The Art of Scooters

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to enter a couple of Lambrettas into a show full of Harleys and choppers run by the Hell’s Angels.

But not only did Rob Johnson brave the scooterists’ traditional enemy territory, he came away with a trophy for the best custom paint job and praise ringing in his ears.

Like many of the muscle motorcycles on show, Rob’s two customised GP200s – Menace and 300 – are more than just an economical means of getting from A to B; they are mobile works of art designed to turn heads.

The artwork airbrushed by hand on to both scooters features characters and scenes from the film 300, which tells the true story of how 300 Spartans fought an army of 100,000 Persians at Thermopylae in 480BC.

Rob, from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, has spent more than £30,000 customising the two machines, and admits it’s become something of an addiction.

Menace, which started life as a standard 1988 GP200, was his first project since becoming reacquainted with the joys of scootering at the age of 36.

“I tinkered with it from day one and changed some bits to chrome, like the exhaust, and then I went a bit silly, chroming the front forks and the engine – I spent about £2,000.

“Once I started I couldn’t stop, it became an addiction,” said Rob, a construction steel worker.

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The scooter was sent to Bradford for a six-month customisation, where it received its unique paint job.

“I came up with the name Menace and then needed a design. I was watching the film 300 and on the back of the DVD case there was a picture of the Uber Immortal character, and he was just perfect to be my Menace Man,” added Rob.

The end result, including a £6,000 paint job protected by 40 layers of lacquer, proved a show-stopper – Menace, with its unusual lifting rear end, has garnered more than 60 trophies, including best in show at the huge Isle of Wight scooter rally.

But Rob’s addiction wasn’t sated, and he was left with virtually a complete scooter, barring the frame, from the spare parts left over from the work on Menace.

“Originally I wanted to build a normal one, but then I came up with the idea of doing a 300 paint job on it,” he said.

“I absolutely love the film. I’ve watched it dozens of times and have to stop myself watching it. It’s just an awesome film and it’s even better because it’s a true story.”

Another £10,000 was sunk into 300, also a 1988 GP200, with 23 scenes from the film gracing its bodywork.

Then came the invitation to the Bulldog Bash in Stratford Upon Avon this year to compete among the big beasts of the motorcycling world Europe’s largest rally of its kind.

“We heard they wanted some custom scooters to enter, so we sent off some pictures – it turned out we were the only scooters to enter,” said Rob, who met his girlfriend, Sam, on a scooter rally in Peterborough in 2009 (fortunately, she loves them too.)

Menace walked off with the best custom paint award ahead of 100 bikes.

“Ninety nine per cent of the bikers loved them, and some were going overboard about them,” he added.

The question is, why?

“When you pull up somewhere and people ooh and aah it’s quite a buzz,” explains Rob.

“Riding them gives me more pleasure than looking at them. When I ride somewhere you can’t beat the look on people’s faces. Non scooterists give you even more of a buzz with their reaction when they see something really out there.

“I would be devastated if anything happened to them, and I would have to get the paint put back exactly as it is now.

“I even have them with me in the tent when we go on scooter rallies – when they’re not locked in the (alarmed) garage, they’re rarely out of my sight.”

Ty Lawer, regarded by many as the best in the business, has been airbrushing stunning designs on to scooters, bikes and cars for 25 years from his Pageant Paintwork business at Snetterton, south Norfolk.

And with the cost of replicating intricate artwork, he says that agreed value insurance is essential if riders don’t want to end up with a large bill should the worst happen.

“I always tell people to get the paintwork properly insured,” he added. “A lot of people don’t think you can, but there is specialist insurance available and a dent on the petrol tank or panel can sometimes mean repainting the whole design.

“People now tend to be very up front with their modifications, and the costs are actually pretty reasonable because people who spend time and money on these custom bikes really do look after them.

“I have a retro ragged look Moto Guzzi insured with Bikesure, and I was pleasantly surprised at the cost.”

Gerry Bucke, general manager of Norfolk-based Bikesure, said that custom paintwork can be covered on a like-for-like basis as long as it is declared.

“Paintwork can be reproduced in full on our modified schemes, but it’s important to get good photographs and declare every modification so you’re fully covered,” he explained.

“If you don’t, then at worst an insurer could invalidate your cover completely, or pay out for a standard respray if your paintwork is damaged.

“Many insurers won’t touch modified scooters, so you’re best going to a specialist for the best cover.”

A schoolboy art lover, Ty taught himself air-brushing as a teenager, and his designs on his own motorcycles prompted friends to suggest he start his own business.

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“Everyone had the flame paint jobs but I was always doing things that were slightly different, and I’d been in and out of several jobs so I decided to set up as a painter,” he said.

“It’s a similar principle to tattoos – people do like and appreciate artwork, but they like it in different forms.

“I think it comes from people wanting to personalise things and decorate things. We all decorate our homes and our gardens and it’s just an extension of that. There’s also something about men and their vehicles – I think a lot of people don’t really know why they want something done, they just do!

“I’ve had people look at lots of my work and they can’t understand why we’ve put all that work and effort into a motorcycle you could fall off and damage at any point. They might put money into a piece of art to hang in their house and the only people who are ever going to see it are family and friends who come round, but other people want to go out there with it and show it off.”

An expert in reproducing photographs in astonishingly life-like detail, Ty’s work has included scenes from famous films, film and rock stars and a Vauxhall Vectra half-covered in the artwork of renowned faery illustrator Brian Froud.

So the next time you fancy taking in some fine art, try a scooter rally…

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