King of the road
by Jason Kerrigan
THREE huge bangs, shotgun-loud, shatter the quiet of a deserted New York neighbourhood. An elderly woman, walking alone, stops in her tracks, terrified, a lifetime of experience on these mean streets reminding her to fear the worst. Now more bangs - faster, louder - and startled heads begin appearing through fire-escape windows, oscillating frantically, squinting for gun-toting maniacs. This is a small section of city on red alert.
The thunderous roar that follows the bangs could easily induce panicked fears of invading artillery and war-ready tanks. But here, in the ever-cool East Village, pensive scowls merely crack into chuckles of recognition as Hugh Mackie careens around the corner, his ancient Triumph motorcycle backfiring spectacularly, his dozen cohorts an accompaniment in an aural attack of drum-bursting fury.
The locals nod back in through their windows, curiosity satisfied, and the old dear recommences her shuffle along the pavement, while Mackie's ride shudders to a halt at Sixth Street Specials, his humble workshop and the centre of a phenomenon that is bizarre even by New York standards.
Since 1986, Mackie, a native of Girvan and graduate of Glasgow School of Art, has been enticing local hipsters and hard men on to the saddles of ramshackle classic British motorcycles. He opened the doors of Sixth Street Specials in the hope of breathing life back into a bike scene that Steve McQueen first started here in the 1950s.
Legend has it that the actor, pre-superstardom, spent his nights racing Triumph Thunderbirds through these streets, an early collection of his cronies and hangers-on only ever a wheel's-length or two behind. The high pose factor of their British bikes sparked a genuine craze for Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs in the Village.
Yet by the time Mackie arrived in this neighbourhood in the early 1980s, the bikes that had once littered every street corner were gone, long since abandoned in a locale where tastes for fast living were by then more easily catered to through heroin and crack-cocaine. One pile of junk for another, some said.
A despondent Mackie, whose love of motorbikes outweighed any ambitions he might have had in the art world, resolved to do all he could to relaunch the bike scene in the East Village. With the help of his late business partner, Dimitri Turin, the son of the celebrated Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Sixth Street Specials workshop was born. Unlikely as it would seem, given the fantastical, kaleidoscopic oil-splattering that defines the tiny premises' decor, Mackie's place soon became an HQ and hang-out for a collection of posers, greasers, hipsters and hopheads who doted on the cult of old British bikes. After advertising in the local press up and down the Eastern Seaboard for abandoned 1960s and 1970s Triumphs, Mackie slowly but surely dragged hundreds of mangled old bargains back to New York. Many were brutalised by rust and the rigours of life in the open; others had been cut into choppers that would have left Evel Knievel scratching his head in confusion; and still more were just ageing bikes that were painfully taking nature's course back to dust.
But Mackie fixed them all - 300 so far. Elbow grease and sheer will power soon had them up and running, sold locally and immediately zooming around the streets, recreating McQueen's cult - but this time with the name Mackie firmly attached.
But why would a trained artist who had built sets for experimental movies in Paris want to do this? "These bikes are cool. And they are cheap, and now they are accessible. It gives me an enormous amount of pleasure to know that I have had a big hand in that," grins Mackie from his Sixth Street stoop.
"The thing I learned from being at art school was how to see the bigger picture, instead of seeing pictures per se. I knew there was something tangible to work for in getting all these old bikes back into the neighbourhood, recreating a scene that continues to grow - and which, unlike the art world, everyone involved in thoroughly enjoys.
"The British bike scene in New York was the stuff of legend, but when I arrived here I was shocked that there were so few bikes, and specifically so few British bikes. It was almost as if the whole thing had been a figment of the imagination. So I talked to a lot of locals who had been enthusiasts in bygone years, and what I found was that most of the guys who had made the scene had moved on and were no longer interested in riding.
"I wondered what had happened to their bikes. Most of the old guys just shrugged when I asked. They hadn't a clue. So I decided I'd have to track them down myself. I reasoned that if I could find them, maybe the scene could be resuscitated."
By now a crowd of locals has gathered by the workshop to chew the fat and exchange tall tales of their modern-day knighthood of the road. After hanging around and posing for a while, they will take to the streets again, before reconvening at one of the various biker bars that have emerged here.
Most are dressed in heavy black leathers and vintage race helmets, sporting tattoos and smoking up a storm of Marlboro white-tips. It's a look that has been cultivated for maximum visual effect, and around these parts it is something of a uniform. Yet this cult has no social boundaries. There are two architects here, a male model, a student, an MTV director and a steelworker. Three of the 12 present are women.
"People who ride the bikes tend to be more than just enthusiasts. They are fanatics, and they come from all walks of life," says Mackie. "It's very much a scene now. Look at the folk who are riding them. Half have the rocker look and the other half are so into these machines that they know more about them than I do."
And because these old motorcycles are so particular to the rough-and-ready, irrepressibly hip East Village, the riders are also partisan. Michael Kramer, the MTV director, typifies what it's all about as he sits astride his 1971 Triumph Bonneville and explains his passion. "A buddy of mine rebuilds little antique Vespas and Lambrettas, and he offered me an 8,000 scooter absolutely free - if I promised I'd never ride a Triumph again." He snorts. "I was furious! I hate those f**kin' things! I'm a rocker, man, so there's just no way it was happening!"
With the vogue for retro-style motorcycles prompting manufacturers to produce contemporary versions of their older bikes, would any of this crowd consider buying, say, a new model Triumph Bonneville? Heads shake slowly in the crowd, one or two throwing pitying looks in my direction.
The gritty attractiveness of the old machines has not escaped the attentions of the Manhattan media, who are keen to take advantage of the easy glamour of Mackie and his crowd. Last week two bikini models draped themselves across a couple of 1970s Nortons for a magazine fashion shoot. The month before, a Japanese TV crew cordoned off the entire street to film the Scotsman at work. Yet Mackie laughs off the attention. "Having beautiful models around on a regular basis is something we have all had to get used to, despite our dedication to our work," he says.
"And having TV crews shooting around us is part of the fun of being involved with bikes that are increasingly being appreciated as precious works of design."
New York's film-making community shares the aesthetic appreciation. Mackie has rebuilt a 1960s Triumph Tiger for the director Jim Jarmusch in the last couple of years. Hugh Grant's management company rented a Triumph Bonneville for the actor to ride on a fashion shoot last year, and Keanu Reeves always brings his Norton Commando to New York when he's filming here.
But the billions of dollars earned from The Matrix movies account for a particularly flavoursome tale of Mackie's celebrity biking pals. "Larry Fishburne is a bike guy, but has always been into more modern stuff than we deal with. But he knows Keanu Reeves is a huge Brit bike fan, who owns a couple of perfect Nortons," Mackie laughs. "When they were shooting The Matrix movies together, Larry decided he wanted to give Keanu a present and had me renovate this cracking wee BSA 250 for him, which I did.
"The complication came when Larry got home to his apartment one day to find that Keanu had secretly had 50 grand's worth of hi-fi equipment installed there as a gift. Now, this was a nice wee BSA, but, well, it wasn't quite in that league.
"So Larry kept the bike. I had it shipped down to his place in New Orleans and thought that was the end of it. Two months later the phone rang in the workshop, and someone shouted to me, 'It's that guy from The Matrix on the blower, sounding a bit out of puff!'
"I picked up the phone and, sure enough, it's Morpheus. Wants to know 'how the hell you're supposed to kick-start these f**kin' things'! He was stranded at a gas station about 50 miles outside the city. I had to go through the whole hot-starting procedure with him and coax him through it until the wee bike kindled up again. He was a good laugh and still rides it from time to time."
At 46 and married with two children, Mackie laughs at the idea of being considered a cult figure. "My work here has just begun," he protests. While there are old British bikes on many of the street corners in the East Village, he reckons he'll be happier when there's a machine on every corner and their riders become regular visitors to Sixth Street Specials. "Spreading the love" is how one of his cronies describes it.
And he has just started racing again - old souped-up BSAs, mostly - taking on stripped-down Harleys and Ducatis in what he calls outlaw racing, a competition with very few rules.
As he talks, his eyes fix on a scarlet Triumph that's revving up outside. Its owner, it transpires, comes from the American south, his neck matching the colour of his bike perfectly. He's heard great things about Sixth Street Specials and wonders if it's true that this whole Try Yumph thayng is a bit of a cult round these here parts.
Mackie chuckles out the door, delighted, as ever, to spread the word.