Café Cool: What Happens When Rock-'N'-Roll Meets The Isle of Man

The road to Coolsville is a bitch to find. It's not on any road map; in fact, if you need directions you'll never find the place. Likewise, the overly keen are thwarted. Try too hard, look too desperate, and you won't get within 10 zip codes.

Having the right ride for the journey helps. Something like the custom Triumph Thruxton café-racer shown here.

Triumphs of old were always cool. Marlon Brando channeled his inner badass beatnik in 1953's The Wild One aboard a Triumph. James Dean, a brain-freeze in blue jeans, rode a Triumph in real life. Ditto King o' Kool Steve McQueen, who no doubt owned more Triumph T-shirts than tailored suits. Evel Knievel, pre-Elvis outfits and pinky rings, jumped a Triumph. In a brilliant bit of type-casting, Warren Beatty's character in _Shampoo _bedded half the housewives in Beverly Hills, making his horny rounds on a Triumph. On the racetrack, Triumph had swarthy Gene Romero with his lock-up-yer-daughter good looks, while BSA had Dick Mann, who looked like the dad doing the locking up.

Not that the coolosity gene made the jump to the new factory in Hinckley when reborn Triumphs started rolling again in 1991 after an eight-year hiatus. With the exception of the rorty Speed Triple, most of the new Triumphs-and especially the lame-o early cruisers-couldn't find Coolsville if you mounted a Garmin and plugged in the GPS coordinates.

Then came the Bonneville II in 2001. Not as lithe or well-proportioned as the original Bonnie, and shame about those pipes, but there was just enough of the original DNA present that the revival worked. Serious swagger arrived three years later with the Thruxton variant, named after a British racetrack, styled after the homebrewed café-racers that London's Rockers and Ton-Up Boys used to terrorize traffic in the '60s. Suddenly the Bonneville was cool once more.

The jazzed-up Thruxton seen here bumps that coolness quotient considerably. Actually, it had to, given the client that commissioned it: Fender Guitars' Custom Shop, the same outfit that crafts bespoke Strats and Telecasters for the likes of Clapton, Beck, Burton, Cray, Gilmour and Townshend. They needed a traffic-stopper for their booth at the big National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Show. Ordinary wasn't an option.

"I'm a Triumph guy, I didn't want yet-another Harley chopper," says Mike Eldred, the Custom Shop's director of sales/marketing. "I wanted a '50s-style Triumph."

Curious, then, that Eldred turned to Sucker Punch Sally's to build the bike, never mind that both outfits are HQed in Scottsdale, Arizona. Formed in '02 at the height of the neo-chopper craze by partners Donny Loos and Jeff Cochran, Sucker Punch struck a blow for rationality by offering minimalist custom Harleys for about $16,000 and partially assembled do-it-yourself rollers for under $10K. Current SPS owner Christian Clayton, 39, started out as a customer and friend before buying the company in '06. While expanding the business, he's kept the entry-level pricing, albeit adjusted for inflation. Now the base Traditional Bobber costs $19,995, while the unpainted Working Man's Kit goes for $10,800. It's not coincidental that in the same week Jesse James shuttered his West Coast Choppers operation, Sucker Punch had 19 bikes being built on the shop floor.

Not your usual chop-shop then, driven home by the following on the company's website: "We are bike builders, hot-rodders, greasers, mechanics, electricians, welders, fabricators, skaters, snowboarders, BMX riders, motocross racers, chopper heads, filmmakers, designers, artists, musicians, chefs, authors, dreamers, makers, movers and shakers." Adds Clayton, "We're just a bunch of like-minded guys who love taking any piece of metal to the next level."

Not a bad job description. Clayton himself has 14 years' background as an auto dealership director, and used to roadrace a Yamaha FZR400 at Willow Springs. He knew exactly what direction to go with Fender's Triumph. It would not be a bob-job or a chopper, nor exactly '50s.

"I saw it as an Isle of Man TT racer," Clayton says. "Way beyond what Triumph started with the Thruxton. It would be bare-bones: better, faster, cleaner. We'd tear everything off that looked like it didn't belong on a racetrack."

Fender's Eldred gave the green light without a second's hesitation: "Christian knows what's cool. I have total trust in the guy."

A new, unsuspecting '09 Triumph was acquired for the project. Mechanical changes were minimal, the 865cc DOHC twin left buttoned up. It did get a custom-bent set of pipes that sweep, old Bonneville TT-style, under the engine, adorned with black heat-wrap and musically inspired outlets-appropriate for a marque nicknamed "Trumpet." A very butch pair of Öhlins piggyback-reservoir shocks shores up the rear suspension, showing off more adjusters than an Allstate office party.

TT racers have no need for fripperies like passenger accommodations, so the stock plastic seat cowl and dual seat were jettisoned, and a pukka bum-stop tailsection grafted into place. Duane Ballard Custom Leather got the upholstery job-if you can call a thinly padded slab of exquisitely hand-tooled cowhide "upholstery." Among the seat's logos is the warning "You Better Be Ready," playing off the Fender Custom Shop's advertising catchphrase, "When You're Ready."

Lighting the bike's way at night is a pair of HID lamps secreted away in the front numberplate/headlight shell, the twin beams shining though the openings in the number 8. Guitar aficionados will pick up on the bolts fixing the shell to its mounts-they're actually vintage Telecaster tuning keys. More electric guitar parts-the knurled adjustment knobs atop the triple clamp-are used to turn the lights on and off, and to select high or low beam.

Paint and graphics are what really give this Thruxton its hook. "It had to be weathered, like an old racebike after 50 years," says Clayton. Think anti-concours queen.

Turns out making something that's freshly built look authentically aged is tougher than you'd think. The frame and running gear-mostly black as delivered-weren't responding, so the whole chassis was carted off to Steele Vision, where it was treated to a slathering of, yes,_ tan _paint. Wheels, fork legs, triple clamps, chain guard, primary cover, timing cover and side panels got the same oddball treatment. Then it all got roughed up and sanded back to black in places before being clearcoated.

"I know, weird," says Clayton, "but the neutral color works to show off the rest of the bike."

Which is where painter Sara Ray enters the picture. A self-taught artist working out of Long Beach, California, she lists surf culture, hot-rods and WWII bomber art as major influences. Ray was sent the gas tank, seat, headlight shell and bobbed front fender, along with minimal instructions from Clayton. The Union Jack was a no-brainer: Bonneville gas tanks and Mini Cooper roofs always look right and proper painted up with the British flag.

And how's this for old school? Everything Ray did on the Triumph, from the satin-blue basecoat to the stripes to the pin-up queen atop the tank to the various "decals" adorning the bodywork, was all applied by brush!

"Sara has unbelievable vision," Clayton says. "I'm sure she has 100 hours in this paint job."

The Fender Thruxton was rolled out for the first time at last year's Daytona Bike Week. No big fanfare was planned, but when Clayton rode it over to the Triumph tent at the speedway, the bike was held hostage, put on display for the rest of the week. In fact, company brass were so taken with the project that Sucker Punch Sally's was signed up on the spot to create two more customs. A Thunderbird 1600 cruiser is just about to drop and there's another model in the works.

The road to Coolsville is getting crowded.

Brand-new and 50 years old all at once, the Fender/Sucker Punch Sally's Thruxton currently splits its time between guitar shows and bike rallies, but is also scheduled for some serious road use.
Café-riffer: Matching Esquire Telecaster was crafted by Fender master guitar-builder Paul Waller and painted by Sara Ray, who also did the Triumph. Sorry, like the bike, it's not for sale
Sara Ray wasn't the only artist enlisted. SoCal's Duane Ballard is one of the best leather-punchers around, when he's not out riding "Funkenstein," his '70s Honda CB750 chopper.
Turn it up to 11: What, you expected a rocker-style bike to wear anything resembling a muffler?! The ghost of Jimi Hendrix wouldn't have it, and no doubt approves of these trumpet-style turnouts.
Always cool, café-racers are now being rediscovered by the under-30 crowd, with websites, magazines and Motorcyclist contributor Mike Seate's new television docu-series on the HD Theater channel.
No internal modifications for the parallel-twin; those may come later. Representative of this bike's detailing, triangular Triumph logo on timing cover has been replaced by a Fender guitar pick.
Our kind of chick, artist Sara Ray works on her own car and paints in a studio that resembles a war museum. Trophy
Right man for the job: Sucker Punch head honcho Christian Clayton lists guitars, hot-rods and bobbers as hobbies. His is one of the few chopper shops weathering the current economy.