Number 1 Customs
has been a mechanic all his life and is now one of the last of the
breed of hands-on mechanics who know classic motorbikes and their
together with Sam, run Jim's Number 1 Customs, specialists in
the sale, repair and restoration of Harleys and classic
British and American bikes and trikes.
these days of anonymous and antiseptic dealerships, expertise,
experience and old-fashioned customer service are the
hallmarks of Jim and Sam.
talks to Sam about what makes their business tick, about Jim's
wealth of experience, about the services Jim's Number 1
Customs offer and about why these classic machines are so
Digger: How are things going?
Yes, the sun is bringing people out, which is nice.
My lady and I were at a Mod event in north London yesterday and there
were hundreds of scooterists there in the sun. It was great
with the music.
I'm not surprised it was busy. You get some sun and everybody's on their
bike, aren't they?
Please tell us about your background and about your love of
Retro, Vintage and Classic motorbikes?
Jim started in 1976 - his first bike was a 1969 TR6P Saint 650
- an ex-police bike.
One careful owner?!
Yes, which he completely stripped and completely
re-built . And at that stage he was still an apprentice at a
main dealer. So he was very lucky to get his trade. In those
took it out of his wages a little at a time over a couple of years.
That doesn't happen these days, does it?
No that's very true. I don't think the apprentices would get
that kind of a deal now. Things have changed. Obviously, being
in the trade for what 36 years now, it is a trade for life,
We've also seen the demise of our motor industry and motorbike
industry in that time. But don't get me started on that
because you won't be able to stop me!
He grew up as a youngster with lots of people in the family
having bikes - British and American, and was always surrounded
by some sort of machinery or another. Always helping out and
getting dirty and, as a kid, getting in the way. His love just
grew for these machines.
So what about you Sam?
I grew up on the bike scene and then went sensible for a
little while in the corporate world. I was a PA to a couple of
financial directors in the film studios over at Isleworth. I
decided "No, no, no I don't like this at all!" I bought myself a
bike and for various medical reasons ended-up on a trike. And
my love just grew from there. Great fun, you're totally
accepted by everybody and it doesn't matter if you're young or
old or what you are. At the time I was young and in a
wheelchair/on crutches and nobody took any notice of it at
You don't get that in the real world.
No you don't. And I've been in Tescos and people have actually
moved me out of the way in my wheelchair to get something.
Oh dear! It's like an Alan Partridge scene.
Yes, but it's true.
There are some really thick people about, aren't there?
They just don't see you. Now I'm not in my wheelchair, thank
God and touch wood, but in the bike scene I was always treated
like a 'normal' human being.
It's quite ironic isn't it? Because there's a myth that bikers
can be menacing and I'm thinking of an extreme like the
incident at the Stones' concert at Altamont, but actually
those are real exceptions and they're a good-hearted community
Yes, I've never had any problems whatsoever either as a
lone female wandering around or on my crutches. My daughter
was only tiny when she first got introduced and we have never,
ever had any problem. It's lovely and a good scene. There's obviously
good and bad in anything you do - I would say with 99.9% of the
people, you don't have a problem.
Can you tell us about the restorations you undertake?
We do full restorations from literally just a frame and an
engine - sometimes not even that, just a frame and a picture.
Or even just a picture! Up to rebuilds of British and American
bikes and others.
Is there anything you can't do?
(Thinks) No. There isn't anything we can't do. I think mainly because
Jim is very good at customisation. If somebody wants something
to fit his bike then Jim will do his damndest to make it fit
that bike. There's always something you can't do but to-date
we haven't had to say "No you can't have that."
And if you can't source the parts then you make them?
Incredible. How do you go about that? Have you got old catalogues or designs?
I think a lot of it on Jim's part is intuition. He can look at
something and say "Yes I can do that" or "No I
can't do it with that part but maybe I can improvise with
this." He is very gifted that way and has got such an
understanding of the machinery.
And your role Sam, you're the customer-facing side, the
management and admin and accounts side? Or do you also get an
opportunity to get your hands dirty?
I get my hands dirty as well. (Jim shouts out some teasing
scorn in the background) Definitely under Jim's tuition.
We are a good team, although I do the admin and that kind of
stuff mainly. Talking to the customers.
Where are they coming from?
They're coming from all over. We've had Americans ring us and
say they're coming over and they need this and need that and
can we arrange to fix their bike while they're over. So it
really is very, very varied.
How popular are the trikes?
It used to be about 30 or 40% of the business but it has
dropped off. People are still buying them.
Just trends and fashions, I suppose?
Possibly. If you've got the choice of a trike or a car in
rainy Britain and you've got a family and things are tight
then obviously you're going to go for the car.
I used to love the motorbike and sidecar and it's such a shame
You say they've gone - there are still some around. We've got
a customer who is very passionate about his.
They weren't made street-illegal or anything? I haven't seen
one for such a long time I thought they'd been outlawed by
health and safety or something.
They're not illegal, just not fashionable.
You're too young to remember George and Mildred aren't you?
No, they do the re-runs on TV.
He's got the old motorbike and sidecar. What sort of
feedback and comments are you getting about your service and
the bikes you sell Sam?
The customers we've got, we keep. And we've picked up a couple
of new ones this week, which is always good. And we get a lot
of referred business from friends of satisfied customers.
People do tend to stay with us, we know their bikes inside-out
and they probably came to us in not an ideal state in the
first place. We have done quite a lot of extensive work for
them usually. A new customer came to us today because he
didn't want the corporate look of a dealership where the
floors are so clean you daren't walk on them. He wanted to see
the person working on his bike so he could discuss
face-to-face with that person what he wanted his bike to look
like. And they're not getting that from the main dealers -
there you're talking to executives who don't know the difference
between an exhaust pipe and a tyre lever. And we do have quite
a few of those customers actually who want to deal with the person who
will be looking after their baby. And where they can get the
opportunity to say "I don't like that" and "I
quite like that" and they want to know what we're going to be
using on their bike. They want to make sure that it's taken
care of as they would.
Good old-fashioned service I think it's called.
Yes, it is, you're right, it is good old-fashioned service and
people are asking for it.
What advice would you give to the novice looking to be the
owner of a Retro bike?
I'd ask what's their background and why do they want one? As you know
yourself, they're not something that will never need something
doing to it and having an older bike is a commitment. Whether
it's a new bike made to look old or you go for an older bike,
there is a commitment there.
It's possibly going to break down more than a modern
bike and also it's going to be more of a challenge to ride as
It is more of a challenge but I disagree about the breaking down.
One thing that Jim does do which I haven't seen anywhere else
- if there's a newer or a technological way of doing something
on the bike, be it starting or whatever, he will use that technology
if he can and if it's better. So that, for argument's sake, it
makes the bike start straight away first time unlike its
predecessors. He's quite interested in that side so, with the
customer's agreement, he will do that.
I suppose there are a few purist customers who want everything
to be totally authentic and original. And there are others who
are realistic and if it doesn't change the look but it's a
better way to do it then do it the modern way.
Exactly. Bikes break down, cars break down and lorries break
down and you can't account for that, but if there is a better
way of doing it and the customer's happy with it then that's surely
the better way to prevent problems.
I saw a programme about the opening of the motorways network
in the 50s and 60s and it reminded me that cars and bikes
used to be 'run in'. We'd have a sticker at the back saying
'Running In - Please pass.' The vehicles then were not built
for motorway speeds or long distances and were forever
They were and I think people are more aware of that - especially
because we do the rebuilds and we tell them "You need to
run it in, just be gentle for a while." Come back after x
amount of miles, we'll have a look and make sure everything's
okay, do your next set of miles and make sure everything's
okay. And people do understand if you explain to them why -
"you've just had a new engine or gearbox and you need to
run it in and be gentle and these are the reasons why".
Jim is very good at imparting that. If the customer then
wants to do 100 m.p.h. in third gear then that's up to them.
And see you in a couple of days' time for expensive repairs!
If you educate customers, which we try to do especially with
the older bikes, then you don't tend to get problems.
What are the best and most rewarding things about what you two
For me personally, and this hasn't changed from the very
beginning, it's somebody bringing their bike in with a bit of
a dream and saying "I'd like it to look like this" or
even "I'd like it to perform better." Or when they
bring it in not working and we do all the bits that we have to
do, we are very clear and detailed on our invoices about all
the specific things that need to be done and so the customer
knows exactly what's happened. And then for the customer to
get on their bike and ride away - often we get them to do just
a block to make sure they're happy and they come back and they
are beaming, absolutely beaming. And that is it for me.
Geographically you're in a good spot for people to find you...
We are. We've got the M25 one end and the M3 the other end,
we're not far from the M4 so geographically we are in quite a
good place. People can get to us from all around. There are
some good bed and breakfasts here if people are coming in for a
service they can leave it here and get it sorted and pick up
when it's ready. There's lots of ways we can accommodate our customers
and that's what we try and do.
Digger: Why are
Classic bikes, such a big thing in so many people's
Sam: Memories and
nostalgia. A combination of all that. Remembering riding your
old bike when you were seventeen and eighteen. You worked on
it yourself in those days. When they went wrong in those days
people still knew how to fix it. Now it's all done with
Does that mean that it can be more economical to buy a classic
bike than a modern one?
Yes, I think it could be sometimes more economical to own a
classic bike because you're not having to go back to the
computer. And also if you can get somebody like Jim who are old
school, who had proper apprenticeships and they understand
what the parts of the bike do.
Are you guys going to get an apprentice at some stage?
We did have an apprentice and he's now decided that it's not
for him because of skin allergies to the oil so he's gone onto
design. Jim has had apprenticeships as he came up through the
trade and we also had apprentices who've gone on to other
things. It's always possible we might have more but for an
apprentice to be here he would be bombarded with lots of different
things. At the moment once Jim goes, there isn't anybody to
take it on. But that's not going to be for a few years yet.
He's nowhere near ready!
It does cross your mind as you build up all this business.
Yes, that's why I asked because I have people promoting on my
site who are doing vintage gramophones or jukeboxes and most
of them, once they're gone the business is gone although a
couple do have youngsters coming through taking on the skills
which is great.
Once Jim's age group are gone, there's not going to be the craftsmanship
there because the apprentices aren't being trained the same
way or having the same detail. They knock out mechanics in two
years now. I can remember Jim saying that the old timers
thought that five years wasn't enough to train a mechanic and
now they're trying to do it in two.
Just in a generation we have seen so many skills gone.
We still do the whole lot here.
There aren't many people doing that so you should be able to
charge a premium Sam. So, what are your plans for the future?
Hmm. Keep going forward and see how the economy goes.
You're riding the economic downturn at the moment and doing well, so
you should be well-positioned when it does pick up again.
Well, I hope so. We have seen business drop off and seen The
Internet becoming more dominant.
Thank God for The Internet, I suppose, because it opens up a
lot of potential new customers.
in some ways it is a Godsend and in other ways not - it
would appear, for example, that the more money you spend
on your web and Google ads the better you are.
It is taking away local business.
It is. It's a necessary evil and we've got a website which I try
and update every month. But if it's a choice between getting my
hands dirty here and running the business and doing something
on The Internet then The Net usually loses out!
Yes. A lot of people tell me the same thing. Well Sam, thanks
to you and Jim for letting us know about the business.
to Jims Number 1 Customs website.
Harley-Davidson & British motorcycle specialist.
Customs, servicing, spares & repairs
I am an independent
Harley-Davidson specialist who caters for ironheads,
shovelheads, panheads, knuckleheads as well as twin
cams and evo's of course.
I also have an interest in British bikes and can and
do work on them as well.
I am a fully-trained mechanical technician who is old
school in so far as if you can fix it or fabricate a
modification then why buy new?
Our online shop is still being added to so please come
back and see us.