The outlaw-biker persona has shadowed respectable motorcyclists ever since Brando kick-started his Triumph in 1953’s The Wild One, portraying an unruly rider—with an uncouth machine—as nothing but trouble on two wheels. And more than 50 years after Easy Rider, the film’s Captain America, a Harley-Davidson “Panhead” with extended forks and ape-hanger handlebars, remains the quintessential bad-boy chopper. Otherwise, things in the custom-motorcycle world have changed dramatically since 1969. Today, many builders have achieved international renown for ingenuity and artisanal skills unimagined back when Woodstock was just some town in the Catskills.
Custom motorcycles are more popular than ever—and represent big business. Some bikes are the products of companies employing teams of specialists; others are the work of lone actors wrenching away in spaces the size of a small garage. Some reveal the precision of mil-spec parts and surgical fabrication; others express the handmade flair of an eccentric metalsmith. They cost what they cost. A quarter-million dollars is not out of the question, although the pain threshold for most customers is typically in the high five figures. Other bikes—labors of love—remain with their creators and have no price at all.
Since 2014, Revival Cycles, the custom motorcycle shop known for building wild, one-off machines of its own, has thrown a moto-festival in Austin, Tex., called the Handbuilt Motorcycle Show, inviting an international who’s who of peers to present their latest creations to thousands of bike-crazy attendees. “The spirit that animates all of these motorcycles—and elevates each to a work of art—is the knowledge, ingenuity and skill possessed by its maker,” says Revival Cycles founder Alan Stulberg. And every year, the show and the crowds get bigger, proving there is no shortage of fresh design ideas and a growing audience to embrace them.
Held in a former newspaper plant, the show gathers as many as 150 unique motorcycles, each perched atop a low plinth and precisely spot-lit, all arranged in a voluminous warehouse with 50-foot ceilings. Outside, more examples are presented as if in a museum sculpture garden. It’s not uncommon to see a huddle of onlookers on hands and knees, admiring the smallest detail.
Historically run the same weekend as the MotoGP Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas, the show planned for this past April has been pushed to next, when it will again (hopefully) coincide with the races that attract thousands of spectators from around the world. Some of the exhibition’s entrants, including a majority of those highlighted here, were ostensibly completed in advance of the original show date. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, their creators will likely be using the extra time imagining what else they can do to fettle their bikes, chasing perfection down to the wire.
DUCATI MONGREL by Rodsmith Customs
Craig Rodsmith, born in Melbourne, Australia, works out of a small shop north of Chicago that, he says, “is like a refrigerator in the winter and an oven in the summer.” It’s a well-worn environment that could charitably be called “functional,” but Rodsmith, whose look, accent and colorful language recall road warrior Mad Max, seems perfectly at home.
“I love Italian stuff,” he says, “and I’d decided to build a bike inspired by the 1955 Moto Guzzi V8, with a big ‘dustbin’ fairing made of hand-beaten, polished aluminum. At the time, I was almost broke, sharing cans of tuna fish with my cat. The electricity was turned off in my apartment. I took the bike to the Handbuilt Motorcycle Show in 2016, where Bobby [Haas] saw it and bought it on the spot for the Haas Moto Museum in Dallas. That changed my life.”
The Moto Guzzi, like Rodsmith’s other creations, features curvaceous, polished aluminum. He’s proudest of forgoing computer-controlled machining. “Every panel is handmade with a hammer and dolly, on an English wheel,” he says. “I like the tactile part of the process, and I don’t want to paint anything. I like the look of metal.”
His Ducati Mongrel is the first bike in a long while that Rodsmith has built to keep and ride. The name alludes to its lack of pedigree, combining, as it does, a two-valve V-twin engine from a Ducati M900 Monster and an early 1990s single-sided Ducati 948 swingarm frame. Rodsmith is not averse to a little engineering overkill, so he added a supercharger, along with nitrous-oxide injection, because the polished NOS bottle hanging out the back of the subframe “let me add another gauge,” he says, “and gauges look really cool.”
About the arc his career has taken, Rodsmith modestly acknowledges, “I’m the luckiest man in the world now. I build custom motorcycles for a living.”
ABC 500 by A Bike Company
“I approached designing a bike the way I approach designing a car,” explains Niki Smart, whose automotive design credentials make him an outlier in the motorcycle world. With years at General Motors authoring exterior designs for Cadillac concepts such as the Elmiraj and the Ciel, Smart calls the ABC 500 “a nice complement to the work I was doing at GM.” The bike was, in fact, a side project in his life for a long time.
Moving from England to California in 2000, Smart quickly realized that Los Angeles was a bike town, back to the first board-track motorcycles raced there in the 1910s. Their bicycle-like look inspired Smart to dream up a completely original machine. Key to its success are huge 26 inch-diameter wheels with hollow carbon-fiber spokes. Their size establishes the correct scale for a vehicle that must accommodate a six-foot-tall rider like Smart, who explains, “Though a lot of people look at the bike and assume it’s an unrideable art piece, the riding position is actually similar to a modern sportbike.”
Everything about the ABC 500 is unique, aside from its 497 cc Honda single-cylinder engine, which features an exhaust welded perfectly by hand. “I grew up in my dad’s workshop learning to make exhausts,” says Smart, “so I designed a welding fixture to rotate parts and do my best to impersonate robotic welds.” Asked if it will remain a one-off, the designer concedes, “It’s probably not a sensible bike to mass-produce, though I’m in the process of making four examples, as it happens.”
MOTO GUZZI SQUALO VELOCE by Chabott Engineering
Shinya Kimura is an artist whose medium is motorcycles. His desire to sculpt began at an early age. “When I was little, I was obsessed with the shape of things, whether it was a bug, a monster or a bicycle,” says Kimura, well known since the early 2000s among bike-building communities in the US, Europe and Japan. “Everything that has affected or inspired my bike building,” he elaborates, “comes from my childhood experiences, including my father’s small rivet-making factory in Tokyo, with its sounds and smells of oil and steel. My parents were both calligraphers, so they taught me calligraphy, and through that, unknowingly, I learned not only the balance of the letter itself but also about negative space and the harmony between one letter and another. I think it had a great impact on what I do now.”
Unlike some bikes—created as static, riderless objects—Kimura’s designs share one uniting principle. “When customizing a motorcycle, I make it fit the rider, both physically and temperamentally,” he says. “I have a strong belief that the finished motorcycle is only complete when the rider sits on it and rides it.”
Kimura’s Chabott Engineering, in Southern California, works with all makes of motorcycles, but Italian bikes rate among his favorites. His Squalo Veloce (Italian for “fast shark”) is made from a 1980 Moto Guzzi V10 (G5), a reliable 1,000 cc V-twin that Kimura characterizes as “powerful and fast, yet gentle—an image that I get of the future rider and owner of this bike.”
With every project, Kimura is careful to incorporate his design philosophy without destroying the function, feeling and authenticity of the original motorcycle. Kimura saves his most artistic visions for his metal sculpture. “Sometimes,” he says, “I’m driven by an urge to make something without function, without any limitations, just by my pure desire.”
MAD DOG XR100 TRACKER by Gregor Halenda
Gregor Halenda spent 15 years as a semi-pro motorcycle racer “just to learn how the machines work,” he says. He’s also a professional photographer whose projects within the automotive and motorcycle industries have helped him forge connections to many marques. When he’s not behind the camera, Halenda is busy envisioning—and then fabricating—one-off, minimalist motorcycles.
Whether building a BMW café racer or a high-riding dirt bike, he follows an overarching principle: “I try and keep all my bikes simple and clean.” Halenda moved from a shared 10,000-square-foot studio in New York to a house in Oregon, where he works contentedly in a shop that used to be his two-car garage. “If I get the urge to practice a new welding technique at three in the morning, I can go downstairs and be at the bench in minutes, something I could never do before.”
Halenda, who still competes on indoor dirt tracks, produced the Mad Dog Tracker to represent his ideal vision of a flat-track race bike. “Bikes from the 1970s through the 1990s represent the most elemental era, the zenith of design,” he says. “On the other hand, there’s nothing you can do to a modern motorcycle that won’t make it worse.” In building his XR100, Halenda let the machined and welded metal take center stage, the only paint being a black tank and tailpiece. With a couple of violent kicks, the high-compression 147 cc Honda engine starts barking like an angry Chihuahua, ready for a romp in the dirt.
STINGRAY by Jay Donovan
Based in Victoria, B.C., Jay Donovan modestly calls himself a metal fabricator who is learning how to build motorcycles. “I simply love experimenting with form,” says the 26-year-old designer. “For me, there is no better medium for that than metal shaping, and no better medium for metal shaping than motorcycles.” His refined talents attracted the attention of Dallas motorcycle collector Bobby Haas, who commissioned Donovan to create Stingray for the Haas Moto Museum.
Donovan calls his entrant “a big exploration.” Conceiving Stingray from the outset as an all-electric bike, he recognized that without an internal-combustion engine to serve as the compositional nucleus, the success of his design would rely largely on its fluid exterior shape and flawless surface finishes. Granted free rein, he began with a chromoly-steel frame, front forks and rear swingarm—essentially the Stingray’s skeleton—which combine elegant simplicity with artisanal complexity. Although the frame is made with a minimum of components, each piece is curved on three axes prior to being welded together, a difficult fabrication challenge. The motorcycle is designed around a 44-pound Motenergy ME1507 permanent magnet synchronous motor that develops 14.5 kw (about 20 hp). It’s powered by seven small battery packs concealed in various locations, a setup that dissipates less heat than a single large battery occupying the position of a traditional engine crankcase. The prominent front-wheel hub hides an internal brake rotor and recalls a flying saucer, the perfect complement to Stingray’s otherworldly shape.
“I like to believe I am making pieces of kinetic art,” says Donovan, “sculptures that can be admired purely through their static form and then ridden and interacted with on a personal level.”
FRATERNAL TWINS AERMACCHI PROJECT by Madhouse Motors
At first glance, Madhouse Motors in Boston looks like the quintessential motorcycle shop. Surrounded by bikes in various stages of build, artisans on the business end of a blowtorch, a lathe or a paint gun fine-tune projects as diverse as a concours-ready Parilla road racer and an Indian chopper with more patina than your great-aunt’s tarnished silver. But from period-correct restorations to one-off flights of fancy, Madhouse’s cerebral owner and founder, J. Shia, has earned a reputation for making some intriguingly unusual machines.
Her most recent creations are “the fraternal twins,” as Shia calls them, part of a project she’s been working on since 2017: her four-motorcycle Pareidolia Series, a reference to seeing patterns in random data. She’s starting with two diminutive 1972 Harley-Davidson Aermacchis—one painted black, one white—the pair powered by hot-rodded engines pushed to ambitious limits either through turbocharging or nitrous-oxide injection. Both of those methods—forced air and nitrous—make more oxygen available for combustion, increasing the power output of the tiny Italian road racer’s 305 cc single-cylinder engine. Acknowledging the aggressive performance attributes, Shia, whose training at Massachusetts College of Art & Design is apparent in the motorcycles she and her team build, calls the brace of Aermacchis “a dueling optical illusion. The project took us into unexplored territory, and actually, the narrative and design drove the project more than the technical aspects.”
A close inspection of the components integrated into the white bike’s architecture reveals an assortment of unconventional parts, including a 1950s-era microscope stand used for the tailpiece, a milkshake mixer for a belly pan, a pencil-sharpener taillight and a custom turbo that exhausts from the bell of a soprano saxophone. “The goal with this series is to spark the viewer’s imagination and curiosity when up close,” says Shia, “while triggering pareidolia from afar.”
BIRDCAGE BMW by Revival Cycles
The Birdcage BMW started life differently than most customs, when manufacturer BMW approached Revival Cycles with a brand-new engine of unspecified displacement and asked the shop to build a motorcycle around it. As with almost every motorcycle engine made by BMW since the company’s beginning in 1923, the mystery motor was a horizontally opposed twin, but this one was mammoth in proportion. With the engine as his inspiration, Revival Cycles’ Alan Stulberg designed the motorcycle equivalent of those transparent fish sometimes seen in deep-sea documentaries: a bike that would afford an unencumbered view of the engine, gearbox and rear differential drive while appearing as if it would have no way of actually functioning, so well hidden were the ancillary components.
Inspired by Maserati’s Tipo 60/61 “Birdcage” racecars of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Revival artisans precision-cut and welded 138 featherweight titanium tubes to flow around the asymmetrical BMW drivetrain, a tremendously difficult feat of engineering and fabrication. The front suspension is a fresh take on BMW’s early tele-lever front forks and complements the vintage look. Carbon-fiber pieces, including the seriously slim-line seat, provide visual contrast to the anodized titanium frame, fasteners and exhaust. Stulberg designed a minimalist aluminum engine and gearbox cover, concealing all of the electrical systems. The large scale of the Birdcage is impressive, showcasing the huge engine in a long, 70-inch wheelbase punctuated by enormous tires: 23-inch racing slicks as smooth as the bike itself.
“The Birdcage is our most exciting build to date,” says Stulberg. “It breaks design barriers I never thought possible.”