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Feature: The Artists of the Motorcycle

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The 16,000-square-foot workshop that houses Matt Hotch Designs is an oasis of calm in the rough section of Fullerton, Calif., a working-class city located about 20 miles south of Los Angeles. There are no assembly lines and no clattering machines inside the wood-and-brick building, which used to be an orange-packing plant and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The only noise comes from a radio playing classic rock, and the premises are vacant except for the smiling receptionist and Matt Hotch’s father, Pat, a retired marketing executive whose job now, he says, “is simply helping Matt around the shop.”

When Hotch finally saunters in, his waist-length ponytail swinging as he walks, he slips over to a frame and begins welding. Hotch has emerged as a young master in the art of motorcycle building; he is a two-time winner (in 2004 and 2005) on the Discovery Channel’s Biker Build-Off, a program that pits two builders against each other to see which can create the better bike. Despite his acclaim, Hotch exhibits no pretensions, no rock-star drama. He is here to work, not to preen. With some reluctance, however, he does interrupt his latest project to speak about his craft and his business.

“I have a few patents [on a flush-mounted gas cap and a springless kickstand] that help pay the bills, which lets me hide out in here for 18 months and build one bike,” says Hotch, 33, flashing one of many whaddaya-think-of-that grins. “I do go on the road to all the bike shows. But I’m not into the celebrity of it.”

Nonetheless, he has become a celebrity, at least in the eyes of the custom motorcycle cognoscenti. The cast of bike builders plying their trade today seems endless; it is as though a new star is minted each week through television programs such as Biker Build-Off. But a few stand out from the growing crowd because of the artistry they bring to their bikes. These builders and designers include Hotch and fellow Southern Californians Roland Sands of Roland Sands Design and Paul Yang of Dreamcraft Motorcycles.

“There are some people who always seek out whatever is not ordinary, and these three guys do just that,” says Brenda Fox, a motorcycle journalist and frequent bike contest judge. “They’re challenged by what else can be done with technology and design. They take the state of the art and see where it can be pushed.”

Hotch says that his goal with each of his creations—which can cost from $110,000 to more than $300,000, and for which there is a four-year waiting list—is “to build a bike that doesn’t look cluttered.”

He has been building motorcycles since he was knee-high to a shop stool, says Pat. “He started with mostly dirt bikes and old VWs. If they were broken, he’d make ’em work.”

By age 17, Hotch had opened his own shop in his father’s garage. Four years later, he moved to a nearby warehouse and established HotMatch Custom Cycles. Hotch relocated the business to its present location in 2003 and two years ago renamed it Matt Hotch Designs. He initially made money by selling parts, and then he began producing his one-off creations. One of those bikes, a black beast dubbed the Vinnie and intended as a tribute to Britain’s Vincent marque, lazes nearby in the shop. The Vinnie—which Hotch built for a 2006 Biker Build-Off episode that involved racing the bike on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats—has elegant perimeter discs on its oversize, spoked wheels; flashes of solid brass in the handgrips and footrests; and solid brass twin Vincent logos on the gas tank that cost $5,000 to produce. That expense is just a fraction of the $325,000 that the bike fetched.

Hotch is not finished showing off the Vinnie. He walks to the other side of the bike and points to where the other half of the gas tank should be. He explains that the tank is just a cover that hides a coil, a master cylinder, and other ungainly parts. “I build around the components because I never want them to interfere with the bike,” says Hotch, taking a pull on a cigarette. “I want things as hidden as possible.”

Although his work has a museum-quality appearance, Hotch is equally concerned with how the bikes ride—as evidenced by his having taken the newly completed Vinnie and sufficiently ravaging it with Utah salt to require a total strip job. Hotch is reluctant to criticize his fellow bike builders, but with a wink he makes his point clear. “You can do quite a bit to a bike if you really don’t care if it rides well or if it’s truly safe,” he says.

Hotch’s customers do indeed ride his bikes; the Vinnie is in the shop awaiting an adjustment to its fuel injection system. They also participate in the creative process, which is not always the case with custom bike builders.

“I love getting input from people,” he says. “How they want the controls alone tells me a lot about my customers. I can even tell sometimes if they’re Bentley guys or Ferrari guys.”

Some are both. Hotch has just returned from a quick trip to East Hampton, N.Y., to exchange a customer’s battery. “I flew first class and was met by a helicopter,” he says. More than likely, the owner just wanted to talk gear with Hotch, who makes a point of staying in contact with his clients and even invites them on annual outings involving his other passion, golf.

“There are roughly 20 guys that I’ve done business with, and we’re all friends,” says Hotch of his customers. “They’re paying what I charge because they know I’m the only one touching the bikes, from the minute I start bending and rebending frame tubes by hand to the final tweaks on an emblem.”

While Hotch runs what is essentially a one-man operation, Roland Sands produces motorcycles with the help of a crew that includes a mechanical design engineer, a master builder, an engineer, and a painter. However, he seldom sells his bikes. In 2005, Sands established Roland Sands Design, which makes a line of sportbike-influenced, bolt-on parts with which you can transform an assembly-line beauty into a distinctive road demon. The one-off machines in the lobby of his spit-polished headquarters in La Palma, about 15 miles southeast of Los Angeles, serve as the templates for these kits.

Among these bikes are the Glory Stomper, which Sands describes as the “love child between an MV Agusta superbike and a 2003 Softail,” and the KRV5 Tracker, a machine powered by a 200 hp MotoGP engine and designed to look like the board-track racing bikes of the early 20th century. The Glory Stomper has yielded a series of aluminum gas tank covers, and the Tracker showcases a line of black and polished metal contrast-cut wheels. However, the whole of each bike is even more impressive than these jewel-like parts.

The Glory Stomper, which Sands built for a 2006 Biker Build-Off episode, incorporates a Harley-Davidson’s dominating stance, the fat rear wheel of a sportbike, and deft chassis work that keeps all the lines harmonious. Not surprisingly, the Stomper remains a favorite of its creator. “I think that bike came along at the right time, when people were really looking for something different,” says 32-year-old Sands, whose unlined face radiates a Dennis the Menace mischievousness. “My having the racing credentials to back up a bike like this probably helped.”

In the 1990s, Sands was a professional sportbike rider, and he was good enough to win the AMA 250GP Superbike national championship in 1998. But after suffering 32 broken bones over the course of his career, he set aside the leathers in 2002 and became a full-time designer of bike parts, first for his father’s company and then for his own as well.

The headquarters of Roland Sands Design sits on a quiet dead-end street, just off a freeway exchange and amid a warren of massive warehouses. Not insignificantly, the location is a quick twist of the throttle from Performance Machine, the motorcycle aftermarket parts manufacturer that Sands’ father, Perry, founded. “I started working there when I was 14, sweeping up, doing whatever was needed,” says Sands. “I guess I was destined to be in this world.”

Sands insists he will not sell any more of his one-offs, at least not now. He is focused instead on his parts business, which he is eager to see flourish so he can spend more time “building wild bikes from the ground up.” People try to wrestle his babies from him, and one man recently succeeded, by paying a healthy six-figure sum for a garishly green bike aptly named El Grande Moco, or “Big Booger.” The motorcycle sits near Sands’ office, waiting to be shipped to its new owner.

“Bikes are so hot right now because, much more than cars, they’re a truly visible expression of their owners’ personalities,” Sands says. “Motorcycles are raw things with their guts exposed. In car terms, they’re hot rods with the hood off. And who doesn’t like that?”

Sands looks at the machine, an outrageous Rat Fink–ish statement that mixes ape bars with gold wheels and a monster S&S twin-cam motor. “I built that a few years ago during a really fun time in my life, so I really hate to see it go,” Sands says, almost with a sigh. “So many memories are wrapped up in that bike.”

Dreamcraft Motorcycles’ designer Paul Yang and builder Larry Nagel might not have the same sentimental attachment to their bikes. They build them on commission at their Mira Loma, Calif., facility for prices that range from about $50,000 to more than $250,000. So far, they have worked for just one client—the pontiff to Dreamcraft’s Michelangelo.

The client, a man in his late 30s and of Vietnamese descent who prefers to remain anonymous, lives in Huntington Beach, Calif., where he has collections of motorcycles, cars, firearms, and other items that together are worth far more than $10 million. He sponsored the creation of the two outlandish Dream-craft bikes (Saga and Rapture) that reside in his climate-controlled garage. He also purchased a third (originally named Synergy and now called Gatsby) that recently was completed and a fourth that is being planned. In other words, the entire Dreamcraft oeuvre is his. “I trust Paul,” says the bikes’ owner, as a grin splits his face. “It’s amazing to see him express himself through his art.”

The Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan validated the notion of motorcycle design as an art form in 1998, when it staged The Art of the Motorcycle, an exhibit that remains among its most popular ever. And make no mistake, Yang’s bikes are intended primarily as works of art. “If you ran these bikes a lot, let’s just say we’d have to tighten up a lot of bolts,” says Yang. The bikes’ comparatively fragile state does not concern their owner; he does not ride, and he has no desire to see his bikes gather even an ounce of road dust. Saga and Rapture sit feet from each other in his garage, gleaming under spotlights.

Saga, the company’s first bike, was an exercise in transparency. “I wanted a naked bike, with no covers to hide the components,” says Yang, a 32-year-old graduate of Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design who designed tennis shoes and basketball sneakers before meeting Nagel and forming Dreamcraft. “I drew from Art Nouveau and Art Deco themes and generally tried to take this where no bike had been before.”

To that end, he designed Saga with a see-through gas tank, a trio of spotlights for headlights (“I imagined a three-headed dragon,” Yang says), and copper brake lines. “I’d never want to do this one again,” says Yang. “The engineering effort alone on this was just crazy.”

Rapture, by design—and per the owner’s orders—represents a complete departure from Saga. Instead of possessing swooping, graceful lines, as Saga does, this motorcycle resembles a steeply raked battering ram. Dream-craft’s own literature on the bike describes it as a “two-wheeled attack vehicle” of the future.

Among the bike’s hallmarks are a frame made from a 900-pound piece of aircraft-grade aluminum, quadruple front forks, and unique twin gas tanks that display some of the only color touches—small red caps—in this monochromatic vision of Lucifer’s ride. “The goal was to build something macho, futuristic, and aggressive,” says Yang, “and I think we met that.”

Yang says that when creating his bikes, he follows a design philosophy that he calls Irongatsby, which is also the name of his design consulting company. “The prefix iron, of course, refers to the material used to make these machines,” he explains, “and gatsby represents the Roaring ’20s. I’m very fond of this era in U.S. history. This is the time when everyone was eccentric, and the machines they built and drove represented their optimism and creativity.”

For Yang and his peers in the custom bike-building business, times have not changed.

Dreamcraft Motorcycles, www.dreamcraftmotorcycles.com

Matt Hotch Designs, www.hotmatchcustomcycles.com

Roland Sands Design, www.rolandsands.com

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