We sat down with Mutt founder, Benny Thomas, to talk custom bikes, the joy of riding, and the return of old fashioned values
Essential Journal: First off, tell us a little about yourself.
Benny Thomas: I ran a custom bike shop for over 15 years prior to this. Building vintage, custom Harleys. I specialised in period bikes, anything from the twenties up to the seventies like vintage choppers and panheads, things like that. It was never really about the money, it was more for the love of doing it. My custom work usually sold for around £20,000-£40,000 and took a year or two to build. The bikes were almost always pretty crazy, too. About four years ago I had an idea for a small cc custom bike, one that was more accessible than some of my older custom work.
And that’s where the idea of Mutt came from?
Exactly. Mutt was born out of a desire to build a super cool bike that was still accessible to new riders. Affordable, approachable, but still dead cool. Back in my custom days if I made something it would often have to be from scratch: from new handlebars, to mud guards to exhaust pipes. The labour, time and price would make that sort of comission pretty inaccessible for most first-timers and casual riders. Most first-time, small engine bikes are either scramblers or scooters, which is totally fine if you’re an elderly lady or a teenager with a tracksuit and too much time on your hands. But if you’re some way into your twenties or thirties and you want something that looks good, there’s really not much available. That’s where Mutt Motorcycles comes in.
How did it all get started from there?
Initially we were hand-building our bikes, they were pretty basic by custom standards, but still very different to anything else available at that level. Once people got a look at the them, orders just came flooding in. It all got a bit mad and we realised we were onto something big. Before long we started sourcing our own engines and frames and doing everything ourselves. Once we started doing that, the bikes truly became our bikes, our Mutts. Which is a huge achievement for us. The models you see here and online are registered as Mutt motorcycles, they’re totally our bikes, we haven’t just messed around with someone else’s frames. As a traditional custom builder, that’s a huge deal for me.
Tell us a little about the Mutt HQ itself.
The new Mutt HQ is two years old. We have the showroom, the chop shop and the retail space all under one roof. There’s a real industrial edge to this area of Birmingham, but there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of creative spaces popping up and it’s great to be at the centre of it, pushing it forward. It’s always been a pretty low-key, underground spot, and it’s definitely maintained that edge.
What do you think lies behind the appeal of a Mutt?
They’re good-looking, well-built bikes geared towards fun, city riding. We’ve developed a real cult following for quality and accessibility. After all, a 125 cc is a learner-legal bike. So anyone can literally do a day course on the CBT and they’re ready to roll. Pair that with the price tag [Mutts start at just under £3000] and you have something that’s as fun as it is accessible. That’s the beauty of it. If I built a custom Harley or a Triumph or something on that scale, it would cost the buyer upwards of £20,000 and you’d need a full license to ride it. Not to mention the fact that you’d have to wait a year for it to be built. With a 125cc Mutt you can grab your CBT, buy from us, have it customized to your liking and be on the road within a week. All for around three grand. That’s mountain bike money! Plus, they’re just good fun.
Do you have a certain set of design principles in mind when you build a Mutt?
’m all about iconic, enduring, classic design. Nowadays people seem to like to cover everything up in bits of streamlined plastic. That’s great, but we’re not really about that. We’re going the other way, we like how bikes looked in the 60’s and 70’s back when they were built right here in Birmingham. We don’t want them looking like they came out of a jelly mould. Modern bike design all looks the same to me. That’s not to say it’s not great, but what I like about early vehicle design is the fact that everyone was trying something a little different, trying to find what works. People were still discovering rather than perfecting. Those elements of ruggedness, experimentation and discovery are what I love about making bikes, and it’s what I try to keep in mind in my own designs.
Up close and personal, it’s hard not to be impressed by the size of the bikes. There’s a real heft to them. Was that intentional?
Yeah, that’s the point. Typical smaller cc bikes tend to look a little meagre. Not ours. Our Mutts have fuller tanks, taller wheels (made especially for our bikes) and longer seating, so there’s a real overall sense of scale and substance to a Mutt. In terms of size, they stack up pretty close to a 70s style Triumph. But they’re still nice and light and really easy to use. So although they look classic they have all the mod-cons you’d expect from a contemporary bike, from gear indicators to fuel lights, and a real light clutch for easy handling.
As well as a show room, coffee shop and assembly point, Mutt HQ is also home to a very impressive retail space. What do you think of the mixing of fashion and motorcycle culture?
To be honest it’s nice to see! Two decades ago, if you looked anything like me you wouldn’t be allowed in pubs. No joke, they’d literally have signs outside saying ‘no motorcycles’. But it’s a more acceptable look nowadays: the beards, bikes, boots and leathers. The whole culture is much more commonplace, which I think is brilliant. People are buying bikes for the simple fact that they’re fun nowadays, not just because they’re a cheap mode of transport.
It’s nice to see certain styles come around again and I really think they’re here to stay. We’re looking for things that go the distance nowadays, whether that’s in what we’re wearing or what we’re riding. It’s great to play a part in that. Granted, it’s a culture very few of us actually belonged to when it first came around, but it’s easy to respect its values. Here at the HQ, we not only have our own range of apparel, we’ve cultivated solid relationships with the likes of Nexx, Deus Ex Machina and Eat Dust. We only stock the stuff we’d wear ourselves and we work hard to find a meeting point between style and function. It’s the kind of stuff that will last forever
and will look great both on and off the Mutt.
And lastly, where does the name Mutt come from?
It sounds more thought-out than it actually was! One of our most popular Mutt models is called the Mongrel, because it’s such a mix of inspirations, styles and parts. It’s bold, rugged and stands out in today’s market for the best of reasons. We at Mutt come from a custom background, we don’t really know much about the circus that is generic motorcycle manufacturing. We’re outside of that sphere, we don’t belong to that pedigree, and I like it that way.
You won’t see us at the big trade shows, we don’t have salesmen. We didn’t come from that scene and we don’t know that world. But we don’t want to know either. We call our bikes what we want, market them how we want. I think the name Mutt fits that ethos perfectly. Now, want to hear me fire one up?
Words by Will Halbert
Image Credits by Mutt Motorcycles