Berham Customs

Interview / September 2016

Berlin, Weissensee. North by northeast. We find ourselves in an old office block that has seen better days and follow a long corridor into the basement. Down there, Martien Delfgaauw is tinkering away at two-wheel creations. Though an inventive contemporary, the zeitgeist means very little to him. This basement and this man is what Berham Customs is all about.

Martien, you could say that you’re one of the “young bucks” in the customising scenE.

Well, I’m 42 and have been working on Vespas and motorbikes for 25 years now, so I guess you can’t really call me young anymore (grins). But yeah, the word “biker” does make me shudder. Blues rock is not my thing and I don’t own a fringed jacket or wear system helmets. I’ve never really been into original versions either. The way I customise motorbikes could probably be classed as the “new wave customising scene”. I’ve always wanted to avoid doing things in a set way and being pigeonholed. It’s this approach that has taken Berham Customs to where it is today.

You’re actually an advertising expert by trade though.

Yeah, I freelance as a creative writer for agencies and companies. I’ve been writing and creating copy for almost as long as I’ve been working on bikes. The workshop came about from my urge to go beyond implementing my ideas in marketing drives, and show what I can do on the bikes. I wanted to create something with my own hands that has nothing to do with market research and only serves one purpose – my own enjoyment. Funnily enough, I’ve had a few jobs recently that needed both of my skills.

So, a hobby has become an entirely serious operation with Berham Customs?

Not at all! Though it’s true that I’m working on a lot of motorbike projects at the moment, this is all done under the banner: “brains run on fun”. My own enjoyment is the most important thing to me and I want to keep it that way in all situations; it’s sort of my mantra. This is just as true with wrench in hand as it is with creating copy in the office.

For me, there is also another level to it – what really gets on my nerves sometimes is this most depressing narcissism and self-glorification that merely serves to get fans and followers. Instead of trying to fit in with certain images, you should have your own ideals and aspirations.

You can see this approach in how you customise. You don’t want to tie yourself down to a certain style, it seems.

That’s right. There’s only one thing I insist on: no toast-like bench seats in brat style; that’s something I’ll probably never be able to get used to (laughs). Ignorance plays an important role in Berham’s identity: ignore categories and expectations. Anything that restricts you – simply ignore! These are the rules I try to follow. The only thing that I willingly allow myself to be restricted by is the technical side. For example, a fork can only be shortened by as much as the spring travel allows. You can’t ignore the chassis geometry, as the bike will simply ride poorly. A Berham motorcycle must ride well and be reliable. While others build sculptures, I make driving machines.

Ignorance as the common theme, that’s a fascinating approach!

Yes, especially since you also move away from any brand definitions, established styles or trends. I am reluctant to have a typical Berham style, too. That would completely restrict my freedom. Or mean repetition, which I also want to avoid. By the time I put my tools down for the last time, I want all Berham motorbikes to be as one and to have never been put into existing categories. That would be like a signature. I already have a word for it: Quogaika.

Quogaika, that sounds almost philosophical. What is meant by it exactly?

Well, Quogaika was my daughter’s favourite word when she was two. Though she couldn’t talk yet, she kept on saying “Quogaika”. While it has no meaning, it sounds totally coherent and harmonic – it has a flow to it. Transferring this to the motorbikes means that there is no generic stamp, but a harmonic master plan. I simply like clear ideas – lines and proportions are very important to me. On the BMW over there, for example, it was about making everything around the bulky boxer engine give off a light, almost floating appearance.

You are currently working on a 1998 XT, which doesn’t actually have a line in the series version.

It makes most sense to start with the fuel tank. The rest then came from the XS tank. The motorbike belongs to a customer who wants a customised bike for everyday riding. That’s why I’ve kept the air filter box and large front wheel, for example. A fancy little exhaust pipe is also out of the question, as it’s neither suitable for everyday use nor legal. Therefore, a proper muffler is needed. The simplest gimmicks for making a bike look better won’t do. But that has got me more hooked, because creating something serious that works properly is trickier than making something that is only supposed to look good.

Can you think of a current customising operation that has inspired you?

Yes, the Yamaha XSR700 by Bunker from Turkey. In its original version, the XSR is an ugly motorbike lacking the right proportions. After a stay at the Bunker, it’s a dream! Perfectly balanced, distinguishable, and though the design is reminiscent of previous decades, it’s no retro bike. It’s real fun to ride it.

You seem open to new things with these “limitless aspirations”. However, is there anything you categorically rule out for Berham and yourself?

Not really. I’d be up for doing an e-bike, for instance. They run pretty well and are fun to ride. I’ve currently got my mind on Zero Motorcycles – they’re not particularly good looking and I’d like to do a bit of experimenting there. I could only actually rule one thing – a Victory. I really cannot understand those things and the people who buy them. Half Indian, half Harley – what’s that all about?

So, there’ll be no big-size cruisers coming out of your workshop any time soon. What have you got lined up for the future?

We’ll soon be starting on a Sprinter project. My colleague Felix Pilz has a great 1980s frame for it. It’s really what we want to do.

With the KRT Framework, I’m also working on launching limited edition custom parts for two-valve BMWs. These are part we’ve manufactured in the past as extra separate parts for customising and we reckon they’d like to get their hands on some others. There are loads of other ideas too. Watch this space.

Martien, thank you very much for the interview.

Text and Photos by  Wheels of Stil