Tomorrow Hammarhead Industries, the Philadelphia-based custom motorcycle builders whose vintage inspired bikes have found an audience with riders who prefer Steve McQueen era trail bikes to the molded neon plastics of modern cycles, will begin building a motorcycle from the ground up inside our SoHo storefront. The build will extend throughout May, and Dunderdon and Hammarhead are also collaborating on a small collection of goods inspired by the needs of the company’s bike builders. We spoke to creator James Hammarhead about the genesis of the brand, taking inspiration from the past and finding the stylish sweet spot between form and function.
Can you talk a bit about the genesis of the brand?
Hammarhead was created as a project to present three of the bikes that I’d been thinking about making for ten years. I was at a point in my career at the University of Pennsylvania where I’d hit my stride, and was looking for other areas of creative expression. The original idea was to put out a series of bikes as a collection, and that collection of bikes would foster a brand identity that could go a lot of different directions. We expected it to be a more organic process that would evolve over several years, and that’s been what’s happened.
We’re fortunate that there are opportunities now for very little money to reach a lot of people that are interested. There’s a narrow window of interest in custom motorcycles in particular, but that audience is broader now because of the Internet. There’s much more crossover now among folks that are working in graphic arts, fashion design and architecture that are tuned into what’s happening in other areas. The amount of interesting stuff that you get sent your way has really created a lot of these new markets. We’ve grown a couple of factors faster than I expected to, which has it’s own challenges, but overall we’re really pleased with the way our bikes have been accepted and the way that I think we’ve staked out some new territory, especially in the U.S. custom marketplace.
Where did the inspiration for the individual models come from?
The brand in general is sort of inspired by my interest in simplicity and quality. I’m drawn to design and architecture and writing, in almost all mediums, I really like things that are spare and clean but not cold. My family was not a huge motorcycle family, but somehow I saw and was around some really exceptional British sports cars and vintage motorcycles — stuff designed from the motorsports of the 50s and 60s, that made a strong impression of what it meant to be a motorcycle, what was essentially a motorcycle.
When I think of a motorcycle I envision like a Husqvarna WR250 from the late 60s as the bike that I first saw and went “Whoa, that’s a dirtbike.” The guys that were riding those — by the time I was looking at those bikes it was 1973, 74, 75 — they were older guys. They were worn. The bikes had the paint worn off the tanks and they weren’t the riders who were out racing weekends. They weren’t teenagers. They were serious trail riders. That’s where these bikes came from is those images. We definitely have a broad vision, but I started with what I knew best, which is sort of the trailbike, dirtbike. That really was helpful to us because there’s not a lot of competition there. The Triumph, we built three bikes and that was the bike that was the lightning rod for motorcyclists, core enthusiasts, and we’ve certainly sold the most of that bike.
The electric bike, I did that because I felt like that was a project that was going to happen. Somebody was going to take the vision of the classic race bike and create it with battery power. I felt like there was an opportunity to be there first. I really, really wanted to see what it would be like to have this silent, vintage style road race bike. That was fun. It all flows from asking how do you create stuff that’s modern but in tune with the design aesthetics from the 50s and 60s, that were maybe closely related to racing and closely related to the technology of the time, which was much less developed. There was no injection-molded plastic, or they would’ve used it. It’s hard to be simple and minimal with style. It’s not just that form follows function, there’s room within that function to make it stylish, that’s the artistic piece that comes in, whereas an engineer just builds a product.
You’ll be building a bike from the ground up inside our SoHo shop, how are you approaching the challenge of working within a retail space?
I could build a motorcycle anywhere, that’s not that big of a deal. We’ve established that doing an offsite build is possible because we did one in Paris. The really cool part is that we’re gonna sit down and make some decisions in the space, the space is going to influence how the bike is built. I already feel like the Dunderdon brand and the collaborative collection that were doing has — we have some very clear ideas about what we want to achieve with the bike. We have ideas about what elements we’re going to use, exactly how it comes and how it will be, we don’t know. That’s really exciting.
So this is a new model you’ll be building in the store?
The bike is a new model that is inspired by our time in Paris this past January. We built a Jack Pine in a Triumph service shop. We were in a bay along side the regular mechanics that worked on a steady stream of local bikes that were definitely ridden hard. And all were ridden in for service in the dead of winter. I started thinking about an urban bike that would serve this type of rider well. That is our concept. The actual design will unfold over the next two weeks at Dunderdon. One thing we have worked out is the name: Nintey-Two. This is the district code for shop (Speed 92) we worked in during our stay in France.
You’ve expanded a bit from bikes into parts, bags and other accessories. How did that process happen, and how does that inform the collaboration with Dunderdon?
We have a mantra here that we want to remain genuine to our central goal, which is to make things that are durable, valuable, have long lives, and are stylish and useful. So when we encounter something in the marketplace that meets our needs, we get it. We’ve needed certain parts and we’ve had to make them. We’ve had some customers ask what kind of bag we would recommend and our answer was “We’re not really in love with anything out there, maybe we should think about putting together a backpack that would be in tune with our philosophy” and that’s literally how it started. That’s the rewarding part, that whatever we envision has been well received. The fun thing for us is the collaborative process, having people get excited.
We’re moving into a bigger production space and wanted come up with sort of a uniform for the guys in the shop. We looked around at some of the workwear that was out there that we liked. Matt had some Dunderdon pieces and liked them. We got in touch and within a week we had a much bigger plan than just putting some Dunderdon clothing on some of our shop guys. It’s pretty exciting.
We sent a prospectus to [Dunderdon] with what we were thinking of, like “We’d really like to do a signature piece like this vintage welding jacket.” The ideas really struck a cord. It’s really exciting. We’re just now getting a feeling for how this is gonna be received and I think it’s gonna be really exciting.
The brand has grown rapidly, what can we expect to see from Hammarhead in the coming year and beyond?
This year were gonna introduce a couple of new bikes that are gonna be really exciting and broader than just scramblers. There’s a frenzy of activity with a couple of bikes including this one at the Dunderdon SoHo shop. We hope put together some more of these small videos that we’ve done. We always find that that’s just a great process and it really helps support the brand and excitement. We’ll be taking a lot of footage of the build at Dunderdon and will definitely have some sort of video for that process.
From there were gonna create more of a public space in or shop here in Philly. We’ll have the ability to have soft good and hard goods and the motorcycles all in the same space. That will happen this summer.