Motorcycle Social 2018

(This article and these photos originally appeared in 100% Biker magazine, issue #238. See below for the photo gallery.)

Motorcycle Social 2018

A year has passed since Motorcycle Social slid down the launch ramp into a sea of custom shows, making a decent splash in its own waters and bringing a number of previously submerged builds bobbing to the surface. Ticket sales were good, and everybody floated across the weekend on waves of beer and friendliness. Whatever your taste in custom bikes – vintage, classic, wild, clean, hi-tech, daft – you could find it here.

Many event organisers, buoyed up by such success, might immediately begin planning how to top such a triumphal first outing, but maybe that’s not the idea – if you had a house party at which everyone had a blast, you’d tidy up afterwards, wait a while, and then have another. There’s no need to top anything, you just need to be an excellent host in the first place. And now it’s time for Kevin McGonnell’s latest bash: Motorcycle Social 2018.

The hardest thing about covering a show like this is resisting the suction of the atmosphere and its promise of a weekend spent wallowing in alcohol and tacos, especially when it’s in my home city. I could dump my bike in the secure parking and get home in a taxi, emitting spicy burps from beneath an Idle Torque baseball cap while trying to remember where I live. Even if you’re from out of town, there are various budget hotels within a few minutes’ walk. (Last year, six members of an MC – who shall remain nameless – got hammered at the show and wobbled into town afterwards to crash at a two-bed AirBnB apartment down by the riverside. It’s not all about camping.) Despite being held in mid-summer, the show’s like a tantalising Christmas party at which all the presents are already unwrapped but you can’t take any home. You can touch them and talk to the clever folk that built them though, and at least it’s lovely and cosy indoors. The lights are pretty, and everybody’s in a roaring good mood. My feet have barely touched the ground before I fall into a half-dozen conversations and I barely know where to point my camera first, so I wander around for a while to take it all in.

There’s a program of talks spread over the weekend, from Knox, HebTroCo and the English Electric Motor Company, who have also brought three electric bikes, all fully-booked for test rides. You can lounge on giant sofas listening to bands in the evening, surrounded by the artwork of Ryan Roadkill and Austin Rocket. Fastec Racing are here, as are Retro Moto Engineering, both displaying their stunning builds and offering top-quality one-off parts. Idle Torque are also in the main hall with a selection of clothing and helmets; the list goes on. Outside, HebTroCo are punting their pants, boots and bikes, with a gleeful Ed Oxley playing his favourite vinyl. Across the courtyard is a marquee, where I find the ever-cheerful Tony Gray and his notoriously daft 50cc Raleigh Burners, each with a bespoke trailer (watch this space for a full feature on these and Tony’s ongoing builds). Also present are Sore Bones Wheel Building, working away throughout the show, and Third Eye Signs, who offer hand-painted lettering and designs on helmets and bikes, including some of those found in the main hall.

The first thing I notice indoors is that it feels more spacious than last year. Every build is clearly viewable and there’s much less kneeling in narrow alleys between stands than you’d normally see at a custom show. This is no accident: Kev tells me later that he increased the space between plinths for just this reason, sacrificing the stage in the main hall in order to keep bike numbers equal to last year. The extra half-metre all round goes a long way: every bike has the space it deserves, with no hierarchy of prominence. This layout touches on the “motorbikes as art” theme I’ve seen elsewhere, and strikes a good balance between space and content. The lack of distinction here is also deliberate: “I want to look at a bike and not know if it’s a shed build or a pro build. If it’s a nice-looking bike, it’s in” explains Kev, following up with the quotable “It’s about the appreciation of the aesthetics of the motorcycle.”

This may seem a slightly highbrow statement, but the creative urge is evident in the builders I talk to. It could be the trickest thing you can imagine, a humorous idea, or your own personal dream machine – it’s all the same translation of ideas into metal. “It’s another form of visual communication”, continues Kev, “they want to get their ideas out into reality, it’s a form of self-expression.” This is perhaps what distinguishes the custom scene from the regular biking scene, i.e. that it’s as much about creativity as getting your kicks on two wheels. Many of the bikes are not for sale and their owners have no interest in securing commissions from clients. The words “I would, if someone offered me stupid money…” are often heard, it’s true, but this is no commercial venture. Generous offers are made all weekend, and declined, which is great way to draw new blood into the custom scene: it sends the message that to own one, you’ll just have to build it yourself.

So, everyone here is happy as the proverbial pig. There was some online sniping in the run-up to the show, with the word hipster coming up, which is almost too ridiculous even to refute, but worth a mention. The negative connotations around the H-word are generally about a lack of authenticity, but you just can’t make that stick to people who’ve devoted so much to what they do. In many cases, as Kev notes, “it’s a culture they were born into” – this is true of my personal favourite: built by Tom Shaw and his dad William of Holme Valley Customs is a heavily-modded 1970s Duo Glide, with a 50s/70s Pan/Shovel motor. It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful example of what can happen when you raise your kids to be bikers. Kev adds the story of a bunch of hipster-looking guys who came last year, looked around all day, and then went down to Leeds Harley Davidson around the corner, where each bought a Sportster on the spot. There’s still a way to go from there, though I expect those same bikes are now far from stock – not bad going for promotion of bike culture, so who cares how people dress? Sure, the show looks cooler than, say, a massive tent in a field, or a soulless exhibition centre that spends half the year displaying farm equipment, but that’s no bad thing. If Kev (and his wife Tina) have an eye for layout and decor, then so much the better. And you couldn’t really throw a red brick in Leeds without hitting another red brick: it’s just what the place looks like. I’m one of thousands who live here and ride around the city all the time, so to have such a show in the midst of our biking world is fantastic.

Kev describes the show as “a community event”, held in response to the need for an indoor custom show in the north. Balancing the books is tricky, but he’s adamant that all funds come from ticket sales: no exhibitors pay to be here. If there’s any profit, he pays the crew first and the rest goes in the pot for the future, very much like the various DIY cultures of recent decades. Plans are underway for next year, although Canal Mills, bizarrely, is to be demolished and replaced with a replica of itself, with apartments inside. A similar building, also central and close to the waterways is being considered instead. I might get cracking now and put a bike in myself.