Through the wondrous magic of social media, we often find ourselves reconnecting with people who’ve long since left our lives, much to our dismay (old friends we miss, certain exes) or to our joyous glee (old enemies, certain other exes). “Yosemite” Sam Radoff was a prolific custom car and motorcycle creator back in the 1960s and 1970s. His work appeared all over the country, but at some point he fell out of the custom life. That is, until his wife pushed him to pull out his old photos and get them back into the public eye on Facebook and Instagram.
We saw a lot of his cool bike stuff popping up on our Instagram feed. Wasting zero time, we got him on the phone, emailed back and forth, and pulled both an interview and a bunch of pictures of his work for you…
SC: Let’s start with the obvious. How’d you get the name?
YSR: I got that nickname in the mid- or late 1960s after I got out of the Army. A friend of mine called me that when we were riding; he stuck “Yosemite” in front of it. A lot of people at that time were getting nicknames. Mine used to be Little Sam, which stuck with me for years.
SC: Tell us about how you got started in bikes and cars.
YSR: When I was young, I lived in a little neighborhood in Detroit that was a hot bed for custom stuff. The Kaiser Brothers, all the local builders of the day were in that area except Barris. I started making model cars, which led to pinstriping them. The locals picked up on it, asked me to stripe their cars. Then I went into the Army. After that, I bought a motorcycle. The people I hung out with wanted nice bikes, so I started painting bikes for them and that blew up real quick. Next thing I know, I’m welding frames, making tanks, and doing full choppers. I was in the right place at the right time. Most of the time I’m in wrong place at wrong time [laughs].
SC: What was your shop like back then?
YSR: I’d always said that if I ever had a shop, it would be a custom shop. I stayed true to that my whole career, just doing custom stuff. I originally opened up a shop in the basement of an old farmhouse I rented then moved to friend’s garage then a shop in the toughest part of Detroit at the time. Some of those shots I sent you show my shop building with painted characters on it. There were no checkerboard floors and bullshit like that; checkerboard looks good, but you have to be a multimillionaire to have it. My shop was one step above a dirt floor. That’s as close as we came to checkerboard, but we created a lot of cool bikes, cars, vans. We bought up a bunch of tanks and fenders, painted ’em up, and folks would come exchange theirs then we’d repaint that stuff, hang it up, and sell it also. If I had a video camera and filmed the shop, it’d be the coolest show ever on TV. It was a fun time. It just developed.
SC: And the custom shows? What was your involvement there?
YSR: We wanted to make a name nationally, so we started making a few bikes to take and show. I learned over the years to never take a knife to a gunfight. People everywhere are prejudiced and lie; they’ll tell you the local judges aren’t biased, but if you’re from out of the area, it’s harder to win.
So we started building radical bikes. On the West Coast, they were into that narrow, slim look. I was into taking what was on cars and putting it on bikes. Frenched-in lights, molded-in plates. I’d incorporate the car feel into bike feel.
We won tons of “best paint” awards all over the country. One of those bikes you have there in the photos won best paint over the cars at a show. We were the first to do that. We won hundreds of awards. People think I’m bullshitting when I say that, but it’s true.
SC: Why’d you stop entering bike shows?
YSR: We decided to stop showing because the worst thing you can do is compete against your clients. They don’t want to think you did your showbike better than you did theirs. I think the young kids are interested in finding out about this kind of history.
It’s nothing like today. There was no school back then. You learned on your own. The old guys guarded their secrets. People would come in wanting something done. If I’d never done it before, I learned on the job. In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never looked at any of this as a financial situation. If a guy wanted something painted, I’d get into it and think, “How cool would it be to add this?” and I’d do it at no additional charge. That’s the way it was done. Most of the paint jobs weren’t the best at the show, but they had the look; they had the design. It was a psychology game. Now you see pinstripers doing panels. Back then we knew the bikes would last a little while before they got toasted. We’d paint something similar on a piece of plastic for the customer. That’s how the panel thing got started.
SC: Of all the motorcycles you created, what was your favorite?
YSR: The one bike I won America’s Most Beautiful Chopper award with. The headlight that came out of its gas tank was a challenge. They’d go into the tank when they were not on. There was a lot of cool stuff on that. It was the most challenging thing I can think of.
Nowadays, Yosemite Sam Radoff resides in Canada. He still does a little custom work locally. What you may not know is that he’s also a prolific metal sculptor. You can see more about Yosemite Sam Radoff at yosemitesams.com, radofforiginals.ca, or on his Instagram and Facebook pages.