What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day, than with a screening of the latest motorcycle-focused documentary short? Writes Leonie Watkins. Petrolettes: The Wrench-Off, is a film made by Petrolettes founder, Irene Kotnik and chronicles a Europewide motorcycle customising competition - borne of a desire to showcase not only the capabilities and skill of female custom builders, but equally the passion and ambition inside each of these women - incorporating their own expertise and particular style to fabricate a beautifully designed, functioning, race-ready motorcycle. The final stage would be a showdown between the finished bikes in the form of a sprint race. And earned crowning glory for the winner.
The 23-minute film is the first in a series of 8 documentaries made by Irene of Petrolettes and her production team. The screening of the film was an event hosted by Royal Enfield (the facilitators of the custom building competition) and was fittingly presented to an excited audience on Sunday 8th March - incidentally, International Women’s Day – in the arches of east London’s famous Bike Shed Motorcycle Club in Shoreditch.
Four teams. Four nations. Four bikes. 1 goal.
Petrolettes set the appealing task and threw out an invitation to female mechanics and designers across Europe. The challenge required those chosen teams from Germany, Austria, Sweden and Italy, to custom design a build around a Royal Enfield Twin 650. Both Team Italy and Team Austria opted for the Continental, with Team Germany and Team Sweden each designed around the frame of an Interceptor. The aim of the undertaking was to take a stock bike and create something unique within a 5 month time frame. Showcasing the work of women from very different backgrounds, the teams would ultimately be pitted against each other following the final reveal, and the climacteric eighth-mile sprint run, held at Glemseck 101, Germany. The deadline was set as September 2019.
Featuring interviews and pieces to camera from each of the team members, the film provides a true sense of who these women are and how they came to take part in the competition.
Team Sweden: Ida Olsson
Ida, who manages a hair salon, and works on bikes in her spare time, was steadfast as to how her bike would look. The unfinished style of her brushed steel design is crafted intentionally to look rough and abrasive. The attention in the detail is something else - from the hand stitched seat (no sewing machine used here!) down to the mesmerising customised plated drilled wheel covers.
Team Germany: Mel Weier and Christie Sacco
Builder Mel Weier, a mechanic and her teammate Christie Sacco, a philosophy grad, knew they wanted the tank of an old 1926 Royal Enfield to feature as the centrepiece for their bike. Elements were burnished, including the clutch, sprocket and valve covers. To give the impression of a land speeder. The footpegs, clutch and brake pedals were moved to the rear. Rear suspension was replaced with YSS racing shocks and the airbox was removed then replaced with two air filters directly on the throttle body, to increase the bike’s overall performance. Smart thought through details are what give this build its finesse. Glassless polished mirrors and a keyless ignition also feature.
Team Austria: Patricia Kafka and Lill Bonne DeVille
The team’s nickname, The Breakfast Club, is borrowed from the riding club set up by university teacher and mum Patricia and biotechnologis Lill, for riders who would meet for breakfast before heading out on a ride. The design was inspired by the Viennese coffee houses and architecture from Vienna. The look deliberately veered away from mainstream and cliched custom trends. Much of the focus of the design went into keeping the lines slim. Look out for their ingenious arrangement for fitting the ignition key! A critical and unexpected end-of-build problem.
Team Italy: Bella Litinetski Grünberg
Automotive, product, and graphic designer Bella Litinetski Grünberg has a background in road racing, and brought her knowledge and experience of fixing and maintaining her track bikes to the garage floor. As she says, 'Everyone in Italy rides.’ Riding is a part of her heritage. It is in her blood. Bella’s fairings were adapted to fit the Royal Enfield and the suspension was switched out for custom race-spec units from YSS. The rearsets are prototypes and HPcorse GP07 supplied the silencers. Bella fabricated the sidepanels. Fittingly, these carry the names and logos of the partners who supported her. Bella’s build also featured a PowerTronic ECU unit, Healtech quickshifter and custom 3D printed air filters.
The film includes stunning cinematography of local scenes in each of the teams’ home nations, allowing for relative context and a more personal narrative of each woman in her own making. Between drawing board ideas and detailed close up shots of garage welding, the daily lives of these women is depicted. Prudently, the film weaves its way through the realities of the day to day and informs us what it means to hold down full time employment and parenting, while striving to establish sufficient garage time, necessary to complete the bikes ahead of the sprint race at Glemseck.
Expect to be wowed by the intricate work produced by each of the teams and by the shrewd individuality brought to the design of the bikes. As with any build, half the allotted window of weeks was spent head scratching, navigating problems and fathoming solutions. The time pressure of the deadline of the race event itself is present throughout, spurring the teams on to complete their builds! The evolving friendships between teams establishes a healthy, developing rivalry...
Petrolettes Wrench-Off encapsulates the highs and lows of custom motorcycle transformation and a project of this type under pressure, but it is also a story featuring highly personal journeys of self discovery. It is these moments that sit at its heart. The women featured capture the honesty of what it means to be bold enough to cast stereotypes aside and fulfil an ambition fuelled by self confidence and determination. With grace and humour, each woman promotes their own take on why and how important it is that women contribute to motorcycle culture. The spirit of the film is of camaraderie, of community and one undoubtedly set to ignite enough ambition to inspire hobby mechanics with yearning aspirations the world over.
Petrolettes is a motorcycle festival for women, which started in 2016 with a purpose of connecting women who are passionate about motorcycles.
Catch the Wrench-Off motorcycles being exhibited at festivals and events across Europe in 2020. Seven further motorcycle/female-focused films are currently in the works.
Studio photos: Irene Kotnik Race photos: Christine Gabler, Kayadaek Photography