The word custom really gets tossed around in the motorcycle industry of today. There are of course still true custom motorcycle builders both commercial and the garage builder. However, I have a hard time with the phrase “production custom motorcycle”. Now there are motorcycle manufactures that use the word custom in the model name, but that does not make it a custom motorcycle. Certainly if we look at the definition of the word “custom” we see that it means that the motorcycle was produced as specified for an individual. It does not take a mathematician to figure out that this means for one.
Some of the top and upcoming motorcycle manufactures insist on staking claim to adding a new production custom motorcycle to their line. This is simply a false claim in advertising and no more than a gimmick of play on words.
The making of a custom motorcycle.
I think most reading this article would agree that the true custom motorcycle is one built by an individual for that individual. These type of motorcycles won’t be seen sitting side by side on the polished floors of a large manufacture showroom. You will not see the same motorcycle anywhere, because it is a one of a kind custom built motorcycle. Most garage custom builders remain unknown and are happy just to build their own motorcycle or maybe one for a friend or two. Some move out of the garage and open up a shop building custom motorcycles to be sold. Others will grow into large shops that employ many and produce 2 or 3 bikes a month.
Still, the one thing that ties all of these builders together is that they build one of a kind custom motorcycles. Their carefully designed product is as original as the person that the motorcycle is built for. In most cases, if the motorcycle is not being built by the owner, he or she still plays an important part in the development of the machine and how it will look in the final outcome.
The custom motorcycle builder.
Everybody has to start somewhere and if you read the stories of most of the popular chopper and custom builders, you will see they also have many things in common. All of the well known custom motorcycle builders have a love for the machine and most started in the industry when they built a custom bike for themselves. Many of them develop a style that is easily recognized and yet each creation is unique in the design. One thing that you will also see if you follow the lives of any of the builders is that the amount of time and effort spent to get to where they are is overwhelming. Though in speaking with many of the builders I know, some seem to feel that a lot of making it to the top has to do with timing. I tend to agree with this in some ways as I look at some of the creations of the garage builders and the guys that have opened shops locally. Their work can be as much of an art creation of smartly shaped iron and chrome as one of the well known builders, yet they do not seem to get the recognition. Still, they push on and seem happy even to win a trophy and prize at one of the big bike shows like the Rat’s Hole custom motorcycle show.
Custom bike shows are a great way to see the work of many of the small shops and garage builders from around the country. I recall one show when the wife of a builder thanked me just for taking pictures of her husbands work. Her expression of thanks was sincere and showed that she shared her husband’s passion for building a one of a kind custom motorcycle. This is where I see a notable difference between the guy that draws his gas tank template out on a file folder to create one bike versus the large manufacture that uses an auto cad program to design a stamp mold for hundreds of that design. Simply put, the true custom motorcycle builder fabricates a one of a kind bike that is unlike any other machine created where each process in putting the bike together is as unique as a finger print.
Ultimately, the final phase of building a custom motorcycle is watching the owner look the machine over and sitting on the seat of the bike to take the first ride. Custom motorcycle builders are scattered all over the world and create many types and styles of motorcycles, but they all build for one.
The difference between custom and customized.
I think many people seem to get the term custom confused with customized. We have already discussed the meaning of custom above and we know that a custom motorcycle is built for an individual. To turn out a customized motorcycle is to take a stock bike and change or add on parts or paint to set the bike apart from other motorcycles of the same model or class. The building of a customized motorcycle is usually performed by the owner of the motorcycle after purchase, although there are companies that specialize in customized motorcycles. The customized motorcycle begins as a stock model and the customizing begins as new paint, chrome or engraved parts are added. Many times a motorcycle can be customized by simply removing stock parts that are not necessary. Though many may disagree that this is the same as a custom motorcycle, it is better described as a customized motorcycle. A good example of the customized motorcycle would be when a rider changes the seat, changes the exhaust pipes and adds airbrush work or pinstripes. Another example would be removing the stock front forks and replacing them with extended forks and different handlebars. While a customized motorcycle can be a great looking machine, they are still stock motorcycles with pieces added or taken away.
Today a chopper can be a custom motorcycle, while the early history of the chopper was to customize a bike by removing or chopping parts down. The original chopper motorcycle dates back to post world war II when solders returning from the war were not happy with the look and feel of the motorcycles built in the states. Many of them formed groups and began to chop their stock motorcycle and customize it to better fit their need and desire for comfort, speed and style. These original groups also began the term “biker” and met regularly to discuss and help each other with new ways to customize their motorcycles.
The biggest recognition of the chopper was when a customized motorcycle was used in the 1969 film Easy Rider staring Peter Fonda bringing to light the cool look of these choppers. The actual designer and builder of the two famous motorcycles are not known to many, while the captain America chopper is world famous. The two men responsible for the building of the two customized motorcycles for the making of the film Easy Rider were Ben Hardy and Cliff Vaughs. After seeing the movie, more riders wanted to have a chopper, but some did not know how to customize their own motorcycle. Shops began to open where motorcycle owners could take their motorcycle to be customized and later as time went on these shops began to build custom motorcycles, choppers and bobbers.
Early custom chopper builders would completely disassemble the motorcycle and then cut and weld the frame to extend the front end and lower the motorcycle to the road. Today, the custom motorcycle builder begins with a frame and builds the motorcycle from the frame up. While some builders buy frames pre-built, most of the more popular builders start by building the frame as needed for the end design. In the years passing, many shops became specialized in frames, wheels and exhaust pipes.
The impact of television on the motorcycle industry
More recently, television brought on a new wave of the custom builder with television shows like the Great Biker Build-off, American Chopper and Motorcycle Mania. These television shows sparked a world wide interest in motorcycles and turned many builders into a celebrity. Even more shows and documentaries followed giving a broader insight into the world of motorcycles and the biker lifestyle. Television and the new reality show craze gave us all somewhat of an inside look at some of the lives of the custom motorcycle builder, though most of the shows were staged, they created a spike in the custom motorcycle business for a period of time.
Reality television shows that created bigger than life personalities out of custom bike builders. Jesse James of West Coast Choppers and of course the family business of the Teutuls of Orange County Choppers both had a large following of fans glued to the television set each week. These television shows took the custom world a bit further with the creation of “theme bikes”. Though the concept of the theme bike was not anything new, sponsors were quick to jump on the commercial wave and ride it in to shore.
Names of those known mainly in the motorcycle industry like Russell Mitchell, Chica, Billy Lane and Matt Hotch became household words with the making of the Discovery Channel’s Biker Build-off. These popular hit shows spawned new shows , documentaries and DVD collections attempting to give the television viewer something new and exciting and keep the home viewing audience enthused. However, as the ratings fell, the shows began to die ending the era of the celebrity chopper builder. The motorcycle industry and especially the works of the custom builder have seen this rise and fall before. The builders that survive and continue on are the truly dedicated and hard working men and women that belonged in the field in the first place. It is their drive and spirit that will keep this part of the industry alive to stand the test of time.
Motorcycle manufactures and the custom motorcycle.
The large motorcycle manufacturer such as Harley Davidson, Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda produce thousands of motorcycles every year and some still have trouble keeping afloat. Harley Davidson recently reported a fall in sales and laid off workers in the hundreds. American IronHorse is filing bankruptcy while Honda recently opened a mega factory to produce even more motorcycles. Indian Motorcycle is promising delivery of the newly designed Chief, but has not announced a formal delivery date. The motorcycle industry as a hole seems to have taken a drop in late at a time with the price of gas so high that more people think of buying a motorcycle that probably never would have. Yet the industry seems troubled and financially unstable. Some of these major players saw the custom motorcycle market as a way to pull in more sales and began to produce a new look or even produced under a new name. However, new look and name does not make the motorcycle custom and the major manufacture will never be able to break into that corner of the market until they realize that it is not about being number one, it is about building for one. The production custom motorcycle are words that totally contradict themselves and reality will dictate that there is no such thing.
This post is for editorial purpose and is in the form of an opinion. This opinion is that of the author and not that of any of the advertisers, persons or companies mentioned in the post.
Sources and credits:
All photos are the work and property of MNO Photography.
Alan Bernard of Santiago Chopper
Russell Mitchell of Exile Cycles
Scott Hall of Corrupted Concepts
Vinnie DiMartino of V-Force Customs
Custom frame designed by Tempest Cycles