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Painting Harleys at Classic Coachworks

Keith Baker


Fashions and trends come and go, and the only certainty is that their time will pass. It might have been cool to show off your flairs whilst proudly leaning against the bonnet of a Ford Capri in the seventies, but it’s unlikely to earn you admiring glances in 2012.

One of the very few brands to buck this trend is Harley Davidson, which has managed to stay cool continuously over generations. This is in spite of the fact that most new buyers are in their late forties and you’re more than likely to see a Harley rider pull over for a foamy mocha cappuccino than a cigarette.

But the all-American brand continues to prosper thanks to its legendary association with the Hells Angels and iconic scenes from films such as Easy Rider. Which is great news for Keith Baker.

Keith has devoted most of his working life to paint spraying, and the vast majority of his work has been devoted to customised paint jobs for Harley Davidson motorcycles. Whilst the type of people buying the bikes has changed, the fascination for a unique motorcycle remains. Customising a Harley to an individual’s own taste remains a key part of ownership.

Over the years, Keith has seen fashions come, go, and then come back around again, and it means that customised paint shops are always in demand. Every job is different – some owners like flames, whilst others go for pin stripes or skulls, wolves, stars and stripes, eagles or retro imitations. Some even pretend that their bike is falling apart.

Keith said: “People ask for some strange things. You have to re-educate yourself every few years as there will be a new breed of Harley owner and they will not know anything about the history. You get some people, no matter what their age, who have a passion for the old bikes and they know about the Hells Angels, Easy Rider, and the look of a Harley rider. But a lot of riders do not know all of that. They’ve gone into a dealership, bought a brand new Harley with a brand new lifestyle.

“I’ve recently painted a fuel tank black with a red and white stripe. That is a 1976 paint job for Black Bear Harley Davidson (in Suffolk) as they wanted that old retro scheme. But not everybody understands it. Some customers would look at it and wonder why you did it as it’s not overly appealing and very basic.

“You get a lot of people now that are into the rusty look at the moment. People are going to great lengths to create something that looks like it has just been found in a barn. One guy even asked me if I would put a dent in his fuel
tank. I said ‘no, don’t be stupid’.

“But it’s only fashion. I’ve just done two big flame jobs for people, which I haven’t done for ages. There’s a lot of gold leaf stuff at the moment, but the fashions come around eventually. I’ve had a few jobs I’ve really liked. But it doesn’t really matter what I think, so long as the customer gets what they want.

"My job is to get it right. Hopefully the owner understands what they are asking for. I suppose my favourite jobs are things that I have done for myself.  I did one with 400 flames on it - people said it looked like a rabid bonfire and people would say ‘oh, it’s a bit much!’  but it’s for me.

“The worse thing is when people keep changing their mind. It’s usually the idea they originally had that was the right decision. It’s like going to the tailors and seeing a suit that you really like and it fits perfectly, but it’s an Armani and costs £500. You spend the next six months trying to find something the same but cheaper. You really should have bought the Armani as that’s what you were initially attracted to.”

Keith has worked in the area since he left school, initially working at Pete Bennett’s Motorcycles in Pease Pottage when he was 16 where he undertook basic mechanical jobs. On one occasion, Pete had his own bike painted for him and Keith, impressed by the idea, decided to move into the painting side of the business. He then got a job at Southern Counties in Crawley, serving his apprenticeship there for three years, before he landed a job with Dennis Fernie at Calbrook Cars in Leatherhead.

Keith said: “Dennis was selling custom paint and was one of the first to realise its commercial value over here. He had a body shop and I managed to talk myself into a job there, but in truth I didn’t cut it. What they were doing was out of my league at that time. I moved on but then Dennis needed someone to run the metal flakes paint side of the business.

“We shifted a lot of the paint, and eventually I convinced Dennis that he should get into the bike-selling side of the custom paint business.”

After a time, Keith left and set up on his own at a workshop in Partridge Green and ran Prestige Coachworks for four years from 1982. Keith said: “After a while, a friend of mine who worked for a design studio in Worthing came to me with a scale model of a truck that he needed painting, and I agreed to do it as at that point I was desperate for work. They were thrilled to bits with it, and at that time there were doing the prototypes for Bentley , so we started painting them.”

With more work in the pipeline and Rolls Royce (who then owned Bentley) pleased with the work, it led to a full time contract, with Keith naming his price. “They agreed to pay me £13.40 an hour. It was the first number I thought of as 1340 is 80 cubic inch, which is the size of a Harley engine.”

Keith ran the paint shop at International Automotive Design (IAD) for nine years, during a time that the now defunct but once influential company came up with a number of memorable concepts. The infamous Yamaha OX-99 Supercar, built to rival the McLaren road car, was just one of the prototypes he painted.

But eventually, the business went into receivership and Keith went it alone once again, setting up Classic Cycleworks on the Lyons Farm Estate in Slinfold where he has now been for 17 years. Keith mainly paints Harley Davidsons, but he is happy to paint other bikes as well as helmets. He’s even painted the fridge at the workshop!

He also has a side project in Hot Rods, called Bakers Field, of which he says “for something that isn’t a business it’s actually very busy”. Restoration projects Baker’s Field have dealt with include a 1971 Dodge Challenger and a 1952 Chevy Pick-up truck.

“But most of the work at Classic Cycleworks is with Harleys,” said Keith. “I don’t get asked to do other bikes as there are other firms catering for different bikes. It’s a similar thing with crash helmets. It’s very uneconomical to do one of something. If you go to someone who does lots of crash helmets they may prime and paint ten at a time. But if you want one helmet done, it’ll cost £300, which is often more than the helmet cost. People don’t always understand that buying something where only one thing is done at a time is going to cost more than something that is mass produced.”

When it comes to the Harleys he likes to ride, Keith is very much with the old school. He belongs to a small club called The Stockers and owns a 1949 Panhead Harley and a ‘Shovelution’ which is a Shovelhead with a 2000 engine.

Keith said: “Harleys move on with the technology but hang on to the mystique of the original look. For me though, bikes like the V Rod are more like a BMW or Japanese bikes in comparison. Hell would have to freeze over before I’d buy a new Harley. I don’t like them at all. They’re 150 pounds heavier and they’re a bit soulless
as far as I’m concerned.”

We can’t ignore his beard either, which has been a talking point for 40 years, during which time he has only shaved it off twice. There are occasions when people remark on it, sometimes in a friendly manner but sometimes in a more abusive manner. But at this time of year he gets a lot of funny looks from young children.

“One time I was sat in the pub and there was this little girl next to our table. She was a tiny little thing, stood there in her woollies, looking up at me with her mouth wide open in amazement. I’m thinking ‘what’s that all about?’ and my wife Karen said ‘She thinks you’re Santa!’

“The little girl’s mum smiled, and I said to the girl ‘have you been good? Because if you haven’t I won’t be coming at Christmas’. She scurried off!”

For more on Keith’s business visit www.classiccycleworks.net or www.bakers-field.co.uk


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