Celebrities and corporate moguls are fueling the boom in custom
motorcycles--and creating a new subculture of fierce collectibles.
Jesse James, a distant relative of the outlaw from the 1880s,
nervously scans his e-mail on a recent afternoon from a tiny
office inside his 250,000-square-foot motorcycle shop in Long
Beach, Calif. He's searching for a reaction from a customer:
Robert Wheeler, chief executive of Airstream, who is paying $300,000
for one of the most elaborate masterpieces James' shop had ever
produced--a gleaming silver motorcycle-with-sidecar to commemorate
Airstream's 75th anniversary. James and his welders machined,
riveted and hammered 18-gauge steel and razor-thin aluminum into
a space-age-looking vehicle, applying some of the same construction
methods Airstream uses in its shiny luxury trailers. "I
can't wait for Wheeler to see it," James says.
Word soon came. "It's an absolute work of art," says
Custom bikes inspire certain passions. Lauren Hutton was a 20-year-old
nightclub waitress when she had her first encounter with one.
Riding to work on her clunky Vespa, she heard the roar of a motorcycle
that pulled alongside her at a stoplight. The guy astride a customized
Indian Motorcycle bike, Steve McQueen, exchanged glances with
"Hey, sweetheart!" he yelled. "You want to see how a movie is
Hutton nodded, flashing her gap-toothed grin, and followed him
to the set of The Cincinnati Kid. It was her entrée
into the world of cycling, a four-decade adventure that has vastly
enlarged her circle of famous friends (see box)--and which
nearly killed her in a 2000 accident.
What makes a handmade bike different from, say, a $120,000 MV
Agusta F4CC with a 200hp engine? Custom-builts approach the power
and speed of racers, but, as one-of-a-kinds, they also reflect
the distinctiveness and eccentricities of the builder and the
owner. They confer status and satisfy a basic need for exhibitionism.
Typically they cost $25,000 to $150,000, depending on the degree
of customization. At James' garage bikes are built from the ground
up and can take 800 hours to fabricate. They look and feel dangerous: "ape
hanger" handlebars force the rider to reach for their grips;
engines are set to growl as loudly as thunder; the guts of the
bike--carburetors and transmissions--are purposefully exposed
as menacing visual lures.
Perhaps 100 custom builders ply this trade in the U.S. Jesse
James' garage, West Coast Choppers, is a sprawl of warehouses
in a rundown neighborhood of wrecking yards and auto body shops.
He has recently opened a diner next door called Cisco (nasdaq: CSCO - news - people )
Burger, named for his one-toothed pit bull, whose portraits adorn
the walls of the restaurant. Inside James' compound is a metalworker's
dream. Steel is stretched and shrunk using planishing hammers,
jig mills and Yoder roll-forming machines. There are nine power
hammers operated by foot pedals, including a 1940s model once
used by the Nazis to make wing sections for Messerschmitt fighter
planes. Like many builders, James reels in 60% of his estimated
$5 million in annual sales from his line of 200 parts, which
he manufactures, from black organ exhaust pipes to Maltese Cross
axle covers. He calls his hand-hammered fenders "rollers" (slang
for a police car) and has used Civil War cavalry swords as suicide
James has hand-built bikes for trial lawyers, investment bankers
and celebrities like Kid Rock and Keanu Reeves. The custom builder
has clocked 110mph on motorcycle trips with Wal-Mart (nyse: WMT - news - people )
executives. He says his backlog is three years deep and includes
a bike for Robert Nardelli, Chrysler's new chief, who has to
wait in line like everyone else. "I won't make a bike for
someone I don't like," says James, who is married to actress
Sandra Bullock. "My hands won't do it."
Kid Rock owns three of James' handmade models. "When I
dump out the clutch on one of Jesse's bikes," he says, "it's
like being on a rocket." Brad Pitt prefers work by Paul
Cox and Keino Sasaki, a pair of builders who churn out a mere
six bikes a year in a former wine warehouse near the Brooklyn,
N.Y. waterfront. Inside the cluttered shop a sign reads:
"Visitors will be shot. Survivors will be shot again." Pitt's bikes,
nicknamed "Bone Crusher" and "When Push Comes to Shove," are
outfitted with features that come in handy when fleeing paparazzi. Most builders
like to stretch a bike's frame dramatically. Cox kept the extension of the
frame of Pitt's bikes to a mere 2 inches and put a modest 30-degree rake in
the neck of the bike. He installed a horizontal piston that rides along the
fork as a steering damper. All this adds stability at high speeds. The bike
also delivers Pitt a smooth ride along L.A.'s potholed streets. His bikes are
equipped with a Rigidaire pneumatic seat suspension system developed by Cox
that absorbs vibrations using a small compressor and two air shocks under the
Owners are fiercely protective of their machines. Chris Cornell,
lead singer for Audioslave and vocalist on the title track for
the last James Bond movie, demonstrated his loyalty at a stoplight
in North Hollywood last year. One moment he was straddling his
jet-black $55,000 custom Exile cycle. The next, he found himself
flying through the air, having been walloped from behind by a
speeding truck. Dazed but without any broken bones, Cornell flipped
open his cell phone and madly dialed for help--not for himself,
but for his Exile cycle. Minutes later a tattooed Englishman
with a blond mohawk arrived. It was Russell Mitchell, the man
who'd made the bike. He retrieved the smoking, crushed two-wheeler
and brought it back to his shop for repair. With just a few cuts
and scrapes, Cornell was back in the studio that afternoon.
Custom jobs are prized by lesser mortals, too. Andrew (A.J.)
Herold, a Manhattan hedge fund consultant, has had two machines
built at $25,000 to $50,000 apiece. "These bikes are assets
I can enjoy now," he says. His builder is Farmingdale, N.J.
customizer William Dodge, who created one bike for Herold using
a 1947 Harley flathead engine and another using a 1966 shovelhead
engine (that is, with a domed combustion chamber). Herold has
called Dodge in the middle of the night and on weekends for road
assistance. He once dialed his savior while Dodge was in bed
with his girlfriend. "Bill, I'm losing compression!" yelled
Herold as he gunned his engine in neutral. Dodge determined the
problem was a blown gasket; the bike was out for months. Herold
was crushed. Motorcycles are his ticket to bike shows and block
parties thrown by custom builders. He has also struck up friendships
on scenic bike tours along the East Coast.
Collector Frank Cotroneo, a real estate developer and restaurateur
in Bernardsville, N.J, owns 22 bikes--15 of them custom, which
set him back $1.2 million. Why so many?
"You need three kinds of custom bikes," he says. "One for long
hauls, one for looking cool and one as a sport bike for flying around curves."
Reason number two often predominates. Says Cotroneo: "I
love pulling up to a stoplight and having a hard-core biker give
me a nod of respect, then ask how I installed my suicide clutch." He
refers to a vertical shifter requiring a dicey maneuver to change
gears--gripping the shaft with his left hand as he depresses
the clutch pedal with his left foot, steering with one hand.
Cotroneo has no patience for stock Harleys, with their cushy
hand-clutch transmissions and factory paint jobs.
"There's nothing worse than pulling into a motorcycle rally and discovering
that 20 people bought the same bike that you did."
Never discount the bad-boy appeal. On a recent afternoon at
the shop, Kid Rock, formerly married to Pamela Anderson, showed
up at James' shop and recounted what happened at a White House
reception he attended recently. "I was drinking a Jim Beam
with Donald Rumsfeld, talking about Iraq," says Rock. "Then
I heard this voice behind me, 'Roooock, you're a good man.' It
was the President. He slapped me a high five,"
recalls Rock, guffawing as he puffs on a cigar. Rock's visit
to Washington went more smoothly than his trip to Atlanta in
November. After a performance with his band he was arrested for
punching a fellow diner at a Waffle House. The victim apparently
wasn't a biker.
Like Nascar, custom biking is sneaking into middle America.
There are now a handful of reality shows on cable TV devoted
to the subject. The longest running, the Discovery Channel's American
Chopper, is about the Teutuls, a family of feuding custom-
motorcycle mechanics. They're not arguing over money: Since the
series launched, the Teutuls have done ads for Hewlett-Packard (nyse: HPQ - news - people ),
AOL, Lugz Boots and the Wall Street Journal.
One slight hurdle for this collecting sport: the frequency of
mishaps. Last summer custom builder Billy Lane plowed his pickup
head-on into a biker, killing the man instantly (he now faces
manslaughter charges). Indian Larry, a motorcycle stuntman and
builder, died three years ago after tumbling off his cycle from
a standing position at a bike show. Lauren Hutton barely survived
her 2000 accident. "I landed like an arrow, head first,
then my body rolled for 170 feet across 4-foot boulders," she
recalls. A crushed sternum, multiple fractures to her right leg
and a collapsed lung resulted in a long hospital stay. And yet,
she keeps the pieces of her destroyed BMW 650 in her New York
City apartment. "Someday I'll have someone reassemble it," she
says--perhaps a custom builder.