Category: How To

Custom Bikes: Why You’re Probably Not Cool Enough (Part 2)

Ok, so in my last post I talked about the many pitfalls involved in buying a custom bike.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably pretty disappointed (offended?) so let’s focus on the positives for a moment.

There are many talented people out there building extremely cool motorcycles.

Perhaps the best and cheapest way to find them is to troll your local craigslist or ebay in search of unique machines.   If you can avoid the unfinished projects or total hatchet jobs, you’re likely to see a handful of tasty tricked out bikes for affordable prices.  If the owner can detail the work performed, including any unusual or hidden non-stock features that might trip you up in the future, this is often a good way to go.

Before heading out to see a bike, it’s important to know that the seller communicates well by email and phone, because “tech support” is sometimes necessary in the days after the purchase.  It’s just the nature of customs.

I had a customer who could not start a bike because he didn’t realize it had a kickstand switch.  Another guy found that the clutch lever position made it difficult for him to operate after a long ride, and I dropped by to help him dial in the ergonomics.  You’re unlikely to get much in the way of a warranty on these kinds of bikes, but being able to talk to the builder about issues that come up could save you lots of headaches.

Plan to pay cash unless otherwise instructed, and be ready to move quickly on a bike you like.  The good ones don’t stick around for long.

You will obviously need to take the bike on a long test ride, but convincing another man to let you tear off down the street on his baby will require some work.  This should be the last phase of the process, after you’ve kicked the tires, asked any questions you might have, heard the bike running, seen the title, and hopefully established a bit of mutual trust with the seller.  Offering to leave something of value behind is usually a welcome gesture if the seller seems like he’s on the fence.

Basically, everyone is picturing this when they hand over the keys:

 

Once you’re out on the ride, bring the motor up to temperature and put the bike through a variety of situations to make sure there is nothing loose or broken and to ensure that the modifications haven’t compromised the performance of the bike (remember Part 1?).  Riding around the block is not good enough.  You need to check out the brakes, accelerate to highway speed, operate the engine at high rpms, and push through a few proper corners.  Basically, take 10 minutes and do whatever you need to do to replicate your “typical” ride.

Be aware that if you come back with a dropped or blown up bike, you’re going to have a problem though.  Exercise restraint until the cash is handed over and the title is signed; then you can do all the burnouts and wheelies you want.  For the purchase of an existing custom by an unknown builder, you can expect to pay between $1500 and $5000 depending on the donor bike, the quality of the work, and the local market.

The other way to go if you’re not finding anything you like is to commission a “special,” either from a local shop or from one of the bike builders out there plying their trade.  Keep in mind that a proper custom bike from a “known” shop can run more than $50,000.  Sometimes way more.  If you have this kind of money and can wait a year or two for your build to be finished, by all means get a bike from one of the big boys.  I know I would ride the shit out of that Sanctuary RCM Kawasaki pictured above.

If your budget is more modest, you need to scale back your expectations to match.  Aside from finding a less well known builder to do the work, the less you specify and the less involved you want to be in making decisions, the less expensive the bike will be.  You should really attempt to find a builder who is already putting out bikes that that you basically like.  Everyone has a unique style and a set of skills and resources that makes certain bikes possible and others not so easy.  For example, I like to do lots of hand hammered metal body work on bikes.  I’m set up with the tools to do this because I have experience in metal sculpture.  If you asked me to make body work from scratch out of moulded plastic, I could do it, but not as quickly or as well.  At least not yet.  So pay attention to what your guy is already doing.  You want the builder to be enthusiastic about your project.  If you don’t get that feeling, take your business somewhere else.

Regardless of who does the work, if you demand a particular donor bike be used, require new equipment in place of used, expect extreme performance, or have a specific look in mind, it could get pricey.  Simple as that.  Also, keep in mind that certain kinds of work are unexpectedly time consuming and tedious.  Painting, polishing, and detailing come immediately to mind.  I tend to leave my bikes a bit grimy looking because I don’t have any interest in making an old bike look like a new bike.  In my opinion, it is not worth the effort.  I try to let bikes be old by preserving just the right amount of patina while focusing on modifications that improve the ride experience.

If you set out with realistic expectations about the level of finish, give basic guidance about what you plan to use the bike for, and find a builder with a style that appeals to you, it’s possible to get a rocking custom built for $5-10,000. For most builders, turnaround time of 1-3 months will be pretty normal – but make sure to ask to avoid an unpleasant surprise when your bike doesn’t show up.

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Custom Bikes: Why You’re Probably Not Cool Enough (Part 1)

Just kidding, you’re totally cool, especially if you’re one of my many customers who rides custom bikes…

This is really intended as a buyers guide to help you navigate the world of no-longer-stock motorcycles to find one that actually suits you.  Which is really the whole point of a custom anyway, isn’t it?

Before I get any deeper in to this subject, I need to get some things off my chest:

  1. If you have never ridden a motorcycle before, DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE BUY SOMETHING CUSTOM/VINTAGE/BLING/FAST.  Buy the ugliest stock bike you can find that runs and rides, pay no more than $1500, and sell it next year for the same price.
  2. Do not ask me to build you a replica of someone else’s custom bike.  I can do it, but I will multiply my normal price by 5.  Pictures for inspiration are great, especially when you point out features you like.  However, asking me to assemble a copy of another bike is both extremely boring and unfair to the builder I’m plagiarizing. If you like what a particular builder is doing, you should probably be talking to them.
  3. Many custom bikes you see on the fancy motorcycles sites are either rolling advertisements for an aftermarket parts company or were built by people with a huge surplus of disposable income and/or free time.  The results can be cool to look at, but they often don’t make any sense as motorcycles.  They are customized for the sake of customization rather than to achieve some coherent design goal.  Buyer beware: many custom bikes are in fact completely unridable.

If I have not yet succeeded in scaring you away, let’s get down to business.

It should be obvious from the preceding discussion that I’m seriously offended by custom motorcycles that are not basically functional. If a completed build cannot navigate a parking lot without endangering everyone in the area, I cannot call that build successful.  The large number of bikes that are uncomfortable to sit on, extremely heavy, overpowered, with no ground clearance and evil handling should be immediately disqualified from consideration.  Anyone who would buy a bike like that has more money than brains.

To my mind, the core of building a custom bike is tailoring the machine to its intended use.  For me, that means creating something that is nimble and light enough to maneuver in traffic, with enough suspension and tire to rip the occasional gravel road, enough motor to reach 100mph flat out, and a riding position that allows me to corner aggressively. All the bikes that I build and sell are basically set up to do this.

If you are commissioning or building a bike, think long and hard about how it will be used – for real in your actual life and not in your fantasies about being in a motorcycle gang.   Let that thinking drive the design.  I love the look of old stripped down hardtails, but I’ll probably never own one because it’s just never going to be any good for what I use my bikes for.  Too many potholes where I live, and not enough long straight roads.  But maybe that’s the perfect bike for your needs.  The point of customization is that everyone’s situation is different.  It’s the builder’s job to balance the performance goals with cost and coolness to create a motorcycle that fits the rider’s needs.

(Part 2)

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