By Bryan Harley

Today’s Top Custom Bike Builders

In 2008, V-Twin engine manufacturer S&S Cycle celebrated its 50th anniversary by commissioning 50 of the best custom motorcycle builders in the industry to build a bike sourcing one of its mills. With $50,000 in prize money up for grabs, the quality of the work was stupendous. The end result of each of the custom motorcycle builder’s efforts is captured in a high-quality hardbound book called Today’s Top Custom Bike Builders.

Each builder gets a four-page spread for their bikes, including a brief, well-written description penciled by Howard Kelly (former Hot Bike and Street Chopper editor). Each chapter gives a description of the build, what makes the motorcycle unique, comments on the processes involved and provides a little insight into the character of each custom bike builder. The spreads are highlighted by a wonderful photo montage courtesy of famed industry photographer, Michael Lichter. You can get a sense of each of the builder’s disposition through Lichter’s photography, and he has a knack for choosing the right angles and components of a bike to feature.

The only stipulation presented to the custom bike builders during the competition was that they use one of 50 commemorative anniversary S&S engines. Besides that, they were only limited by their creativity. From the book, you can tell that some builders put more energy into the project than others. Keiji Kawakita of Hot-Dock Custom Cycles out of Tokyo, Japan, was one of the builders who put his all into it. His bike, the StG Nautilus, was voted by the 49 other custom builders in attendance as the ‘Grand Champion.’

Motorcycle styles run the gamut, from Chris Olson’s ‘70s-style chopper called Remember to Rick Fairless’ psychedelic custom called Pam. An interesting aside is that three generations of custom bike builders got to compete against each other as Arlen, Cory, and Zach Ness all got the invite to the S&S celebration. Arlen is the grandfather who started the Ness legacy, Cory is his son that continued the family biz, and Zach is the grandson who now carries the family torch.

The competition also inspired builders to work out-of-the-box. Big Bear Choppers Kevin Alsop has made a name for himself in the industry by making stretched-out choppers and wide-tired Pro Street bikes, but for S&S’s 50th he made a sport-oriented V-Twin powered motorcycle with Brembo brakes and gold-trimmed Ohlins suspension. I also got a chuckle out of Jesse Rooke’s story. Rooke took the risk of shipping his bike in pieces to La Crosse, Wisconsin. When he arrived to put the motorcycle together, all that had arrived was one small box. Everything else showed up with three days to spare, so Rooke had to scramble to get the bike pieced together. He pulled it off with a little help from some of the other builders – barely.

Motorcycle enthusiast and avid collector Jay Leno provides an introduction, recanting tales of George J. Smith dominating the drag strips in 1958 and commenting on how George had a penchant for making bikes go faster. A brief history of S&S Cycle follows Leno’s introduction, chronicling how the business evolved from making pushrods and carbs to full-blown engines.

A lot of books and assorted media come across my desk, but this book is by far one of the highest quality publications I’ve come across this year. Of course, it’s full of Michael Lichter’s photos, so how could it notbe top-notch? It’s hardbound with an attractive cover and it would be a great book to keep out on the coffee-table to share with moto-minded friends. Professionally done, killer photos and interesting text make this one of my favorite books from the past year.