smart young guy smiles. Yeah, that's right. I erm, I'd stumbled across you guys on the internet and thought as we were in the area we'd pop in... (jesus this sounds weak!). Luckily Vijay Singh founder of Rajputana is immediately welcoming beckoning us to have a look around, take photos and generally get under the feet of everybody as if it's the most normal thing in the world to travel five and a half thousand miles to visit a bike 'shop. Chai? Yes please! Vijay and I are soon chatting bikes, particularly Enfield's as he talks about the work they're doing, he's clearly confident and self-assured but endearingly self-deprecating about how much they have to learn about customising. 

When he started with a friend they worked out of a single cement garage space upstairs, he shows me the tree in the front yard with a Vee where two trunks meet. Before we had the lathe, the pipe-bender, English Wheel and all that kit we had to do everything by hand. The frame on my first bike was bent in between the trunks of that tree. We filled the pipe with sand, welded up the ends and put it in the tree to bend it cold with a lot of manpower. The neighbours hated us man. 

That original bike is still in the workshop. Vijay knows it looks a little rough around the edges compared to his latest work but he's proud of what they achieved and is determined to keep it in it's original state, slightly wonky paint lines and all. I managed to enter the bike in the Delhi Expo - the paint was still drying in the truck on the way there, but the response it got was fantastic, that's really where it all began.

The most eye-catching bikes are the choppers wearing the obligatory massive rear tyre. It's not my favourite style but I have to admire the workmanship. Vijay started with rear wheels imported from the States but import duties make the already high prices stratospheric so they've developed their own home-brew solution taking domestic market car alloys and machining them to create extreme chopper rims. 

There's more clever thinking at work to create the mexicali cruiser style multispoke front for the Harley chop - those are spokes from the heavy duty haulage cycle rickshaws, threaded into a custom designed hub. Smart.

It's the bobbers and retro styled bikes that do it for me though. One of the nicest touches on Rajputana's bikes is Vijay's enthusiam for using local craft skills where possible, it gives them a unique Rajasthani identity. Rajasthan doesn't have the same need as it once did for exquisitely produced saddlery and ornate engraving on weaponry so these artisan skills have been dying out. These touches perfectly complement this style of bike - it's no coincidence that British bikes are inextricably linked with small arms manufacture and their prescence in India, tied up as it inevitably is with British occupation has a hint of military flavour that works so well as an understated style for a bike. Luckily like Cricket and the trains Enfields are one of Britain's Indian legacies that we don't have to feel too ashamed about.

Original Gangster - Vijay's first build in front of a '42 BSA M-20
from little acorns... or small tree-trunks at least

Custom built using heavy-duty rickshaw spokes

Custom swingarm with the rear fender attached to get that oh so desirable flush look

Loving the colour on this softail - looks like a good tyre choice for Dirt Quake too

Bullet toolboxes are an iconic feature and can be put to interesting uses

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10 Step to the white courtesy phone:

Blogger Maria shout your mess

Have you seen custom motorcycle designed by Vardenchi ? Check this Sunburn model they designed .. m lovin it & wish to have one :)

Sunburn Chopper

March 07, 2012 10:22 am

Blogger Chris shout your mess

Hi Maria, I must confess I'd not heard of Vardenchi, so thanks for the tip. As I say I'm personally not so keen the contemporary chopper style customs but I can still appreciate good work and that certainly looks like good work to me.

Particularly liking the choice of Bauhaus typeface for the tank graphics - one of my favourites.

March 07, 2012 3:37 pm

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