Hot Wheels, A La Carte

Akshai Varde on his life and career trajectory—from being a flight attendant to designing the motorcycle that Akshay Kumar uses in 'Oh My God'
Akshai Varde is CEO of Mumbai-based Vardenchi Motorcycles, a firm that handcrafts luxury motorcycles
True Life
Off the Blocks:  Akshai Varde was 12 when he modified his imaginary mobike, a BMX cycle ~ Photo by Ritesh Uttamchandani

One of my most distinct memo­ries as a child is with my dad on his Honda 250 motorbike, cruis­ing along the roads, lanes and bylanes of Mumbai. We would get the bike ser­viced by Johnny and Tony in the sub­urb of Khar. They were the only me­chanics my dad trusted with his bike and were the best when it came to pow­erful imported Japanese bikes. In their workshop, I would hear those super bikes roaring to life after being pam­pered. It ignited my mind with fascina­tion and curiosity. That place just grew on me. 

I was given my own version of a su­per bike when I was eight—a BMX cy­cle. I imagined it to be a motorbike and was always on it—to school, back home, through the afternoon and into the evenings. I was addicted to it. We had even built a riding track close to home. I kept making changes to my cycle. I painted it, replaced the spoke wheels for really fancy plastic wheels that resembled ‘mag wheels’. But by the time I was 12, it was the real bike that began to interest me. I learnt how to ride one on my own. It was a Yamaha RD350, my first bike. I remember dis­mantling every part, re-chroming it and transporting all those parts in a rickshaw, a mode of transport I bare­ly ever used. A dynamo-run headlamp and music system were a 16-year-old’s inputs to his first bike.

I was a realist back then. I realised bikes would be my passion, a hobby, but nothing more. I was weak at math­ematics, so engineering was never on the cards. I almost got admitted to medical college before I realised it was not my cup of tea. So I chose to study hotel management instead.  I had envi­sioned where it would go—once I had enough money to invest, I would have my own restaurant.

My second bike was a 1977 model of a Royal Enfield. I bought it in 2003 when I was 23 years old. It was an old model and required some work right at the beginning. So I broadened the tank, put a dynamo head lamp and used the best paint available so that it clung to its body with the pride I felt for my work of art.

A year later, in 2004, I entered the parking lot of a local multiplex and couldn’t resist the temptation of park­ing my modified bike next to an ordi­nary Enfield. I even took sadistic pleas­ure at the thought of its owner coming to collect the bike and looking at mine. But when I came out, it was my turn to be shocked. The other Enfield was gone and in its place was another heav­ily modified one which made mine look almost average. I noted down the details of the bike and tracked down the modifier—Timothy from Bandra.

After my hotel management course, I worked at the Oberoi (now Trident) briefly before joining Jet Airways as a flight attendant. For a chef accustomed to working 18 hours a day, a flight at­tendant’s job left me with a lot of free time. I had made up my mind in that parking lot to build a better bike than the one that had just stunned me. For the next six months, I was consumed, during my spare time, by the task of modifying my Enfield. This time I used a professional designing software. I kept the core of the motorcycle, its en­gine, chassis and electrical wiring, in­tact but changed everything else.

A few months later in 2005, I was rid­ing my Royal Enfield at Marine Drive, a biker’s paradise in South Mumbai. Ash Chandler, a stand-up comedian and actor, stopped me, rolled down his window and looked as if he was in ab­solute awe. “That’s a great modified bike,” he said. “It doesn’t look like you have bought it, it looks as if you have built it. Would you like to make one for me?”

“We can talk about it,” I replied, elat­ed. Chandler had just become my first customer. Designing the chopper was a discovery, and even without advanced equipment, we did a fairly good job. His bike, now completely restructured, had a custom frame, swingarm, paint chrome and accessories. I didn’t make any profit on modifying Chandler’s bike, but it had sown the seed of Vardenchi Motorcycles. Being a flight attendant didn’t seem as interesting anymore. So I thought that as long as modifying bikes gave me enough to sustain myself, I could do this for a liv­ing. I proof-tested myself for a year, set­ting up my business while simultane­ously working at Jet Airways. It was a long year, but by the end of it, there was no looking back.

I had to make up for lost time. I found myself doing everything, look­ing into the engineering, finance and administration parts of the business.  I took a course in Pro Engineering, a 3D designing software, and practical­ly studied the entire automobile engi­neering syllabus with the help of engi­neering professors and students.

I was 24. We were a team of three—a 16-year-old mechanic named Ratan, a 21-year-old commercial art student named Sachin Pitle, and me. We were ambitious and knew exactly what we wanted. We wanted to delight peo­ple with our designs and engineer­ing. We wanted to cater to their eve­ry whim and fancy, some possible and some not. The learning was in stag­es. The minute we got stuck with de­sign or engineering aspects, I would go back to my books.  I was the engineer we didn’t have. Initially it was all about the design. We designed and then engi­neered. When the engineering became too advanced, we would go back and make changes to the design.

Our engineering is still inspired by high-end products of auto compa­nies like Mercedes, BMW, Bentley and Porsche, more by cars and less by bikes. We were slightly overambitious back then. I expected our customers to com­promise on quality because they had a ‘one of a kind, exclusive machine’. Today as our market is growing, we want to provide our customers with a sustainable machine. Design is em­bedded in intelligent engineering and made conducive for Indian conditions. Our machines have better brakes, sus­pension, less noise and vibration. Back then we were three, but today we are a force of 23, all specialists in our respec­tive departments.

Customised choppers are still a novel idea in India, so demand for these needed to be created. We did a lot of online marketing during the in­itial stages but it was word of mouth and media coverage that did the trick. Luck favours the hardworking. Our efforts began to pay off. Hotwheels, Walt Disney, Sunburn and many oth­ers became part of our clientele and my doubts began to vanish. The pro­ducers of the film Oh My God had a look at our website and contacted us to design something that would suit Akshay Kumar’s personality as God in the film. We thus got involved in mak­ing the chopper during the initial stag­es of the film itself, leaving us with enough time to deliver a heavily cus­tomised type IV motorcycle with a 300 mm rear tyre.

As amateurs, we were inspired by an­ything that had an element of shock. We replicated the bike Nicholas Cage rides in the film Ghost Rider for a pro­motional event in 2006 before the film’s release in India. The 11 feet Skeltor with its skull and chains re­sembled the original to such an ex­tent that we ourselves were amazed. Of the 250 bikes that we have modified at Vardechi, this was an early wonder.

Our current line-up of custom-built choppers starts at Rs 3.5 lakh. Every bike is unique and most of the parts handcrafted. Our customers either pro­vide us with bikes that are less than a year old, or we customise brand new bikes for them.  I envision my cus­tomers walking into a Vardechi de­sign lounge and picking the colour, features, design and graphics built to suit their personality, like a tailor-made tuxedo.  I want my designs to be an extension of who they are, the way Vardenchi is an extension of me, a man who still wants to flaunt the best mo­torcycle in town.

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As told to Sharmeen Hakim Indorewala