Financial meltdown. Low consumer confidence. Brexit. Weak sterling. Like the Four Horseman of a retail apocalypse, thundering up and down high streets and through retail parks, stomping on the weak and passive. And during their rampage Paul Beamish decided it was the perfect time to move his custom bike business out of its compact, brick-built, bungalow of a town centre headquarters into a two-storey, money pit, plate glass ‘destination’. And he made it work…
Empire House is the name of Krazy Horse’s Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk HQ and it’s where Paul and I meet to leave on a ride into an overcast area of semi-rural East Anglia he’s called home for most of his life. Over a mug of tea served from the art deco-styled diner on the shop’s mezzanine, the boss explains Krazy Horse started as a weekend business out of a friend’s parent’s shed 23 years ago. ‘Me and a friend, Steve Studd, a good name for a bike guy, started the business in December 1995. We were riding old Harleys and Steve blew a head gasket just before we went to the Harley Super Rally in 1995 and there was nowhere round here to get parts.
We spoke to a friend at Zodiac [Netherlands-based wholesaler of Harley and custom parts] who said they’d supply us if we had a little weekend-only shop selling a few bits, and that was the start.’ Paul has been riding since he was 16, buying a moped, with the intention of, he thought, getting around until he was old enough to be able to take driving lessons, but the bug bit. ‘Living in this part of the world – no public transport – a moped was massively better to have than a bicycle and I could have one from the age of 16,’ he explains, still smiling at the memory. ‘The local tech college was full of apprentices and they all had bikes. Everyone on my course had one. We bought mopeds at 16 and rode around as a gang.
At 17 we got 250s, then passed our tests and got bigger bikes.’ We walk and talk, moseying down to the bikes we’re riding today. Paul has quite a choice. ‘As well as my own stuff, old rigid Panhead and Shovelheads and stuff like that, this year I’ve been on holiday on an Indian Chief Roadmaster, I’ve been using the Scout Bobber quite a lot; the Indian Street Hooligan, that you’re riding; MV Dragster RC and the MV Turismo, a really great bike and good two-up.’ See, when Krazy Horse moved from their previous home, in Bury St Edmund’s town centre, to a new build a couple of miles away, they developed from a small-ish, but respected custom bike builder and parts dealer into a multi-franchise dealership, with service bays, dyno, major parts stockist, clothing department and diner.
The roster of brands KH sell is a royal flush of base-covering niche manufacturers. It is arguably the most exciting dealership in the country, but Paul is going back to his roots today. ‘In the ’80s I was riding a 650 Bonneville and ratted-up Honda 750-Fours. My girlfriend at the time was quite into Harleys and we had friends in the National Chopper Club, so I ended up buying a Harley in 1989, the Shovel I’m riding today.’ Considering he’s now owned it for nearly 30 years, things didn’t start well. ‘I rode it home and thought… what have I done? It doesn’t steer, it doesn’t stop. I rode it for a few years, it went bang.
I rebuilt it, and rode it a few more years, then decided, because I was running a custom shop, it needed to be more custom. So that’s when it was transformed.’ Paul walks towards the supercharged green metalflake lowrider. I’ve known him for years and would describe him as modest and laid-back, but his vehicles are anything but. They’re either huge, rare, American, ridiculously powerful or, sometimes, all four. The Harley is on airbag suspension, with the polished blower hardware dominating the right-hand side of the bike. It starts on the button, then raises to a more practical ride height at the press of another.
We saddle up and head east. I’m on a very different American V-twin, an Indian Scout made into a special edition Street Hooligan, by Krazy Horse. We ride past a group of workmen fixing the ornamental gates of a country house. I’m behind and notice one, in his late-teens or early-20s, spin on his heel and give Paul’s bike an appreciative head nod as it passes. I wouldn’t have pegged the fella as a custom fan, but this is a day with a thread of not judging a book by its cover running through it.
The Mexican lowrider-inspired twin is hard to ignore. Though it’s the polar opposite of what I’d usually be attracted to, the Green-go has undeniable presence on the road. The supercharged fumes burble through fishtail exhausts like an atomic bong. Despite his preternaturally optimistic outlook, the Krazy Horse chief admits that being in the UK bike industry isn’t easy. ‘Motorcycle shops have a hard time in this country. The margins we make on new motorcycles are very small, and a lot of UK motorcyclists don’t like spending money on their bikes,’ he continues.
‘Dealers have to pay for the stock up front and there is a £500 profit on a £10,000 bike. We don’t have the back-end bonuses that car dealers get for selling so many per month. If you’ve got a perfectly good bike outside and you think, I’ve got to pay for a holiday, daughter’s wedding, whatever, the bike gets left for another year, but the car will get changed. I’m not all doom and gloom, but it’s not an easy business. If we want to have a nice place for people to come and somewhere that stocks parts so they’re there when you want them, that costs a lot. The insurance for my shops is £90,000 per year alone.’
Oh yeah, shops. Plural. After the positive response to Empire House, Krazy Horse became Morgan and Indian dealers and took over another premises 100 metres from their HQ, and more recently moved into a failed London dealership to open a KH South London branch. Why do it then? ‘Dunno, I love motorcycles. For me it’s a longterm view of where the business needs to go. Shops need to be destinations. The problem is manufacturers are trying to push a car dealer mentality. Motorcyclists don’t want to be like that.’ We make a U-turn, towards a pub we’d passed earlier, so I know I have a few familiar miles where I can wring the Street Hooligan’s neck.
Considering this bike is based on a cruiser, the Indian Scout, its character has had its polarity reversed even though it has a stock frame, engine and tank. KH sells a £4000 kit to retro-fit to Scouts, or will sell you a whole modified bike. There’s a new seat and subframe, 19in wheels with exclusive hubs and road legal flat track tyres, two-into-one exhaust, stage 1 tune, repositioned foot controls and handlebars. Öhlins suspension, front light and board are options. Perhaps as a turn-key proposition its thunder might be stolen by Indian’s own FTR1200, but as a kit it’s an attractive proposition. It needs a front mudguard and exhaust guard to be more practical, but it is an absolute revelation.
There’s a risk of ponderous steering with fat front tyres, but not so here. The torque is glutinous, calorific and sweet enough to get a Hollywood handjob, never mind a handshake. It has the attitude and stance that Harley should have employed when they tossed out the XG750 Street to its garlic burp of a public reception. We pull up in the pub car park, and it occurs to me that I’d rather be back at Krazy Horse, eating their fish finger sandwiches and drinking their perfect lattes, so we pull our lids back on and head back to the interesting Suffolk town they call home.
‘Two big changes in regulations altered the direction of the company,’ says Paul. ‘In 2003, when Type Approval appeared and we had to build bikes to pass SVA tests, then in 2008, when the financial world collapsed and I decided we needed to have something more in our business. We went to the MotorBike Expo in Verona in January 2012, and met with Zero Engineering. That’s when we became their European distributor.’ For a golden period Krazy Horse annually distributed 100 or so of the high-end, Japanese-designed Harley-style lowriders around Europe, and it led to other small motorcycle manufacturers approaching Krazy Horse. The showroom houses an eclectic mix of new bikes plus a museum of Krazy Horse’s own custom bikes, some for sale, others just on display. In terms of new bikes, from Italy, there is Fantic, MV Agusta, Paton and Zaeta; from Sweden, crazy long fork, EU and TUV-approved Hogtech choppers; America is represented by Keanu Reeve’s ludicrously expensive Arch and Indian (at KH’s other showrooms), while Britain delivers Norton.
‘We, as a business, are not totally the mainstream, but we dip into a lot of different areas. We can be with Indian in Cologne at the launch of the FTR1200, but we can also be in a field with the Dirt Track Riders Association racing at grassroots.’ I’m sure I can hear the Four Horseman stomping on some other business’s hopes and dreams in the distance and it reminds me to ask the long-haired optimist about the threats his business faces and how he deals with them.
‘Legislation is a threat, what we’re allowed to ride, emissions… We have a big problem with an ageing motorcycling population, not many young people are riding bikes. We try to have a very open house approach, so anyone who turns up is welcome. They might not be able to afford what we have, but they’re still welcome.’ For six months of the year Krazy Horse host late nights on the first Thursday of the month. ‘At our most recent late night there was a group of eight or nine on 125s, and they’re welcome.
The great thing about motorcycling is you can talk to a 17-year-old or an 80-year-old and have a good conversation with both.’ It’s time for Paul to get back to work. He not only heads up Krazy Horse, but he also runs a successful specialist printing and labelling machinery business. I’m feeling energised by his aura of can-do, so I ask for his guide to business… ‘If an opportunity comes along, I take it. I’ve regretted some, but not many. If I think it’s reasonably good, I take it. I don’t want to look back and regret not doing something. The trick is knowing when to say enough is enough and move on from something that isn’t working.’ Paul Beamish has a knack of making difficult things sound simple and fun while he’s doing it.