So much of what makes an antique, custom, vintage or race motorcycle visually appealing is the line of its exhaust pipe – or pipes. How the tube bends and flows. How it tucks in and flares out. And that’s just the aesthetics. More to the point, a correctly built pipe is required for a 2-or 4-stroke internal combustion engine to make optimal power.  It’s both art and science, and Ben Hardman of Raysons Exhaust in the U.K. has established himself as one of the best when it comes to forming bespoke motorcycle pipes and silencers. For more than a decade, custom builders, racers and restorers have been relying on Ben to craft exquisite systems for their various projects.

One of the very many race and road bikes with pipes built by Raysons Exhaust. This Wankel-powered DKW-Hercules was built by Wiz Norton, and raced at the Isle of Man. [Ben Hardman]
Even Hollywood noticed. In the 2022 film The Batman, directed by Matt Reeves, a Honda CB750 café racer ridden by Bruce Wayne, played by Robert Pattinson, is fitted with Raysons’ 4-into-2 pipes and twin mufflers. Of crafting the system for the film’s Honda, Ben explains, “That’s something that I will struggle to top. It was one of the hardest secrets that I’ve ever had to keep. Especially due to lockdowns which delayed filming by two years. But the reward was something that I cannot describe. Getting to see and hear something I’ve made with my own hands, on the cinema screen. There is a great scene, where Bruce Wayne is riding through Gotham on his Honda café racer, with Nirvana playing in the background, and the camera strapped to the rear shock, looking at the silencer. That blew my mind. And then being able to buy the same bike and exhaust pipes in toy form, is something that a little boy’s dreams are made of! It’s still something that hasn’t sunk in fully yet.”

The unique 4-into-2 exhaust system used in The Batman, for a bike ridden by Robert Pattison through Gotham. [Ben Hardman]
Coming from what could be considered something of a motorcycle dynasty, Ben’s background is extraordinary, and it’s steeped in British motorcycles, racing and café racer history. His mom, Gail, was the daughter of Peter Lee. Peter was one of three co-owners of Unity Equipe of Rochdale, a well-known and highly respected specialist shop set up in the late 1950s selling first British motorcycle spares, and later café racer parts to the Ton-Up crowd and to serious racers. While Peter wasn’t a racer himself, he sponsored a select number of local riders and sidecar teams and traveled the circuit in a Unity Equipe racing van to support their efforts. Ben’s dad, Ray Hardman, wasn’t raised around motorcycles. However, Ray’s three brothers were interested in them, and that set the tone for him.

Unity Equipe in the 1980s: Ben’s grandfather was one of three owners. Note the Triumph T100 and Morini 3 1/2. [Ben Hardman]
“My dad’s older brother was into motocross and would often enter into local races during the 1970s,” Ben says, and continues, “At which point, Barry Sheene was in all the papers and my dad decided, instead of being chased by the police on the public roads, he would have a go at road racing instead. He managed to buy two old race bikes off a local motorbike shop, who also gave him sponsorship racing a Triumph 500 in an Aermacchi frame, and a Rudge 350 sprint bike. He then signed himself up to enter some classic races, aged 17. It was at this point that my dad started using grandad’s shop, Unity Equipe, to buy his British spares. And that’s where he noticed my mum working. One night in town, he approached my mum, saying, ‘You’re the girl from the motorbike shop,’ and the rest is history.”

John Newby was another owner at Unity Equipe, here seen outside the shop with his Velocette Thruxton Veeline. [Ray Hardman]
Peter built Ray a T350cc Manx Norton with original Manx spares he’d bought directly from the factory via John Tickle. Furthermore, Ray built his own BSA B50 using Unity components and the shop sponsored him to run it. These are some of the fondest memories Ben has of his upbringing, and he starts, “I always say, ‘I’m just Ben, from Bacup,’ an ordinary lad from a very small ordinary town, in the northwest of England, in back corner of Lancashire. I grew up in the shadows of large Victorian cotton mills that lined the valley bottoms and was blessed by large expanses of moorlands and quarries, where we could play out all day and learned to ride our bikes. As a small boy, you don’t notice much of what is happening around you, and you don’t realize how great the people around you are. I grew up surrounded by great racing motorcycles and great motorcycle racers and never really thought much of it. They were just bikes that my dad rode or raced against. And the racers were just ordinary people like my dad, who had ordinary lives and ordinary day jobs. But one thing I didn’t realize until I got older, was how obsessed I was with bikes.”

Ben with his favorite bike from his father’s racing stable: a very special BSA B50. [Ray Hardman]
Ray put Ben first on a Yamaha PW50. When Ben outgrew that, Ray gifted him a Yamaha TY80 for his eighth birthday. “We spent every weekend dad wasn’t racing in the local quarry, learning how to trials ride, with a lot of help from local experts that my dad knew.  Dad bought a Fantic 125cc Professional, so he could come out and ride with me, and two years later, when my younger brother, Tommy, got to age eight, my dad decided it was time we all had a change.” Ben took over his dad’s Fantic, while Ray bought a Bultaco 340. The Yamaha TY80 was modified with a Honda C50 engine for Tommy, and the family rode together in the quarry for one short year. That’s when in 1997, at Olivers Mount, Ray, aged 37, died in a crash. Ben recalls, “I was 11 years old, and from that point on, I tried my hardest to keep myself in the motorbike scene, but it was a lot harder when your dad, your best friend, isn’t there to do it with you.” Ray’s ex-teammates helped keep the spirit alive for Ben and Tommy, continuing to take them to races and getting them to help pit for the team.

Ben and Tommy Hardman, still crazy about motorcycles after all these years. [Ray Hardman]
Just how Raysons Exhaust came about is a long-ish story, but it all starts with Ben’s grandad, Peter. After working several other jobs, as a young man Peter became a blacksmith and in his early 20s had saved enough money to buy a BSA Gold Star as a commuter machine. He regularly rode to work in Rochdale but was one day knocked off the BSA. That’s when, Ben says, “Grandad and his friends all used to use a local motorcycle shop for their spare parts. This shop was run by John Newby. It was in this shop, that the idea of a new bigger shop, was first thought up. The plan was to buy the big old CO-OP shop in the next town and turn it into a large British spares shop. I think the idea would have tied in with the general decline of motorcycle shops in the U.K. My grandad, along with John Newby, who already owned the bike shop, and another friend, Brian Topping (later replaced by Bob Mainwaring), would join forces and set up a business called Unity Spares. It would specialize in British bike parts and would buy stock from other failing motorcycle businesses.” Ben’s grandad, Peter, worked the shop full-time. Because of his blacksmithing skills, Peter was also able to create a vast range of exhaust systems, so much so, that by the 1970s, the company was one of the largest suppliers of pipes in the U.K. As the British spares market began to falter, however, a change in direction saw the partners re-brand as Unity Equipe, focusing more on café racer parts. “In the mid 1970s. they managed to acquire the rights to the Manx Norton name, plus all the tools, spares and drawings off of Colin Seeley, who had bought the name off Norton, sold it to John Tickle and then bought it back again,” Ben says. “By buying this iconic name, it meant that Unity could supply all the parts needed to build a Norton based café racer special, and especially the Triton motorcycles which Unity later became famous for.”

A Classic Bike article on Ben’s grandfather Peter Lee from the Autumn 1979 issue – the magazine was initially quarterly, but quickly outgrew the limitation, and became one of the most popular motorcycle magazines in the UK. [Ray Hardman]
As Unity became very well established in the early 1980s, Peter had less time to create exhaust pipes and outsourced production to a Birmingham-based tube bender. This lasted until the craftsman making the pipes died – and Peter struggled to find another maker. Around the same time, Ray lost his job at a large engineering company and was unemployed. Wanting to bring pipe bending and other parts manufacturing in-house, Peter and his business partners started a new company called Uni-Bend Engineering, putting Ray in charge. They purchased a lathe, mill, and mandrel tube bender. Ray found a shop space to rent in the cellar of an old cotton mill. He would have been 24-years old, and Ben says with some mentorship from Peter, taught himself to weld and how to bend tubes. “He quickly got to grips with it, and with a steady stream of orders to be sold through the shop, Dad soon made enough money to buy the shares owned by the shop,” Ben explains. “And by the time I was born in 1986, Dad had the sole rights to the business, Uni-Bend Engineering. The cellar of the old mill was where I got my first experience of what he did for a job. I was his first born, and would spend a lot of time with him, in my first four years of life while he was in that old mill. There were times when I had measles, and my mum still had to work, so Dad would look after me at the workshop. We had a large Alsatian and a pet pigeon, (recovering from a broken wing) which lived in the workshop, so there was plenty to keep me occupied.”

A shop photo from Unity Equipe showing a special high-pipe 2-into-1 system for a BSA A10. [Raysons Exhaust]
Ben continues, “I remember one of my favorite ways to pass the time was to roll around on his massive workshop floors using his chalks to draw pictures on the biggest canvas I had ever experienced. I had no idea what dad was doing or how great of an empire he was part of. Dad would often be making footrest/rearset kits on his lathe, using drawings and jigs he’d purchased off Merchant and Durward.” Ray had also purchased a different workshop, one that started life in the 1850s as a coach house for a horse drawn carriage service. This was a building that, during the 1970s to the 1990s, had been owned by Ray’s friend where he stored vintage bikes and cars. Once in Ray’s hands, the space was a better fit for Uni-Bend than the cotton mill cellar. But it all ended in 1997 when Ray crashed at Olivers Mount. “This was devastating for the family and for the business, and an emergency meeting was called. It was decided that the only way to save both businesses would be for Grandad to sell his half of Unity and take over the running of Dad’s engineering company. Grandad had placed most of the orders with Dad and was the only person who knew both what was on order, and also knew what to do to make the orders. So, Grandad sold his half of Unity Equipe in September 1997 to John Newby’s girlfriend. And my mum signed all of Dad’s business over to Grandad.”

Unibend Engineering, opened by Peter Lee to supply exhaust pipes when nobody else was making custom or replacement exhausts, seen here with Ben’s father’s BSA B50 racer. [Raysons Exhaust]
Peter ran Uni-Bend Engineering for another 10 years, then handed it over to one of Ben’s uncles. This, Ben says, was not a good situation, as the uncle was interested only in making the rearset kits, and not the exhaust systems. He was to pay rent to Ben’s mom, but when he began to falter on payments to suppliers and on the rent, the family grew concerned. “The final straw came, when we found out from one of his friends, that he was trying to sell equipment out of the workshop. I flipped when I heard that news, and immediately asked my mum for the spare keys for the workshop. I went down that evening and changed the locks. It was at that point that my mum said, ‘Right it’s all your responsibility now.’ At 24, the same age my dad was when he started, I had finally become a man and was trusted enough to inherit all my dad’s belongings. It was a scary time, filled with trips to the solicitors etc. We had to give my uncle a week’s notice to finish off his work, and we crossed our fingers that he wouldn’t take anything else from the workshop. Grandad oversaw it all, and once that week was over, I was handed the keys. And my training started, as the new owner of a new exhaust business, RAYSONS EXHAUSTS, named in memory of my dad, Raymond John Hardman, who died doing what he loved, racing his bikes.”

Ben’s father Raymond Hardman at the start of his racing career, in the pits at Oulton Park. [Raysons Exhaust]
Ben learned how to manipulate metal at a very young age simply by working with the material. “I was lucky enough to be surrounded by very skilled engineers all my life,” he says. “We used to have a family joke, where we said, metal must be in our blood. But I found out, during lockdown, while doing my family tree, that I came from a family of foundry men. My dad’s grandad, who died in the war, was a director of his family-run iron foundry, which was set up by his grandad in the 1850s to serve the cotton mills and stone/coal mines.” As Ben has said, “I was brought up in dad’s workshop, watching him make pipes and work on his race bikes. I picked up a lot from watching, and as his first son, he would tell and show me everything. And if I was bored, he would let me have free reign in his scrap bin, where I would collect bits of metal, and whack them into any shape I wanted. I still have two pieces on my mantle, a car and a Mickey Mouse, that me and Dad made together when I was a young boy, worked out by me, and welded by Dad. I learned a lot about how metal behaves, from whacking it with a hammer at an early age and I always say, I think Dad taught me more than enough, before he passed away. One of the greatest skills that both him and Grandad taught me, was how to draw. This has taken me all the way through my education and was my main aim in life. Knowing my dad always wanted the best for me, I decided to go to university to learn automotive design, and when I graduated, I got a job locally working as a draftsman, at a laser cutting company. I had always dreamed of making exhaust pipes like my dad, but never thought it would ever happen. I used to sit there, daydreaming about transforming my skills into something that was motorbike related. I used to think, I know how to develop large ducting, cones and hoppers. I know how to draw them out and how they would be formed etc. but I don’t know how to weld them.”

Ben’s grandfather Peter Lee with one of his first motorcycles, a BSA DBD34 Gold Star Roadster. [Raysons Exhaust]
Until he was handed the keys to his dad’s workshop, and his grandad Peter spared the time to teach him how to create exhaust systems. “Grandad taught me the traditional way of making them, using only hand tools. Gas welding, brazing and sand bending. But now, I’ve also taught myself a few things that neither my dad nor grandad could ever do. I learned how to make hydroformed systems, using the pressure of water to form a curved cone. And during lockdown, I taught myself how to weld aluminium. That way I can roll and weld my own aluminum silencer bodies.” Ben’s first jobs came ‘from the family,’ and were from his dad’s friends and his grandad, who had long ago built up a name in the industry. “One of my first proper jobs was making a road racing system for a classic Honda 350 K4. That bike had a family connection, as the engine had been tuned by my dad’s old team boss, and the customer had come to have a set made to my dad’s dimensions, to match the tune of the motor. That was the first bike I had out on track that had one of my exhaust systems fitted to it, and to be displaying some of my decals.” Next came a system for a CCM motocross machine, when the son of a former factory CCM rider wanted an exact replica of the pipe used on his dad’s race machine of the 1970s. “Off the back of that job, I’ve made around 50 more systems for CCM bikes. And the early Honda K4 job led to my pipes being fitted to seven-times Irish road racing champion Barry Davidson’s Honda K4.” In fact, it’s the racing systems that Ben prefers to make, and his work has been fitted to a Classic TT race winner in 2023 with a pipe made for Ted Wuff’s Manx Norton. Ben says that ties in neatly with his grandad’s Manx Norton history. He has also produced systems for Norton rotary machines, owned by WizNorton, and raced by superbike rider Josh Brookes at the Manx GP. He’s also made small oil breather pipes to fit inside the extended sumps on Yamaha R1 race bikes run by McAMS, an outfit Ben says is one of the top teams in the British Superbike championships.

A custom exhaust system for a Benelli Sei custom: the megaphones are hydroformed, the exhaust pipes sand bent. [Raysons Exhaust]
“A lot of my repeat work comes from the race scene,” Ben says, “where systems are constantly being redesigned for extra power or need repairs or replacing due to crashes. This is one of the main reasons I went down that route when starting the business, as there is a steady stream of work generated from it.” Custom work is something he enjoys doing, too, but he says it’s very difficult to make a profit on it, due to “all the planning involved. And if you make one mistake while making it, you end up only breaking even.” Ben prefers to make systems in batches, whenever possible, where someone approaches him with a special-interest machine he can use to form a pattern and then build 10 to 12 sets. He also leaves it up to the customer to market the ‘extra’ sets. “Doing it this way means that the person who arranges it, usually gets their systems (one or two) for free, by selling the others with a small profit to other people. And it’s the best way for me, as I only have to deal with one person, and I make all the systems exactly the same, which helps speed things up. They are the only jobs where I make a small profit.” What Ben won’t produce are systems for machines such as Triumph T140s or Norton Commandos. While he can build them — and has the patterns his grandad once used for the bikes — they are not economically viable for him to create. He can’t compete with less-expensive systems for those machines being sold online. Ben adds, “Those cost the same to buy, as what it would cost to get one chrome plated. That puts me out of that market straight away.”

Ben at work bending tubing for an exhaust system at Raysons Exhaust. [Ben Hardman]
As to what the future holds for Raysons Exhaust, Ben remains optimistic and opined about the rise of electric vehicles. “I’m all for them, I’ve always been interested in the future, as much as I have been interested in the past. But I don’t think the current plan using batteries is the answer, and I don’t think they will kill off the petrol engine. As my grandad once said, ‘They still sell coal at the petrol station, don’t they!?’ I asked what he meant, and he said, ‘Nobody ever banned the steam engine, it’s just that the petrol engine was better, and everyone swapped over.’ If electric is better, then they will still sell petrol, like they still sell coal. The only problem being that it will cost more, and only the richer people will be able to run petrol engines. For hobby purposes, exactly the same way in which steam engines are run today.”

Moto-love: a beautiful set of hydroformed Honda four-cylinder megaphones. [Raysons Exhaust]
He concludes, “I’ve decided to stick with doing one-offs. That way I can change the business as the market changes. I hope that I can stay in the vintage market, as I absolutely love working on the early, rare bikes. Because they truly are special as survivors. I think we’ll be okay and I hope I can stay in the vintage market, being the only one to replicate a vintage system, using the tools they would have used originally. And if not, I’ll have to slowly start making systems for the next collectible bikes, which I’ve started doing more of recently. Making ‘70s 4-into-4 systems and also copying Yoshimura style 4-into-1s from the 1980s, which I don’t mind doing as the bikes still fall into that competition/special category. And I always joke, that if the world ends completely, I can always set the business up making security railings/fences, to protect everyone’s assets/retirement collections!”




Greg Williams is Profiles Editor for The Vintagent. He’s a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics
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