Custom Start-Up: Three Expats and A Two-Wheeled Dream

01_15_cover storyWhen following the online social feeds of acquaintances and friends, and randoms, that seem to know what is happening in this part of the world, surprising things pop up. There are those that boast, those that float and those that really know what they like and make it their life’s work. Some have hobbies and lifestyles that, either, don’t exist presently due to Chinese law or maybe haven’t made sense because of differences in culture. Others don’t let these trifling things get in their way.

Testing the belief that China is becoming a land of opportunity—at least for those that can navigate its difficulties—three motorcycle lovers are assembling their dream in Dongguan’s sprawling neighbor, the city of Huizhou. They were brought together in China by their devotion to two-wheeled motored chassis, whether newly found or having been a long running lifestyle, and discovered in each other the entrepreneurial spirit. There was only one thing to do, turn their days of tinkering with motorcycles into Churchill Customs.

“We want Japanese reliability, classic 60’s and 70’s styling and the ability to be fixed anywhere in china, and legality obviously. That’s a big issue,” said Matthew Tye, a.k.a. C-Milk, marketing and sales manager for the new company that assembles Suzuki parts with a personal touch.

In their shop near the Huizhou Olympic Stadium, Matt Tye adn Winston Sterzel discuss a customers modified motorcycle.

In their shop near the Huizhou Olympic Stadium, Matt Tye adn Winston Sterzel discuss a customers modified motorcycle.

The biking community in China exists, but is one that can’t be easily categorized. That’s because riding on two wheels in China comes with a stigma of generations from the past that rode out of necessity and not for leisure. Imagine the many pictures of scooters and motorcycles comically loaded with an entire family or group of men heading to labor. The bikes are dirty; the helmets are hard hats and riding gear consists of a windbreaker worn backwards. It’s not an image that gathers excited fans.

But Tye and his partners, head engineer Winston Sterzel and Marty Schmidt who is tasked with design, aren’t really expecting to break into the native market. “At the end of the day, our huge goal was for export,” said Tye. “Because there is a big hole in the market in a lot of developing countries—and on the West Coast over in California—for some of these beach communities that like small displacement bikes.”

For those that like bikes for the open breeze and the coolness factor, the guys at Churchill tell us that the community is older. The Chinese riders who prefer flashy and expensive bikes, usually riding Ducati or BMW touring bikes, and expats that need a little excitement in their lives are included in the broad stroke of the same demographic.

 The Gang

01_15_cover story_4Winston Sterzel, a soft-speaking, nickname-giving gearhead hailing from South Africa, is certainly the center of the team. It was he that brought them and much of their online attention together. Catering to online Sinophiles and tempting viewers from around the world with titles like “Beer Girl Starts Bikes,” Sterzel’s online persona, Serpentza, has produced more than 33,000 subscribers and over 6 million total views.

Teaching cultural intelligence and medical terminology to Chinese doctors on their way overseas during the day, his playlists, found on Youtube and Youku.com, introduce themes that include Village Crawls and Food for Foreigners. Mostly they are vlog-style (That’s video log for any generation that came before X in the alphabet) monologues hoping to lessen culture shock, or even-tempered rants about the oddities of life in Asia. But predominantly they are how-tos for motorcycle repair.

“I grew up in South Africa. When I was younger, I always had really crap cars and crap bikes and so I’d been forced to repair them myself,” said Sterzel. He points out that cost of labor in Western countries made it a necessity to learn on his own, but he soon found that the joy of getting a motor to purr made it his favorite hobby. And though bikes are often regulated within China’s cities, his own included, he found a way to get on the road.

 In Beijing, Marty Schmidt poses with audio boards at the New School Entertainment offices.

In Beijing, Marty Schmidt poses with audio boards at the New School Entertainment offices.

“When I got to china it took me ages to finally be able to get bikes here because they’re banned in Shenzhen. I eventually figured out how to get bikes. I was buying these rubbish destroyed bikes and fixing them up and making them look cool,” he said. “It was quite a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it. I was just doing it on the streets at these little bike shops.”

He had a personal motto for those bikes, some of which were sold to friends: “Built on the Streets, For the Streets.”

“That’s how I met Winston,” said Schmidt, a.k.a. The Dumpling. “I was like, ‘where the hell do I get a bike?’” As it happened, the Australian from Melbourne was “mates” with a Serpentza-subscriber who recommended he check out the vlog, and soon the two were taking rides and chatting bikes.

“We were buying parts from shops, giving them more money than any of their other customers. We’d spend the whole day drinking beer and working on bikes and using their tools,” Schmidt said.

Originally, Schmidt was living in Beijing when he moved to China in 2008. There he was using his education in audio engineering to produce for a friend that was running a music company called New School Entertainment.

Now he, along with Sterzel, is tuning machines that go vroom instead of la la la and taking charge of videography for marketing videos when they take the bikes out for test runs.

01_15_cover story_1“On our ride to Guizhou we did a 4,000-kilometer cross country tour of China. We crossed four different provinces of China. It was the most beautiful ride of my life,” he said of their trip to the province bordering Sichuan and Yunnan.

Filling in the company’s triad gang, Tye, an English teacher during the day and another vlogger with over 3,000 subscribers, is the newest to the motorbike scene. He had never ridden until China, but decided it was a mode of transport that he could buy into. He is also the only one of the three that actually lives in Huizhou, both Schmidt and Sterzel ride in from neighboring Shenzhen.

Huizhou’s more lenient regulations on riding motorcycles made it the spot to headquarter Churchill Customs and now they have a modest shop that they say is slowly becoming stocked with the tools needed to build their bikes and improve their work.

The Gear

Before there could be a ride through Southern China, motorcycles were needed, and before a shop was needed, designs and a business model were required. Sterzel was customizing and enhancing bikes already. So two years ago, he decided to tap into his alter-ego’s viewership. Serpentza challenged the world to a bike build.

“So we said like a small budget and it’s got to be cool and all that. And we had a couple of guys in tune,” Sterzel said. “I just made one and [Tye] and another friend helped him make one as well.”

Marty Schmidt in mechanic mode during at the Churchill Customs shop.

Marty Schmidt in mechanic mode during at the Churchill Customs shop.

Beyond the two friends who had met a few months earlier through their vlogs, there were not many competitors. The ones that did enter weren’t worth much of a mention as it goes. “And there was like two other guys; one guy in Bosnia and another guy in, you know wherever, and we kind of just made this competition and that’s kind of more or less how we met.”

The outcome was a stronger camaraderie, and two custom made bikes. The first bike was made from a salvaged bike for an initial investment of RMB 550, and called the Churchill at the time, after the famed wartime prime minister because it was small and beastly like the gruff leader nicknamed “The British Bulldog.”

“And then we decided why don’t we take this up a notch and rent a little shop and you know do it properly,” said Sterzel.

01_15_cover story_6The Churchill would go on to become their flagship design and be renamed the Moriarty, The other was known simply as the Café Racer, a nod to the 50’s and 60’s British subculture that inspired both of their designs in the competitions and those to come. The other two in their repertoire are The Chamberlain and The Half N’ Half. However, don’t expect to see anything but the Moriarty in the shop’s expected mini-showroom.

“So we are almost at a total of 30 sales now and about 13 of those are Moriarties and we want that to overshadow the previous stuff we sold. We like the Moriarty. We really believe in it. We want that to be our brand,” said Tye.

The original Café Racer is hanging on the wall in a Huizhou bar. Since those times they’ve moved on using old parts and scraps. “Then we were like let’s work with new stuff.” And that’s where they are now, putting together Suziki parts on a Suzuki frame, ranging from 125cc to 300cc engines, priced from around RMB 14,000 to 27,000.

“The Moriarty of our dreams is an air cooled 125 with 60’s and 70’s styling that is EPA approved that can be sold in developing markets as well as in America. And then also the 250 and 300cc versions of that and pretty much what we’ve got now but supper refined and ready for the states,” said Tye.

The Squad

Taking a break, Matthew Tye soaks in the scenery in Yunnan.

Taking a break, Matthew Tye soaks in the scenery in Yunnan.

Speaking to a few early customers of the Moriarties, one of them cruising around Dongguan’s Houjie Town on an attention grabbing bike with sun orange accents, the personal service is highlighted.

“We keep in touch on WeChat, and I say, listen, the bike is very nice, but I need a little more power. And they gave me two options. One: is a racing option but the guy say this one is not nice because it needs a lot of maintenance,” said Andrea Piccolo, a happy customer. The second option, and the one Piccolo was talked into, was a refit changing out cables, the clutch and exhaust pipes to make the bike faster and tighter. There is now a performance package that is available at purchase.

But there is one piece of the puzzle missing. It seems they have established themselves among a small classic bike-loving crowd, but selling motorcycles in China where over 100 cities have restrictions on driving them within their borders brings up a serious question. How does the owner register the bike to ride it legally?

Dongguan had a limited ban as far back as 2006, after 2009 no motorcycles were allowed within the ring roads (Guansui Ave.-Wangao Road-Yanjiang Road) during the day and 28 of its townships created forbidden zones in downtown areas, which was expanded in 2011 and in 2013, the last of Dongguan’s motorcycle registrations expired meaning that though there are sections of each town where it is OK to ride, no one is getting a new bike here.

Winston Sterzel poses for the camera at Shekou Sea World as Serpentza, his online vlogger persona.

Winston Sterzel poses for the camera at Shekou Sea World as Serpentza, his online vlogger persona.

“Now we are closer to the Chinese New Year and everybody says it is dangerous for everybody,” said Piccolo, a longtime resident of Dongguan with enough Guanxi (referring to his personal network of friends and acquaintances) that insiders have let him know that ticketing is more prominent during this time of year.

But when it came to getting the bike registered, that came down to using his Chinese wife’s I.D. “They did everything for me. The cost of the registration was already included in the price. After waiting one month and then they give me the registration, the real paper. Everything is fine,” he said.

By registering the bikes in one of three motorcycle friendly places—Huizhou, Hunan or Qongqing—with a little switcheroo the bikes come out ready for the road like they came from a local dealership. Tye explained the process on an online forum feed saying, “bike is registered with frame and original engine. Engine is ordered with number; original engine is destroyed or dismantled; bike is rebuilt, brought back to inspection; picture is taken; stats are updated. Bam. Legal modified bike.”

For those that aren’t married to a card carrying Chinese citizen, the guys say they have a back log of locals ready to help. Both Tye’s wife and mother-in-law have registered bikes that—um—they don’t ride.

Whatever technicalities may exist, Churchill Customs is three foreigners following their dreams and using some imagination to build bikes and a business. It is not without obstacles, but their little shop on an alley in Huizhou is as much a hangout for sipping cold beers as it is a place for revving hot engines. What else could a gearhead want?

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Marty Schmidt, Designer/Mechanic for Churchill Customs, is from New Zealand.