Much like a fender bender on the side of the highway, I was drawn to look at Biker Live on Discovery last night. And it was about the same result as looking over at two cars on the side of the freeway, "Hmmm, I wonder how that happened?"
A brief history lesson for some of you. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Harley world was on fire. You could not buy a new Harley at MSRP, in fact most dealers were able to add upwards of 5K a bike. This frenzy drove the magazine business to its own frenzy, with as many as 14 Harley based titles capturing the custom bikes as quick as they were spit out--see that time frame also was the beginning of the wild customs becoming prevalent. And it was pre-internet so your information had to come in your mailbox. Mid 90s to early 2000s saw the internet come to life with custom bike things and some of the very first biker TV shows. And the very first biker drama made for TV came along and changed how the world viewed custom bike builders.
Where in the world did the people who make TV get the idea that all good and not-so-good craftsmen function in shops filled with drama, hacking bikes together with hose clamps and big hammers? Every show I have seen on building bikes, cars, customs whatever, somehow requires a storyline that involves a deadline that can't be met, in-shop disagreements and portrays the builders as less than professional. And honestly its pissing me off.
One of the very fortunate things about being the Editor of HOT BIKE when it was at its peak in popularity and circulation was that I had access to the best names in bike building. And I had the chance to meet up and coming builders. I also had a chance to be in their shops--hundreds of them. Yes, I met a few hacks, but if I had to put a percentage to the hacks it was far less than 10%. I can tell you about the days I spent in Jesse James shop, watching him obsess over making a fender fit perfectly, building an exhaust that has never been seen before and generally treating his work like a artist. Matt Hotch, another guy who sweat the details like no one, spending days figuring out how to run all the wires and cable inside the frame of his creation, ensuring a smooth finished product. Arlen Ness, yeah the guy who started it all, standing in his shop, stripping down an Ironhead Sportser engine for a project, painstakingly putting parts in clearly labeled bins as he disassembled it to use in a project he was building. I have watched Kendall Johnson build an engine with the same level of precision that a jeweler uses on a Rolex. Dave Perewitz laying out a paint job with vision and knowledge that it will be right the first time. Jim Nasi metal finishing every part of his build. Wink Eller knowing he can get 10 extra horsepower by tweaking this or that. The list goes on and on. Professionals doing what they feed their families with--professional custom bike building. No drama, no wrenches being thrown, no toolboxes flipped over. Do you know why? Because when you throw things like tools and chairs, they bounce. And when they bounce in a shop full of customer bikes, it costs you money to fix them, and none of these professionals are in business to lose money.
And yet, we watch these shows. And we allow our world to be portrayed as a bunch of goofballs who have crappy tools, don't plan ahead and generally fumble through a build using incredibly questionable technology. Then the drama shows add the riding portion. News flash folks, its a custom bike, of course its going to have glitches on its first few rides. Generally the whole bike is handmade and to that trying out new ideas, innovative ways to improve the look and style and doing something that hasn't been done before. Its not a Harley/Honda/Suzuki/Yamaha/Kawasaki cruiser that just rolled off the assembly line and someone added pipes, a custom seat and new handlebars to. This is a custom creation. And we allow the producers to show the almost fatal meltdown when it backfires on a first start or that a tire expanded on a few hundred mile trip and rubbed the fender. Things happen. And all of the custom builders I know fix those things for their customer when it does. They take pride in their build. They believe in delivering 1000% quality to a paying customer.
Now don't get this wrong--many custom builders are eccentric personalities. They goof off outside of the shop and at events. They do dumb things that we all do, its just you recognize them when they do it. But they are not hacks. And yet TV producers say they are. And we are suckers and we watch it. Why? Because there is no other TV for our passion. I am sure the drama could be replaced by an in depth look at how a cocktail napkin sketch of a part of a whole bike gets transferred to reality. I know the first time I saw a CNC machine programmed or a water jet cutter run, I was entranced.
We live in a Wal-Mart society where craftsmanship is no longer valued. We are a replace not fix world, because why fix the vacuum or TV when you can run to the store and get a new one instantly? What will we do in 20 more years when people no longer know how to fix anything? Its time to praise the craftsmen, the absolute foundation of America, and show that those that build are also those that think. Since I travel in very non-biker crowds often, I hear what they say about builders and customs. First, they think a custom bike can be built for almost nothing but scrap metal pieces and, second, they don't think they last a week. Its embarrassing and really annoying when I have to explain all that is wrong with the shows and how they portray builders. Funny thing the non-riders are fascinated when I tell them the truth about what goes into a custom build, savoring the little tidbits of craftsmanship I throw them in the story. A metal bender? hammer and dolly? CNC what?
If there is anyone with a few million dollars that wants to fund a TV show, I am ready to produce it. Let's go to the best builders, lets get them to share their secrets of how they make a fender, welded onto a rigid frame with a 120ci engine not split on full throttle blasts down the highway. Lets teach people how a guy builds a frame and figures out the right rake and trail to keep his customer alive while riding to the local hangout and still looking good in the parking lot. How about we show what it takes to paint a bike with a graphic that is on the sheet metal and the frame? How about we remove all the drama and show what talent, dedication and intelligence looks like in a bike builder. I am serious, if you can fund the show, I will make it work.
In the meantime, let's do a service to all the guys that go on these shows. Support them through magazines, websites and blogs. But lets not feed the frenzy of these fake, drama infested atrocities they call biker shows.