Tom Deathcat

(originally published in 100% Biker, issue #223)

You can’t beat a bit of trespass, especially on the land of a lord. These days, thankfully, the worst you can expect is a few gruff words from a guy in a pick-up truck armed with a pair of rabid collies, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had some big, country-dwelling lump and his dogs give me grief. Besides, I’m here by invite. If I’m in the right place, that is…  with this in mind, I open the gates to a private estate, ignoring the signs about trespass, and drive through the well-kept grounds looking for the secret location of the Deathcats lair, and the mastermind behind it.

Tom Paterson is a Welsh mountain, settled in Yorkshire. I find him easily enough, working on the bends of a pair of downpipes in a shed that looks like many others round this part of the country – there’s moss growing on the drive, the drains are half-blocked, and a pile of old junk occupies the entrance. Standard shed fare. But for the pleasant rural location, it’d be nothing special.

But what you find inside is. Tom’s self-taught passion is metalwork, into which he has poured thousands of hours, wrapping vintage Harley engines in finely-detailed hardtail chassis and running gear. He’s built this fascination up to a fully-equipped workshop with a lathe, blasting cabinet, welding equipment, and a ton of spares and paraphernalia. All this started as stress relief: “I needed something to do, so I started building models, and polishing”, he tells me, “and it just sort of grew from there. I’ve got my own business and I needed to unwind from that.” This was around 2010. These days he gets invites to show his work internationally, including having himself and a bike flown out to California, to be shown alongside builders whom he formerly idolised. Now they’re buddies who crawl over the minute details of each other’s bikes when they meet, geeking out on fabrication details and neat solutions, and swapping builder stories.

The bike I’ve really come to photograph, which will be shown at Motorcycle Social, is up on a bench and still very much under construction. I’ve brought my camera gear and even some studio lights, so I’m itching to get some photos, but this one is not yet far enough along. I also spotted an immaculate white knucklehead springer with a 42 engine (and, as it turns out, a modified Triumph frame) when I came in, so I ask if we can roll that outside instead. “Not that one”, I’m told. “I promised the guy I wouldn’t let any photos of it out” (though he later lets me sneak just one). Apparently, it’s already sold, so I settle on the equally gorgeous creation you see here.

Tom is the first of the builders I intend to visit in the run-up to Motorcycle Social, so I’m glad to be left to get my lights out and play around with different shots, while he goes back to his workbench and continues fettling. The plan was to photograph a bike, hit him with a few interview-type questions and be on my way, but we get chatting and time starts to fly. I’m pretty new to this hardtail scene, so I’m full of questions about everything.

I ask him: “Why Harleys?”

“’Cos they’re fuckin’ cool, and they’re loud, and they’re big bikes. The size of me, I need a big bike.” He fires up the white 42 on its open pipes, and grins widely as he blips the throttle for half a minute, ripping the still country air to shreds. The bike trembles on its stand, as if aching to jump straight through the wall, tear off down the valley, and kill something.

“What about the hardtail thing, y’know, no rear suspension – do you run the back tyre softer?” I ask, when my hearing has returned.

“Nah.”

“So how do they handle?”

He pauses – almost frowns – but then, patiently, as if addressing an idiot whom he nevertheless is enjoying talking to, says: “It’s not really about that. You have to measure your expectations. But this is all I know, really – I’ve always ridden choppers. If I ride a soft-tail it just feels… sort of mushy, on the back end.”

I ask if he’s planning to transition from his regular job to building chops for a living – which seems a pretty cool living on the face of it – but he shakes his head. “There’s no money in building choppers”, he reckons. “I do it because I love it.” There are five bikes plus change in here, all of them vintage Harleys, so he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to shift them. “I’ve got two more back at the house, Tom tells me, “and a modern Sportster. If I don’t like you, I won’t sell you a bike”, he laughs. “From there, there’s a sort of sliding scale – the more I like you the less I’ll charge.” (Anybody reading this, and thinking of approaching Tom for a build, will now have some measure of what he thinks of them, though I don’t really think he’d care.) He’s very focussed and absolute in what he does, and everything has to be not only right but also done to the best of his ability. His work is so good because he is doing exactly what he wants, with no thought of reward other than the work itself, and no concern over what anybody thinks. His current build – commissioned by a client but joining us at the show – is a bike he already had in mind. “When he asked me to build him a bike, I said ‘OK, but it’s got to be the bike I want to build’. He was fine with that”.

The build is a modern 1200 Sportster engine in a Fenland Choppers bobber frame. It’s wearing an aftermarket replica Hummer tank, with a 1950s ignition switch recessed into it, a typically time-consuming and tricky detail that alone could take a dozen more hours to complete. The oil tank is early Sportster, sectioned to make it narrower and with a pressure gauge fitted in the filler. He’s handmade a cissy bar and seat pan, and the downpipes are under construction while I’m there. It also runs a chain conversion, to help the transmission clear the frame. The rear wheel is a standard 19” item, and the front is a 21” TLS 1980s Japanese dirt-bike wheel, gold anodised, which makes me think of the Yamaha TT600 I bought from a Lincolnshire farmer. and sold on in bits, making a few hundred in the process.

This sparks another line of conversation, on the topic of wheeling and dealing: “That engine in there (Tom points at the white 42) is one of a job lot of three. I sold one on and that more than paid for this one to be rebuilt, and I’ve got a spare engine out of it. I like that – making the money to pay for the job. It’s part of the enjoyment.” We swap a few tales on the joys of ebay entrepreneurism, which he obviously pursues with great relish. Then he recounts another story, and another reason for doing what he does. “It wasn’t exactly a defining moment”, he smiles, “but it made me think and I still remember it now.”

In the Welsh town where he grew up, there was a little old Italian guy, who would talk to young Tom and his mates, and was very feisty. “I’ll hit you, I’ll punch you!” he would declare, fists raised, if they gave him any cheek. He asked Tom one day: “You die twice. The first time is when you stop breathing – when is the second?” Tom didn’t know, but went away wondering what he had meant. Some time passed. Tom didn’t see the old guy for a while. One day, now much bigger, he ran into him again. There were no threats of punches this time around, but the old Italian remembered having asked Tom the question, and wanted to know if he had an answer yet, which he did not.

“The second time is when everybody has forgotten you”, he was told. “That Shakespeare was very clever. He is still alive.” Tom’s laughing now, obviously enjoying the memory. “So I suppose it’s something like that. I want to leave something behind, to leave a mark.”