Leatherballs XXII: Whither custom?

So I was cruising down the highway the other day, just kind of staring off into space and listening to the radio, and a gaggle of what I generally refer to as cookie-cutter customs comes blasting by. You all know what I’m talking about: those raked, stretched, extended, fat-tired Bad Boy or Big Boy or Big Dog or Bad Dog or Big Bad Dog Boy bikes with the splashy, multi-color graphics splashed all over ‘em. The ones with two thousand dollar foot controls and billet everything. The ones with absurdly stretched and molded tanks that will hold five or six gallons of fuel, only two of which will ever actually make their way into the carb thanks to the radical, acute angle at which the tank is perched on the frame.The ones with the twisty, swirly exhausts that either loop over, under, and around everydamned thing, or that end about six inches from the exhaust port in a meticulously carved design that superimposes flames on a CNC-machined reproduction of a corner portion of Michealangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting and dumps hot exhaust straight onto your Chippewas with neither warning nor apology.

Man, I hate the smell of roasted engineer boots. I really do.

But that’s okay, I ain’t judgmental, I really ain’t. People can ride whatever they like, and I’m fine with it. Likewise, I was never one to involve myself in the endless and tiresome who’s-a-biker-and-who-ain’t controversies that have waxed furious in the mags over the years. If somebody’s actually out there riding, I don’t much care what they do with the rest of their time, or what they may do for a living, or how much more money than me they might have. If they’re assholes, they’re assholes, and that’s enough for me. I don’t need to call ‘em anything else.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve known some stockbrokers who put more miles under their ass on average than some clubbers I know, year after year. Hell, I even know a stockbroker who’s richer than Croesus, who IS a clubber, a patch-holder in a one-percenter fellowship down south Florida way. He’s a serious iron-butt, has been for years and years, and is one of the most stand-up, all around righteous guys I ever met. But some would no doubt cuss him as a yuppie and a RUB.

Whatever. I realized a damned long time ago that it’s one thing to make semi-philosophical arguments over the Innernuts and the mags and zines and such; it’s quite another when you actually get out in the real world, stick your hand out, and start meeting people. Real, living, breathing individuals aren’t nearly so easy to pigeonhole and dismiss as caricatures are, and the impulse to reject someone you don’t really know based on a stereotype is way too close to the one that gets long-haired, greasy, bearded, tattooed bums hassled and scorned by straights for my comfort. I try not to do it much myself, although I can’t say I’m always successful.

I’ll admit that some doof wearing every precious item of clothing from the local H-D boutique he could put on his credit card and acting like a jackass right out in front of God and everybody is usually not somebody I’m going to have much interest in getting to know a lot better, sure. But hell, we were all clueless newbies once, and if the guy is actually riding, well, I try to cut ‘em a break if I can find a way to.

But that ain’t what I was getting at. My thought as I saw these guys ripping down the interstate at 80-plus was this: does the word “custom” even mean anything anymore? To anybody?

I mean, generally speaking, some folks WILL refer to these store-bought, mass-produced (in some sense or other) bikes as “customs.” I’ve heard ‘em do it, so I know it’s true. But what the hell do they mean by it?

I know what I mean by it, natch. I prefer to think of a custom as something that is a realization of a vision of what a motorcycle ought to be on the part of the owner; something that he at least had a significant hand in putting together himself; something that stands out from the rest of the herd; something that may or may not even be a Harley in the first place. By that I don’t really mean Jap bikes; try as I might, I just can’t manufacture a whole lot of interest in a tricked out, full-custom Honda, although I’ve seen enough of them over the years to know that I’m somehow wrong to feel that way. A lot of guys say they’d rather see a truly custom old CB750 than a mostly stock factory anything, and I know there’s something in what they say. But I just can’t make myself care all that much, I really can’t. I’ll never own one, and I’m a guy who started out on rice as a wee lad way back when.

Hell, I remember before I was even a teenager relentlessly making fun of the single one of my peers in the neighborhood who actually had a Harley. It was one of those Baja 100 dirt bikes, and it was truly a half-assed piece of shit compared to my shit-hot, highly modified (by me) YZ-100. We all mocked the poor kid, on those rare occasions when he could actually get his bike started. He’d turn red in the face and cuss us for all he was worth, and we probably deserved it. But it’s all by way of saying that if ever there was a guy who ought to be sympathetic to truly hard-core, customized ricers, it should be me.

And I ain’t. I just ain’t. Ain’t hostile, ain’t condescending, or not too much, I hope. I just don’t give a shit. Don’t know how that happened, but it did.

Likewise Limey bikes, although to a much lesser degree. I like seeing torn-down, rethought, and reworked Trumps, Beezers, and such, but in the end, I just can’t see myself on one. At all. I can ogle ‘em, I can respect ‘em, I can enjoy the thought and effort and creativity that went into making them; what I can’t seem to do is care all that much about ‘em. And I can’t even begin to imagine owning one myself, much less building one.

And here’s the thing: for me, a custom H-D means certain things. There are rules for these things, and they’re pretty much written in stone. Which means that, stylistically, the things I think of as customs all tend to…umm, pretty much look the same, frankly. I like skinny, lean, and stripped down. I like either King Sportster tanks, or Mustang ones. I like small, minimal little fenders, maybe none at all on the front. I get less specific about front ends and handlebars; either XR-style flat-track bars or apes, or even some wide dresser-style bars are all fine. No drags; hate those damned things, and I always have. Wide Glide, narrow, hydraulic or springer, that doesn’t matter much: I dig all of those. Even the fancy-schmancy, high-buck, upside-down forks are okay with me in certain applications. I do love fork boots on Wide Glides for some reason, always have.

A minimal seat, but having lived with back trouble myself after years of trucking, I can make some concessions for comfort there. If it’s going to have a sissy bar, then it ought to be one done in the classic style with the po-boy tilt up top. But I’d rather not be thought of as a sissy myself.

What I’m describing here is basically the classic bob-job, a timeless style that goes all the way back to the very origins of the biker lifestyle after WW2. That’s my absolute favorite, and one of those will get me gee-gawing right and left the moment it pulls up to the bar, offering to buy the owner a drink, and shooting rapid-fire questions at him until he gets sick of my star-struck ass and excuses himself to go someplace, anyplace else.

Then there’s the 60-70’s style chopper: long front end, rigid frame, maybe some stretch, or maybe not. Big old tall sissy bar reaching up to the sky, possibly with a king and queen seat climbing way up to the tippy-top end of it. Skinny all the way around again, with so much flex built into the frame and front end you can actually see it hop over even semi-rough patches of road. Like as not, it’ll have apes, but it may also sport Z-bars, or some weird-ass configuration you never even heard tell of before. Takes a block and a half to turn it around. Wildly impractical, sometimes truly dangerous, depending on who did the cutting and welding and how many beers they’d had when they did it. But just cool as motherfucking fuck.

You don’t see nearly as many of them nowadays as you did back when I was a kid, when they seemed to be everywhere in the wake of Easy Riders and the absolutely perfect Captain America Panhead. Although I do have to say it right now: despite that goddamned chrome fender, which I hated then and still do, I did always like the Billy bike better. Hey, don’t hate me cause it’s beautiful.

But the thing is: most of what I call cookie-cutter customs are built on that chopper foundation. And the bobjobs I love so much are a stylistic dead-end; there’s only so far you can go with one until you realize you’re building something else entirely. All the bobbers ultimately kind of…look the same, honestly. And I’m sorry, but I just can’t really conceive of the mass-produced, store-bought “customs,” despite their noble lineage, as customs, in any true, real sense.

The argument has been made many times over the years that the crucial factor is direct owner involvement in the build, and I don’t necessarily disagree. But where do you draw the line? In this age of readily-available parts from all sorts of third-party sources, can ANYTHING truly be called “custom” anymore? What about guys who have great ideas for making their ride their own, but aren’t necessarily great mechanics, and certainly aren’t welders, machinists, fabricators, and painters? I’ve known lots of guys who fit that description over the years; they didn’t weld on every last frame tab or tighten every last bolt–maybe not even most of them–but through close collaboration with people who had the skills they lacked, they’ve put together some damned nice rides. And I can’t see calling a nice custom bike anything but a nice custom bike just because the man who had the ideas didn’t do all his own work. Nor can I see insulting that man as some sort of phony or weak-ass punk for the same reason.

My idea is this: if you dig it, you dig it, and it ain’t up to me to go around getting in people’s faces saying “you suck!” because they failed to live up to some arbitrary standard that has no relevance to anybody but me. A nice ride is a nice ride. A good, righteous, stand-up dude is a good, righteous, stand-up dude. Period. Just build ‘em however you can get it done, and then ride ‘em like you stole ‘em. The method might vary, shift, and change from one thing to the next; the concepts themselves might go places I’d rather they didn’t. But the basic idea remains the same–factory is dull and boring, make it your own any way you can–and it’s a damned good and worthwhile one, no matter what route you may take to getting it done.

The custom bike ain’t dead, and it never will be. But it might end up meaning something else–rather, the meaning might expand to include things it never did before, might come to include things some of us aren’t quite ready to accept. In fact, I’d say it has already. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

I think I can live with that.

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