Old Empire Gladiator
It started as a fighting-fit, but stock 1,650cc Victory Hammer, and ended up as The Gladiator ready to do combat on the custom bike circuit. Come check out the story...
Many custom bike builders aspire to it. And many builders think they've got it. But relatively few actually have it. What are we talking about? The knack, that's what. Specifically, the knack of getting the poise, the proportions, the presence, and the particulars just right.
Old Empire Motorcycles (OEM), based in Diss, Suffolk, has that knack in spades, which isn't to say that this firm has become complacent and isn't constantly pushing at the boundaries of what is achievable and what can loosely be termed "good taste". But Alec Sharp, the driving heart of OEM, understands that there are times when you want to take a build right to the edge, and then pull back a smidgen to ensure that the bike not only looks right, but rides right. Some customs are for show. And some are for go. But at Old Empire, you can have both.
We haven't straddled this machine. But we've got no doubt that it's properly sorted in every department and will lay down more miles than we can conveniently count. And, we lurrrrve the look of this motorcycle, which is doubly interesting because we didn't even much like Victory Motorcycles when the bikes were launched. No special reason for that. They simply didn't appeal, maybe because they looked a little too refined. Too finished. Too complete.
But over the years they've grown on us, and over the past few days this one has grown on us too. What we like about it is pretty obvious. The way it sits. The long, lean lines of what is clearly a heavyweight bruiser. Those leather bags hung off the saddle. Those irregular stainless exhaust pipes. That cockpit screen and the double headlights. The curves of the tank. And the colour.
And those low 'bars too. With that pavement-hugging stance, those swooping handles put us in mind of the original Harley-Davidson Low Rider. We're talking about the hunkered-down-and-hanging-on-for-dear-life look (as opposed to the-swinging-from-a-tree-like-a-baboon-look).
And there are faint echoes of the Yamaha XS1100 Midnight Special. But this is something else. Something unique. And we're going to let Alec Sharp himself tell the tale in his own way. So gather round the fire, pilgrims...
Based on a 1650cc Victory Hammer, the Gladiator is designed to have the aesthetics of a hardened street custom, but with all the usability of a long distance tourer. Careful trimming of excess bodywork, reshaping the tank, and in general creating a more aggressive feel using the stock frame was the key to transforming this build.
A build can develop in a couple of ways. Sometimes everything falls into place naturally as the work progresses, and without wanting to sound overly arty, the bike kind of builds itself. However there are other times when our bikes take a little more deep thought in making sure everything comes together correctly, especially when based upon a predetermined concept. It's one thing drawing something in pencil, and something else entirely making it work.
The Gladiator was actually our first commission based on a concept drawing that we do alongside our very talented artist Martin Squires. We’ve learned a considerable amount since then, and it's amazing to think that we have finally managed to create something ride-able and useable from those early scribblings.
The customer came to us with the brief of wanting a custom motorcycle able to tour Europe on, and nothing less than 1500cc and a V-twin. At that time, that gave us two options: Harley or Victory. We’re always ready to back the underdog, and seeing as the world is already awash with plenty of Harley customs of all shapes and sizes, it was decided a 2007 Victory 1650cc Hammer was a suitable candidate.
Work started with the removal of the unnecessary parts. First the 'guards and the bodywork, bars, seat, exhausts, etc, all to which amounted to an average motorcycles weight in itself.
The standard hammer rolls along on cast alloy wheels, narrow at the front and HUGE at the rear. Not being a fan of this look, we promptly removed both and replaced them with 80 spoke dual flanged rims which then were machined to adapt to the standard pulley at the back and brand new floating discs especially made for us by Harrison Billet. Finally to get that aggressive feel, but still keep the motorcycle wholly usable, the rims were shod in Pirelli Scorpions front and back.
"To say the least, it was nerve-wracking when we fired her up for the first time. I fully expected the under-seat fuel set-up to spew petrol everywhere..."
A new swinging arm came next. This was fitted with our own machined axle plates in place of the oversize cast alloy item. That tied into the rest of the tubular frame along with extended portions of the original chassis. New swinging arm and wheel spindles finished it all off nicely.
At the sharp end (no pun intended), we re-engineered the internals to drop it an inch to get a nose-down stance (although this sounds simple, a huge amount of work is required to make the forks function properly, yet sit lower). The top yoke was removed, and a fresh billet yoke was machined with integral warning lights. Both clocks were made for us by Smiths Instruments Ltd based in Wales. The designs are based on the original 80mm chronometrics, but these are electronic versions. One is a speedo the other is a tacho, and both have been mated into the original wiring loom to get the correct readings. Two aluminium housings were machined to fit. The front 'guard was then cut down to a suitable size.
The dual headlights sat nicely between the wide fork tubes, and once shrouded with a simple cowling, it brought everything together well. The 'bars were an idea formed by the need to keep the top yoke clear of clutter in order to see the speedo, etc, but the customer also wanted a riding position that was not too leaned forward. This resulted in our setup that seems to work well both aesthetically and ergonomically.
The original rear sub-frame was then removed, so we had a fresh start at a new bolt-on section. This we had to tie-in cleverly to get the simple lines of the concept, but retain a wide enough seat for comfort.
An added complexity was the stock twin-spar frame design; i.e. the two top tubes that splay out from the headstock (imagine a Ducati trellis type layout). Those top rails take up space. Therefore, lowering the tank to get the top lines low and curvaceous would inevitably reduce the fuel capacity from around 17 litres to around four litres. And that was a problem.
We had already committed to making the bike look as we intended, so we spent an enormous amount of time fabricating an under seat fuel tank. We relocated the fuel pump in that tank, and on the other side we made an "electrics box". So what you are looking at in terms of the leather panniers on the side is actually a fuel tank on the left and the "electrics box" on the right. Mind you, the panniers are still useable too (the brief was that the customer needed the ability to carry a bottle of wine and map, so we made it so he can carry double just in case).
The old fuel tank was narrowed and gutted and a new inner was put in with balance pipes, a fuel tap, an internal breather and our own billet aluminium filler caps. The design also features tie-points along the underside so that a tank bag can be used. The under-seat fiuel tank is hidden and sealed. So you might ask how you know how much fuel you have. Well, the pump uses a low fuel sender within it and that’s hooked up to one of the new LEDs in the new ‘dash’ cluster.
The rear end was finished with a simple LED light that we've used on a few of our builds. A side-mount number plate doubles up as an axle spacer. We also mounted a new set of folding custom pillion pegs that hang off the engine.
The electrical components, as mentioned, had been relocated to the new box acting as one of the panniers. Meanwhile, the battery was mounted in a leather satchel at the front of the bike. It's simple, but effective. Motogadget bar-end indicators blend in really well with our ‘rough cut’ leather grips. Finally, as the motorcycle is to be used as a tourer, a quick connect CTEK adapter has been installed alongside a 12-volt USB and sat-nav charger mounted in front of the tank.
Other than being stripped and vapour blasted, all the controls remain the same. The ignition barrel has been relocated alongside the new micro switches that control the Smiths clocks. Foot controls remain stock (although they have all been re-sheathed with our rough-cut leather grips).
The exhaust headers were fabricated from stainless steel. That proved difficult to ensure that the tubing doesn't burn your legs whilst keeping both headers approximately the same length. They also needed to sound good.
Consequently, big bore tubing was chosen along with some mini-baffles, and we opted to exit both pipes on the right side. The alternative was to curve the front pipe around the front of the frame, but by necessity we had re-located the battery box at the front, and it was getting a little crowded there The result, however, is most pleasing and it sounds raucous!
The whole bike was then torn down to its last nut and bolt. The finishing touches were laid down in the form of:
▲ Long, low, lean and mean. So okay, you've heard that one before, but the variations are endless. This one-time Victory Hammer has scored a victory of a different kind, Old Empire Motorcycles-style.
▲ The Old Empire Motorcycle boys. That's Rafe Pugh on the left. He handles marketing and does his bit to raise the profile of this ambitious Suffolk-based firm. That's Alec Sharp on the right. He's the creative guy and the man to talk to about your next project.
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