A Few Thoughts About The State Of The Custom Motorcycle Industry

There are few consumer purchases more discretionary than a Harley-Davidson and of course than a full-blown custom motorcycle built from the ground up. Harley US retail sales have hit the skids and fell 14%. So, can I say that sales of motorcycles or the lack of it is a good barometer of our economy. Yes, I think so. Logically the professional topic of conversation on which I am the most questioned is “Cyril, when do you think it will get better?”. And my answer is always the same and can be summarized in 2 sentences. 1- “You will know that the economy gets better when it’s no more the main topic of conversation during TV news”. 2- “Right now, the best in the business, for bikes and parts, are doing very fine”. Let me tell you something. We spent the last 10 years bitching about the non-professionals who entered the custom motorcycle industry only because it was cool and supposedly the new El Dorado. Almost all these opportunists of the 11th hour are already gone. Give us a little bit more time and you, the consumer, will no more have to choose, unknowingly, between a bad and a good part, between a dealer who cares only about taking your money versus a dealer who wants to deserve you as a repeat client, between a builder who cares only about his ego and one who cares also about your life when you ride his “masterpiece”. So, am I happy about our industry slowdown? Of course not. But I can tell you something that makes me happy when I am with my peers in professional events. Now, most people I meet there were with me more than 10 years ago. And I can make an easy prediction. Whatever the state of the economy, in 10 years they will still be there. The custom motorcycle industry is a little bit smaller than what people thought. So what? Whatever our field, all what we do is about love and passion. We don’t need the others who did it only for the money. So, if you have a project in mind and have the money to accomplish it, don’t postpone. It’s never been a better time for you. Start a new project now.


25 Responses to “A Few Thoughts About The State Of The Custom Motorcycle Industry”

  1. 1 Dennis Kreitz Apr 10th, 2008 at 9:16 am

    Well said Cyril. You are SO right.

  2. 2 Pat Apr 10th, 2008 at 9:21 am

    I agree. My problem is that my 2 Ohio local dealers competent at doing custom stuff had to close respectively 6 and 2 months ago. Now I have to travel 65 miles away from home to find a good mechanic. Not fun and costly.

  3. 3 A 1 CYCLES Apr 10th, 2008 at 9:32 am

    i have been in business 13 years, south florida for 3, the market is in a slowdown, but my service dept. and dyno tuning is carrying the shop, we have added rental bikes and clothing for extra streams of revenue, yes i still build radical custums, bobbers and the such but 3 or 4 a year is nothing compared to before, we seem to be doing a lot of small custom jobs on existing bikes and replacing a lot of parts on iron horses, big dogs, and ultras, so service as cyril stated is key and taking care of your customers is of the utmost importance, i will eat ramen noodles and live in my shop if i have to, i love this industry and the true people involved in it im glad all the posers who could bolt together a bike are being weeded out and the true talent and people who love this business will be around for the next upswing, sorry i just dont think i could go to work for anybody else after having the freedom and success of doing it myself for 13 years, thanks cyril for keeping it real and hold on tight it will get worse before it gets better, be kind, be prompt, do what you say, charge accordingly and deliver more than you promise. words to live by. thanks for letting me vent

  4. 4 Donnie Apr 10th, 2008 at 10:21 am

    As always, the best are still there and will survive.

  5. 5 Rubin Cole Apr 10th, 2008 at 10:37 am

    It’s like real estate. It’s the perfect time to buy a motorcycle or build a new one. .

  6. 6 saorijohn Apr 10th, 2008 at 11:57 am

    “It’s like real estate. It’s the perfect time to buy a motorcycle or build a new one. . ”

    Well stated Rubin, parts have never been cheaper.

  7. 7 Bob Lint Apr 10th, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    The motorcycle industry is trimming the fat. Yes, Cyril the best like you are still there. It means better parts and bikes for all of us. Exaclty what the doctor prescribed.

  8. 8 CC Ride Apr 10th, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    With motorcycles and parts, many can start but very few can last. In all businesses you need hard work and talent (hard work is as good as talent) and a brain. How many “new” builders were arrogant and incompetent? The economy slowdown has accelerated the process of natural selection. I see this as being very healthy and very rewarding for the good builders and manufacturers.

  9. 9 George Magraw Apr 10th, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Cyril. My congratulations to you. All what you try is different and excellent, like this daily news website. I guess that when someone is really creative, he is creative at anything he does.

  10. 10 Cj Hanlon Guilty Customs Apr 10th, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    Cyril, you’re “right on” with this post! Seeing the outrageous costs coming down on parts; seeing companies refocusing on taking care of customers, along with giving quality service, is almost in itself a “fresh breeze” that we’ve been needing, even if it does come during a down turn in the economy. And fortunately, we’re seeing those “trend opportunity scabs” who were/are only interested in making a fast “buck” scurrying back to the dark places they came from. Having been “duped” by a few of them myself over the past few years, i can only say “good riddance”! This industry, like many others that are dependent upon satisfied customers, has and will continue to change and evolve and i can’t wait to see what it looks like 1-2-3 or more years from now. Thanks for the reflective insights and comments Cyril. We’ll talk about this issue a few years down the road i’m sure!
    Guilty Customs

  11. 11 Nicker Apr 10th, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    “… Whatever the state of the economy, in 10 years they will still be there. The custom motorcycle industry is a little bit smaller than what people thought….”

    Yap, that’s about right.

    The big question is…… How will the industry change over the next 10 years?

    Certainly the demographic and the economics will change.
    Boomers are not getting any younger. For example:

    Aggressive riding positions are tough on us older types, (ask me & Madpuppy… 🙂
    As gas prices go up more riders will be extending their riding into every day activity, not just weekend cruising. A more “protected” riding position and “stuff” carrying capability would be good.

    The high end, “art” scooters market will always be there, but quality will be key here (see what happened to hot rod cars).

    The unknown quantity is gonna be the new/young people coming in.
    The “industry” has a handle on it’s current core customers.
    (more comfort and may be lighter machines, as we stop wanting to deal with 700lb scooters)

    The big question is what will the new people be looking for?
    What will bring them in…..?
    Will Bobbers/choppers, cruisers and such still be the main draw?

    All the young kids in our family’s various tribes are into dirt bikes and quads.
    None of their parents are much interested in (our/my) street bikes.
    Don’t know what will happen when the young ones start driving.

    I’m thinking, when(ever) i get the current project done, that pile of 650 triumph motors i’ve been hording is starting to look interesting again…… short, light street trackers, anyone(?)….. 🙂

    just some observations.

  12. 12 Murdoc Apr 10th, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    well said.

  13. 13 Chandler Originals Apr 10th, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    I will say Mike from A-1 is dead nuts on……lets weed out the Bandana TV watchin Idiots…..

    Adam Chandler

  14. 14 Chandler Originals Apr 10th, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    In addition I must say, Those bandana wearing guys who watched tv shows and said….I can do that…they screwed up the industry….bad products….bad bike builds etc.

    Its almost like they were and are playing a game with my profession….not cool…..

    Thats like me going to the local Tattoo shop and telling the artist, gimme your gun…I can do this….not in good taste.

    On a positive note: It will come back….just gotta get ride of the posers.

    Adam Chandler

  15. 15 Curt! Apr 10th, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    I agree with a lot of what you said, Cyril, but hasn’t it been the guys with too much money and not a lot of brains that have been fueling this market for the last 10 years? The reality TV "stars" just make it look like building 80k customs is something anybody can do? In fact Russell Mitchell’s whole show is proving anyone that can weld and operate a ratchet can whip one of these out in a week.
    Personally I stay away from the custom craziness. I deal mainly with restoration work on Shovelhead and older machines. Nothing flips my switch faster than a well done ’65 FLH. I’ve had a 45 Chopper since 1973 and I’ve built quite a few chopper over the last 30 years, so I’m not oblivious to the genre’ , but being able to hand someone a briefcase full-o-Benjamins is not what riding a chopper is all about. Choppers are more about build it yourself than any other part of the motorcycling community. It used to be that riding a chopper was a sign that you had been around for a while. That requirement from years past has somehow become perverted and no longer carries the badge of honor it used to. I have no problem with the art bikes like yours, Zero Engineering, and Sucker Punch Sally, but the cookie cutter Kaliforia one-size-fits-all choppers are hopefully destined for extinction. I do think the motorcycle world will be better off 5 years from now, when the "show me the money" guys go on the the next big fad.

  16. 16 Nicker Apr 11th, 2008 at 1:33 am


    “… reality TV “stars” just make it look like building 80k customs is something anybody can do…”

    Well, “making it look easy,” no sweat.
    They either turn into customers for real shop or they try going pro and go under (and away).
    Some say that’s not good for “the industry.” But ya got bad businesses in every industry. The unwary consumer can get burned anywhere (auto repair, home repair, ….. etc).
    Anyone who buys anything of consequence without putting in some due diligence is asking to be taken. Nature does not reword stupidity. “cav eat emptor”

    However, what gets my hackles up is when TV makes it look as though building customs is done mostly by dysfunctional morons. That reflects badly on all of us who aren’t of that ilk.

    “… Choppers are more about build it yourself …”
    Ya that’s the way i’ve always looked at it.
    But then we (you, me and many others on this blog) come from a different time. Its no the same today. Where once motorcyclists were a small minority, today for many different reasons (besides TV) they are a much larger demographic. And they have been the market force behind the industry for many years.

    “…It used to be that riding a chopper was a sign that you had been around …”
    Sure, but think about it. Any of us who “have been around” can spot one another, regardless of what we happen to be riding. Ya can’t fake “real” (not for very long, anyway). And who gives a rosy-rats-ass what the rest think…??

    Some years ago a CA HP flagged me down for some stupid reason.
    About half way through his standard “Hwy 89 no passing on the double yellow” routine he stop cold.
    Stepped back, eyeballed my old leathers (face ta-match) and said:
    “Hell…. you’ve been riding longer than i’ve had a licence. Don’t le-me see ya doing it again. Take off.”

    “…I deal mainly with restoration work …”
    Have tried a little of that with Brit bikes. But scrutiny over the pedigree of every not and bolt was a bit much (for me anyway). However, slipping in those non-stock parts without getting caught that can be funn.

    Still have a half finished Gold Star in the attic with Sowa fork sliders and legs hiding inside the stock BSA components….. 🙂

    “…Personally I stay away from the custom craziness…”
    Hell, don’t let others control ya. …. do what make ya happy……!!!


  17. 17 madpuppy Apr 11th, 2008 at 10:37 am

    Excellent article Cyril ! As usual !

    Curt, I couldn’t agree more with you ! very well said !

    Nicker, You crack me up, but also a very good post a usual !

  18. 18 Kiwi Mike Tomas Apr 11th, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Well said by many before me. For us of being 20 yrs in business our growth has been in down years of the economy or industry. I also believe its those who are really dedicated to their business/motorcycles and understand the basic business principals, not over extending themselves financially, paying attention to their customers, offering quality products, etc will survive.
    I think there are very few leaders in the industry and there are very few original ideas that are actually PRACTICAL. We’ve had a lot of rip off artists come and many are now poised to go. TV made master builders, some whom are just kids and have built their 1st bike. The term “Master Builder” has been so cheapened down that it means very little since some of those TV builders can’t even weld or mechanic but they’re called “master builders”. We now see bikes being put together in a few hours up on a stage. One has to wonder how the consumer views this, lets see, you can put a m/c together in a few hours (and it’s made to look so easy) and you want how much for that bike the consumer will be asking his custom bike builder!!!
    I was at a CF charity ride 2 weeks ago 2 weeks ago in Temecula Ca and the give away bike was pumped up to be about $55,000.00. It was only worth an honest $30,000.00 at the absolute tops. I believe in the truth. Why do builders and the industry have to lie.
    I’m excited to see these changing times as the real people, real builders and the cream are rising to the top.

  19. 19 jspfc Apr 11th, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    I believe the boom and bust of the motorcycle business was/is a great thing.

    The boom

    -Allowed new builders to enter the market – It is like everything else in the economic boom though some will last but most won’t, this is applicable across the board: mortgage brokers, appraisers, stock brokers, bankers, real estate agents, construction contractors, etc. As has previously been stated, those with good core values, who can offer services besides just bike building and treat their customers’ right, will make it through.

    -Allowed new companies to start producing parts. This helped to create some competition, and with competition comes better pricing and usually better products for the consumer.

    -Allowed builders to be creative when creating a bike(Most of the show bikes were being built with someone else’s money and sometimes there was no budget. Just win)

    -Started a trend of “do it yourself” bike building with bolt on parts. This would range from upgrading an existing Harley or building a bike from scratch. While these are not as radical as truly custom bikes, a rider can feel satisfied about building their own bike and it can start/further their own hobby/love(I mean all builders started in a garage somewhere.) And I thought the idea of Biker Brotherhood was to help one another out and pass on some knowledge so you shouldn’t hate on these guys.
    The Bust

    -Created competition among builders for new ground up builds. While some of the big names can still name their price for a bike, most builders are really competing with others if they want to build a new bike. Like Mike said, the guy who really wants to do this as his living has to be willing to “eat ramen noodles and live in my shop.”(Work to break even and keep the shop going in this economy)

    -The bust also weeded the guys who got too big for their britches, don’t really know what they are doing, or just made bad business choices. While some will last, most are going to be gone if they aren’t already gone.

    -Parts Companies were held accountable for delivering quality products in a timely manner. Ultimately people want to be safe when riding so the companies who were making and selling junk because of the high demand will be weeded out. Also, suppliers have to be cognoscente of delivering parts on time because there are other choices out there.

    At the end of the day, equilibrium will be found between the new and existing builders/suppliers and the customers that are out there. Whether it is finding a niche like performing mechanical upgrades and maintenance or supplying parts if a builder really wants to survive they can find a way. And if a supplier wants to make it through, they will have a quality part at a fair price.

  20. 20 Dave B. Apr 12th, 2008 at 11:12 am

    I liked the bike scene as a teenager, and thirty years later, I still do… but I am glad that most of the ugly, mass produced, poorly balanced, tacky paint job, badly engineered, so-called custom bike builders are out of business. I never saw them as anything but a fly in the soup anyway, they only sold to a group of people with some disposable income that had no real roots in the motorcycle community, and I won’t miss them as riders either as they follow whatever the next trend may be.
    The one good thing that has resulted from the past several years of massive interest in the custom world, is that our industry was able to improve some of the good suppliers of parts & expand in new directions to give us some great products… just look at Mean Street, Baker Drivetrain, Performance Machine, etc, these folks are here to stay and I am glad for it. So I guess it was good to get a shot in the arm from these here today-gone tomorrow bikers and their ugly custom bikes, thanks for boost… now just go away.

  21. 21 SharCo Apr 14th, 2008 at 7:33 am

    Cyril. The question you posed on the Industry direction introduces other questions more central to the building of Customized motorcycles and “customizing” in general. Strapping a frame onto workbench and hanging various parts on it to see what “looks right” (in my view) is not
    “customizing” it’s “accessorizing.” Seems that the real market for true custom scooters is more akin to delivering “art” than to delivering a “product.” Producing “custom scooter art” is about brining a preconceived concept from the mind’s eye into reality. And sometimes that requires more than one person. Take Arlen Ness’ “Smoothness” project. The concept was commissioned by Arlen, articulated in sketches by Carl Brouhard and formed into metal by Craig Naff.
    If you look at Michel Angelo’s work, art of consequence were preceded by designs (sketches).
    As i see it, any project not premeditated in it’s execution is a matter of luck, not skill. The mark of a master-builder is the lack of scrapped parts in his junk pile. Smoothness is an example of premeditated “Scooter Art” in it’s highest form. (in my opinion anyway)

    Carl Brouhard

    Craig Naff

  22. 22 rick Apr 16th, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Heck, funny thing; I believe this happens everywhere and in every industry. I have been building for 19 years now and had a stint owning a stock brokerage for 7 years in between to satisfy my education- all the while, building in the garage to keep sanity. We had newbie stock brokers who came for the money, and were out in 6 months. We had some that made it – the percentage was 11% to be exact in 3 years and 6% in 5 years. Hard business. To make it in the long run, integrity was paramount, brains followed second, and your marketing prowess a distant third.

    I learned that this rule might apply to other business ventures as well.

    While a slick marketer can pull them in up front and effect a sale, where are his “legs” after the sale.

    Without brains to model or fashion something proper where is the market?

    Without integrity where is the longevity?

    A client is a term fashioned to represent an ongoing relationship. Our object should be to build clients, not grow sales. With a growing client base comes growth in sales- one begets the other. This is not a chicken or egg scenario.

    The slick target marketers can be found on your TV at 3am. The brains can be found hiding behind the desk or table. The guy with integrity can be found anytime.

    I hope to see the ones with integrity in another 19 years and shake hands and smile. I hope to see the brains in new fun designs and business models. I hope to see the slick marketers on TV at 3am.


  23. 23 Sugar Bear Apr 18th, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    They had bike builders on TV??????? Did I miss something? I guess I spend too much time in my shop working. The recession is cyclical I’ve seen a number of them … only the strong survive. The integrity of your work is what makes you recession proof.

  24. 24 Sugar Bear Apr 18th, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    P.S. I left off ( or not) at the end of the last sentence.

  25. 25 Nicker May 7th, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    Hay Sugar-

    “…Did I miss something? …”

    OK, enough idle chit-chat.
    Back to work…. slacker!

    -nicker- ………….. 🙂

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