Choppers, bobbers, and custom cafe racers: you don’t see many of them riding around Italy, the leading Western country for motorbike ownership per capita. So, when a customized vintage BMW boxer catches your eye, you do a double take.  During my most recent stay in Rome, I re-visited Ottodrom, a well-known custom shop near the Galleria Borghese.  I stumbled upon the shop a few years back after spotting one of their bikes from across the street, and J-walking to investigate. This visit I spoke at length with Edoardo Navarra, who currently manages the showroom.[1] I wanted to find out more about their shop and Italy’s custom bike culture.

Ottodrom owner Edoardo Navarra at his rather amazing desk. [Wendy Pojmann]
Navarra, who started racing motorcycles and pulling them apart as a pre-teen, explains that Ottodrom emerged in 2013, “from artisans working in a garage below home to now being here on the Via Pinciana in the center of Rome across from the Villa Borghese, a location with high visibility next to Ferrari and Harley Davidson.” Ten years ago, there were not many custom shops in Italy, he notes. Local builders were interested, however, in connecting with like-minded vintage motorcycle enthusiasts in the booming custom sector in other parts of the world. The Ottodrom ethos, Navarra points out, is the same as in other countries, in the sense that it is inspired by the British cafe racers of the 1960s and by the strong aesthetic sensibility of the Custom Revolution, spurred on during the 2010s by blogs like Bike Exif and Pipeburn. Ottodrom shares an interest with many other recent builders in emphasizing design over the speed-driven mods of the past, and focuses on achieving unique, functional machines for a specialized clientéle.

A series of BMWs customized by Ottodrom. [Wendy Pojmann]
Ottodrom is best known for customizing vintage BMWs, both K-models and ‘airhead’ boxers. Navarra explains, “It’s a recognized brand that offers a good reputation and peace of mind in the sense that they are reliable motors. They’ve been around since the 1970s without having undergone major changes. There’s a lot of appeal…  But we also work on Japanese bikes, we work on Triumphs, on Moto Guzzis.”  Ottodrom’s clients generally like to attract attention, he says, and enjoy being “almost interrogated” by other riders and drivers at stop lights. In Italy, their clients like standing out from the numerous stock scooters and motorcycles. “You don’t go unnoticed,” as Navarra puts it.

A more conservative take on an early 1970s ‘toaster tank’ BMW R75/5. [Wendy Pojmann]
In other countries – Ottodrom has sold bikes to motorcyclists in the US, Qatar and several European countries – clients like having a machine that has a “made in Italy” vibe. Navarra proudly notes that you can see the craftsmanship of their Italian artisans no matter where the original bike was made.  It is also possible to cater the styling of nearly any motorcycle to many different tastes. “Even from an R-series BMW, you can pull out a chopper in an American style that is very satisfying.”  My own impression is that there is an elegance and refinement to their motorcycles that sets them apart from other custom shops. Ottodrom participates in the Eternal City Motorcycle Show[2] alongside several other garages and major manufacturers and plans are in the works to show off their bikes at specialized fairs in Cannes and London where they can reach additional niche clients.

The front desk of Ottodrom is built over a heavily modified Honda CB four. [Wendy Pojmann]
Given all the skill and access to great bikes in Rome, why aren’t there more custom motorcycles on the streets? As Michael McCabe pointed out in a recent Vintagent article about custom motorcycles in Taiwan, not all countries allow dramatically altered vehicles to circulate on public roads. Italy is closer to Taiwan than the United States in this regard. If a rider is stopped by the police in Italy while riding her modded out chopper adorned with extra-long forks and ape hangers, she risks a steep fine and confiscation of the bike. Italy has strict laws about what can and cannot be changed on motor vehicles, including not only wheel and tire size but even types of tires.[3]  Modifications are generally only allowed for rider comfort, performance or aesthetics but without compromising the original design and engineering of the motorcycle. Builders and buyers must work around these limitations or risk fines.

Edoardo Navarro chats with Wendy Pojmann about motorcycles and life in Italy. [Wendy Pojmann]
In addition to concerns about safety-related modifications, Italians follow the environmental codes of the European Union. Larger Italian cities such as Milan and Rome sometimes restrict access to the city center to improve the air quality, as with other large European cities such as London and Paris. To enter the inner circles at certain times, motorcycles need to conform to at least Euro 2 specs; the newest machines being produced today conform to Euro 6 or 7.[4] Older vehicles are being phased out of circulation completely.  There are no concessions made for grandfathering in the oldies as happens in most of the US, where you can still ride a 1970s two-stroke anywhere, since that’s how it came from the factory.

When in Rome…visit Ottodrom! [Wendy Pojmann]
Exceptions as to what can legally circulate are made only for vintage motorcycles approved by the AutomotoClub Storico Italiano (ASI) or the Federazione Motociclistica Italiana (FMI), and come with usage limitations. Historic motorcycles can generally be ridden for rallies or special events but not necessarily to commute to work. Moreover, both ASI and FMI certified bikes are generally approved only when they are restored as close as possible to the original specs, not customized.[5] These rules make it difficult to rescue an old, broken-down Honda and turn it into a cafe racer.  In fact, Ottodrom’s desk bike is an example of saving the past for the future. The motorcycle pictured here had a few leaks, but it was too special to discard. The shop decided to turn it into a distinctive place to showcase their design creativity when they receive clients. It turns out that the works of fine art across the street at the Galleria Borghese are nicely complemented by these modern classics, also products of the hands of Italian master artisans.

Dr. Wendy Pojmann is Professor of History at Siena College in Albany, New York. Her most recent book ‘Espresso: The Art & Soul of Italy’ was published by the Bordighera Press in 2021. Pojmann’s current project is ‘Connected by the Street: The Myths and Realities of Motorcyclists in the US and Italy.’ She splits her time between Rome and upstate New York. Follow her on Instagram @wendysespressolife.


[1] Interview in Italian by Author on February 2, 2024 at Ottodrom, Via Pinciana 41-45 Rome, Italy. Translations by Author.

[2] This year the Eternal City Motorcycle Show will take place on September 28-29 at the Palazzo dei Congressi in EUR.

[3] See this article in Italian from Motociclismo for more about laws regarding vehicle modifications.

[4] See this article in Italian about pollution restrictions and what motorcyclists are doing about them

[5] This article in Italian compares the two certifications


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