Who would have thought the motorcycle industry would be what it is today-surely not me. Going back 35 years ago when I had my last job working in a machine shop, I decided I wanted to paint motorcycles for a living. It was a workout!
I still have my workbook from 1971. Then, a three-piece paintjob was $35 - $50. If I raked and molded the frame, and painted four to five pieces, it was about $175. So what I'm saying is that it wasn't easy. I did whatever I had to do to get by.
Custom parts were not really available like they are now. You either had to make the part from scratch, or modify existing parts. There were only a few custom magazines and a few motorcycle shows, so ideas were more original. People didn't have the money to spend on bikes like they do today, so most guys built their own bikes. My first bike was a '64 XLCH. When I got it, I cut and chopped the frame, extended the neck 12 inches, had a 40-degree rake, a 19-inch-over Springer front end, and a custom paintjob. I was the hit of the town! When I sold this bike, I remember thinking what am I going to do with all that money? The $2,400 went fast!
Moving along in time, I met Arlen Ness and Donnie Smith in 1975 at a bike show in Detroit. About the same time, I met Bob Clark from STREET CHOPPER magazine. We are all still good friends. From there, I started building west coast style bikes for the most part-all the trends started on the West Coast. I opened my first store in 1975, and it was only open nights and weekends. I would build and paint bikes at my shop, which was a shed in my father's backyard in Brockton, Massachusetts. I would build bikes all day and go to the store at night, then go back to the shop and work some more. I did this for many years. You have to love it to put this kind of time into any job. My normal day was 9 a.m. to midnight everyday. I couldn't wait to start work everyday. I loved working on motorcycles and with the people in the business.
One day I had two hardcore club members come into my shop. They had broken down a few streets away. They needed a chain for one of their bikes, but they had no money. They assured me that they would be back later with the money. I gave them the chain on good faith. A few days later, one of the guys came back with the money for the chain. That guy and I are still good friends to this day, 30 years later. We still joke about it...a young kid trying to make it in Brockton and club members from Boston. That's what it takes.
After 35 years, I still live for motorcycles. I have to because it's a hard business to make a living at. Believe me, there are not many people getting rich overnight doing this.
Young builders ask me all the time, what is the secret to being successful? There is no secret. It's hard work, dedication, and you have to love what you are doing.
TV has made stars out of a lot of bike builders, but it takes a lot more than a performance on TV to be a custom bike builder. Experience is a huge factor. Experience builds a true bike builder; not TV. We all want to be on TV and it's a great opportunity for anyone who gets the chance. But then, when you're done talking the talk, you need to walk the walk. And that's an assignment!