Midnight, downtown Saigon. The city is asleep. The air has slightly cooled from the heat of the day and the dazzling array of lights casts shadows on the empty streets. In the distance the hum of an engine pierces the relative quiet as it approaches the intersection. Downshifting...an easing off of the throttle, a sputter and then, as the hard right turn is made, there’s a moment, a fraction of a second, where there’s nothing. Absolute silence. A frozen moment in time before the throttle is hit, the engine roars and life is affirmed. Zen masters say that it’s the space between the notes that makes the music, the space between the bars that makes the cage. It’s that space, that emptiness that Daryl Villanueva chases on his late night tours through Vietnam.
“I really loved riding in Saigon. When the streets are empty and the temperature is just right... man, the feeling is hard to describe. Something about my midnight rides in Saigon feel like meditation. The stress at work is behind you. Your mind is clear and you’re connected.”
Founder of Bandit9 Motorcycle Design, Villanueva needs those moments to allow the creative juices to flow and find inspiration.
He reminisces on how he got his start, “I moved to Saigon because of my career in advertising. Saigon’s a scooter city. The roads are like rivers of motorcycles and it all just flows. I was totally excited about living in a new city and wanted to fit in so I got myself a 50cc Honda Cub. The first mod I ever did was to repaint my Cub and something just clicked inside. I moved on to customize larger bikes with more complex details.”
“I try my best to be a sponge that just soaks everything in. A Leica camera gave me inspiration to build a motorcycle from brushed steel and black vinyl. A page from a fashion magazine gave me an idea for an interesting color palette for my business card. A well-packaged jar of candy I spotted in the grocery gave me an awesome idea for the design of my next promotional gift.”
Since relocating to Beijing, Bandit9 intends to show the world what China is capable of in the new world of bike customization.
“I’ve been designing bikes since 2009, hence the ‘9’ in ‘Bandit9’. I opened up the shop in 2011 because there was no real custom motorcycle shop or culture here in China. I had to do something about it. I guess you could say I started Bandit9 out of necessity.”
Since China does not have a big motorcycle culture it’s almost impossible to find a beautiful, classic second-hand bike. So Villanueva turned his attention to Chang Jiang bikes. Originating in 1938 in the Soviet Union as BMW military bikes, they eventually found their way into China and continue on in production today as the world’s longest continuously produced motorcycle.
“I did a lot of research on the Chang Jiang, these bikes are built to withstand all sorts of weather. They’re rugged machines made of solid metal. This was a good place to start.”
For his second bike - Magnus - Villanueva took on the challenge of reinventing a Chang Jiang 750 - “One thing I can say for sure is that a CJ750 cannot get any lighter than Magnus. It's a stripped down CJ750 without any fat - very athletic. A CJ750 can reach impressive speeds with a sidecar, imagine what a stripped down, two-wheeled CJ750 can do. The amount of power Magnus has still surprises me.”
And when it came to giving Magnus it’s one-of-a-kind look, Villanueva exercised his creative talents.
“Magnus’ color is impossible to replicate. The distressed metal pattern came from heating the tank with a blowtorch – a technique I picked up from my days in art school. The tank is unique in its color and pattern; quite like a fingerprint. I wanted the bike to have a nice finish so I added contrasting chrome elements like the exposed front suspensions, the shortened exhausts and custom speed dial. We wanted the bike to have a different posture compared to an ordinary CJ750 so we made a few adjustments to the frame. The tank and the seat lines flow, giving Magnus that swift look. A special feature is an old crankshaft that we transformed into a gas cap. It really fits the bike’s character. The twin lights are also unique to Magnus, they impact the profile of the bike.”
[nggallery id=9] As far as the challenges that building custom bikes in Beijing presents, he relates, “I’m still quite new to the city and my Chinese is terrible. This sets me back because a lot of detail is lost in translation. The ideas that pop up in my head are already difficult to explain in English; imagine translating instructions on building a seat made of distressed leather to a 60 year old Chinese man who normally repairs shoes. It’s frustrating most of the time but when the tiniest thing finally goes right, I wish I had a bottle of champagne with me to celebrate the moment.”
“Our motto is 'It’s more fun to be a pirate than a sailor.’ Pirates were the innovators of the sea. I love their rebel spirit and how each one was unique. They made the most with what they had.”
“I’d like to say the same for Bandit9. We embrace the situation and solve the problem. We have leather crafters who have spent their entire lives repairing shoes building our seats. We have guys that build furniture working the metal, we have real artists design our business cards. There are master craftsmen here, what I do is harness that talent and channel it into Bandit9 bikes.”
Villanueva was born in the Philippines but has lived and worked all over the world – Hong Kong, Australia, Malaysia, Los Angeles, Dubai, Vietnam and now Beijing. He has a large life experience but thinks of himself as a “simple dude.”
His innovative philosophy transcends motorcycles. He is also a photographer, a musician and self-proclaimed mean cheesecake - maker.
“I just wanna be happy. I realized - luckily early in my life - that the only way to be happy is to do what you love to do. For some reason this is very difficult for most people to accept and apply in their lives. I love art and motorcycles and did the math. I hope to inspire a humble few to tackle life with the same perspective.”
At Bandit9 it’s “all systems go”, the future looks bright and Villanueva characteristically aims high. “I want Bandit9’s reach to extend beyond the motorcycle world. I want our business cards to be in the best design annuals. I want our advertising to win awards. I want our motorcycles to be utilized in fashion shoots and maybe one day in films. I don’t want Bandit9 to be just another garage, I want people to see it as a creative shop.”
Plans for a third bike are in the making and thus far it appears to be an even larger departure from the CJ750 than Magnus. Limits will be pushed, concepts redefined and challenges will be overcome.
Talking about future plans he expresses his desire to ride in North America. “The expansiveness of the roads there really attracts me and I’d love to ride them before I start getting a beer belly.”
And finally, with regard to his thoughts about Iron and Air, “A lot of motorcycle blogs and magazines focus a lot about the bikes and the specs. There are many motorcycle geeks who will hate me for saying this but I want to see more stories and less bike tech talk. I think it is the power of a beautiful story that inspires, motivates and encourages genuine creativity, not facts."
"I want to know the story behind the man and his methods. The journey is more interesting to me than the destination.”