We're teaming up with Squarespace to showcase the unique histories behind the creators, entrepreneurs and artists who call Squarespace home. Join us as we explore how modern day craftsmen are using the online platform to sell their products in a more beautiful way.
Located in Austin,Texas, Limey Bikes is a full-service shop that does everything from oil changes to full restorations on Japanese motorcycles. Whether it's wheel building, powder coating, engine building, performance tuning, ultrasonic carb cleaning, electrical, polishing, bead blasting, or anything else you might need, Limey Bikes gets it done.
The catch: your bike will only find its way into their capable hands if it was manufactured before the year 1983.
When I spoke with spoke with Chris Kelland, the shop's CEO, I prodded him on why he chose vintage Japanese motorcycles. For the motorcycle naive among us, it's hard to know what separates one country's product from the other or what a vintage model offers that a modern bike does not. Is there anything unique to the vintage Japanese bike culture that makes them so popular?
"The reason the Japanese bikes are popular is because they’re good," Kelland says. "For the time period, the ‘70s, there was nothing that could touch them. Literally, no bike that was mass produced in large numbers and was affordable that could do what the Japanese stuff could."
So they're popular because they're good? That won't do. Maybe it has something to do with nostalgia?
"I don’t think the whole nostalgia thing is really part of it for most people because most people who ride these things aren’t old enough to have the nostalgia," Kelland says. "They’re just pretty; that’s really what it comes down to. They’re pretty bikes and they’re available. Old European stuff is not available and it’s hideously expensive and very hard to maintain and incredibly unreliable, mostly."
Alright, so what is it about these bikes that makes them the fairest of them all?
“That would be as difficult as quantifying why you like a certain picture. It is an impossible question to answer. They are just beautiful. Why they are beautiful, I just don’t know."
I feared that after the third try I would never receive the answer I was hoping for, but after a few seconds, Kelland continued his thoughts.
“I think it’s mainly because computers aren’t involved. It’s the same with cars. There are very few cars today that people consider to be works of art and beautiful and that’s because they’re machines predominantly designed by computers. Whereas the cars that are considered to be the most beautiful cars on the planet, those cars were scribbled out on napkins in restaurants and designed by one person and their passion for that particular vision they have."
The absence is the answer. When it comes to any vehicle, what better foundation could you hope for than high availability, affordable cost, and efficient operation? While modern Japanese bikes certainly offer these same qualities, what they lack is the intangible, genuine, bootstrap approach and aesthetic. Today, aerodynamics and manufacturing requirements have consumed the process and so the "pure design" is no longer present. When a vehicle is designed by a team, other individuals muddy the original vision. You see it with concept cars all the time. They are fantastic machines at the start, but by the time they reach production three or four years down the line, they are far from their original state.
“But back then they were,” Kelland says.
Today, Japanese manufacturers Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha are the most recognizable and popular names in the motorcycle market. However, Japan's history with motorcycles stretches back to the 19th century.
The German Hildebrand & Wolfmüller motorcycle was first introduced to Japan in 1896. Displayed in Tokyo on a trial run, the bike was named the "Petroleum Bicycle." Its introduction immediately captured the interest of a man named Narazo Shimazu, who established the Shimazu Motor Research Institute in 1908. One year later, Shimazu built Japan's very first bike, the NS motorcycle, which contained a four-cycle engine, a complex design that was rare in Japan at the time, and frame built from the scraps of old bicycles. This was the birth of the Japanese motorcycle industry.
The blog Vintagent further details Shimazu's work, stating that he "neither smoked nor drank" while working on the project, and apparently celebrated his accomplishment with the purchase of a baked sweet potato. The NS motorcycle reportedly sold for 250 yen, which, at the time, was equivalent to 20 years' salary for the average worker.
The need for military mobility, the country's booming textile industry, and a devastating earthquake in Tokyo in 1923 pushed forward Japan's infrastructure. A more sensible road system helped double the number of vehicles on the roads in Tokyo by 1924. Import tariffs on foreign vehicles, established in 1925, helped ensure it was Japanese vehicles on the asphalt.
Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha started producing bikes in the 1950s, and by the 1960s, the motorcycle market was tipping toward Japanese dominance. Bikes like the Honda CB750, first unleashed in 1969, played a large role in power shift. It was labeled "the most sophisticated production bike ever" by Cycle magazine and the term "superbike" was conceived to describe its superiority over other bikes on the market.
The rest is, as they say, history.
Kelland and his colleagues mostly serve the 300 to 400-mile radius of Texas that surrounds Austin, although they do get the occasional out-of-state project. Unveiling his new Squarespace page, Kelland now has the platform to match the sleek image of his bikes. For such a specialized trade, a simple and visually-focused website is crucial to extending the perimeters of his business, as well as competing with general auto shops.
Back when Kelland lived in England, he had a lot of friends bringing their bikes to his house to fix up; so many that he determined it could be a viable business. Six years later, Limey Bikes has worked on about 3,000 motorcycles, helping old machines to return to their former glory. Still, the work of a vintage Japanese motorcycle specialist is no simple task.
"There’s no school you can go to to learn vintage Japanese stuff; there just isn’t," Kelland says. It’s either a skill that you pick up from somebody who is willing to take you on as an apprentice or you learn the hard way, and you break a lot of things. But eventually, 20 or 30 years later, you may get good if you’ve got some aptitude for it."
Kelland took the hard way. Describing his father as "mechanically inclined as a badger,” Kelland began working on vintage Japanese bikes when he was 10 years old. Starting at this young age also provided him with a better reference for how the bikes are supposed to properly run, something that has proved monumental to his work. Despite the extensive experience, he's still learning new things every day .
“Everyday we realize how much we don’t know. You’re dealing with 40-year-plus machinery. The machining standards of the 1960s and 1970s were not as consistent as they are today, so every single machine is different."
And isn't that the beautiful thing about history? There's always something new to learn and every bit of it helps shape how you approach the future.
Returning to our original query, I decided to reshape the question and ask Kelland why he chose vintage Japanese motorcycles.
“I think it’s really just the love of the machines, the simplicity of them," he says. "They’re simple, yet complex at the same time. There are a lot of moving parts, there’s a lot of pieces. All of these things are moving thousands of feet per second in different directions and still it manages to stay in one piece and not explode. I think that’s quite remarkable."
Squarespace is a website publishing platform that makes it easy to create beautiful websites, portfolios, blogs, and online stores without touching a line of code. Start a 14-day free trial today and use offer code HISTORYBUFF for 10% off your subscription.