Monday, 13 November 2023, 18:50
The front of his shop in Velez-Málaga does not even have a name. Those who do not know much about motoring would completely overlook the fact that inside this black building, some of the craziest, most original and daring customisations in the world are made. Genuine jewels on wheels, unique, one-off relics.
Lord Drake Kustoms has not hung its name on the outside of the shop, because it doesn't need to. Just as anyone who is not an enthusiast would be unaware of the expertise hidden in the establishment, those who are interested in this world will come across his name in just a few minutes. The customisation business of Francisco Alí Manen from Velez has acquired such prestige that his clients come from beyond Spanish borders and even from other continents, receiving orders from as far as Mexico and Saudi Arabia.
Alí Manen belongs to a small group of people who chased their dreams until they came true. His passion for the world of motorsport has been with him since he was just a little boy. Although, far from what one might think, the source of this passion is his obsession for rock and heavy metal and not the world of motorsport itself. The artist from Velez-Málaga lives and breathes his favourite artists, travelling across continents to see them live. "I'm a fanatic," he reaffirmed. At first, the then young Alí Manen watched every video clips from his favourite artists. These videos showed a multitude of choppers painted with flames, which amazed the future customiser. "From there, apart from the music, I started to be attracted to those bikes. Those Harleys blew my mind," recalled Manen.
"I remember when we were little we all rode the Vespino AL in high school. White for the girls and black for the boys. I took mine and painted it with album covers of Metallica, Iron Maiden...". Without even realising it, this Vespino decorated with the graveyard of Metallica's Master of Puppets would be the first of many customisations, "although I wouldn't do it again until thirty years later".
It is a dream that, as he said, he discovered a little late in life. And although he is not a guitarist in a famous rock band (his childhood dream job), he can proudly say that he is doing what he really likes. "I don't come here to work, I come here to make my dream come true every day".
This passion, which stems from those video clips, began to grow thanks to TV programmes like American Chopper. "That was a slap in the face for me. It had a huge impact on me. Manen moved to the United States, where he learned the trade with ease. "I've taken courses, but I'm really a completely self-taught person. Little by little I've been learning and, of course, I'm still learning". Manen has been involved in the world of customisation since 2008.
Since then he has not stopped making creations, such as the 1979 BMW R80 in front of him during the interview, renamed 'Survivor'. This bike will be the one he will present at the next world championship in Germany. For this, Manen and his team had to rebuild it practically from scratch.
And the fact is that, unlike what many believe, customisation goes beyond the visual, although it depends entirely on the artist behind each work and the client's needs. "I'm more of a visual customiser than a mechanical one. Really, when someone makes a modification of this type, what they are looking for is to attract attention visually. It is true that sometimes we are forced to work on the mechanics because of the needs of the project. We also find clients who ask us to modify the engine as well as the visual aspect," Manen said.
When it comes to customising, Harley-Davidson is his favourite brand. "Although it's not my thing, it's the quintessential bike in the world of customisation, the one that created this genre," he added. In fact, according to him, Harley was the only brand that was customised for many years, although from the sixties or seventies onwards, British brands also began to be used for customisation. "That's where the Café Racer craze came from".
From the 1970s, when other brands began to change, to the present day, the field has changed a lot: "Nowadays everything is customised".
Manen, for example, has no limits. From customising a sports car or a trail bike, he doesn't care. What's more, he knows that a large part of his success is due to the fact that he has blurred his boundaries on what he is willing to do: "95% of customisers, not in Spain but in the world, spend their lives making choppers. But these are fashions and tastes. If Café Racer becomes fashionable and you, who only work with choppers, don't start with Café Racer, you're dead".
By now Manen has customised countless motorbikes, with clients as extravagant as ex Formula 1 drivers, Ágatha Ruiz de la Prada and Antonio Banderas, royalty from the United Arab Emirates and many more.
Looking back, he admitted with a certain melancholy that he would have liked to have been able to recover many of the motorbikes he has customised throughout his life. "As if it were a museum", he said with a lost look. But if he has to keep one, he is sure of it: 'Red Baron', the Harley Davidson that launched him to stardom. For him, that bike was a winning lottery ticket. "It's the bike that gave me a name, the one that allowed me to take the leap and do what I do today". It is the winner of Daytona, an event considered to be the Oscars of customisation.
For Ali Manen, inspiration is present in everything around him, from a conversation to a particular colour, although he admitted that most of it comes to him when he sleeps. "Sometimes I've thought of putting a notebook next to my bed, but then I wouldn't sleep," he said while laughing.
A documentary is currently being filmed in the United States on his story, a biography is being written and Lord Drake Kustom is considering opening a new workshop in the United Arab Emirates. However, despite all his trophies, his greatest achievement is being able to do what he loves every day, getting up in the morning and making a living from his passion. "I live, work and breathe something I am passionate about. And for me, passion is 70 per cent of success."
It is nine o'clock in the morning. Manen still has a hard day's work ahead of him and his mobile phone is ringing off the hook. He is busy, overwhelmed, even lost in thought. He hangs up the phone and, without saying anything, walks over to one of those sublime engines that occupy his workshop and starts it up. He gives it gas. He accelerates. It revs up and the room is flooded with a noise that makes the very ground we walk on tremble. When he switches off the engine, Manen's face is different: now his face is dominated by a smile and the look on his face is different. On his arm, to the rhythm of his face, you can read tattooed 'All great things have small beginnings'.
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