Bike EXIF Founder Chris Hunter Reflects On The Unexpected Success Of A Random Experiment.
Words Chris Hunter Images Brijana Cato
It’s been 13 years, I realized with a shock the other day. I’ve spent a quarter of my life running Bike EXIF. That’s a big chunk of time; enough to define a guy. Has it been a lucky 13? Yes, I guess it has — with a few caveats.
As I write this, looking out over the hills surrounding our farm on the North Island of New Zealand, the website stats are showing over 200 million page views. But 13 years ago, I had no inkling of what was to come, or any master plan. Back then, I was an advertising creative director, just another expat Brit working for a big American agency group. I’d been transferred from New Zealand to Sydney, Australia, and my day-to-day work was becoming increasingly digital.
The internet still felt young; Google had only just dethroned Yahoo, MySpace was still a big player, and Facebook was a weird upstart. I was spending more and more time eating croissants in meetings with "front-end developers" and digital producers. I’d just turned 40 years old, and some of these people were young enough to be my kids. I didn’t want to get left behind. I needed to get a grip on how websites were built and get my hands dirty under the hood, so I started messing around with WordPress software. The subject of the experiment was almost secondary, but in hindsight, propitious.
I was on the hunt for a motorcycle to replace the Vespa I’d been using to commute from the Northern Beaches to my harbor office in The Rocks. While scouring the net for information and reviews, I stumbled across the beginnings of the new wave custom scene, via forums and a smattering of badly designed websites. There were grainy images of café racers, clumsy streetfighters, and brat-style bikes lifted off Japanese sites. Pretty amateurish stuff, but the bikes were still more interesting than the chromed-out monstrosities rumbling up and down Parramatta Road or popping up on American Chopper.
Killing time one lunch hour, I taxied over to the Deus Ex Machina building a few miles away in Sydney’s grungy inner west. There was a café, a shop selling cool gear, and a parade of Japanese-influenced customs. Deus founder Dare Jennings was obviously thinking along the same lines as me, but he was a couple of years further down the track.
It was the validation I needed, and I pushed Bike EXIF live at the end of 2008. The goal was simple: show the best customs and classics, with photography to match (hence the “EXIF” part of the name: it stands for Exchangeable Image File Format, or the metadata attached to a digital image). Blinged-out V-twins and theme choppers were off the menu.
The site design was clean and minimal — as pared down as I could make it. No curly retro logos, no identikit Blogspot templates, and no flashing counters proclaiming, “You are visitor 1138 to this page!” It was flat design before flat design became truly mainstream, and remains little changed to this day. The text was short, factual, and respectful. The first bike was a Laverda 750S restomod with just two sentences of text, and it was followed by a wave of custom CBs, Bonnevilles, and Sportsters.
The approach resonated with bike builders, photographers, and motorcycle designers and marketers. The snowball started to roll. Despite an erratic schedule of short posts, mostly written on the ferry home after work, Bike EXIF clocked almost three million page views in the first year. The next year, it was 13 million page views, despite a growing number of other custom sites jumping on the bandwagon. The snowball was turning into an avalanche.
When my Australian work visa expired, I decided to quit advertising and head back to New Zealand with my Kiwi wife and three kids. We bought our farm and became the overseers of 13 acres of grass and woodland. Bike EXIF was now a full-time gig, and the only roadblock was a shitty rural internet connection.
I discovered that running a website is a bit like starting up a custom motorcycle workshop. In the early days, you have to do everything yourself, because the margins are not big enough to justify outside help. You are not just the writer and designer; you are also the server guy, the coding guy, the ad sales guy, and the social media guy. If you keep paying for other people, your income disappears.
On the upside, you learn really fast what works, and what doesn’t, and it’s amazing how quickly you can learn new skills — even in middle age — when there’s a mortgage to pay and a family to feed. The downside is that when the fecal matter collides with the air recirculation device, you’re on your own. One year, just after Christmas, the site got hacked; it took me a day to get it back online, and two more days to clear up the mess on the server. My long-suffering wife waved me goodbye as she drove the family away for the annual holiday.
Despite these marriage-endangering hiccups, EXIF’s influence continued to spread. I got Christmas cards from motorcycle designers, postcards from fans, and a beautifully written letter from an inmate on death row at Florence State Prison, Arizona. Healthy finances meant I could finally hire full-time help in the form of multi-skilled South African writer Wes Reyneke. Together, we watched Bike EXIF fuel the explosive growth of the modern custom scene, and with it, an emerging A-list of skilled builders. Many of the names are now familiar: Auto Fabrica, Café Racer Dreams, K-Speed, Max Hazan, Krugger, Rough Crafts and Walt Siegl. (And who could forget the Wrenchmonkees or Radical Ducati?)
Those builders are all thousands of miles away, but I’ve appreciated working in New Zealand. It can feel remote, but being an outlier has its advantages. You are not tied to any local “scene” and don’t have face-to-face relationships with builders, so it’s easier to be impartial and objective. And if I need a break from the Mac and fire up the bike, the roads are empty and the landscapes beautiful.
There are less savory aspects to anonymous digital communication, though. I’ve been called every name under the sun via email, and on multiple occasions, had my sexuality and parentage called into question by complete strangers. Our content has been relentlessly scraped and reposted, and at one point, the ferocity of the comments section was attracting more attention than the bikes themselves. Every thoughtful appraisal seemed to be canceled out by a dismissive or ill-informed diatribe. It was good for website traffic, but it made me uneasy. We’re talking about motorcycles, not the fate of the human race. Playing Whac-A-Mole with the ban hammer eventually weeded out the worst of the commenters.
As for the motorcycles themselves, the only constant has been change. Over the past five years, it’s become harder to categorize custom builds. Envelopes are pushed, and templates get tweaked and twisted. With dozens of bikes dropping into the inbox every week, it’s been fascinating to see trends flaring up and then dying away. Interest in both café racers and flat trackers peaked five years ago, for example, and the genres have been in slow decline ever since. Folks are now more interested in scramblers and bobbers.
In some cases, we’ve tried to accelerate the shifts. There are far too many CB750 café racers out there for starters, as well as pseudo-brat SR400s. It was funny to see knobby tires on café racers; BMW airheads have now been done to death, and although secondhand Honda CX500s are cheap and plentiful, it doesn’t make them a good custom platform. I’d rather see an original take on an unusual donor bike than a perfectly welded pie-cut exhaust system.
About three years ago, with the media landscape changing even faster than the custom scene, I started thinking about the future of the site and, with over a decade under my belt, wondered if I was still the right person to helm Bike EXIF. Maybe it was time to become part of a bigger operation, with more hands in the wheelhouse.
I flicked an email over to Adam at Iron & Air. Was it time to join forces? He agreed, and we spent more than two years trying to get the deal done. Curveballs arrived from all directions, including an unprecedented global pandemic. But, as the saying goes, “A bend in the road is not the end of the road.”
In this issue, we’ve taken a look back at the highlights of Bike EXIF and its influence on the 21st-century custom scene. But from now on, we’ll be keeping our eyes on that proverbial road — and the machines that roam it — wherever it may lead. We’d love for you to join us.