Smokin’ Phil Squirrel

We live in interesting times. As recently as ten years ago, a custom bike generally meant either a tall-tailed streetfighter with a big Suzuki motor, a raked-out Harley with paintwork to match a stripper’s toenails, or a matt black jumble sale on wheels, with gas masks and Batman paraphernalia attached to it with a nail gun. All are commendable excursions from the homogenous factory offerings, yet it’s hard to lament the gradual passing of those days and easy to welcome the current ones, which mark a return to simplicity and a fresh emphasis on fun. As the country fills up with speed cameras, as licence and running costs increase, and the Power Ranger suits of the 90s sportsbike set grow ever-tighter, people are remembering – or discovering for the first time – that all bikes are inherently cool. The ugly ones just need a makeover, and the slow ones a bit of tuning and weight loss, followed by a damn good thrashing.

Technology has permeated many aspects of our lives, making how we live and what we ride ever-more complex. The bodywork on most modern bikes conceals masses of ugly wiring, sensors, ABS brains and related plumbing, and much of what is visible on the outside is fake: liquid-cooled motors have retro-looking fins, injectors are hidden inside lookalike carb bodies and chrome is plastic. We’re being sold an idea that looks right but feels wrong; hi-tech dressed as low-tech, machines that are too sophisticated to relate to. We need an antidote to technology in our sheds, not more of it, and fans of smaller, simpler bikes who have always praised their undersized beauty and unassuming efficiency are coming out to parade their proudly-built machines. Until recently, few people have undertaken the effort of a proper custom build in the sub-400cc bracket, but the receding tide of powerful, flashy bikes has uncovered a wealth of solid Japanese singles and twins from the 70s through to the 90s; prices are rising (bike people are inherently savvy traders) but you can still get a build done for as little as a grand.

Phil from Smoking Squirrel Speed Shop picked up this 1983 Kawasaki Z200 from a guy who said it had been restored. “He thought he’d done a good restoration on it, but it looked like he’d painted it with a stick”, is his first comment. Not very encouraging when you go to collect a bike, certainly, but Phil got the last laugh – it was listed as a non-runner, then his dad fired up the bike while still on the seller’s drive, and they took it away.

There’s a pleasant freedom to be had in knowing that you’re going to take a grinder to a bike, and with the Z200 now already a runner he could turn straight to the customisation. Off came the back end, to be replaced with a simpler loop – it now wears a seat unit from Greece, where prices are understandably low, with a battery box and wiring tray welded straight in beneath it. There’s barely a scrap of wire to be seen on the whole bike, partly due to the neat trick of hiding the kill switch and start buttonon the inside of a frame rail. Tidy, and harder to steal (unless you’re reading this). The bars, devoid of clutter, wear a quick-action twistgrip intended for a pit-bike. “£12 on eBay”, says Phil, proudly opening the throttle and letting it snap shut.

It’s been a pretty straightforward build – he wanted a bellmouth on the carb, but the bike wasn’t having it, so at the moment it runs a foam filter with a +3 main jet, mated to an exhaust with a fat and stubby silencer made by STG in Wakefield. Phil recommends them, handing me their card. The paintwork is also done locally – Middleton, in south Leeds – by a guy called Daz Parker. Phil hands me his card, too: the man’s a walking promotion for local trades.

The colour is spot-on. Even big auto companies are catching on that various tones of ‘stealth grey’ look great, and it sets off the old-fashioned, cream-white lettering perfectly. Daz also made the numbers, with separate 3-D relief detail, pale grey against the white background. These too came from abroad, from US ebay. “The original boards I got here were massive”, explains Phil, “and the numbers were, too.” A closer look shows slight imperfections in the hand-cut figures, which is just how Phil wanted them. As he shows me the lettering on the tank, I’m reminded of narrow boats and the old skill of signwriting – those italic characters really were produced by hand, and there will never be another piece of work quite the same. Another one-off touch is the use of soft brown leather – to form a pair of fork gaiters, with a little wrapped around the swingarm where the chain runs over it.

The running engine needed only a quick refresh and a coat of paint, though there’ll be another round of engine work at some point, to extract more power from it. To finish the project, Phil’s dad re-spoked the wheels, which is probably something that we all wish our dad could do. Overall, it’s a neat little ride and perfect for blatting around on. It attracts a lot of attention at the pre-show event where I first see it and meet Phil. Towards the end of the day, I’m chatting to one of the food vendors, who points out the little Z and declares: “That’s it. That’s my ideal bike – I’ve been looking at it all day. Do you think he’ll sell it to me?”