Photography by Mr John Balsom | Styling by Ms Diane Boulenger
Words by Mr Mansel Fletcher
I am standing outside an anonymous multistorey car park in Paris' civilised but unremarkable 17th arrondissement. Venturing into the depths of the building, I discover a small space at the back that's part workshop, part hang-out. If grown men were able to create dens, the way that little boys do, then they'd look like this. There are vintage motorbikes and motorbike parts littering the floor. There's a ratty-looking sofa and a coffee table on which sit bourbon bottles. There's a nude calendar, and, tellingly, there's an iMac.
It's an undiluted dream of what a man's workspace should look like, and it is the home of Blitz Motorcycles, the custom bike shop run by Messrs Fred Jourden (who has a big beard) and Hugo Jezegabel (who has a smaller beard). It's here that they transform old motorbikes, from humble Japanese 125cc examples to grand vintage BMWs, into unique, individually tailored works of automotive art. Mr Jourden told MR PORTER about Blitz, while in the background Mr Jezegabel worked on the company's next project.
MR PORTER also learnt a valuable style lesson on the day of the interview: never wear a white shirt when visiting a garage.
We love imperfection, to mix shiny paint with rust, dents and scratches. It's like a scuffed vintage leather jacket; we're trying to give a bit of soul to bikes
Is your background mechanical?
I was an online marketing director when I started doing a night
course in mechanics. When I was younger my father gave me lessons in engineering, so I knew how an engine worked but I had never put my hands inside one before. When I graduated I was the happiest man on earth.
How did Blitz begin?
After I graduated I worked with a friend who serviced bikes and we started to customise our first BMWs. Then one day the guy who owns this garage suggested I meet Hugo. I taught Hugo how to build a bike, and we built bikes for us, for friends and for friends of friends - all for free, no money involved. Then in 2009 the financial crisis came and I took it as a sign; Blitz was formed two years ago.
What kind of bikes do you customise?
We don't have a specific brand focus. We have worked on BMW, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda, Triumph and Royal Enfield. However, we never work on fuel-injected bikes because to change the tank we have to re-install a fuel pump and they will go wrong. So we only do bikes with carburettors.
What is the Blitz aesthetic?
We love imperfection. We love to mix shiny paint with rust, dents and scratches. It's like a scuffed vintage leather jacket; I want the jacket to tell a story. We're trying to give a bit of soul to the bike.
What does it mean that you tailor the bikes for the client?
There's a bike we made on the base of a Kawasaki 650 for a guy who runs a company called Jawa Productions. We knew, but he didn't, that there is a Czech bike brand called Jawa. So we found and fitted a Jawa tank, added a bit of dust, a bit of rust, some chrome and some burgundy paint and told him, this is your Jawasaki. Another client is an English guy from Birmingham who's a gentleman and a punk rocker. He said, "I want something posh and chic." But we know him and he's not always posh and chic; sometimes he's a bit dirty. So we went for a BSA tank, a bit of chrome, a bit of black, a bit of dust and a bit of rust. We called it a BSW and when he saw it he was happy.
The Yamaha SR 500 "Tuxedo"
Yamaha SR 500 used as a "donor" bike. Complete rebuilding of the engine and the frame shortened, with a bespoke seat and simplified electric wiring.
The Kawasaki "Gentle Tracker"
Kawasaki W650 used as a donor. The tank comes from a Jawa CZ 360, which influenced the frame colour. The sub-frame and seat are bespoke, and the electrics are simplified.
The Honda "Orange Mécanique"
Honda CM 125cc used as a donor, with the frame modified and repainted. The electrics are simplified, with an antique Honda XL tank mounted with original rust and dents.
the Yamaha SR 500 "Red Devil"
Yamaha SR 500 used as a donor. The engine has been reworked and the sub-frame transformed to host the bespoke seat. The tank, as found, comes from a 1970s Honda.
The Harley-Davidson "Gentle Board TrackeR"
Sportster 1991 used for an adaptation of the 1920s "board trackers", with a bespoke sub-frame and seat, and "moustache" handlebars from a bicycle.
Can you explain the appeal of your bikes, when they're so slow compared with sports bikes?
We make machines that you can control from your hips so you can enjoy a curve at 90kph and you have the feeling of surfing on the road. Cruising smoothly on secondary roads is best, because you can smell the forest and the flowers; if you see a river you can stop and have a swim - it's like being a cowboy. Also, there's a big speed repression in France - you can't go faster than 50kph in the city.
Did you set out to appeal to guys who don't feel part of the conventional bike community?
"We'd rather have a little coverage in a fashion magazine, a design magazine or a women's magazine than in a bike magazine. We're trying to pull the bike out of its redneck world of bad taste, to bring it to something more edgy and beautiful. If we were to make a wish it would be exhibit a bike at MoMA.
How have the bike manufacturers reacted?
BMW is supporting us, showing our films on its website and we have a bike in the BMW museum in Munich, even though it has a Yamaha tank. The other brands know we exist, but they don't need us. Triumph is already cool, and Harley-Davidson is cool to a lot of people.
How did you come to work with Edwin?
The marketing manager asked if he could work with us after he saw our film Riding September. First we built a bike for Edwin, and while we built it we exchanged long emails about the philosophy of life, and we ended up working on a capsule collection for next year.
What constitutes the Blitz look?
A jumper from Saint James, a T-shirt from Edwin, a pair of Edwin jeans, Red Wing boots, a vintage watch and a vintage leather jacket, or in summer an antique Belstaff jacket. And we go for Davida helmets, which have the look of the 1960s.
Who are your biking heroes?
Bud Ekins, Steve McQueen's friend. He was a stunt rider who made the jump on The Great Escape because the studio wouldn't let McQueen do it. Evel Knievel, because he made me dream as a kid; Giacomo Agostini, one of the best bikers ever; and Barry Sheene, of course.
What kind of bike would you most like to work on?
The dream bike would be a Vincent Black Lightning. It's a famous English brand, wonderfully done, but respected too much. I'd like to put a Yamaha tank on it, but that will never happen because those bikes are so rare and when we strip a bike down there's no way back.