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Motorcycle News, Editorials, Product Reviews and Bike Reviews

Steampunk: The Next Big Customizing Craze?

So what the hell is Steampunk? You actually know it well, even if you didn’t know what it was called. It’s the aesthetic of melding old—usually Victorian-era mechanical elements—with modern or futuristic  technology, or of extrapolating how that technology would look had it evolved in a different direction from our current reality. Think of the giant steam-powered war machines in the 1999 movie “Wild, Wild West,” or the ornate vehicles and vessels of 2003’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”

Almost every manufacturer now has a retro-styled bike, but the most interesting of these aren’t those that mimic the looks of an earlier model, but instead resemble what the original might have resembled had it just been updated through the years. Ducati’s SportClassics come to mind, as does the Triumph Thruxton and the Harley-Davidson XR1200. Call them neo-Steampunk, then, as they combine modern and retro elements to create a new aesthetic.

Of course, since we’re enthusiasts and handy with a wrench, we can make our own Steampunk bikes. A good example is the Taimoshan Super Cafe Racer, built by Welshman John Pellew. He wanted a modern “Norvin,” (a prized cafe racer that combines the burly power of a Vincent Black Shadow V-Twin with the competent handling of a Norton Featherbed chassis) with all the power, brakes and suspesnion of a modern sportbike. He seems to have hit the mark, with a gorgeous Manx-style tank and giant round headlamp contrasted with the huge lump of a V-Twin. The radiator is cleverly tucked under the seat, where Pellew says it functions as well as a front-mounted unit, thanks to clever placement and extra cooling fans.

This kind of thinking—creating something that is evocative of the past, yet is something new—is key to attracting younger people into our sport. The upcoming generations, just like every generation before them, wants to define itself as something new and different, and not just adopt the time-worn trends and fads of the last 50 years. The cafe-building trend seems at first glance to allow much more creativity and individual expression than the chopper-building frenzy of ten years ago, which was an endless riff on the same basic engine and frame design. Cafe builders can choose from an endless variety of frames and motors—from every era and combine them in new and exciting ways, and much can be done for under $1000 with enough time and Krylon. And where customizers build, inevitably factories follow, allowing the less adventurous to enjoy the look of a hot custom without the expense, time and hassle of rolling their own.

Taking the best from our favorite eras can only be a good thing. The power of a BMW S1000RR with the looks of a Ducati 750 Sport? How about the durability of a Honda CBR600F2 with the handling and looks of an MV Agusta? Or the shriek of a Honda RC166 with the fuel economy of a BMW R1200R? There’s no reason why it won’t all be possible.

A tip of the hat to Bike EXIF ( for hipping me to this bike.


  1. Brinskee says:

    Steampunk: The Next Big Customizing Craze? God, I hope not.

  2. Norm G. says:

    just remembered, the rotax V60 is a dry-sump engine in the milles and the spyder, so where’s the steam-punk’d oil tank…? on the other side…? under the seat…? cleverly plumbed in the swingarm ala buell…?

  3. BigIndian says:

    Some of you might think that this is a nice version of a Cafe Racer but if the mantra includes lighter weight, simplicity and good looks, I think that it’s a near miss.

    Nice bike I guess but putting the radiator under the seat and adding cooling fans is simply change for the sake of change, with no improvement in performance what-so-ever.

    Oh… And SteamPunk? I cant find an ounce of SP anywhere on the bike!

  4. Rick Hermanns says:

    I’m already sick of the Steampunk idea! Let’s see, Chrome won’t get you home, so….Brass won’t save your ass? Please don’t let this become the new “Old School” we had to hear all the BIKERS drone on about…..these are the same people who ride 200 miles a year in a good year!

  5. kirk66 says:

    I’ve been in the bike sales and insurance business for going on 16yrs. I was selling bikes in the beginning of the clone wars. Since 2001 I have mentioned that we non-HD riders needed an outlet that allows for us to take old school design and meld it with new technology. Oddly, in 2010 Norton did that on a manufacturig level. I have a local friend that builds old Triumphs on his frames. I keep asking him to apply for the manufacturer licensing and build his bikes with modern suspensions and braking with modern FI motors. Maybe this is the kick in the pants the guy needs to move forward.

  6. Magic says:

    Looking at this bike the term Steampunk would have never entered my mind. I saw it and thought nice cafe-racer. It really doesn’t have a old enough look to me to be considered Steampunk. Only the brass/gold accents seem to hint old fashioned and even that’s a stretch.

  7. Norm G. says:

    nice bike, but admittedly i can’t wait until the “next big craze” sees us return to actually RIDING our motorcycles. few know from “custom” @ 60 mph.

  8. Weaselmcfee says:

    The Harley Davidson V-Rod has a good sized radiator, and an interesting seating design, which is pretty comfortable. (I’d prefer foot pegs inline or behind the rider.) It has phat tires and it’s HD Orange w/ black smoke skunk stripe .. and its mine, I love it. Girlz ride hard too !

  9. Wilson R says:

    Looks more like SteamJunk to me. If anyone builds it, it will cost a bundle. Everything new costs too much these days. SteamJunk.

  10. Alex Flynn says:

    I don’t know – this seems like a mild steampunk. Its great though – gets me thinking about turning my FZ6 into a steampunk bike…. Ideas are more important than execution.

    BTW – movie steamboy – anime with captain picard’s voice in it – awesome example of steampunk in anime.

  11. Hezakiah says:

    Throw a mock turtle tank on, slap on a jap looking seat and some custom looking pipe work makes this look like mixing oldy stuff with techno crap steampunk? Uh,no. It looks like 3/4’s of the jap cafs out there except the motor.

    When I think Harley, I think classic lines,bobbers,and choppers.I don’t think whizzing up and down the street bent over like the hunchback of Notre Dame.

  12. Moonbandito says:

    BMW boxers are perfect for this sort of exercise. A bit more brass and a some analog dials – and maybe going as far as this guy went.

    …putting a modern engine in a 50 year old frame.

    • Norm G. says:

      i remember seeing that somewheres…? but the guy used a latest gen (at the time) hex head motor in an R32 chassis or something…? other than the overriding “hey look what i can do” factor, the bike turned out pretty amazing.

  13. bipedal says:

    I wonder how those radiators would feel in an Arizona summer…. OUCH

    • Kai Ju says:

      I’ve been running that setup for the past five years on a naked Superhawk in SoCal and heat is not a problme, for me or the bike.

  14. Wussboy says:

    Sorry, but that bike is not steampunk.

  15. ziggy says:

    whaever happened to flogging a stock bike, taking it to its absolute limit, and then adding performance tweaks and farkles only, and anything that drops weight?

    I’ll never buy into the joy of sliding from cafe to cafe just to strike a pose…

  16. Old town hick says:

    “Steampunk”? Mmmmm.

    Can we all just agree right now to forget this term, or at least never mention it again in any kind of motorcycling context?

  17. Justin says:

    yeah i would like to see a more committed steampunk bike with every visual detail attended to. you know, brass radiator, little brass toggle switches, wood pegs with brass tips…just fully committed to the look.

    then we’ll know exactly how ridiculous it truly is

  18. JB says:

    This is why the monster series has done so well. The astetics blend the updated aircooled twin with a simple “standard” motorcycle. Taimoshan Super Cafe Racer just illustrates what should have been done by Ducati and MV when the wet engines were grafted into super nakeds. Plumbing ruins the look/concept.

  19. steveinsandiego says:

    needs apes.

  20. Todd says:

    They did put their heads together and came up with killing Buell and selling back MV August for a Latte.

  21. BillyGoat says:

    Just because you put a new name on something doesn’t make it a “new idea”

  22. art says:

    Is Steampunk the next big craze in customizing?

    I would have to say that’s a big, “Yes”! The style plays into so many variations of mechanical design that it’s a well spring of inspiration. Please forgive me for being biased 🙂 Thanks for the post!
    Best Regards,

    Art Donovan,
    The Steampunk Design Exhibition,
    Museum of the History of Science,
    The University of Oxford, UK

  23. Tom Barber says:

    One thing that I like very much about this bike is the placement of the radiator under the seat. This is something that I have frequently wished that the mainstream manufacturers would do, and have wondered why they have not pursued. Perhaps they are concerned more with weight distribution, but the advantages of this location for the radiator are substantial, and I think that this is one of those things that, once one of the major manufacturers starts to do it, it will catch on and will quickly become a standard solution, taken for granted. The amount of heat that the rider of a motorcycle experiences is due in significant measure to the heat from the radiator, and can be substantially reduced by putting the damned thing behind the rider, and under or below the seat. The extra hoses needed to do that are of no significance. Heat under the seat can potentially be a concern, but just a few years ago most of them were putting exhaust cans under the seat. When the radiator is put there and the same amount of insulation is used, the fans and the ordinary consideration of air flow, needed to insure that the radiator will work at all, will continually pull fresh air into the space between the radiator and the seat. Assuming of course that you don’t run the fans in the wrong direction. It would probably be even better if there were a shroud under the fans to prevent air from blowing to the sides or to the front, and force it to blow directly to the rear, and this would not be at all difficult to do.

    Bottom line, why aren’t the manufacturers doing this, and why were they not doing this two or three decades ago?

    • ziggy says:

      They don’t do it as it is far less functional. Cooling is harder, less forced air, and you’re likely to roast yer ass & legs. All that weight is up high and off center now, instead of low and near COM & front forks. Yeah, a few years ago, they were putting exhaust under the seat. look how well that worked out (!)

      Me, I like to ride bikes, not just look at them, so form over function, always. it’s just that simple.

    • Norm G. says:

      “why aren’t the manufacturers doing this”

      they fear change and subscribe to the mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”… and perhaps rightly so. the niche business that is motorcycles unfortunately doesn’t support the financial risks involved with skewing too far from the status quo. if you recall, benelli (though not mainstream) employed it with secondary ducts in the bodywork on the tornado 900. as far as i know, it worked rather well…? however, as if to make the point, the follow through from the consumer rewarding them for their time/effort never came… this, back when the economy was good.

      • ziggy says:

        Norm, they change all the time. Don’t you look at the bike reviews? But these companies are governed by businessmen, scientists and engineers, not fashion designers. I’m not interested in change to look good, I am interested in a good ride and riding well, that’s it.

        The Benelli was a design wank–one of motorcycling’s many “spruce geese”. All sorts of things are tried over the years. Some work and some fail. But rest assured, if this system was really superior to existing innovations, it would find its way to the surface. Nothing makes a compnay hone its competitive edge like a serious recssion.

        I for one am pretty pleased that lighter, more powerful better handling, more reliable bikes are coming out every year. This steam punk-lite bike is fine. Now show me a bike I can ride like a raped ape!

  24. Butch says:

    Need a little copper tubing and some vintage temp/oil gauges mounted to the engine to pull off the steampunk thingy

  25. Bud says:

    Really cool bike. Wheelbase looks 10 feet long! Wonder how it handles?

    And yeah, he needs to tidy up the fan wiring.

  26. Mr. Mike says:

    Steampunk has been around since the 80’s but hasn’t really gained wide-spread attention until recently. In many ways it is an extrapolation of what our modern devices would look like if design and technology had not evolved much past the Victorian era, and neither plastic or silicon integrated circuits had been invented. To follow steampunk sensibilities a motorcycle would reasonably have an ornately decorated cast iron frame and running gear and be powered by a steam engine with a big brass boiler.

  27. mark says:

    Nice bike… but how is this in any way steampunk? Just because the motor has gold accents and the seat is brown leather?

  28. ben says:

    Home made choppers: rendering perfectly good bikes usless since 1903

  29. MG Norge says:

    Thinking of Harley’s continued longevity, wouldn’t it be nice to see them make something other than the old tried and true? Start with the engine. The aging Baby Boomers loved it but what happens when they are no longer? What if Harley took the high road and produced premium bikes, ala Ducati, but with different engine configurations? Might that mix old with new? A no-excuses, famous name, more up to daye line of bikes? This might allow a slower shift in production should the old V-Twin fade away at some point. Does Harley have it in them?

  30. GP says:

    I really like this, except it is just too big, overall. At almost every post here, I keep asking for smaller displacement bikes – 350-500cc versions of what is being shown. No different here. The older I get, the more attracted I am to small bikes.

    • Martin says:

      Yes, midsize bikes can be much lighter and narrower, and riding them can be like the extension of your neurons, ducking and diving around winding roads without conscious thought (i.e. not riding thoughtlessly, but able to focus on line and road conditions, even appreciating the beauty of the passing scenery, because you don’t have to climb all over the bike to get the damn thing to turn). A good, responsive single or V-Twin, with enough flywheel weight to maintain pace uphill, and mid range torque to keep the fun going, means your throttle hand does most of the work, with enough engine braking to make use of the actual brakes largely optional.

      A good progressive rear end, stable forks, and steady chassis, with a comfortable slight forward lean.

      Have I described a smaller SV650 (or larger Honda VT250)?

      Maybe with an attractive Steampunk aura, this could be my ideal.

  31. Asphaltsurfer says:

    I like the new cafe customs and this example is very nice in my opinion. Personally I’ve seen some choppers that are cool, like Jesse James totally rusted frame, wheels, tank with an entirely chromed motor in Sturgis about 10yrs ago. Most unfortunately are not enough real art, or have already been done and simply are not something I’d personally ride. They’ve had a long run but it is nice to see to have a new trend in Cafe racers mixing modern performance and reliability with the hard-edged style and minimal look of days. Variety- be it choppers, scooters, retros or cruisers keeps the sport alive.

  32. denny says:

    This is a meaninful trend (blend of tradition and technology) which can attain its potential only IF it reaches masses. As discussion in one recent article clearly points: there is a need for mid-lower class of bikes between 350 and 500cc. If that comes to place we have a renaissance of motorcycling with many new followers. I cannot think of better recipe for preserving the sport.

  33. Rick Hermanns says:

    Very nice example of a home made naked! Why are people asking “Why can’t the OEMs do this?” Did you ever hear of the Ducati Monster? Again, this is nice, but nothing new! Naked Cafe styling has been around for 20 Yrs +.

  34. Mickey says:

    Well I’ve never heard that Steampunk term before. Who made that up? Goofy name.

    Anyhow, the bike in the pic is visually striking, although some styling cues leave me scratching my head, like the gold bits with the red seat, and the painted bumseat tail section with bare aluminum sidecovers and tank (I’d have painted the side covers black to match the frame and to disguise them). Wiring looks like it could use a few tie wraps under the seat. But as a whole nicely done. Would make a great second or third bike and a fun weekend backroads bomber.

    A nice break from the “choppers” you’ve been showing us lately.

    • Randy Singer says:

      Steampunk is a concept that originated with Science Fiction writers:

      You can see many beautiful items re-imagined as Steampunk here:

      An excellent example is this Steampunk personal computer:

      The engine is the above bike is an Aprilia RSV.

      Steampunk items usually incorporate rivets, brass, copper tubing, leather, pressure gauges and Victorian clothing designs as styling cues. The motorcycle in the above article includes just about none of that. It is a stretch to characterize it as a Steampunk item. It is more ’50’s Cafe Racer-ish. (And it would be really nice to see more of that applied to modern motorcycles too.)

      But I think that the concept of incorporating Steampunk style in motorcycles is an intriguing one. I’m surprised that no customizer has created an all-out Steampunk show-bike before.

    • Jim says:

      Steampunk initially developed as a sub genre of sci fi, its current iteration derives its momentum from fashion, as in clothing and lifestyle design. It is in effect a rejection of modernism without rejecting technology and therefore can’t be considered Luddite.

    • dbwindhorst says:

      The term steampunk has been around for perhaps 25 years or so (and is certainly no goofier than describing a motorcycle as a “featherbed”), one of the many pastiche labels that followed in the wake of cyberpunk (splatterpunk, dieselpunk, biopunk, nanopunk, etc.). Besides having literary roots going back to Verne, it’s caught on as a popular expression of the “making” movement.

  35. jato says:

    Very nice. I wonder what the motor is cause it’s not a Vincent. I’m diggin the tail light and turn signals.

    • jerrylee says:

      Rotax from an Aprilia done up in black and gold.

      • Jerrylee says:

        one other thing- why didn’t this builder use zip ties or something to route and retain the wires to the fans under that hot seat? It simply looks messy and unfinished on an otherwise very tasty custom cafe racer. Not to be critical but someone put a lot of time, money and effort into this thing and it seems silly to leave details like that out.

  36. Ruefus says:

    AMF tried this…..and nearly destroyed the company. It’s like asking Apple to make cheap netbooks. It isn’t who they are as a company and they’d fail miserably at trying to compete with Japan Inc. and others. Besides – there is NO money in cheap bikes in America. No margin, and development costs are effectively the same.

    falcodoug said it best – Won’t ever happen Tom.

  37. mrsdoubtfire says:

    A radiator where? Ron Popiel could not cook my meatballs and better.

  38. Ajay says:

    It would be awesome to see this take off.
    I’ve loved that look since I first saw Zero Engineering custom choppers out of Japan.
    He’s doing some awesome bikes in that style.

  39. BoxerFanatic says:

    I am not sure that this is truly decorated enough to be “steam-punk”, even though the classic styling elements are obvious, as well as the modern running gear. Similar maybe. Steampunk style is usually more copper, brass, and bronze, and more victorian-era ornate and decorated. This is pretty clean.

    I quite like it. One of the best I’ve seen, certainly one of the best new-tech, old-school bikes.

    This bike makes me continue to mull-over my mental plans for a retro styling makeover of a BMW HP2 Sport, with classic styling, and a duolever front end, under a classic-style half fairing.

  40. Jason says:

    Hellcat Customs in Phoenix,AZ did a steam punk style Buell Blast
    A few years back that was in the magazine Rebel Rodz… it was a revamp
    After their design was used by Mac Motorcycles prior…this lil bike is very
    Cool and has been at least a year ahead of trends everytime its been redone.
    Sadly the interesting custom work done to this bike has been emulated or
    Has inspired other trends yet the “steampunk pony” (as called by the article
    In the magazine) and/or Hellcat-Customs has never been given credit for the
    Bikes and designs that the little blast 500 has inspired… long live steampunk!

    To large companies who look at the work lil companies do…you can copy and mass produce anything, but someday people will get wise and see you emulate you don’t

  41. Joey Wilson says:

    If THIS is SteamPunk, where do I sign up??

    Maybe a little short of brass fittings and wooden bits, but I’ll make do !

  42. MikeD says:

    Why can’t the BIG 4 come out with stuff like that ? That thing is HOT.
    It doesn’t seem to me like it has a TON of xpensive components and rocket science technology into it that would make it non-profitable to build and sell.
    [WHEELS and Calipers look xpensive tho]…lol.
    For crying out loud, it doesn’t even have an aluminium frame ! but rather a cheap steel tubing one.

    And all this coming from someone who thinks Cafe Racers are “Ugly torture racks and a waste of metal”.
    But different courses for different horses.

  43. Mark says:

    Very cool special, one of the best looking I’ve seen. The location of the radiator is inspired too. Other comments…..looks like a renegade 916 Showa fork. I’m not sure the frame wouldn’t be overmatched by the engine, as the featherbed frames were aces with a 50 hp engine.

  44. falcodoug says:


  45. Tom says:

    It’s pretty obvious Harley Davidson will never again be what it once was if it doesn’t find young riders. Why don’t they put their collective heads together, and bring in a few creative outsiders, and develop a new type of inexpensive bike to attract young people? Make them as cheap or cheaper than the Sportster line, but have a shorter wheel base, lighter weight, higher seat, cafe-style handlebars, pegs below you or even a little behind, get some reasonable suspension. Think “heavy KTM street bike.” Make a standard, and a cafe racer. That’s it. Why not? Taking a frickin’ chance on a something new!