reating unique work in the world of custom motorcycles is a herculean task these days. That may seem hyperbolic, but if you look at how many custom cruisers, scramblers and cafe racers are on the road, they all start to basically look and sound the same. That’s not to say a select few custom bikes aren’t gorgeous; one need but look at Bike EXIF and it becomes abundantly clear. But aside from a paint job here and a cowling there, a cafe racer is a cafe racer. When you’re confined to the area between two wheels, to stand out you have to take a step back and challenge the status quo. Daryl Villanueva, founder of Bandit9 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is doing just that — in both design and execution.
Villanueva started Bandit9 Motorcycle Design back in 2011 as an escape, in a way, from the current bikes on offer on the custom market: “It sounds kind of cliché, but I wanted to do something different. What I see out there is kind of monotonous.” With big manufacturers like Ducati, BMW and Honda now mimicking the the old-school look custom builders have been using for years, it’s hard to disagree. To break from the pack, inspiration for Bandit9 motorcycles is conjured from “anything sci-fi,” said Villanueva. “Comic books, films, anything but motorcycles or cars. I’d rather look at planes… whatever NASA’s doing.” That’s not to say he’s against looking to the past for inspiration. But, in a weird time warp of design, Villanueva looks back to a time when imaginations were looking to the future: the Jet Age. Villanueva feels “things were much more exciting back then. We were aiming to go to the moon, breaking the sound barrier. There were cars in the ’60s that actually had jet engines in them! It’s kind of sad that we’ve lost that spirit.”
That ’50s and ’60s futuristic optimism is no more apparent than in Villanueva’s latest bike, the AVA. With a handcrafted, polished-steel unibody and streamlined design, the AVA looks more like George Jetson’s Sunday rider than a run-of-the-mill cafe racer. But where the Jet Age was all about power and outright speed, it doesn’t take a keen eye to notice the AVA gets push from a considerably small engine — a 125cc single, to be precise. Villanueva admits the engine choice is one of the few practical details on his bikes.
“First of all,” he said, “there’s an abundance of that size motorcycle here in Southeast Asia…and, if you look at the landscape of custom bikes, they’re all towards the larger-sized engines. Rarely will you see [engines below] 400cc. So I wanted to be on the opposite side of everyone else.” Today Kawasaki has a road bike spinning up 210 horsepower, and even entry-level modern bikes overpower some not-too-distant classics.
Villanueva was quick to add: “I get a lot of shit for that. People asking me, ‘Why don’t you build bigger motorcycles?’ But the truth is 125cc will take you pretty far.” It is true; with big brands that traditionally build powerful sport bikes — like Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki — now trying their hand at pint-sized, entertaining rides, Bandit9 might actually be ahead of the curve on the smaller engines. Smaller cc bikes are more nimble and feel more at home on tight city streets — they’re just more manageable day to day.
And it’s not just Bandit9’s design or engine choice that’s out of the ordinary for the custom bike market, it’s the build and delivery process that turns heads as well. Villanueva started out making one-offs: selling a design to a customer first, then building the bike. But in Villanueva’s mind, to be taken seriously and not just as a high-level hobbyist, he felt he had to up the production numbers of each bike he designed — since each bike is already branded “Bandit9,” nine seemed apropos.
Actually building the bike is where the “Bandit” in Bandit9 comes from (the “9” comes from 2009, the year Villanueva rode his first motorcycle). Villanueva explained: “In Asia, we don’t have the luxury of going to a shop and buying parts — 90 to 95 percent has to be from scratch. And there’s a similar set of people who have that problem, and that’s people outside the law. Bandits, pirates, they’re forced to innovate [to survive] because of their situation. And what they come out with is quite wonderful.”
In total, the process — from design to being rider-ready — takes about six months for just a prototype (which is also the first bike in the series). The next eight in the series take around four to six weeks to build, but are also made to order. And once all nine are built and shipped, that’s it. On to the next design. The kicker, though, is not just that Bandit9 motorcycles like the AVA go for only about $11,000, but that the price includes international shipping, delivery to the buyer’s front door and zero paperwork on the buyer’s end. International free door-to-door shipping is a feature Villanueva admits wasn’t easy to set up.
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It wasn’t until the conversation drifted off of motorcycles and on to modern technology that it became crystal clear: Bandit9 motorcycles are just as much expressions of creativity as they are a social commentary from Villanueva. He mentioned that he doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter; it’s not that he doesn’t like social media, he just doesn’t get it. But not in the way your curmudgeon grandpa doesn’t get it, making inappropriate comments on your friends’ pictures and going on “poke” frenzies. Villanueva just doesn’t know why it’s such a priority in society. “Why SpaceX isn’t as big as Facebook bothers me,” he said. “I don’t know what new app the Silicon Valley guys are making, but I wish they would take some of their engineers and put them at NASA. Like, solve our energy crisis rather than writing restaurant reviews”.
It’s that train of thought that comes through in Villanueva’s minimalist design, calling back to the optimism of the stargazers from the ’60s. Bandit9 motorcycles resist the status quo in design, and the actual philosophy behind the bikes totally goes against the immediate — everything that’s right in front of our face. Bikes like the AVA work to redirect our attention to a more fantastic idea: why we started to ride in the first place.