Oil in the blood

Celebrating custom culture

Film-maker Gareth Maxwell Roberts gives an insight into his new film about the custom bike building scene

Oil in the Blood is a new film celebrating the rising alt-culture of custom bike building – and the key role Harley-Davidson has played in it for more than a century. Film-maker Gareth Maxwell Roberts tells us how the film came about…

How did Oil in the Blood progress from an idea to reality?

We are living in the best of times for custom motorcycles right now; the scene is the most vital it’s been since the 1960s and 70s, so I really felt someone needed to document it and get it on film.

I’ve been an independent film-maker for 30 years and have been riding bikes since I was 15, so this was a passion project for me. We started filming in 2016 and shot on and off for three years, fitting filming in around key custom bike events, as well as budget constraints. In the end that worked to our advantage as we were able to really dig into the custom bike culture and truly understand the principles and values behind it.

How did you choose which bike builders to include?

Originally I had a list of around 40 people I wanted on film: mainly friends and people from the custom scene I admired. We ended up filming 300 people and could have easily done another hundred. About 170 people appear in the final film, which gives a good overview of the custom world. They range from shed builders to the rock stars of custom building, such as Shinya Kimura and Roland Sands, so you could say it’s a wide spectrum.

Did you conclude that custom bike building is in a healthy state?

Custom building is more healthy than it’s been for decades; it’s attracting a whole new generation to motorcycles and giving them access into that world. Now kids of 19 are getting hold of old bikes and pulling them apart and customising them. There’s no single aesthetic to conform to; you can park a home-built bike next to a high-end custom and still be welcomed. This current custom culture has brought the cool back to motorcycling, and one of the most encouraging things about that is that it’s brought young people back in again.

Making the film really reconfirmed my belief in it all – there’s genuine interest in custom bike building again, and a reassertion of the old-school values of building motorcycles with your hands. That was one of the most interesting things we found – it’s an analogue revolution facilitated by the digital age, with people going online to learn skills like coachbuilding and publicising the results via social media – a strange alliance between old and new cultures.

Tell us about some of the Harley-Davidson® builders in the film

There’s too many to mention! One of the most interesting to me is ‘Majik’ Mike Rabideau of Garage Built Motorcycles, a very interesting character on many levels. He makes exquisite choppers, quirky and unusual, but built to a ridiculously high standard. And Roland Sands, one of the early pioneers of the custom alt-culture, who came from a Harley-Davidson background but with racing history as well – smashing different styles together in one bike and really making it work.

Then there’s the guys from Suicide Machine Company with their flat-track builds, following the original ethos of ‘race on Sunday, ride to work on Monday’ and using the Sportster® as an accessible, affordable sport bike. If Hooligan racing had been around 15 years ago I just know I would have been right into it. For old Harleys there’s James Jordan of Kingdom of Kicks making some interesting period choppers, and Andy Porter from The Trip Out – a real old-school Harley chopper guy.

How influential do you feel Harley-Davidson is in the current custom culture?

Unmistakably, Harley-Davidson is at the epicentre of motorcycle custom culture, because people have been customising Harley-Davidson motorcycles since they were first built – I guess you could say they were literally the first ‘shed-built’ motorcycle. There’s such a rich culture with Harley-Davidson and customisation. Harley really understands it because they’ve been involved from the start; it’s part of their DNA and so naturally they understand it better than other manufacturers.

How can people see the film?

It can be seen through special viewings at custom motorcycle events, and it was released worldwide on October 14. It will be available on streaming services in the New Year.

See the trailer for Oil in the Blood here