Road trips

How Peter Dannenberg reinvented his future

Peter Dannenberg’s life changed when he set up the motorcycle workshop Urban Motor. Leaving behind the frustrations of music management, the Berlin native became a contented entrepreneur devoted to his passion: customizing vintage motorcycles. An unusual commission from BMW Motorrad played an important support role in his story.

Christian Werner
Oliver Gehrs

Peter Dannenberg’s life falls into two distinct halves. The first phase was pre-2009, when the Berlin native had a good job in the music industry, working in sales and marketing. He promoted record releases and attended parties in honor of musical celebrities – the kind of events that give managers and journalists a sense of self-importance. Then one day, Dannenberg realized he was no longer part of that world. He knew that his existence as a career adolescent had run its course. His wife played a key part in the decision to change: when she noticed he was coming home from work increasingly frustrated, she encouraged him to give up his job.

And so in 2008, Dannenberg set up Urban Motor, a workshop that specializes in modifying motorcycles to suit customer demands. On occasion, however, the only customer request is “just do what you feel is best.” Dannenberg prefers vintage motorcycles over newer models because of the challenge they present. He likes to feel a machine – the thunderous retort and visceral rumble – with all his senses. Often, Dannenberg and his colleagues stand in front of a jacked-up motorcycle, debating the possible modifications for hours. A new exhaust, a snazzier headlamp, a shorter seat – that’s where it usually starts. Customization also involves sketches, of course. But the real fun is in studying a bike from all angles and then letting ideas start to flow spontaneously.

Dannenberg and his colleagues often stand in front of a jacked-up motorcycle and debate the possible modifications for hours.

Customization is the process of modifying series products in accordance with customer wishes. The current boom is the flip side of a world where products are homogeneous and digital workplaces are equipped with armies of identical computers, their virtual waste bins filled each evening with discarded files. It is a world that has bred a yearning for authenticity, a desire to rediscover products crafted by hand – and for midlife males, it is evidently a hunger that cannot easily be satisfied by homemade jam. Instead, this 30-to-50 age group revives fond memories of a time when the world got by without smartphones. Perhaps life then was actually preferable. They reminisce about the fabulous motorcycles they were unable to afford as students – style icons designed in Japan, Italy and Germany – then realize that now, suddenly, they can.

These are Urban Motor’s customers. They are no different from Dannenberg and his team: they love motorcycles that are unique – two-wheelers that rumble and roar, that demand respect from the rider, and make artists and sculptors out of humble mechanics. At the same time, the success of Dannenberg’s “bikesmithy,” as he casually refers to it, demonstrates the extent to which passion, a bold vision, creativity, and a willingness to meet individual customer demands are already becoming essential virtues for the future entrepreneur.

Two years ago, a BMW R nineT arrived at Urban Motor’s yard, along with a request for modification as the workshop saw fit. On the plus side, the BMW R nineT is ideal for customization: no superfluous electronics – just simple, capable technology. The downside? The team had just six weeks to complete the job. But the result was a bike that thrilled the engineers at BMW Motorrad and now has pride of place in the Urban Motor workshop, where iconic motorcycles line the walls like exhibits in a museum. Four of them are owned by Dannenberg. “For sale” signs are attached.

Is he serious? He smiles. Who knows?