Under The Influence: Leon’s Custom Triumph Pre-Unit Hard Tail
Words: Geoff Baldwin Photography: Luke Ray
A couple of months before this article, we visited Ficus Constructions in Collingwood, Melbourne where we shot Ric Cornaldi’s BMW R80 for Tank Moto issue 04. When Luke and I arrived Ric lead us into the workshop and introduced us to Leon McKay, a workshop apprentice who was helping him with his latest custom build. When I asked Leon what he rode he pointed out a pre-unit, hard tailed Triumph project sitting on a stand behind Ric’s Fox. Luke turned to me and said that looks like a future feature there and sure enough here we are.
Like many people today Leon wanted to do something with his hands. He’d had his fill of working retail stores and office jobs and longed for a creative career that he could enjoy. Finding it difficult to get a break in a mechanical role he took up a job at a picture framers where he was fortunate enough to be introduced to Ric. He visited the Ficus workshop, met the team and straight away knew it was where he wanted to be.
Soon after their introduction Ric took Leon on as an apprentice in light fabrication under the guidance of workshop managers Ritchie Brownlee & Mike Barnes. “The entire team loves bikes. Bikes sit in the back of the workshop and ideas are constantly being bounced around. When we finished work for the day or took lunch breaks I was encouraged to work on the Triumph and the guys were always on hand to help.”
Before moving to Melbourne from New Zealand Leon had plenty of experience with motorcycles, but it was in his new home that he became interested in customising them. He already had an old Honda that could have been the first subject but it was with a vintage British bike that he really wanted to get his hands dirty. “I always knew about pre-unit Triumph engines, but they were so out of reach. I didn’t have that much money and these bikes are quite rare to find.” So he searched and as they say, good things come to those who wait. “I found the bike for sale in Tasmania and I made the guy an offer. He was keen so I had to quickly source the money from everywhere so that I could pay for it. I sent a bank deposit to him and waited nervously.” A few weeks later Leon took delivery of his new project. “I remember the day the bike turned up. The truck arrived early in the morning and when he opened the doors there sat a complete, old school seventies Triumph chopper.’
The pre-unit Triumph was sporting all the trick, period chopper parts. Ape hangers, a king and queen seat, custom fabricated tank and an all-rigid frame. “If I’d had another Triumph I’d have kept it exactly as it was.” Although Leon’s new bike was a piece of custom history he already had a plan for how he would customise it to make it his own. “I appreciated the bikes chopper style and where it came from, but it wasn’t my bike so I had to change it. I had to put my own personality into it. I think that with anything you custom build, even if it’s not a custom motorcycle, it should be a reflection of your own personal style and how you want it to be.
“When I spoke to the previous owner he said it was a ‘53. Since then though I’ve talked to a few Triumph experts that have pointed out the bike is a mix of many different years and models. It’s a Triumph Tiger I know that much, but it’s got a different top end and has had plenty of stuff done to it already. I didn’t really care about what was different, or not matching about it though. It’s my first Triumph and I thought ‘it is what it is’ and I’ll just take it from here.”
With a head full of ideas and enough enthusiasm to build 3 bikes Leon was ready to get cracking, but first he’d have to get the Triumph running. “Jim Clark’s Champion Motorcycles workshop was right across the road from my place in Abbotsford. At the very start of the project he helped me out BIG TIME! I used to wheel the bike across to his workshop where we’d drink beers and work at getting the bike going. It was pretty dope having him so close by. He had all the Whitworth tools, a wealth of knowledge and his workshop is on the back of a pub so there was always beer on hand. Jim helped me solve an oil flow issue in the top end and guided me through how the pre-units work.”
With the Triumph running and relocated to the Ficus workshop Leon turned his attention toward preparing for the rest of the build. He bought the tank he wanted from LowBrow Customs and several other parts, but his constant exposure to design influences meant that his vision for the bike was ever evolving. Most of the ‘backyard’ builders I’ve had the pleasure of meeting tell me stories of how they saw a bike in an old photo or magazine that inspired their build, but Leon’s influences come from elsewhere. “It’s hardly custom bikes that inspire me. I appreciate them a lot and there are plenty of cool ideas being realised, but I get my inspiration from other things. I love the skate scene and industrial furniture, architecture and design.
My bedroom is filled with vintage taxidermy, old pocket knives, skate decks, records and posters. Despite it being freezing cold and at times inconvenient my flatmates now think it’s the coolest room in the house.” But that’s not all you’ll find in Leon’s room; “I park the bike underneath my bed. I built a steel loft style bed frame, it’s like a workshop with my bed in it.” During rental inspections the room is transformed to hide the fact that someone’s living in there and strangely it’s a hit with the ladies. “I don’t know why but they actually like it for some reason. My room is a collection of things that inspire me. I keep it to the bare minimum and try to only have items in there that interest and motivate me.”
Leon began the build with the bars and he gradually worked his way back, adding a solo seat and keeping it to the bare essentials, just like his bedroom. No particular style was chosen, it was simply an expression of his own tastes and ideas. The front wheel used a sprung hub which was cool but “way too bulky” so he sold it to fund more of the build. He picked up a quick detachable hub at a swapmeet along with many of the parts found on the bike. “The coolest thing about owning this bike is meeting other enthusiasts who have shared their knowledge of British bikes with me. I met most of them at the swap meets. I’d much rather buy from them than off the internet. You meet the previous owners, learn the history of the parts and they even give you tips on how to fit them.”
With the help of the Ficus team (Richie and Mike) he welded in all the bungs and mounts required for his trick parts. “Those guys were a huge help. If I hadn’t had them around at work to help me out the bike wouldn’t be where it’s at today.” So in a roundabout way Leon’s apprenticeship in light fabrication has involved the build of his own custom bike…how’s that for finding a career he could enjoy?
This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 17.
Follow Leon: @leonmckay.