Picture the scene: it was mid-1940s and, at long last, the Second World War had ended, with many thousands of American veterans returned home after prolonged periods of terror and hardship. They went home to communities devastated by loss of life, often to zero employment, often in regions where there really was nothing to do. Just how were these former soldiers going to replace the adrenalin rush of warfare? How were they going to occupy their time and give themselves something to live for?
Most of them were still young men but had plenty of newly acquired mechanical and technical skills. They had learnt how to repair aircraft, Jeeps, tanks, engines, transmissions - usually in inconvenient locations with the constant threat of enemy fire upon them. But this sharp and steep learning curve would, for many, be channelled into the machines they owned back home: cars and motorcycles.
Harley-Davidson, in particular, had already become an iconic brand and familiar to millions, thanks to its provision of bikes to the US military. Which meant veterans were familiar with how they were built and what their inherent problems were. And it didn't take long before they broke out the toolboxes and started to work on their own bikes, often changing them beyond all recognition. A craze was born and swept the nation; the "chopper" had arrived and, not to be outdone, those whose kicks were gotten on four wheels gave rise to the hot rod - both scenes that continue to push boundaries even today.
The "chop shops" where many of these bikes were created became ubiquitous throughout the US. "Chopping" a motorcycle included many different modifications: accessories were removed, seats were lowered, front forks were extended and the original frames were sometimes welded to allow outlandish shapes. These bikes became artistic masterpieces and riders sought to outdo each other by building bikes that were more extreme than anyone had ever seen. Some things never change.
As these motorcycles are widely known internationally, it is no surprise that the trend would eventually reach the UAE. Young men and women can often be seen riding around the country on bikes of all shapes, sizes and colours and this craze for Harleys, in particular, has helped in the creation of Falcons Abu Dhabi, a local club established in April of last year. The club has 23 members so far, which is considered to be quite large for such a small community.
For Ismaeil Al Khoori, who is the "tail gunner" in the club, riding on the open roads of Abu Dhabi and through the wind was inspired by films he had seen over the years and, four years ago, he surprised his family by bringing home a powerful motorbike. His father, who had been a rider in the past, supported his decision and soon his older brother decided to do the same.
His first bike was a black Suzuki Hayabusa but, despite it being a powerful bike and made for speed, Al Khoori quickly got bored. "I gave it to my older brother because I used to ride it around Abu Dhabi and the roads here aren't for speed," he says. "To me, it was a useless ride."
In 2011, Al Khoori bought a Harley-Davidson Road King Classic - a bike his father had ridden during his own youth - and the seeds were sown for modifications. "I used to see people riding bikes, but very few were customised, so I decided to take my Harley to a new level," he says. "I modified the bike myself, and I'm the only one that has one like this. And that was the idea: to be unique. This bike was made by me, and it will stay with me no matter what happens," he adds. "It is a member of my family. You can't sell family, can you?"
Originally maroon and gold, he transformed the Road King into a bright white and purple-skulled machine. The classic shape remained but Al Khoori changed the wheels, lights, saddlebags and handle bar, while extending the body and stretching the rear fender.
"The only thing that stayed in the bike was the engine," he says. "I started by ordering the parts online from the US, and waited for them to reach. In the meantime, I thought it needed a paint job to be complete."
And the paint job proved to be his Harley's biggest eye-catcher. "When people see me pass through they stare at me, which makes me nervous. But they like my bike and the smile on their faces means the world to me," adds Al Khoori. "People come to me and ask to take pictures and I allow it because you can never find a customised bike like this one."
Apart from riding around in the bright bikes, he was also contacted to participate in exhibitions, which he has gotten seven awards, all first prize.
"I've never been beaten," he smiles.
Al Khoori says many of these events are to support children or the disabled.
"Two weeks ago we were sponsors of an Autism Awareness Ride 2013, and our members were also participants," he says. "I want them not to feel alone, and they know we [bikers] are there for them."
His friend, Ahmed Al Masabi, also joined the group as a "sergeant at arms", and he represents the club, taking care of safety for the various rides the groups takes part in. Al Masabi decided to fix his chopper by changing the handlebars and exhaust system and adding engines upgrades. Some parts were chromed, and he added some accessories like grips and mirrors to it. But the biggest change to his Harley was the giant rear wheel, with a much slimmer one up front.
The Ironhorse Texas Chopper attracts plenty of attention, not all of it desirable. "They [people] always look and try to take pictures. They also want to take photos on the bike," he says - something that worries Al Masabi and other bikers in the group. "They might scratch the paint, so we just tell them take a picture next to the bike." And although he gets plenty of offers to buy the chopper, he's decided not to sell. "I consider it a part of me," he admits.
Art My Style, the custom shop in Dubai, where Al Khoori had his bike modified, has customised about 80 motorcycles in the past year. The manager, Graham Athanatius, says customers talk to management about their plans and explain what they want. They are then advised on what to do regarding the colour or design.
"We customise bikes according to the needs of the customers," he says. "Sometimes the customers have their own design, but it doesn't match the bike, so we advise them on what to do. We do everything on the bikes. You want it to be extended? We can also do that." He explains that the shop handles the tyres, saddlebags, handlebars and windshields, not just the mechanics or paint jobs.
Even though the shop has a design catalogue, from which customers can choose from different styles, the designers still offer new and unique designs to their customers. "We always try different designs for the customers," says Athanatius. "Most of them don't like it if the design is on another bike, and they pay for it to be exclusive."
Usually a designer and a mechanic work together on the bikes and the duration of the build depends on the what kind of work is needed (usually a month or two), with costs starting at Dh10,000, possibly reaching up to Dh100,000 or more. Recently the shop has seen an increasing amount of young owners who want their bikes customised, including both locals and expats. Art My Style has also won several awards for the quality of its work, both locally and internationally, for best paint jobs and customisation.
Art My Style's owner, a young businessman called Abdulla Al Heraiz, founded the workshop three years ago and his first project was customising his own Yamaha R1, followed by a Hayabusa 1300 and a Suzuki 1000 that he shares with a friend. "I didn't have a background in bikes. My friend, who is a mechanic, and I decided to open a workshop for airbrushing and designing," says Al Heraiz. "My friend takes care of the mechanics in the workshop adjacent to mine."
His initial step was to kit out the workshop and then find the designers and painters who could airbrush unique and artistic paintings on the bikes, creating what many onlookers view as masterpieces of rolling art.
He adds that the shop is famous for its chrome work. "Our idea is 'you name it, we chrome it'. The shop is called Art My Style, so it is your style, you choose it," he says.
Al Heraiz has his own theories on the seemingly unbreakable bond between young men and their bikes. "It is a personal connection between the bike and the rider; what gets them to customise it is the feeling they get while riding and see people's reactions," he ponders. "They begin with a love story with the bike, and after the customisation the love grows. It's not easy to let go of the bike."
He says the only real problem when it comes to this kind of work is the cost, adding that many wish to have a unique, customised bike, but choose to save the money, either for marriage or buying a house. "The customer knows his bike will be 'wow', but [often] doesn't have the budget for it," he adds. "Some take years, taking it step by step, while others have the cash ready and we are able to start working."
Whatever the reasons are for modifying a car or motorcycle, the resulting creations become extensions of their owners' personalities. And while those early chop shops would probably look at the work being carried out today in disbelief, surely they would be heartened by seeing the craze they started in the post-war years spreading to countries such as ours, where that spirit of individuality and uniqueness is still very much alive and kicking.
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