Designer James Hilton is the co-founder of Death Machines of London, a custom motorcycle company that makes some of the most extraordinary and beautiful bikes of our time. James tells us about the story behind the name, and why he will never build more than one of any bike.
How did the name Death Machines of London come about?
I’ve loved bikes since I was little. But my father was dead set against them. His brother was a mechanic, always building bikes and used to race them on the Isle of Man. One time when we were visiting, he said “let’s go out for a ride”. That was my first experience of being on the back of a bike. Afterwards, he said, “how fast do you think we were going?”. I said maybe 40mph. It was closer to 90mph. And my mind was completely blown by all of this. He said, “whatever you do, don’t tell your dad”. Being a cocky little boy, I told my parents immediately that I was on the back of uncle Clive’s motorbike at 90mph. My dad wasn’t best pleased. He said, “look James, the bottom line is motorbikes are death machines”. And those words stuck with me, though they didn’t stop me riding.
DMOL has been going for four years. How did you get started?
I had a very successful design company, which I left five years ago because it had grown too big. I started thinking about a really good creative outlet. At that point I had a Triumph Thruxton. I started buying things for it and thought I’d try customising it. I took the bike and parts to my mechanic Ray Petty (co-founder of DMOL) and said to him “can you put all these parts on it for me?”. He reluctantly agreed, saying it would look rubbish. And he was right. Shortly after, we went along to this new thing called BikeShed. And I was astounded by the craftsmanship and the imagination of the bikes on display. Just what can be done with a motor, a frame and two wheels. With my design head on, I saw a gap in the market. There was a lot of companies making t-shirts and the occasional bike. I wanted to create a bike company that made the occasional t-shirt. I said to my girlfriend “we’re going to start a motorcycle company and we’ll be exhibiting here next year”. I went back to Ray, completely inspired, and said “mate do you want to start a custom motorcycle company with me?”. He thought I was mad, but I vowed not to take my BikeShed wrist band off until I was showing my own bikes there.
That’s good motivation to start. What was your first project?
We started on our first bike, a Moto Guzzi Le Mans K2, which we called AirTail. We had a production in parallel, my old Thruxton that would become a bike called UYC (Up Yours Copper). Ray said what are we going to call the company? The phrase that my dad said to me all those years ago drifted across my mind. Could you call a company Death Machines? If we put “of London” on the end of it, it might be a bit more acceptable and the Americans will really love it. I’m also really proud our bikes are built in London. So, we went with that name, but trying to register Death Machines of London at Companies House was a nightmare. I eventually persuaded them with a rambling letter explaining how it was founded on a Buddhist belief about rebirth and that we’re giving these bikes a new lease of life. Eventually they gave up and let us go with it.
Did you take the bikes to BikeShed the following year?
Ha, yes. We had both on show there the following year. Dutch (the owner of BikeShed) came over with a big pair of scissors and cut off my entry band from the previous year. It was a fun, exciting moment for us. And we were inundated with people looking at the bikes, photographing them, talking about them. Things escalated really quickly from there.
How has business been since?
We’ve made four bikes. A bike a year. To call it a business would be a stretch, but we do it to create things that hopefully inspire people. The world is full of things that are mass produced. If you’ve got enough money, you can buy a £50k bike but it won’t be unique. The thing we find gratifying with DMOL is we only ever create one of one. We like to talk to the customer, find out their story, what bikes they’re into, to create a bike that’s bespoke to them. And, [laughs], the t-shirts sell amazingly well, too. The first one I ever designed is really popular. Honestly, as soon as we get a reprint it flies off the shelves.
What’s your design process and does the customer bring the bike to you?
Both ways. Sometimes they’ve got the bike already. Other times they have an idea for a bike. As for the design process, for us the story is just as important as the design. In order to get inspired, we want to find stories. Why are we designing it? What’s the purpose of our design? Once we find our story, it’s actually a pretty smooth, quick process to start visualising that.
Do you use Motul’s lubricants?
I’m not a mechanic, but as Ray, who builds all the bikes, says, “we use Motul because they are lubricants of the highest quality, with a class leading range of synthetics.”
The custom bike scene has really exploded in the past few years. Why do you think this is?
A bike is such a personal thing. It’s not a tool, like a car. You don’t ride bikes unemotively and you’re far more in partnership with the machine. Because of that people naturally want to personalise their bikes and make it more unique to them. Also, there’s been an explosion in the availability of aftermarket parts, and Instagram and other platforms allows people to share ideas easily. There’s also a smorgasbord of information, guidance and education that simply wouldn’t have been possible eight or nine years ago.
© Picture credits: DMOL
Check out the interview with James and Ray about the build of the ‘Airforce’, below: