Interview With Class Retro Bike Builder Jonathan Hull of #jhullmoto
How old are you?
I am 45 years old. Born in 1975.
Where are you from?
I was born in Leicestershire, but my family moved to Yorkshire when I was young. I support Leicester City FC but I consider myself a Yorkshireman.
Where do you live now?
I now live in Pontefract. I love that I am less than a mile away from an actual castle and that I can be out in the countryside in a matter of minutes.
What do you do apart from building amazing, handcrafted motorbikes?
I used to be a professional musician and then a music teacher. I am a bassist and drummer/percussionist.
What’s the day job, what pays the bills?
I am a subject coordinator of Music in state secondary education.
4 words to describe you ?
Creative, Determined, Meticulous, Loving,
What were you into when you were a child, have bikes always been a passion?
When I was a child, I had a poster of a Kawasaki Ninja on my bedroom wall. It was such an awesome looking thing. I also remember my cousin Steven coming to visit us on a really cool bike. I didn’t ride myself as a young man though, not until I was in my 20’s. I bought a scooter and fancied myself as a bit of a Mod. I loved me a bit of northern soul too.
What’s your first bike memory?
We lived very close to Mallory Park Race Circuit in Leicestershire when I was young. We could hear the motorcycle races from our house and my Dad always used to say “That’ll be Barry Sheen that!”.
Did you ever go to the races? Did you have a motorbike hero?
No, we didn’t make it to races but mechanical engineering and cool vehicles were ever present. I remember my next-door neighbour building US army Jeeps, the guy over the road had boats of all kinds, and a family friend who was always in a Defender of one type or another. My mum had a run of classic Mini’s too.
Was your dad an influence on your decision to get into bikes, did he ride or build bikes?
My father was/is an engineer in the woodworking industry. He began as a draftsman, went on to the factory floor and eventually into sales. There is nothing he doesn’t know about woodworking machinery and DIY. Now semi-retired, he likes to be referred to as a ‘Captain of Industry. It will likely be on his headstone one day. He taught me so much over the years. He always had the best workshop in the street and there seemed to be nothing he couldn’t build or fix. I owe all of my practical skills to him.
So fettling runs in the blood then?
Oh yes. My Dad always had a project on the go. Perhaps the one we bonded over most was a 1976 Triumph Stag V8 with the original Triumph engine, before they started fitting those Rover lumps, we both loved that car. I can still tell a Triumph v8 just by the sound. I don’t even have to look up.
What got you into building bikes?
My Barber was chatting to me while cutting my hair. He says, “I’m thinking of buying an old motorbike and turning it into a Café racer.” I had no idea what one was but when I got home, I started googling them. I loved what I was seeing and got quite obsessed with them. I liked the history and the stories of the Ton Up Boys in the ’60s. I loved that the bikes were so raw. Just stripped back to a frame, engine, and wheels. Everything on the bikes that did not make them go fast or stop fast was discarded for weight loss to make them faster and more agile. That philosophy has been at the core of all my design choices. -Image Ace Café/ Ton Up boys-
What was the first bike you modded, did you just dive straight in, no fear?
After my newfound obsession with Café Racer’s and a great deal of research, I decided to have a go at building my own. I wanted to start small and get myself a Honda CG125. I found a written off bike with no paperwork in a scrapyard in Stoke on Trent that had been sat outside for 6 years. The guy wanted £300 for it so me and the old man went over one day to pick it up. It was a wreck, but we bought it anyway.
It’s a big step from fixing up to scratch-building major components how did that happen?
Originally, I fell in love with the aesthetics of these bikes. I just wanted to see if I could build a Café Racer. I was very naïve at the time and thought it would be just a case of swapping out a few aftermarket parts and a little restoration. I was very, very wrong. As the donor vehicle I chose was a complete write-off, it soon became clear that I would have to do a full-on restoration before I even thought about the design aspects. It also became clear that the modifications necessary to achieve what I wanted, were well out of my skill set. The entire project was one of the biggest learning curves I have taken on. So, It was a compulsive decision of the heart I guess?
I use the 2004 to 2008 Honda CG125ES as donor vehicles. I chose these bikes as they are learner legal, they avoid the inner-city emission taxes, they have a pressed steel box frame that looks great when you uncover it, and they have an electric start. The Honda CG has a famously bulletproof engine that is as reliable as they get. Just simple engineering that is very well built. All these bikes were manufactured in the Honda factory in Brazil. Brazil built Honda’s are the best.
So that’s a mix of basic fit for purpose and availability then?
There are plenty about if you know where to look and as the majority of the bike isn’t needed for my builds, I don’t need to cherry-pick examples where all the ancillaries are in perfect cosmetic condition. As long as the frame is straight, and the engine is good then I’m happy.
Which bits do you keep then?
All I use are the frame, the swingarm, the forks and the engine. Everything else gets eBayed or sent for recycling. A number of the parts I import from selected suppliers in Asia, there’s a huge aftermarket parts scene out there. A lot of the new parts I fabricate in-house and the remaining bits are outsourced to trusted local craftsmen here in Yorkshire. I have a great network of incredibly talented painters, fabricators, powder coaters and mechanics.
It’s obvious that you don’t keep the frames ‘as is’ I can see a lot of re-work in there, is that the same for the other parts?
Yes, the main cost in the build is my time. The frame modifications alone are a huge job, and it takes a lot of time and care. Almost every part that I source from outside the UK requires customizing for my application once it gets here, they aren’t ‘plug n play’. They all need varying amounts of modification in order to fit the bikes and look the way I want them to. The aesthetic, as well as the function, is critical.
You’ve built two bikes a Café Racer and a Scrambler, does that reflect your personal preference for bikes? Do you ride a bit of everything, or do you just love all bikes?
The Café Racer was an aesthetic decision, I just love the way they look, but building a Scrambler was a business decision. I want to offer my 125cc bikes in two models. They share a lot of the underpinnings, but the finished product speaks to two different sets of bike owners.
Was the plan always to make a business out of building bikes?
No, my original plan was just to build a cool bike. It constantly amazes me how much attention the Café gets. I can’t park it up at the local biker Café without having a crowd of people gather around it. Having the opportunity to display it at The Malle Mile in 2020 was amazing too.
From the moment I finished the first bike, people were asking me if it was for sale or If I would build them one. I have fallen in love with bike building. It appeals to my creativity and my meticulous nature. I truly find my inner peace when I am in the workshop creating a motorcycle. I guess business and pleasure crossing over is just a very happy coincidence.
Has the online community taken to it as quickly as the public have?
Absolutely, the Instagram community has been a big part of what I do. I originally used Instagram as a way of documenting my first build. Then I met other bike builders who were generous enough to help me out and offer advice. As the build progressed, I met more and more like-minded bike builders and we’ve formed a community of our own. We talk regularly, I have met some of them in person and I now consider them my friends.
After the success of my first build and getting picked up by some of the bigger moto culture accounts on Instagram, I now have followers from all around the world especially in Europe, Brazil, Mexico, The USA and the Philippines (places with thriving custom moto cultures).
I try to post my build progress regularly to keep my followers up to date and I also try to help as many aspiring builders as I can, you have to ‘pay it forward’. I learnt so much from generous builders in the online community who helped me when I was getting started.
With so much interest in the bikes, you must get a lot of people looking to replicate parts of what you’ve done?
I guess. I’m a bit secretive about my best parts suppliers though? (trade secrets) Selecting suppliers is hard-fought, time-consuming and costly. I fabricate some parts; I modify others and the basics I buy online like everyone else. With a bit of time and research, you can find almost anything you want. I’ll point people in the general direction for most of the bits, but the wheels… Well, a guy has to have some secrets.
The wheels are a real focal point on the bike with their unique spoke lacing, how did they come about?
The spoked wheels were a fundamental design choice right from the start. You didn’t get cast alloy rims in the 50’s and 60’s and that classic look was what I wanted. The stock Honda wheels for these bikes are spoke but the rims are narrow. Oversized and squared away tyres was another design choice, so I decided to look for something new. I came across these 72 spoke wheels. They are more often something seen on motocross bikes but were available in a 2.15 front and rear. I decided to give them a go.
They were far from plug and play and a lot needed doing to them before I was prepared to put them on my build. It was a fast and steep learning curve at the time. I now strip them down right out the box, get them blasted and powder coated. They get a bearing upgrade and then re-laced and trued by my local wheelwright. It doesn’t stop there though as these wheels affect the whole drive train. You have to swap out everything for new or modded parts. Spindles, spacers, sprockets, brakes (front and rear) they are a nightmare to be honest and It’s for that reason I choose not to point people towards them. All that being said, they do look awesome, and they have become a big part of my signature style, I guess?
You’ve done a lot of hand fabrication on the first two bikes, are you always going to build like that, or do you expect to sub out the non-craft jobs in the future?
Fabrication is one of my favourite parts of the building process and it’s what makes my bikes unique. The frame modifications that are necessary to keep that ultra-clean, stripped back look are the key to these bikes, and though it is complicated and time-consuming, I now have the necessary jigs, parts, and measurements to get it done more efficiently with a better end product.
The first bike was all done by eye on the fly. The second was a very measured, documented, and refined process. There are things I do ‘farm out’ however, I have guys that have spent lifetimes perfecting their crafts so things like the exhausts and paint I leave to them. I don’t think this balance will shift much, I’ll just get better and faster at building them.
What does your other half think of it? Did she sign up for the grease monkey when she married the music teacher?
I’m fortunate in that Rachel is very supportive of me. She’s an ‘alternative’ girl at heart. So, I think she likes the scene, and she loves the shows and festivals as we can attend them as a family. She understands me and my need for solitude and focus. Rachel tells me that she’s proud of me. She knows I want to make it my career and is supportive but understandably family stability comes first as we have two small children. The kids love it too though. Especially my son, he always wants to come for a ride on ‘Daddy’s bike’ and I built him a couple of motorcycle balance bikes so he can join in a little. I plan to get them both electric dirt bikes soon.
You’ve been working on rebuilding a model lathe for which you’ve used the S3555CPS chop Saw to help build a stand/frame. What jobs is that going to be used for on the bike?
I have wanted a metal turning lathe of my own for some time and I was lucky to drop on a Drummond Brothers A-Type from the early 1920s. It’s a beautiful thing. To make it operational in a modern shop it requires a modern motor and regulator. That’s why I decided to build a solid steel box-section frame for it to set it up as one unit. With the big Evolution Chop Saw, cutting perfect 45-degree mitres through chunky box section was a breeze. Butting up rounded box steel isn’t usually a great idea, but with an accurate saw and clean cuts, it couldn’t be easier. Zero prep time, just line them up and start welding.
I plan to use the lathe to manufacture my own wheel spacers, modify stock spindles and look at smaller custom details like oil filler caps and bar ends. I want to bring as much production under one roof as possible, that way I can put more of myself, into each build.
What plans do you have for the future? New designs, custom options, a production run of serial bikes?
With the two models of the 125cc bikes proved and complete, I intend to get them to as many shows and bike nights as I can this summer. We are starting with the Malle Mile in July, the Oily Rag MC (Henry Cole’s place) The Yorkshire Rock and Bike Show and (fingers crossed) the Bike Shed MC. I have an awesome photographer and I intend to drum up as much publicity as I can with these two bikes. Come September, the two bikes will be sold to kick start the business and I will be taking orders.
I am working with local motorcycle professionals on final price for these bikes that reflects their exclusivity and the time and care that goes into the build while at the same time keeping them accessible. I am already being approached by buyers and I am confident that these bikes will be a success. Those interested can contact me via email through jonathanhull.co.uk or through my Instagram account @jhullmoto.
Are you already thinking about the next bikes, 250s, 500’s where is your head?
While the 125cc bikes will form the ‘bread and butter of the business, I intend to build show bikes too. I have designed a very high end, custom Honda CB500-four using some of the industry’s leading custom parts manufacturers and components specialists. It’s going to be awesome and may well break the internet.
I have other ideas for the business too like running my own events and supplying bikes for film and media. I have thought about selling custom parts too, but we’ll see how things pan out. Baby steps and all that…
What’s the process for getting a hand-built bike registered in the UK?
At present, my bikes are classed as modified motorcycles as the frame and engine are stock and match. They are simply registered as the donor vehicle with listed modifications. Of course, all my bikes are checked over by a qualified third party and given a fresh MOT on completion. They are supplied with all the relevant legal paperwork and a list of modifications. There’s nothing for the prospective owner to take care of, it’s a turnkey handover.
Will building a bike for yourself always be the start of a project or will you take the lead from a potential client?
I already offer a range of optional upgrades and colour choices, but ultimately, the bigger details are part of my larger vision for the bikes. I have discussed the idea of collaborating with other builders and designing branded bikes for clothing and lifestyle companies, that’s one to watch out for in the near future.
I know that clients come to me because they’ve seen something I’ve built, and they like that vision. I don’t want to risk diluting that by sending out part-custom bikes that I am not 100% happy with. There’s a phrase about a camel being a horse designed by committee, I want to avoid that at all costs.
I love building these bikes and I want to share that journey and the joy of ownership with as many people as possible. I’m proud to put my name on these bikes.
If you’d like to see more of Jonathan’s incredible bikes and other merch then you’ll find him on the Web at jonathanhull.co.uk and via his Instagram page @jhullmoto and if you’re old fashioned you can reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’d love to own one of Jonathan’s bikes but don’t have the disposable income to hand you’ll be pleased to hear that Ignite Comps, who run motorbike focussed online competitions, have picked up Jonathan’s Café Racer and have made it available as the main prize in one of their September competitions.