When Hugo Eccles launched the San Francisco workshop of Untitled Motorcycles (UMC-SF) in 2014, it made the UK-founded builders one of the few truly transcontinental motorcycle shops with a presence in both Europe and North America. Even with the resurgence in popularity of motorcycle culture and the subsequent proliferation of hundreds of custom shops, UMC—in business for only the last six years—is a standout in the industry. Any question of their pedigree, one need only point to their bikes featured in the seminal tome, The Ride (Gestalten, 2013). The new wave bible was edited by Chris Hunter, a former advertising creative director and founder of the world’s most popular custom motorcycle website, Bike EXIF. With a US-based shop, those on this side of the Atlantic who have coveted a genuine UMC-build can now put their name on the waiting list.
Eccles, a peripatetic Englishman, had made his way to the Bay Area by way of London, New York, and Columbus, Ohio. Most notable in his background is that he had spent just as long—over 20 years—working as an industrial designer for such clients as TAG Heuer, Nike, Herman Miller, and Peugeot, as he has riding motorcycles, his current daily-driver being a 2006 Ducati Sport 1000. (Coming from a family of riders, he’s only ever owned two cars: a Fiat Uno when he was a student and a 1975 Ferrari 308 GT4 Dino to get through the snow to work in Ohio.)
The soft-spoken and understated Eccles presents less as a tattooed wrench-monkey with hipster affectations, than a design professional who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, and putting in serious amounts of time at the shop.
“It got slightly out of hand,” says Eccles, over a drink during a recent visit to his wife’s hometown, Vancouver. His hands fiddle constantly, now twisting a champagne muselet into a tiny wire chair with a heart-shaped back. He’s talking about the more than 700 hours he’s put into his latest project, an entry for Ducati’s worldwide dealer build-off. The 2015 Ducati Scrambler “Icon,” UMC-038, is a study in minimalism clad in a flat grey and “Rosso Corso,” Ducati racing orange. Every element within the trinity of frame, engine, and body was reconsidered. His creation is as much about what was taken away as added. Eccles shaved off 85lbs from the 800cc bike’s stock weight, dropping it to a svelte 325lbs. It shows in the lines and details, such as the way such mundane features as the turn signals were handled; LEDs are inset like gemstones into the frame and double as the taillights. The concept bike is bold and intentionally provocative.
His other projects—like the design work he’d done over the decades before—are built to each client’s brief. Intake paperwork includes a detailed questionnaire. From there Eccles will lead the owner through a visioning process, using mood boards, capturing ideas, clippings of details, including perhaps a painting that evokes a particular emotion. That will get translated into an initial design, rendered with an illustrator in Chicago, then perhaps a month of back and forth with the client. At the end of that stage, the client will have a 70 cm x 100 cm line-illustration poster of the bike to put on their wall and stare at while they wait the three months for their bike to be built. Even after that process there’s a constant ongoing dialogue, with images sent over with progress. Despite that level of definition, much of his time is spent “finding the path to the best of both worlds” when trying to resolve conflicting elements to the original brief.
Though the contracts are a flat fee, Eccles, who had once charged out at hundreds of dollars per hour, will sink ungodly amounts of time into getting the details and finish right. “I thought that everybody else was building to that level,” Eccles says now, even if his standards are unlikely to change. Getting the exact cream Porsche colour for one mid-1980s BMW build, but without using lead-based paints, required two weeks of research to get an exact match using Pantone colours and a “borrowed” Porsche brand book for reference. Getting a particular side-stand for a ’Guzzi project required a month to find a reproduction, then six weeks to get it shipped from France. Given the long interludes of waiting, Eccles works on multiple projects at a time. Then there are the bespoke fabrications, often involving subcontractors, where the first one or two tries just don’t work out. “Some stuff is weirdly complicated,” says Eccles with a shrug. “A lot of it is R&D that you just can’t charge the client.”
All this time and effort is to achieve a certain pared down aesthetic that “looks like a very, very clean version of a classic bike,” he says. “Like it came from the factory without compromise for marketing and cost, with modern technologies, and the benefit of hindsight.” Ultimately, says Eccles, “I spend a lot of time making it look like I didn’t do anything.”
The shift from working on a credit card concept for AMEX (more exclusive than their Centurion card) to being on his knees, cursing over fitting a custom belly pan, may seem worlds apart. How does working on timepieces for TAG Heuer and workspaces for Herman Miller translate to motorcycles? “Well, if you think about it,” says Eccles, “the gauges are like watches. And the saddles are like furniture.”