I no longer own the bike.
Yep. It's true. I now live on the wrong side of a 3/4 mile mud driveway. It's passable on the bike about 4 days/year and it's hair-raising to get through the ruts, etc. I'm also a little more wary of life and limb than I was even a few years ago, and I simply don't enjoy riding it as much as I used to.
Click here to "cut to the chase"
This is the story of my chopper. I'll tell it in narrative form since I think it'll be more interesting that way. E-mail messages, etc, are hyperlinked.
I've always liked motorcycles. I got my first one back when I was a sophomore in college, trading a knife I'd hand-made and $200 for a 1971 Honda XL 125 enduro/street bike. A few chrome parts from a junker I bought for $25 "customized" it (chrome fenders! wooHOO!) and I repainted it with matte epoxy from a spray can. That was fun, but my tastes have matured somewhat.
In 1998 I got back into riding again, after a 6 year haitus. There was a black Ninja600R for sale down the block and I picked it up for really cheap. Then, at DEFCON in 1998, some friends and I rented harleys and went for a cruise in the desert. That reminded me how fun the big hogs could be and I started thinking hard about buying one. Then I thought about building one... Which reminded me of this awesome '67 chopper that the maintenance guy at my high school used to ride. So I looked for choppers on the Internet, and reading custom bike magazines in airport book stands - which is where I stumbled across the name "Pat Kennedy."
Kennedy's sells rolling frame kits - a frame that's pretty much ready to build on, with most of the stuff you need except the engine, transmission, and about a billion odds and ends. I emailed them - I was seriously thinking about it. They were helpful.
Shortly afterwards, I got cold feet about the whole thing and let the idea sit on the back burner. But then I had a consulting project come up, and told my friend who was hiring me, "tell you what. I'll swap being involved with your project for a motorcycle." He said, "sure." Turns out it was a pretty involved project, and would have cost a lot in terms of pure consulting dollars, so I went back and suggested that they swap me being involved in their project for a custom chopper. "Sure."
So I called Kennedy's and talked to Brook, a very nice lady, who explained the whole thing to me. I was on the list to get my bike built right after 2 other guys. Sometime in January 2000 was the start date for the project. To put it mildly, I was excited!
When I talked to Brook, we discussed the kind of thing I wanted in a bike. Basically, we roughed out the overall parameters of the bike and its style. I'd been looking at tons of chopper pictures on the web, and in magazines, and had been boring my friends to tears with flip-flopping about colors and polishes and whatnot. The kind of bike I decided on is what's sometimes referred to as a "scandinavian longbike" - a kind of dropped-down chopper with stubby handlebars, and a low-down beefy look overall. Brook said, "no problem, we can do that." and I assembled a bunch of pictures of some of the bikes I like, and an outline of the style, and E-mailed them to her. Some of the pictures I sent are below:
Included in my images were a bunch of comments, photoshopped in, about what I liked and didn't, and why. If you look closely, you'll see the basics of an aesthetic for the bike, but no idea about color and details. Honestly, I figure that it'd be great, no matter what! But the devil's in the details, or so they say.
Then we started iterating back and forth about how the bike would be used, etc, etc. For example, Brook wanted to know how the bike would be ridden. When we talked on the phone, I'd said I wanted the bike to have great brakes, and that maintainability was a big issue for me, etc, etc. Just like any other good design process, there are a lot of questions that uncover other questions and so forth.
To get an idea of some of the basics, Brook sent me images of a few of the other bikes Kennedy'd built, to see if the components looked the way I was thinking. They sure did! I said I wanted a "fat rear end" (watch it!) and these were a couple of examples:
On the topic of the front end ("scandinavian longbike") look, I'd said I specifically didn't want the '60's style raised up chopper. Brook sent me a couple images of another bike that had the kind of low lean look I wanted:
We also started to talk over the details of the design. I'd been torturing myself pretty cheerfully over the basic layout of the bike, but hadn't been able to decide on colors, etc. One of the images I'd sent Brook was of my favorite boots:
I can't help it: I like red and black. My Honda Del Sol is red and black, and so is my other car. My daisho are scabbarded in red and black. My favorite boots are red and black, and now my chopper is red and black.
Take a look at Kennedy's catalog of parts. They have some pretty nifty bits such as open belt primaries and hand-fabricated forward controls and footpegs:
I spent time on the phone with the ever-patient Brook and nailed down the kind of amenities I wanted on the bike. After a lot of fingernail chewing, I decided on a basic scheme of red and black with matte stainless steel/aluminum for the metal work. Spoked wheels. Radical rake. Typical chopper setup for the rest, and a 2-person saddle rounded off the plan. Brook summarized the plan to me in an E-mail.
This was the rough design for the bike: (From Brook's mail)
Outline: Custom softail chopper with 20" over fork assembly, custom rake with mild stretch using the following custom components... K-1810 stretch fuel tanks / dash panel / hydrolic clutch / forward controls (hand fabricated) / large custom headlight 6.5in rear wheel using 200 tire / bobbed rear fender / Side mount hand fab. lic. mount / dual disc front brakes / dual disc rear brake w/belt drive rear / small guages in handlebars / small grab rail off rear fender / paint: black+red+charcoal / matt finished metal finishes (use s/s when possible) / 2 up custom leather seat / open belt drive primary / 96in motor / 5 speed trans. / horn to be determined / drag bars
The part that I particularly liked was: "can begin project in Mid Feb. to early March total build time... aprox. 4 months"
27 Dec 1999
I got the impression that there'd be some adjustment at every step of the way. Early in December, Pat called to talk about engine displacement. I'd originally wanted something pretty huge - "over the top" as usual. Pat pointed out the maintenance headaches that would ensue, as well as the additional cost and the unlikelihood of getting to enjoy all that extra horsepower, and we decided to downsize the engine to a more normal displacement. We also talked about what components on the bike would be stock versus hand-fabricated custom, and I decided "in for a penny, in for a pound" and raised the budget on the bike to allow for some extra tricked-out controls. Why not? You only live once.
Things started to roll in December, when Pat began getting the parts together. One of the first tricks was getting the right color red, since I am partial to that color. I sent out a shirt I have, that is in a truly loud shade of red. Brook mailed it to the seat maker to give them a chance to match the color in the saddle leather. The saddle maker wanted to see a .JPG of the infamous boots, which raised the topic of making the saddle match the boots. I'm extremely partial to stingray skin (it's very cool stuff) and proposed that the saddle be dressed in black ray to match the tank and boots. Brook thought that was a good idea, the overall budget for the bike was revised upward, and the process continued...
The first pictures came when the welds on the rear swingarm were done, and the rear wheel was laced. This bike has one seriously fat rear end! Brook E-mailed me pictures, and also let me know that the motor and transmission were on their way. At this point the bike doesn't look like much...
The next component to come in was the motor, transmission, and tire. Brook E-mailed me pictures, the motor's a1999 factory FXST motor and 1999 factory 5 speed transmission, powdercoated in black. I'd originally thought that the engine would look cool powdercoated in red and brushed out at the fins, but Pat felt it'd be too much red and the bike would look like a sore thumb (see Brook's E-mail). I agree. If you look at the big boxes below, you can see the factory logo! That is one fat rear tire!
The frame is the next piece to work on. After a nice message to keep me calm, Brook E-mailed me pictures of Pat welding on it. Things are starting to look like a motorcycle, now!
14 Jan 2000
Now that the frame is together, Brook says That Pat starts fitting the motor into the frame. This entails levelling the motor and transmission mountings and positioning the gas tanks. The motor being used is a "dummy" that is easy to take in and out without having to worry about banging the finish of the actual motor. This picture gives a good view of the frame's rake.
26 Jan 2000
Now, Brook says That the bike is in a "slow period" because Pat is working on the sheet metal. You can see that the fender is being formed and is being fitted into place. The headlamp is done, and he's frenching the seat pan so it fits like it's embedded into the fender. The fender's got a nifty upturned end, and apparently Pat's going to hide the turn signals and brake lights up underneath it.
It's starting to look like a motorcycle!
One important lesson I learned late (but not too late) in the process is the significance of making sure you're absolutely on the same page with the builder of your bike. I was looking at the picture of the mockup above and - OOPS the tank didn't look right. I don't like the "dashboard" look on a bike's gas tank, I like big expanses of lacquered curves. But the tank on the bike had a dash. I emailed Brook right away and asked her if that was the final tank - and, at the same time, went back through my E-mails and checked for references to tanks. Sure enough, Brook's mail said they were going to use a K-1810 fiberglass tank. I should have checked more closely! If you're having a bike built, make sure that you double-check everything the builder says they're going to do against your expectations! It's not the builder's fault: they're not psychic. If you don't communicate exactly what you have in mind, you're going to get a surprise.
I'm sure my reaction was a surprise for Brook and Pat, since he'd already gone a ways into building the bike. Thank goodness it was a part that was not customized for me, and was relatively un-critical to the overall design. Imagine if he'd gotten part of the way into making the fender (that's a custom work for this bike) or the handle bars (also custom), and I'd changed my mind. Make sure you avoid such surprises if you can. Pat stopped working on the bike for a while and Brook and I spent some time on the phone going back over every aspect of the bike from stem to stern, discussing what aspects I had strong feelings about and which I didn't. The upshot of the whole process was that Pat's making a custom gas tank, which is a one-piece tank that has no dash, and a flush-fit filler. The tank will have the speedometer - a small digital readout - inset into the top someplace unobtrusive. Cool.
When I went through designing what I wanted in a bike, I talked to lots of people about lots of things. One of the things I discussed, with someone, was my preferences in gas tanks. Somehow I mistakenly thought that it was Brook that I'd discussed tanks with; it turns out it wasn't. Remember - you don't want an expensive and frustrating mistake! Keep in touch with your builder and make sure you're eye to eye before they start welding!
02 Feb 2000
While waiting for some more metal to come in, for the tanks, they're working on the seat. At this stage it's just shaping the seat pan, foam for the seat, and building the front of the frame to wrap around the seat. It's preliminary but looks like a pretty nice place to sit.
The seat has been sent out for leather work.
22 Feb 2000
Brook sent me more pictures of the fender assembly. It's starting to look pretty cool!
The new fuel tank - steel with dual flushmount filler caps - is also shown. No dashboard! Yay!
22 Feb 2000
Pat has been making some mock-ups of a luggage rack I originally wanted. My ideas of what to put back there were vague and stayed that way. So Pat made a test, to see what I thought.
I have to say honestly that I didn't like it much. So I Emailed Brook and we swapped a few more E-mails. If you've never had the experience of trying to visualize something that doesn't exist and describe it to someone else, it's lots of fun! :) Finally, I broke down and did a 3-d rendering in Bryce and Carrara (2 3-d packages I like to play with) It's not great but it gets the point across and I was able to describe it in E-mail.
The idea here is to have a little grabrail with a kind of detachable leather roll that would go under the rear of the seat. It'd be something you could add straps to, and use to attach a small luggage roll or the like. I'm still not sure what I think about that idea, but Pat's going to think about it some and I can't wait to see what he comes up with.
01 Mar 2000
The exhaust pipes are done, now. Words are unnecessary in the face of such awesomeness!
March 15, 2000
Brook explained the priming and painting process to me. It's beautiful spring weather so I can't wait to get my hands on the bike. She sent pictures of it in the paint box, being primed.
March 12, 2000
My laptop took a fall after Brook sent me some pictures of the tank taped and in the process of being airbrushed. Once the paint was done, they were going to shoot a couple of coats of clear over top. This doesn't look like much but wait until the bandages come off!!
March 15, 2000
The bike's paint job is done. Now, it's ready for final assembly. I don't think there's much to say about these pictures; they speak for themselves.
April 12, 2000
Now, the moment we've all been waiting for. Putting the pieces together into a working motorcycle!! In the pictures below, the bike has had the engine mounted in the frame, the gas tank assembled to it, and the covers put on the engine.
As the bike proceeded into final assembly, Brook and I started scheduling when I could come out and get the bike. Being way overdue for a vacation, I decided to take a week off and fly out with my girlfriend Delores, collect the bike, and drive it home in a truck. I asked Brook to stop sending more pictures, so that the end result would be a surprise.
Brook kept taking pictures of the bike in final assembly and gave them to me on a floppy when I got there. These are a few of them.
Click here to see final pictures