What Happened To Today’s Custom Motorcycle Industry

Faithful reader and commentator of my Blog,  “Nicker” sent me these interesting thoughts and, as illustration,  a very cool picture of a 1908 Curtiss. Read.

Cyril, Any sports coach will tell you that a team in trouble needs to “get back to basics.” Focusing on the correct execution of basic skills provides the foundation required by a winning effort. Custom motorcycle building is no different.

For motorcycle builders, those basics were established at the turn of the 20th Century when all motorcycles were custom creations built by individuals in garages, sheds, and barns, around a powered bicycle platform. From these humble “custom builder” beginnings has evolved the global motorcycle industry of today. 

So what is happening to the “custom industry of today? When and how did it morph into a two-wheeled version of a Jerry Springer episode? Perhaps it’s time to revitalize the “Custom Concept” by looking back at into the roots of “Custom Motor Cycles.” And in that context the Extreme Motorcycles was a well known concept.

The Curtiss is a V-8 powered motorcycle built in 1907 and could attain a top speed of 136 mph. A V-8 engine of this size can power a full-size automobile. The huge eight-cylinder engine is the dominant feature of this vehicle. It’s size dictates long wheelbase, the seating position, and extremely long handlebars (requiring additional struts for strength). Suspension is limited to a sprung seat.           

The Curtiss V-8 helps to illustrate the “X-treme motorcycle” concept. and the point of this concept isn’t about seating position, rider comfort, or how well it corners. It’s a design exercise intended to convey an image and elicit a visceral reaction. To the observer “The Curtiss V-8 means business—and its business is speed. Just a thought’. Nicker

16 Responses to “What Happened To Today’s Custom Motorcycle Industry”

  1. 1 burnout Aug 6th, 2008 at 10:50 am

    considering the tires are probably wayyyyyyyyyyyyy less than adequate, I STILL want to ride it! peace

  2. 2 J Aug 6th, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Very true, although the industry “evolved” by pruning down manufacturers from many to a very few- but that’s the normal business cycle.

    Today, too many manufacturers exist as a result of false demand, which was fueled by too-easy credit. As credit corrects, demand for these bikes will drop, and manufacturers will fail- doesn’t matter how pretty you paint the bike, the problem will be no mo’ money.

    The only real solution for these manufacturers is to seek international demand. The dollar is still cheap, and the realities of global finance haven’t hit everywhere in the world (yet)- market to wealth around the world if you want to stay in business, which is actually why Indian might make it this time around.

    Good analogy on the Curtis, tho- that’s why Boss Hoss will weather this storm….. But stuff like Titan? Not so much……

  3. 3 Sheridan Aug 6th, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    ‘J’ are you implying that Indian are planning to export internationally?

  4. 4 Ken Glenn (Rat Judge) Aug 7th, 2008 at 8:25 am

    To many builders today simply see how much money they can throw at a project instead of using real thought and ingenuity. This turn in the economy will weed out the true innovators from those that simply follow the trends. Sometimes this can be the best thing for an industry. A good kick in the pants is the best medicine.

  5. 5 Karend Aug 7th, 2008 at 9:13 am


  6. 6 Troy Aug 7th, 2008 at 11:52 am

    There has been a trend in the last several years to claim to be the first to do this and that to a motorcycle. I have said to people all along that it is real hard to be the first to do anything to a motorcycle, since it’s already been done. This bike backs me up on this thought. People who claim to be the “first” just haven’t seen enough old bikes and haven’t been around long enough to know that most if not all of this stuff has been done before. Some ideas worked out well and are still with us and some were terrible ideas that failed. I have seen some of the terrible ideas coming back lately and they will soon go away like they did the first time. My personal thoughts are: build them technically correct, fast, and good handling and it doesn’t get much better. Thanks, Nicker.

  7. 7 rodent Aug 7th, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    A custom bike is taking a showroom stock bike and customizing it. A one of is a concept bike or mostly a work of art.

  8. 8 J Aug 7th, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    “Sheridan”- As Stellican is based in the UK, I’d say it’s a pretty fair bet that Indian intends to focus on a global market, ya….. Money knows no borders…..

  9. 9 WooleyB Aug 7th, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    Hey Nicker,
    I heard that Whizzer made a come back and I saw one for sale on a craigs listing. Back to the basics and I wouldn’t mind having one for round town.
    I’m kinda glad the chopper craze is dying out, because just to many people with no experience were throwing off the shelf parts together and charging outrageous prices for pieces anyone could get. The real builders with pride of craftsmanship will be all that’s left thank god. You know, like Cyril here.

  10. 10 Nicker Aug 11th, 2008 at 1:04 am

    “…A one of …”

    Never heard that term used in scoter context….
    Is-zis something new…???


  11. 11 Marc Mazerolle Aug 11th, 2008 at 9:50 am


    At first I wasn’t sure exactly where you were going with this note, I almost got the impression that you think the old way of doing things is gone. I am here to tell you they are not. I am one of several high school teachers, in the US and myself in Canada, that are trying to teach the young about the “basics”. Sure some of the bikes we are producing may have considered rider comfort and how good it looks but we are teaching them the basics and just like the builders that came after those pioneers the ideas change and the industry grows. The growth of the industry of late, was fueled by over-exposure by the media and parts supplier hype. The kids I teach up here in Canada as part of my after-school program are learning the basics, they are getting to meet great people and learn how to build a motorcycle one step at a time. Not unlike the guys and gals that did it, way back when, my kids are learning if we can’t buy it, we have to make it and believe me there are lots of parts we can’t afford to buy! Our next build is a 1967 BSA 650 Lightening bobber and they will be doing everything from the motor rebuild to the paint application.

    So I agree with your comments, I just wanted you to know there is still some of us out here doing it the old school way, just old school for a new generation.

    Cool thoughts, keep them coming!!



  12. 12 customfighterer Aug 11th, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    Nicker, we’re with you. As a result of the current trend of things, the custom fighter scene is steadily growing. We want to see bikes built using dif. thought. bikes using parts from other bikes, or cars or whatever. we want people to plan a build. build something original and creative. Most importantly functional!

    preach on brother. things are a changing!

  13. 13 cooldaddy51 Aug 11th, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    Change is good .As preached by our presidential candidates.But thats a different subject ! It is also good for the custom industry.
    Having been a custom builder and dealer full time for 36 years I welcome the changes I’m seeing.
    I’ll mention a few “I remember whens” and see how many of you can relate .Remember when you actually had to hand cut and hand shape a sissy bar or a piece of steel ,smoothing it eyeballing it ,shaping it until the sun was coming up and you finally realized ,Yah ! now its ready for the chromer. Billet aluminum ,hell never was in my vocabulary .No cnc machines that do all the work for you.Draw a picture and hit the button.Creative skills now are how you can manipulate a program rather than hand shape a masterpiece. We need to get back to working with our hands .If you can’t learn how to. remember when a Master builder was the rare individual who completes every and I mean every aspect of the build.Put the engine together ,rebuild the rods ,true the flywheels assemble the transmission,weld,wire mold and paint building a custom that runs and wins shows.Thats my definition of a master builder.Not somebody who jots down ideas and gives them to fifty different individuals to build! I imagine this comment is going to raise a ruckus but what the hell I’ve earned my gray hairs ! In my shop we carry Big Dogs ,Big Bear Choppers.These companies are still and will be serious contenders in the industry because they are willing to change.Not to the extent I mentioned earlier ,but to the extent they realize less expensive bikes are necessary for the average individual whose income is shrinking and still wants acustom. For the guy that wants a one off we help them on their projects by guiding on how to pick the right parts that not only will pass all inspections ,but also make for a safe ride. To us thats the key. radical bikes with spindly frames defying all handling geometry,poor welds and way too much power for the design of the bike should be built as show only,ride it out of the trailer get your trophy and pack her up. On a final highlite to my commentary,I recently had a guy walk into my shop and asked me what I rode. I told him my pride and joy was a 51 pan shovel with 66 heads ,69 oil pump and wishbone frame and original springer.and mousetrap. He quickly commented Oh yeah ! I ride a HARLEY!! I guess this is some of the change I have to get used to.
    Nuff said my friends!

  14. 14 Jim Gianatsis, Editor Aug 11th, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    There will always be hard core chopper pilots, but it’s always been a small market for custom bikes. The surge of Biker TV shows in the 1990’s and into 2005 created a huge awareness for custom bikes, and the retiring baby boomers with money to spend were ready to join the party. That created a huge temporary demand for custom bikes, and all the big custom manufacturers sprang up out of nowhere, but once these weekend warriors rode a custom bike for the first time and found out how impractical, uncomfortable and unreliable they were, their customs became relegated to the back of their garages, never to be ridden again. Least of all for the custom bike industy to retain return customers.

    I live and ride in Southern California and very weekend until 2005 local biker spots like the Rock Store had their fair share of customs, vs Japanese sportbikes and production Harleys. But not today. Out of 500 bikes turning up there on a weekend very few, only 5-10 bikes might be hand built or production customs.

    People now want bikes that are fun, easy and enjoyable to ride and maintain. The only 2 bike manufactueres currently showing a sales growth in America are BMW and Ducati. This is where a lot of the baby boomers are going for their next bikes. Until you’ve ridden a BMW GS1200R cross county or over the Alps and thrugh Europe, or a Ducati Hypermoto up Latigo Canyon, you don’t know how much fun riding a motorcycle can really be,

    Then there’s the wealthy friends I know who all bought high end production choppers back around year 2000, rode them once, and then immediately re sold or parked them. Like Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Matt LeBlanc, they’ve got 20 bikes parked in their private airport hangers next to their Gulfstream jet or Bell Ranger, but none of them are customs any more. These 55-year old guys are now buying $70,000 Ducati Desmosedici MotoGP replicas, big twin powered Ecosse and Confederate naked high tech sportbikes.

    Bikes that are a joy to ride, or that are high tech and can impress your buddies are what the majority of motorcyle people are buying now. Those bikes, along with production Harleys and Metric Cruisers that are easy to maintain, reliable, fully warrantied and fun to ride. Many people can still spend the money, but they just don’t want customs any more, no matter how inexpensive they might be. The market has changed. Bikes need to be unique, high tech, practical and rideable.

  15. 15 Nicker Aug 11th, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    Great thread you guys.

    “…can’t buy it, we have to make it …”
    “…build something original and creative…”
    “…People … just haven’t seen enough old bikes and haven’t been around long enough…”
    “… We need to get back to working with our hands .If you can’t learn how to…”

    Good stuff,
    Thanks for the response.


  16. 16 SanSan Apr 18th, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    What market need is a custom motorcycle meeting? What need does a company like Confederate Motors meet? Is i just about prestige?

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Cyril Huze