The motorcycle serves as a symbol for everyone. Whether it serves as recognition of the scene you’re in, a midlife crisis or a warning sign to lock up your daughters, these machines are at once revered, marvelled and feared. For many, its a sense of nostalgia for the emotions captured in countless films – from Marlon Brando’s The Wild One to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and On Any Sunday, the documentary that revealed Steve McQueen as the original actor and stuntman hero – that drives their fondness.
It’s driven men to devote their entire lives to the humble two-wheeler. Whether they race bikes, tinker helplessly in the garage or pledge their allegiance to the Outlaws MC, they all share a sense of the motorcycle is an extension of themselves – a sense of freedom that extends far beyond the utilitarian function that was behind the motorcycle’s invention.
But one’s appreciation of the motorcycle isn’t always in relation to that sense of freedom and mobility. Indeed, the motorcycle in its many varieties could be read as a work of sculpture in a portable and functional form.
Enter Christian Condo, proprietor of the Modern Motorcycle Company. His workshop is a wistful and ingenious mergence of the refined skills of a trained designer and the physicality of a spanner-swinger. When asked what drives his love and fascination with the motorcycle, Condo simply responds: “Freedom”. It may read like a cliché, but the decisiveness of his answer suggests a deeper engagement with what the two-wheeled machine invokes.
Starting his professional life as a mechanic before maturing into a career in industrial design, Condo has merged his two career paths with the Modern Motorcycle Company, and singlehandedly launched the city’s only store dedicated to the cafe racer scene in the process. He neatly describes the store’s genesis as an attempt to “recapture a style of motorcycling long gone” in a way that sees “art, science and industry working together.” That his store and workshop are part of The Compound Interest: Centre for Applied Arts in Collingwood – sharing space alongside Jeremy Wortsman’s illustration agency The Jacky Winter Group, galleries Lamington Drive and Pin-Up, eminent design studio Chase & Galley, bespoke framers United Measures and countless other creative practices – seems to reiterate his point. As much a creative studio as a mechanic’s workshop and showroom, the Modern Motorcycle Company’s output veers indelibly close to that of the functional art object.
The cafe racer itself is a beautiful machine, but given its roots, it’s fair to say that it didn’t start that way. Most credit the rockers of 1960s London with the birth of the style – archenemies of the mods and their blinged-out scooters. They stripped, modified and altogether Frankensteined their rides with one goal in mind: speed. They’d race from truck stops like the infamous Ace Cafe, heading out along London’s ring roads to return before the jukebox finished its track. Triumphs and BSAs with elongated tanks and flattened seats were the hallmarks of the classic cafe racer. Clip-on bars and rear peg foot controls put the rider in a low racing position to better beat that spinning vinyl. The riders had the look too – turned up Levis, engineer’s boots, leather jackets. These guys oozed coolness, just out to pick up thrills and babes.
And it seems that the Modern Motorcycle Company hasn’t forgotten these purest roots. Condo’s bikes effortlessly exude the same sense of coolness that drove the rockers, at once making you want to sell your car and buy one, damn the consequences.
There is certainly something special about the bikes that Condo turns out. Describing them in terms of “humble elegance”, Condo crafts bikes that have a rare sharpness and simplicity.
For many customers, the choice to go vintage is rooted in nostalgia – simply because they ‘don’t make them like they used to’ – rather than concerns of reliability or safety. But Condo retorts. “If you’ve got enough money, you can make an old bike just as reliable as a new one.”
It’s a rare and beautiful sight to come across artisans that can bring their aesthetic desires to technical fruition. This is especially rare in the motorcycle world, with the motorcycle itself being such a multifarious piece of machinery that it requires the skills of a mechanic to make it run and the nous of a designer to sculpt its form. It’s what makes Condo such a scarcity.
Nonetheless, his introduction to the café racer was rooted in happenstance. “I’d always wanted a bike, but nothing really interested me,” he recalls. “I think it started with Deus [Sydney custom motorcycle specialists Deus Ex Machina]; a guy at work showed me their website and it was just exactly what I was looking for.”
The company, based in Sydney and owned in part by former Mambo frontman, Dare Jennings, went on to dominate the Australian landscape with their cafe racer aesthetic. Heavily rooted in the Japanese subculture of stripping bikes, their aesthetic is one of sophistication, careful planning and perfect chrome. The Deus philosophy is dictated by bolt-on parts, flashy paint jobs and an associated mainstream clothing label. It’s all very ‘Sydney’, but by no means any less desirable.
It might just be appropriate to say that Condo has taken a ‘Melbourne’ approach. His custom bikes are one of a kind. They’re somewhat dirtier, but certainly no less refined. His style focuses on re-appropriated original or bespoke parts. But the shop also serves as a well-priced outlet for those small billet parts that make an extraordinary difference to the aesthetic of any bike.
And his preference for a base model? “The core of the business is 60s and 70s Japanese street bikes,” he says, but his personal fondness lies elsewhere. “I’m more interested in the vintage British bikes. They're a bit dirtier, a bit more dramatic, particularly early 1900s board track racers.” It was this same fascination with board track racers that inspired the Californian outfit Falcon Motorcycles, which Condo cites as one of his more relevant direct influences. Their work is sheer beauty and a single model can take up to 3000 man-hours to complete.
However, it is Yamaha’s SR400 that is the poster boy for the cafe racer culture. Manufactured since 1978, it has remained largely unchanged. They’re still available new from Japan for around $AU7000. Unsurprisingly, there is always at least three taking up space on the Modern Motorcycle Company shop floor. If you’ve already caught the bug, then you know all about late nights scouring eBay for that bargain diamond in the rough. For those of you yet to discover the magic, Condo is the ultimate start and finish point for your project.
Before you ask, $3000 is the floor and $12,000 is the ceiling, but really, that’s just a relative figure. For bachelors and those capable of hiding it from their wife, the sky is the limit.
Modern Motorcycle Company
The Compound Interest
15–25 Keele Street, Collingwood
(03) 9005 6746
Tue to Fri 2pm–6pm