PIPEDREAMS WITH BEN HARDMAN
By Dan Jones - 13 May 21
Tucked away in Rochdale, North England, on a cobbled street lies a small workshop called Raysons Exhausts. It's a humble workshop (if it was a bar it'd be your spit and sawdust variety) but that usually means it's steeped in history. Handed down through three generations of the Hardmans with Ben now carrying the acetylene torch and the business alive and better than ever.
We've long admired Ben and the 'exhaustial' works of art and function that roll out of Raysons iconic blue doors and he's certainly a man at the top of his craft. So, we got on the blower and caught up with him for a deeper dig into what actually is the story behind Raysons.
What's the history behind Raysons?
It started with my Grandad, Peter Lee, who had a shop called Unity Equipe selling British motorbike parts in Rochdale. Formed by three friends in 1965 ish it quickly became one the biggest spares shops in the UK, and was known for its vast exhaust collection.
In the mid 70s they managed to buy the manufacturing rights to the Manx Norton race parts off John Tickle via Colin Seeley. From that point they moved more into selling Race parts and Cafe racer add-ons for Triton specials etc. while still selling the old stock.
Dad, Ray Hardman, lived locally, and messed around on bike with his brothers, who all got into road racing in their late teens. They used to go to grandads shops for parts and that’s how my dad met my mum, who worked at the shop, with Grandad and her sisters. Mum and dad obviously got together, and Grandad offered Dad sponsorship for his race bike, and when dad lost his engineering job, Grandad asked him to make exhaust systems for the shop. Dad, Grandad and his two partners set up the business Unibend Engineering Limited, which became Unibend Eng, when dad had made enough money to buy the partners out.
That started in 1981 and lasted until Dad crashed while racing his Gawthorpe Honda 500, in the Classic Bike Series, at Olivers Mount, Scarborough, 14th September 1997. After dads death, mum asked grandad to take over dads exhaust business, as he was the only person that knew what dad was doing. So Grandad sold his half of the shop and moved his stuff up to dads workshop, until he retired in 2010.
How did you get started in your craft?
I started ‘Raysons’ in the same workshop, that grandad retired from which was still owned by mum, but was being run by my uncle, who gave up, and decided to leave, after pissing off a lot of customers and running the company down to nothing.
I decided something needed to be done about that, so I changed the name (which broke my heart) and got grandad back out of retirement, to teach me the family trade. Which I didn’t get chance to learn off dad, because he died when I was 11.
I was working full time as a draughtsman at a local laser cutters, drawing big ducting work etc. and started with Grandad showing me the ropes at the weekend and practising what he’d shown me on the week nights. He’d then come and check on me the next weekend and show me something new all whilst trying to honour orders from grandads loyal customers, and making stock items for grandads old shop. That got me through the first few years, until I eventually went full time on my own in 2014.
What are your favourite pieces or processes?
Hydroforming……that’s pumping up two pieces of flat metal with pressurised water… I know how to do it, and it still blows my mind…. and Sand Bending exhausts, which is what grandad was known best for, for replicating vintage pipes, by doing them by hand, and that’s what he taught me the most in my first few years. My proudest moment was probably when he said I was better than him at doing it… he never got time to try hydroforming so it impresses him as much as it does me. When dad was racing, his competitors on the good (expensive) bikes, all had hydroformed racing megaphones fitted. So it's nice to be able to make something that Dad couldn’t afford.
What do you ride?
Ducati Multistrada 1100S, Black with all of the carbon bits on it. I’d saved up to buy dad's old BSA B50 race bike back off his mate that mum had sold it to. Unfortunately, he wasn’t ready to sell, so I bought a proper bike instead. I’d always wanted a Ducati, but my size restricts the bikes I can comfortably ride and the Multistrada is the perfect “big persons” sports bike.
What was your favourite bike?
I have a few including the TY80 that my dad bought me for my 8th birthday. But it's got to be My Fantic 125 ‘professional’, which was originally my dad’s bike but he ended up giving it to me when I was 10, because I was always nicking it off him. He then bought a 350 Bultaco which we still have too.
What is your dream machine?
A black or a red Ducati Panigale v4, or in the same colours, an Audi RS6 Avant (those naughty ones) and anything Vintage, 1930s, nice!!
Best riding story?
To be honest I don’t really have a personal one, or I have too many… a lot of the good ones come from customers, and when you’ve been around hardcore bikers all your life, it kind of becomes the norm…. Christmas dinners usually descended into Dad and Grandad talking about exhaust pipes and racing… everywhere we went they would judge whether exhaust systems were correct or not.
My best experience has got to be catching the ferry to the Isle of Man for the first time… I’d been to many races in my life, but never on a boat. The first time was shortly after dad died, his team mates asked if I wanted to go across with them to help and support them. I got picked up from my mums, aged 13 (I remember because my mum forced me to take my SATS revision with me) off Dads mechanic on his Yamaha TZ250 and we headed to Liverpool. I ended up learning a bit of German, off the german riders waiting for the ferry and Geoff, dads mechanic let me ride his bike down the ramp to the ferry.
We then spent the week helping the team, who were racing in the Pre TT Classic races held on the Billown circuit at Castletown. We managed to catch a few of the evening practice laps for the TT, it was one of the best experiences a I’ve ever had and I’ve been back a few times since. The first time to watch the first set of exhaust pipes I’d ever had racing in the Classic TT in 2015. I went across with my little brother on our pushbikes, which restricted us a bit, but that’s when I got the bug… especially from the buzz in the paddock.
I ended up spending most of my time there, which was something I really missed from Dad not being here anymore. You can’t beat it, having all of the serious classic road racing bikes all in one place, and all being run with unsilenced exhaust systems, just like they did in 1960s, with top riders on them like John McGuinness. It’s a boyhood dream, and I now have a handful of exhaust systems competing there.