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Custom Motorcycle Builder

You've seen them hurtling down the highway -- ultra-fast motorcycles with insect-eye headlights and flashy colors. You've also seen the big cruising bikes -- growling monsters decorated with flaming skulls.

But have you ever wondered who makes these machines so fast, so loud and so colorful? The answer is custom motorcycle builders.

Most motorcycles are mass-produced in factories and are sold to buyers as "stock." That means that hundreds of bikes can look exactly the same and perform the same way.

The alternative to buying a stock motorcycle is to buy a custom motorcycle. Motorcycles can be customized in two main ways. The first way is to build one from the ground up. The other way is to take a stock bike and alter it or add specialized parts.

The Basics

Custom bike entrepreneurs may build their own motorcycles, or they may hire someone else to build one for them. It depends on how much money and equipment they have to work with. It also depends on the owner's mechanical skills.

On a typical day, a builder will perform many tasks. One of the most important jobs is consulting with customers to find out exactly what kind of bike they want. Solomon Nieves is the co-owner of a bike shop in San Antonio. "The customer has complete control," he says.

Builders will also order parts and, of course, put those parts together to form a complete bike. Kip Moreau is the general manager of a bike shop. His shop employs three mechanics and one welder. "From start to completion, the average bike takes us four days," says Moreau.

In the Beginning

Start-up costs vary. The minimum requirements for a small, one-person operation are mechanical skills and a basic workshop.

People with little money can begin out of their homes. Those with more money may spend thousands on shop space, equipment and licenses to sell certain products.

"Start-up costs vary a great deal and depend on location, inventory, etc. There have been bike shops started in garages for as little as $1,000," explains Moreau.

Nieves estimates that he and his partners spent about $25,000 to start their custom shop. "We had to lease the building, licensing was about $6,600, and making the first bike cost about $15,000."

The Market

Location plays a big role in the success of a custom motorcycle shop. The United States has a much more lucrative and competitive market than Canada, especially for custom builders. One reason for this is that the U.S. has a larger population, so there are more people to buy motorcycles.

Another reason is the weather. States such as California, Florida, Texas and Arizona are especially good locations for custom shops because the riding season never ends. In some parts of Canada, the riding season may last only six months.

However, competition is stiff in both countries.

"This business is very competitive," says Moreau. "Not only are you competing with other Canadian bike builders, but [with] most of the Americans as well."

Joe Cree owns a custom bike business in Mountain View, California. He says business is "very competitive," especially in California, where the riding season is long.

Another factor that can influence the success of a business is the type of bike a builder specializes in. The two main types of motorcycles are cruisers and sport bikes.

An important difference between cruisers and sport bikes is where and how they're made. Cruiser and cruiser parts, such as Harley-Davidson and Indian, are mostly manufactured in North America. Sport bikes and their parts, such as Kawasaki and Ducati, are mostly made in Japan and Europe.

Some Japanese manufacturers, such as Honda, do make cruisers. But cruiser technology doesn't change as rapidly as the technology of sport bikes.

Motorcycle builder David A. Sundquist says that the changing technology of sport bikes can be a problem. "The technology in Japanese bikes is constantly being updated. It's hard to keep up with the changes."

The Money

The price of a custom bike depends on what the buyer wants. Rare or hard-to-make parts result in a more expensive product. Custom bikes range in price from $15,000 to $50,000, with the average being about $30,000.

You might think that custom builders can get rich by making just a few bikes each year. But parts and labor can cost the builder a large portion of the sale price.

Cree's experience proves this. His annual income is about $400,000. However, most of that money goes back into running his shop. "I take home about $36,000 a year," he says.

The old adage "time is money" certainly applies to building bikes. When doing repairs and small jobs, builders charge their customers on a per-hour basis for their labor. But when they take on a large custom build project, the price is set per project.

Sundquist explains that bikes built from the ground up can actually cost the builder as well as the customer. "When you do a project, you cut your labor (price) almost in half. I prefer a customer who needs something done in five hours."

Get the Word Out

Motorcycling is a large, international market. But custom builders make up a small percentage of sales and news travels fast among them. Therefore, word of mouth is an effective way to advertise a new business.

Most custom builders have websites that show pictures of the bikes they've made. A third method of advertising is by attending events such as motorcycle shows, races and conventions.

Knowing your market and keeping up to date with the state of the economy is important to all entrepreneurs, motorcyclists included. Nieves advises young to people to "get a good education, especially for business."

Getting Started

A passion for motorcycles is essential. So is a strong business sense, hard work and, ideally, lots of cash.

Aside from a love of bikes and some start-up capital, mechanical training is vital to a custom business. "Mechanical trade is the most important [trade] to have in a bike shop due to the fact that most custom parts can be ordered from different suppliers and are, for the most part, 'bolt-on,'" says Moreau.

There are several schools in North America that offer motorcycle mechanic programs. They vary in length, but usually last a minimum of one year. Following training, mechanics go on to complete an apprenticeship, which lasts between two and five years.

Making motorcycles can be tough. Business savvy and mechanical skills are important, but a custom shop will never be successful without an owner who is passionate about the trade.


Motorcycle Industry Council
Check out the links in the Interested in Motorcycles section

American Motorcyclist Association
Offers articles on riding, racing, motorcycle law and history

Tony Foale Designs
This site has many articles on bike design and construction, as well as links and a photo gallery

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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.