Lion's Den

The King Of Beasts

I’ve been working on this in between customer builds for the last two years. It’s a prototype showing the kind of machines I would love to build every day of the year. The base is a battered XT600 I was using to blast round London. Each time I rode it I discovered something that needed fixing – it really needed stripping before it killed me. And so the prototype began…

Daniel Thomas at Lions Den Motorcycles wanted to make a statement with his company’s first major build. Mission accomplished: his Dirt Racer is a phenomenal piece of work.

Daniel Thomas at Lions Den Motorcycles wanted to make a statement with his company’s first major build. Mission accomplished: his Dirt Racer is a phenomenal piece of work.

As with all my builds, I never know what the finished article will be until I start. I don’t work from beautiful renders, just impulsive ideas. For me the excitement comes from getting stuck in and seeing new ideas appear in front of my eyes as I start to strip the bike back.

Once all the gubbins were removed, I found a slender frame and sleek lines that would suit a cafe racer. I cut down the frame, fabbed a new subframe and fitted Honda Fireblade forks and rear shock I had lying around. This gave the bike the aggressive stance I was after. I took the original rear hub, bought a Triumph Tiger front hub and had custom rims laced up – a wide rim at the back for a fat tyre and twin discs up front.

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I had no idea I was going to make anything out of wood. I knew I wanted the classic cafe racer seat hump but changed my mind about what material to make it from several times – metal, wood, fibreglass? While talking to a woodworker opposite my old workshop we hit upon Zebrano, a beautiful exotic wood with distinct striping in the grain. I knew the colour scheme was going to be black and gold, and felt that the wood would complement it perfectly. I just had to figure out how to make it.

I had no idea how involved it was going to be – it turned out to be almost four months of work. I made 10 foam models, then one of MDF and finally moved on to the Zebrano. All that practice was worth it in the end but the work wasn’t over. I still had to fit it to the frame. I carved channels out of the bottom with a router and then a chisel, all the while terrified of damaging it or cutting off a finger.

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The frame tubes sit in the channels and the entire seat pivots halfway on a series of bearings and threaded inserts, pushed up by a gas strut to hold it in place. When you push it back down, it stays there with a set of rare earth magnets. This was weeks of staring and experimenting to get right but once I got it, it was one of the highlights of the build. True satisfaction. There are a couple of other Zebrano features which include the ignition unit box which sits just below the monoshock and also a nine layer Zebrano veneer which wraps around the oil tank.

One of the other major puzzles with this build was the fact that it needed an oil tank and now that I had removed most of the rear end I didn’t have much space to put one anywhere. After many more foam prototypes I decided to make it out of stainless tube, wrapping around the monoshock and popping out just by the edge of the seat where a hand turned brass cap resides. When removed from the bike, the tank looks like some kind of octopus tentacle with all the mounting points, sight glass and oil fittings. It was also the centre of great confusion at Bike Shed as to what on earth it was!

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Another talking point is the front fairing. I like to think of it as a spaceage shield which hides two HID ‘angel eye’ headlights. The outer is made from aluminium which I rolled on an English wheel, and in the centre sits a sheet of smoked Perspex that I vacuum formed by hand I built a vacuum forming box, a heating box and a mould all out of MDF. After trying to heat the Perspex in a big kiln and setting it on fire I decided to use four heat guns and two blow torches to heat the Perspex before transfering it to the mould on top of the vacuum forming box and sucking out all the air using a powerful dust extractor. It was hilarious but worked in the end with the help of a couple of loyal friends!

I rebuilt the engine with a new big bore Wiseco piston and gas-flowed the head for good measure. New spacers and spindles for the wheels were made to make sure the Nissin calipers lined up – an extremely tricky task when using so many components from various bikes. I made the exhausts out of stainless steel.

My own handlebar switches, machined by Demeanour Customs, are mounted on the handmade clip-ons to keep the controls minimal and clean. Mini brass reservoirs of my own design, also machined by Demeanour Customs, sit in handmade stainless steel brackets and are complemented by various other brass details across the bike including a solid brass engine cover with my Lion logo engraved into it. All the woodwork is finished in an epoxy resin called Glass Cast. You mix two parts and pour it over the wood to get a glass-like finish.

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I poured once a day for nine days to build up the layers as my inspiration was the million pound speed boats you see darting across Lake Como. The process tested my patience – so many times a fly would buzz right into it and set itself into the finish. I made the front mudguard and rear hugger from flat sheet aluminium and English wheeled them into shape. At this point I have to tip my hat to a couple of other guys who have waved their magic wands over the build. First up is Richard Prowse of Motorcycle Wiring Specialists. I realised that it’s very important to acknowledge what you are good at and what you are not and I am not very good at wiring and Richard is brilliant.

Next up is Greg of Black Shuck Kustom who did the paint. There’s so much clever stuff going on here – the deep gloss black has a very light dusting of gold pearl in it, painted on to the frame, swingarm and top yoke. Gold pearl pinstripes highlight the super sharp lines on the heavily modified Suzuki GN tank and a metal effect silver down the middle lifts the design and is a new feature in my colour schemes.

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Finally, I need to thank Mike at Amwell powdercoaters for the job they did. It’s the first time I have worked with them and I couldn’t believe how amazing the result was. I had no idea powdercoat could look so good! This build really has been an incredibly emotional journey for me. I have discussed with other builders the fact that we are never happy and it is true with this one too. There are always those niggles you want to change or do differently next time.

It’s the nature of the beast. However, this has set the tone for me and my company and I can’t wait to apply these design ideas to future builds and hope that there are people out there who are willing to test the boundaries of creativity with me. Oh, and why the name – The Dirt Racer? Quite simply dirt bike meets cafe racer. Not because I will be attempting to race this thing in the dirt!