Fake news alert. I haven't really escaped from a WWII prison camp.
Ask anyone this side of Dr Johnson to define ‘irony’, and they’ll find it pretty difficult. Give the job to some slightly dysfunctional Brummie custom bike builders and they’ll have it nailed quicker than you can say it.
I’m talking about Mutt Motorcycles. They take Chinese licence-built versions of small Suzukis (the sort of Japanese bike that helped demolish the British motorcycle industry in the 60s and 70s) and convert them, using their own parts, into evocations of the British scrambler and home-made café racer of those far-off glory days, but with a digital gear indicator and Euro4 compliance. They do this, obviously, in a building once occupied by BSA.
One part of me is uneasy with this sort of thing. Like the Royal Family, regional Cornish pasties, and Oxfordshire, it smacks of an inability to move on. But on the other hand…
Mutt makes small motorcycles, 125s and 250s, with the avowed aim of getting people back into bikes. They may be on to something, because they started a few years ago making just a handful of these things, but now they’re selling like, well, fashionable and reasonably priced small capacity motorcycles. They’re a bit hipster, you see.
It’s weird. My own personal round-town weapon is a Honda MSX 125 (Grom, if you’re in America), which is the sort of angular contemporary bike ridden by gangs of teenage yobbos around Japanese cities. I like that. Ride the Mutt, and you can feel your beard growing. You will soon form the opinion that vinyl is just so much ‘warmer’ than CDs or MP3 files. Eventually, you will just give in and buy an open-face Davida and some goggles.
And it’s obviously cool. When I ride my Repsol-liveried Fireblade, no-one gives a toss. When I’m out on the Mutt, everyone wants to talk to me about it. Not just old farts who like to tell me how they rode all the way back from Liverpool on the back rim of their Norton 500 Thunderchuff; da kidz as well.
What I have here is the Hilts 250, inspired by McQueen’s bike in The Great Escape. So now it’s customised Chinese licence-built Japanese technology posing as a 1960s 650 Triumph that was masquerading as a 1930s Wehrmacht BMW and actually ridden by Bud Ekins for the famous jump, in case McQueen face-planted it and lost his fortune. But let’s not get bogged down.
Mutt designs a prototype, in this case based on the old Suzuki GN250. The Chinese factory builds around 65 per cent of the bike, then ships it to the UK, where Mutt does all the nice bits: bars, lights, wheels, knobbly tyres, tank, seats, paintwork and what have you. There is a range of Mutt bikes but they will combine the bits in any way you want. This is one of the advantages of working in 1950s Birmingham, away from the constraints of ruthlessly efficient modern lean production methods.
Shamelessly hip they may be, but Mutt’s modifications actually make a great deal of sense for a biffabout bike that will, I suspect, largely be ridden about town. Not much point in riding it out in the wilds, because no-one will see just how Goddam on-trend you’re being. The low seat and wide bars make the riding position upright and comfortable – good for looking around, if only at your reflection in a window. It’s very arse-steerable and reasonably light. Throw in a farty exhaust pipe and some noisy knobblies, and the sound track comes good as well. Colour schemes from before the era of colour TV round off its retro cred.
To be honest, this isn’t the most modern bike in the world. The GN lump is ancient, and there’s a bit of backlash in the transmission, which in turn is exacerbated by the lumpy one-pot power delivery. Sometimes, the shift from first to second makes a noise like Blue Oyster Cult’s cowbell. Those tyres can feel a bit squirmy at low speeds. But so what? That’s just enough authenticity, thanks, and it’s balanced out by electric start, disc brakes at both ends, proper lights, and all the other appurtenances of gracious living*.
I ended up being quite fond of the Mutt. At around £3700 (depends on your exact spec) it’s no more expensive than a mainstream commuter bike or posh scooter, but while some of those can feel a bit humdrum, the Hilts does at least have proper character. It’s amusing, and it’s strangely companionable.
It is, in fact, a bit like getting a dog.
*c. Quentin Wilson, Top Gear (1991-2001)