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Don't get your knickers in a Knot

CustomBlogI have little use for custom motorcycles. Or, rather, custom bikes, as I don’t consider them motorcycles.

I’m not talking about someone’s catalog creation, or the OEM’s idea of style. Naa, I’m OK with those. The one’s I find useless are the ground-up creations that litter bike shows. Don’t get your knickers in a knot over this; good on you if they’re your reason for living.


My take on custom bikes comes from several different directions but, primarily, I think a motorcycle should be highly functional. It should go, stop, turn, and carry stuff with a high degree of competence. The custom efforts usually fail two of those categories; “turn” and “carry stuff.” And while the “go” is often present, the “stop” part can be problematic.

Back in the 90’s the motorcycle cruiser market was growing far faster than Harley-Davidson’s ability to feed it. This, coupled with too much free money to be had, caused the birth of the clone manufacturers. I use the term “manufacturer” very loosely as these outfits were really assemblers who purchased most every component used in their creations. Whatever their status, this collective showed --at one time-- several dozen different names. Their mission in life was to, apparently, produce crap.

During that period I founded and ran Thunder Press, so I had the opportunity to ride too many of these clones. The difficulty for me was conjuring up something nice to say. What usually resulted was the motorcycle equivalent of, “Gee, for a fat guy you don’t sweat much.” The two biggest problems were the twin absences of engineering and build quality. I recall one memorable experience in dumping the throttle on a big-incher; the bike went as far sideways as it did straight ahead …you kinda had to vector your way down the road. Getting the two wheels aligned in the same track seemed to be beyond the ability of the, uh, engineers. Then there was another time when a seat pan broke loose...

As these faux manufacturers multiplied like randy rabbits, I remember asking myself, “Why doesn’t Harley step on them?” There seemed to be a number of copyright/trademark issues on which Harley could have launched an attack, specious or not. However —and not for the first time—Harley proved smarter than the rest of us. The Milwaukee Mafia knew that these pretenders to the throne would implode due to their own incompetence. There was no reason for Harley to accrue billable hours with expensive lawyers. Today, all those names have mostly disappeared. May they rest in pieces. What they begat are the ridiculously expensive, wildly overdone customs.

I recently hit several of last year’s IMS stops, part of which was a superb collection of custom bikes. I say “superb” not because I’ve flipped to the fan side but, rather, what I saw there was a very high degree of machining perfection, detailed assembly, and exquisite paint. I was genuinely impressed by more than a few of the examples, and applaud the efforts of the artistes. And there wasn’t one that I’d want to own.

First off, what would I do with it? Would I go out and carve a path through the mountainous roads in my neighborhood? Uh…no. Or maybe troll the nearby beach venues? I’d probably get arrested; “Who’s that old pervert staring at the wimmenfolk?” Or, how about taking off on one of my beloved camping trips? Gee, I could UPS all my gear from camp to camp. So, that would leave a profilin’ stop at Starbucks where lesser beings would ogle and guess at the size of my manhood, while my wife snickered in the background.

And then there’s the price of entry. Even if I had the money, I cannot imagine paying the high five-, and sometimes six-figure tags at which so many of these bikes are priced. This would be a particularly stupid thing to do when you look at the resale value. Percentage-wise the drop-off is…shall we say?...precipitous.

In all fairness, I must admit I did find a possible reason to own one. Several years ago I rode a clutch of customs, OEs and clones, for a magazine article. At a gas stop, I tanked up the outrageous custom I was riding, then moved near the entrance to the mini-mart. An attractive woman approached the store, and smiled as she passed. I think I looked over my shoulder …and probably blushed… as this is not a regular occurrence. Suitably emboldened, I waited for her to come out. She didn’t disappoint, as she stopped. “Nice bike” was her comment as she raked the slammed chassis with her smile. I uttered something innocuous like, “Would you care to have my child?” She repeated, “Nice bike,” kept her smile and eyes on the bike, then left. I don’t think she realized that there was a semi-sentient being riding it.

That brief encounter was an “aha!” moment. I now understood, clarity was at hand. These bikes are the motorized equivalent of a peacock’s feathers, a lion’s mane, and Justin Bieber. All, in their own way, contribute to the propagation of the species.

But they ain’t motorcycles.



# Don Henderson 2013-06-01 10:52
Where were you in early '68? Are you my father? All (jokes?) aside, the peacock effect doesn't really serve a man of thought, which is exactly why I can relate, and concur with your conclusion on the custom bike market. Call me a man out of touch with his generation, but these bikes serve no reasonable purpose. Being sentient, has its advantages.
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