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Dick Smith The Barons Speed Shop
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The Barons Speed Shop started in 2003. It was an idea kicking about between myself a few mates from the States.
"I'd been working at MCS in Leytonstone, East London, which was the late Ted Bloomfield's British bike spares shop. At that time, the vintage custom scene was developing in the USAwith the emphasis on vintage. We're talking about proper old schoolor, if you prefer, old skoolwhich refers to chopped 1950s & 1960s Triumphs, BSAs and of course Harleys, the kind of bikes that grew out of the heady petrol-fumed, STP days of West Coast speed scene. Which shouldn't be confused with modern choppers and custom bikes."
There's a distinction there, explains Dick Smith as he flushes the sludge trap of a 650cc Triumph crankshaft. He's clearly a mechanic of the "cluttered school"so you can forget about immaculate, surgically clean benches. Dick's too busy building quality bikes the fastest way possible to worry about getting a feature in Ideal Workshop magazine.
"But it was always the British stuff that really interested me," he continues. "Fast, lean, trick, and heavily chopped Thunderbirds, A10s, TR6s, T110s, Speed Twins and suchlike."
He's finished flushing the sludge trap and takes the paraffin dripping crankshaft to a bench vice that's seen more action than the London Blitz. There he pauses to light a cigarette; (one of about 50 he'll get through in the course of another day) and has a long, thoughtful chug adding another cloud of carcinogens to the general fug of engine oil and welding torch fumes pervading the room.
"For a long time," he continues, "I'd been buying up all kinds of custom and chopper parts from the 1960s & 1970s and slowly working up to the idea of a vintage chopper revival, British style.
"I wanted to built a real period show'n'go sixties style bobber of my own, which subsequently became The Delinquentand which has since been around the hot rod circuit a few times and has caught the imagination of a lot of likeminded people who also want to go the vintage chopper, or bobber, route. Anyway, that was the beginning of it. That was where the Baron's Speed Shop started."
Dick is The Baron, incidentally. He's been building British bikes for about five thousand years and turns out immaculate classics and kustoms from a workshop strewn with motorcycle parts and equipment.
Behind him, for instance, is an old bedsitter oven used for heating crankcases and gearbox shells (and possibly his dinner). Across the room is a battered blasting cabinet with a screen so grimy you need radar to see what you're doing. Beside that is a small lathe suitable for turning the odd spindle. To his right is a pegboard hung with dozens of Snap-On tools. Everywhere else are various other items of hand-held equipment jammed into cubby holes, dangling from hooks, or just stacked in motley heap of twentieth century workshop technology.
It doesn't look promising, but no one's complaining about the finished product.
"I teamed up with an old friend named Del Russell," says Dick, now turning back to the crankshaft and reaching for a wire brush to clean some stubborn muck from the flywheel. "Del and me go back a long way and were on the same wavelength from the start. We felt that there might be a market for quality period accessories and genuine old skool bikeswhich a lot of people are now trying to build, but get wrong in a hundred different ways."
Dick stops what he's doing and sucks on the ciggie again.
"CNC parts, for instance," he says, meaning computer numerically controlled precision accessories. "That's definitely not old skool. That's new school and has nothing to do with period bobbers or choppers. But a lot of so-called period bikes are being built with loads of CNC bolt-on accessories which, to me, look as naff as disc brakes and belt drives."
Not that Dick has got anything against discs and belts per se. It's just that on a bobber, a disc brake should be a drum brakes, and a drive belt should be a drive chainand if that chain slaps around a little and throws oil over your pegged jeans, that's too bad. That's the way it was, and for Dick that's the way it's got to be. When it comes to bobbers, things have got to be just so.
Frames with brazed lugs are, for instance, just fine. Fully welded cold-drawn-seamless (CDS) frames are not. Forged yokes get the thumbs up. Slab yokes get the thumbs down. Skinny crossply tyres are practically de rigeur. Modern radials are ... well, something of a necessary evil.
When it comes to the engine, a 650cc pre-unit Triumph lump with polished ports, a fat carburettor (or two), a pair of big bore pipes, and a competition mag will do fine. But a big pre-unit Beezer engine will do the job, or pretty much a pre-unit anything as long as it can be tuned.
Now add a peanut tank, a lightweight sprung saddle (with an optional chequered pattern) cowhorn bars, white rubber grips and footrestsand barely enough lighting to scrape through an MOTand it's beginning to cook.
And forget about the stainless steel. In bobber country, it's either chrome or paint, the later with old style rich candy metalflake paintwork and yards of hand applied pinstriping,
Von Dutch style.
"That's exactly how we like 'em," says Dick. "We've got some friends in the US operating from Portland, Oregonor Rose City as it's called over there. They're looking after the Stateside connection and are helping buy and sell parts such as our period oil tanks, ribbed fenders, fork covers, etc.
Back at home, Dick's wife Marie helps prop up the business in a dozen different ways, not least by adding a little glamour (check out Dick's web site and try keeping your eyes on the bikes).
"We're hoping to get into castings soon," says Dick, "perhaps with finned pre-unit primary covers and finned carburettor manifolds. But the development costs are high, and we've already invested a lot in various spun metal items and will be dealing with that first.
"But the scene isn't so big that you can throw a lot of money straight at it and expect a big and quick return. Most of our engineering has to go through the old boys network where production costs have to be carefully controlled. We're not having stuff bashed out in the fast East, after all, unless you call Essex the far east."
Which some do.
"The downside of this is that it can take months to get batches of components made, and that means you sometimes miss out on opportunities because you haven't always got the parts you need when you need them most.
"But the business is still developing, if not as fast as we'd like."
And what about the bikes?
"Well, we've built quite a few now. Ewan McGregor, of Star Wars fame, bought a bobber from us a couple of years ago. He told his mate Charlie Boorman who came along and also bought one. We've recently built a Krazy Triumph Street Scrambler, and we're busy working on Del's Harley 45 bobber.
"We've also sorted out many other bikes for customers, and there are some other projects of our own that are coming along."
But are there still enough "affordable" parts kicking around to develop a thriving bobber scene in the UK?
"Well, we think so," says Dick. "There's still a lot of frames, engines, gearboxes, wheels and forks on the market if you know where to look. We're working on a large range of essential goodies, and technology is moving all the timewhich is making it easier to bring new parts onto the market at a sensible price."
If you're interested in having a bobber built, visit The Baron's site at: www.baronspeedshop.com