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Throttle Roll Custom Motorcycle & Culture Show – Sydney 2023

A Ducati SCrambler Custom on display at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
A ‘70 Ducati Scrambler from Black Cycles. Image via Machines That Dream

It was touch and go there for a while, but it seems like we’re out the other side and able to look back at the whole damn mess with 20/20 hindsight. The one thing I didn’t expect to get out of the nightmare was an appreciation of just how much we rely on other Homo Sapiens to keep us sane. And entertained. A famous French philosopher once said, “Hell is other people,” and while I think that’s probably a misquote, I still completely disagree with the sentiment. After staring at the inside of my house for the best part of two years, I have a newfound love of people watching. The fact that I can again do it while also looking at some of Australia’s best custom motorcycles is just the icing on the cake.

So with camera in hand and sunscreen on my lily white arms, I burst through the front gates of Sydney’s 2023 edition of the now decade-old Throttle Roll Motorcycle & Culture Show. Back to its Marrickville roots this year, the show started in and/or around the city’s inner-south-western stomping ground after a brief relocation closer to the city proper. And while the open air format does make bad weather a bigger risk for the organisers, today’s perfect 24 degree Celsius temps (75 degrees Fahrenheit) and clear blue skies make it feel a lot like the Gods of Motorcycling, Drinking Beers and Pulled Pork are looking down on us and smiling today.

A crowd of people at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
Just a few people, then… Image via Machines That Dream

Held in a hip industrial backstreet of a post-industrial area in the harbour city, a space usually full of trucks and delivery vans was blocked off for the long weekend to allow for an avalanche of scaffolding plinths, food trucks, cold beer and shade cloth to be unleashed. And with a live music event being held in the space the night before, it must have meant a whole lot of missed sleep for a whole lot of hard-working people to make sure the space was transformed from punk to petroleum in time

Things were well underway by the time I arrived just before lunch. My first impression was a positive one; the show’s previous method of displaying the bikes required them being stacked on giant scaffold shelves. And while it looked pretty cool and impressive, the reality was that a bike fifteen feet in the air is as hard to see as it is to photograph. This had been replaced for 2023 with a much more “art gallery” scaffold display plinth that was limited to one per bike. This not only meant that the bikes were at a great height to see and photograph, but it also meant that all the lovely details that the builders had spent countless hours on were there for all and sundry to investigate.

A BMW R60 "plunger" on display at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
One of my faves from the show; MotoRRetro’s BMW plunger R60 called “The Great Escape”. Image via Machines That Dream

Highlight bikes for me were the 1960 BMW R60 “plunger” above from my mates Vaughan and Georgio at MotoRRetro, the very clever Yamaha TW200 transformation into a baby XT400 by the always on point Jeremy at Deus ex Machina Sydney, the Yamaha XS650 chopper from Tom at Purpose Built Moto. Oh, and the black 1950 Norton Dominator from Gasbox in the USA. That was a damn stunner. But what’s probably more important to note is the fact that there weren’t any average bikes on display, either.

Now don’t get me wrong. If someone takes the time to customise a bike it’s almost always a good thing. But as to whether it belongs in a show beside bikes worth six figures is debatable. The fact that there were absolutely none here bodes well for both the show’s curation and the health of the scene on Australia’s east coast after a very tough few years.

A live rockabilly band on display at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
Something tells me these guys have flick knives. Image via Machines That Dream

Apart from sinking a few beers and eating something deep fried, I’d set myself the goal of taking some photos of the best bits of the show to accompany the words you are reading right now. And while I’ve done it countless times before, the task proved harder than expected thanks to the show’s newfound ability to unite me with moto friends I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. No sooner had I had a decent chat with mate A, said my goodbyes, and put the camera up to my eye than a tap on the shoulder or a face seen through the viewfinder would mean that another, “it’s been ages!” mate B conversation would start up and no snaps would be captured.

The front gates of Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll custom motorcycle show.
Roll up, roll up. Image via Machines That Dream

The pleasant temps also meant that the bands collared to entertain the masses didn’t have to suffer the indignity of swimming in their own juices while also jumping around in front of a large crowd of onlookers. As with previous shows, the bands were clearly taken from more indie and underground circles and for someone like me who lost touch with the live music scene in the last century, I didn’t recognise any names on the line-up. But that’s probably just little ol’ me.

Sure, the show’s organisers could take a chance and book a big headliner that would appeal to a wider audience, but I figure it’d be very easy to both throw shade on the custom bikes (who are no doubt the true stars of the show) and/or raise the show’s costs to the point where it could easily become too much of a financial risk to be viable. Those cocaine-filled band riders can really cost a bomb.

Two young fans at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycle show.
Throttle Roll. The kids dig it. Image via Machines That Dream

The audience was made up of the usual hip, moustachioed suspects, but it was really great to see a broader range of Sydneysiders in attendance. These included old-school bikers and their patches, young families with baby strollers and spare nappies/diapers, brill cream rockabillies of all ages, greasy chopper fans, old punks, even older hippies, local foodies, leather-clad cafe racers, shiny fashionistas, dusty cowboys, salty surfers, heavily tattooed goths, old “God’s Squad” Christians and even a few jaded middle-age white men, like me.

And yet somehow we all played nicely together, content in the fact that custom motorcycles seem to have some arcane ability to appeal to pretty much anyone with two functioning eyeballs and a heart that beats.

A Yamaha XS650 chopper custom on display at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
Purpose Built Moto’s very tidy Yamaha XS650 chopper. Image via Machines That Dream

And it’s here that I think Throttle Roll really shines. I can remember the first show all those years ago that was held just around the corner from thai new location. “Damn, there’s a lot of Rockabillies here,” I thought to myself. “Are they into cafe racers?” I pondered. Of course, custom cars and bikes are inextricably linked to Rock ‘n’ Roll culture, but all I could see was a subculture that wasn’t the one I’d previously associated with the cafe racer renaissance of the 2010s. Clearly, they got it and I didn’t. The more we throw up cultural boundaries in our communities, the less strong we all are. And the link between rockers and the original North London cafe racers is undeniable.

A Yamaha SR400 tracker on display at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
An ‘88 Yamaha SR400 tracker by Black Cycles. Image via Machines That Dream

Needless to say that the people watching was almost as good a source of entertainment as the custom bikes. Like I said, you don’t realise just how life-affirming a crowd of people – especially interesting ones like these – really are until all you have to look at is your own wrinkly face in a mirror during lockdown. No wonder alcohol consumption shot up at the time. Speaking of which, all that shutter button pressing had earned me a hard-earned thirst.

So I rambled up to the appropriate shops and wrangled myself up a pale ale and a chicken burger. Again, hats off to the show’s organisers (coincidentally, the same crew who organise the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride each year) who clearly realise that a good bike show catered by bad chefs is always going to mean a less than ideal experience. The mayonnaise smeared across my face at the end of the meal should be evidence enough that it exceeded my expectations.

A Norton Dominator on display at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
The 1950 Norton Dominator from America’s GasBox. Incredible. Image via Machines That Dream

Then more bikes were enjoyed. Sydney’s Sabotage Motorcycles showed off their “Sabotage Cabrones” Honda CB125 from Sabotage Motorcycles. A truly brutal-looking turbo 2001 Ducati S4 916 was the first custom you saw after entering the show, and I’d suggest this wasn’t by mistake. Good luck riding it on full boost and not soiling your pantaloons. Not content with that alone, they also showed off their yellow 1988 Yamaha SR400, a 1970 Ducati Scrambler 250 Racer and (deep breath) a 1981 Honda CB1100 Bol D’or that had some of the nicest (and painstaking) bodywork touches I’ve seen on a custom bike since… well, before COVID actually.

A Norton Dominator Custom on display at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
…and the Norton’s very pretty donk. Image via Machines That Dream

Wanting to get an inside line on the show, I asked the Throttle Roll team how they thought the show went. Head Honcho, Mark Hawwa was kind enough to reply. “Throttle Roll this year was incredible. It was really the first motorcycle event Sydney has seen since pre-COVID. The community came together and celebrated in the sun, with iconic Throttle Roll bands, brands, and 50 of Australia’s wildest custom builds. It was a great opportunity to showcase what the custom builders of Australia had been up to in isolation; honing their skills and producing some of the most impressive bikes we’ve ever displayed. If this year has shown us anything, it’s that we’ll be back in 2024 to keep the fire burning and give lovers of custom motorcycles something to look forward to each and every year.” Wise words, indeed.

People watching at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
Not all the show’s rides cost money. Image via Machines That Dream

Like many places in the world, the last few years have been tough on Sydneysiders. First COVID, then lockdowns and now a “cost of living crisis” that means interest rates are up and disposable income is way, way down. And yet through all that doom and gloom, Throttle Roll happens. It would have been so easy for the team behind it to play it safe and not bother but as with most things in life that are worth doing, sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind and live a little. Consequences be damned.

Walking home from the show afterwards, it occurred to me that as humans we tend to worry too much and underestimate our resilience too often. Without wanting to diminish the losses of life and freedoms all countries incurred during the epidemic, there’s plenty of worse situations you could find yourself in and no sooner than it’s over, here we are back at checking each other out, eating food, drinking beer and proving that our appetite for fast, loud, shiny things is insatiable. Besides, there’s nothing like a bit of adversity to remind you of what the important things in life really are.

A Harley Chopper Custom on display at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
A ‘73 Harley Davidson FX1200, built by Spreadcheese Fabrication. Image via Machines That Dream
A Honda CB125 Custom on display at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
A 1974 Honda CB125 from Sydney’s Sabotage Motorcycles. Image via Machines That Dream
A plane flys overhead at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
Ahhh, MArrickville!. Image via Machines That Dream
An audience member at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
The cool crowd. Literally. Image via Machines That Dream
An audience member at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
The Bucket Brigade. Image via Machines That Dream
An audience member at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
W@ho says you ended opposable thumbs to like bikes? Image via Machines That Dream
An audience member at Sydney's 2023 Throttle Roll motorcycles show.
For God’s sake. Image via Machines That Dream