Morrow Vintage Customs
Story By Arthur Coldwells / Photography by Don Williams
Kurt Morrow of Morrow Vintage Customs straddles the two worlds, creating spectacularly detailed motorcycles with his bare hands.
“I don’t use CNC,” he explains. “I use tools and materials from the ’40s and ’50s. I rarely use the mill, except when I’m doing engine work. I don’t make the parts with a machine; I make them by hand. I never buy a part and use it; I’ll buy a brand new part and cut it up and use it for the basic shape or the hole.”
With his unrelenting reliance on the human machine, Morrow’s results are impossible to duplicate.
His persistent individuality has not resulted in a clear path for his creations, which are not loud customs. Heaven, Morrow’s bikes demonstrate, resides in the details. “The more you look, the more you see,” he reveals. “The average person will take a glance and not see it. Every piece of aluminum has been carved on. When you look closely, you’ll see it. Everything in the shop looks like it’s off the shelf, but it’s not. Every pipe is custom made. I have never bought a set of pipes and put them on a bike.
“When I’m at a show, the hard guys will stand back 30 feet. And then they come in another ten feet. And then another six feet. Then he’s down on one knee and he looks up and he says, ‘Whoa! How did you do that?’ I’ve got another one,” Morrow says with a laugh.
Counter-intuitively, Morrow Vintage Customs started business at the turn of the 21st century taking on the task of repairing well-aged motorcycles. “The idea of my company was to rebuild and repair antique bikes. My first year, I probably had a dozen Indian Chiefs and all sorts of other American motorcycles. I never brought in anything built after 1984.
“A lot of what I ran into, when I first started bringing out the bikes I built, is that people thought they were restorations,” Morrow relates. “No one understood that they were custom bikes. My stuff never really fit in. My bikes are custom bobbers, and early style choppers.”
That all changed with an unusual bike he built that he took to a custom motorcycle show in Ventura, Calif., where Morrow Vintage Customs sits in a non-descript corrugated steel industrial building in a rough-and-ready working class neighborhood. It is the kind of place where, literally, alley cats hang around outside.
“I built a bike that I completed in 2002 that I took to a motorcycle show in Ventura. It is not a chopper,” Morrow points out. “It has a post seat and two tanks. It has custom handlebars. It has a 93-inch shovelhead with a kick. It went over real well. It was in American Iron magazine in 2004, and I got three jobs from that article within a month. It kicked the bike building business off to a big start. That was right when the custom bike thing started to go nuts.”
Speaking with Morrow is an interesting experience. Vaguely resembling musician Pete Townshend, and sharing the same sort of quiet manic energy, he can be very reticent just before he lets loose with a flood of information. He approximates a pan of gasoline patiently awaiting a spark of inspiration.
Morrow’s builds are personal in collaboration with the future owners, who he often refers to as “guys.” They aren’t his customers. They are his partners and friends. The bikes he builds are for riding, not pieces for lobby decoration at a faceless corporation. He works as hard to build a motorcycle that works as it should, as he does making it look distinctive.
“I go through the motors to make them reliable. I don’t want them not to start. Some of the guys are running kickstart bikes that have never had one. They don’t understand how it’s starting,” Morrow says. “They’ll chop wood on it all day long and forget to turn the key on. It’s fun to start the bike. I don’t kick anything ten times. If it doesn’t start in two kicks, it’s broken.”
Reliability is crucial, though with a dedication to the motorcycle’s original intent. “I match and mate all surfaces. I port and polish heads. I balance and true flywheels. I don’t put on a modern oil pump, but I take the Harley pump and make it the best I can,” Morrow says.
The proof of Morrow’s success is in the riding. Morrow, his friend Alan Braff and I set off from the town of Ventura to the open road and hills leading to Lake Casitas. I am riding a 1972 Harley-Davidson bore-and-stroked 86″ Shovelhead with a four-speed transmission in a 1950s wishbone frame.
The bike is naturally well balanced because it carries its weight low; the seat height is more than manageable and at a standstill my knees are well bent with both feet fully planted.
Thanks to electric starting, thumbing the button fires it up easily and the motor settles into an easy idle. The vibes from the shovelhead are strong, but not obnoxious; this is a man’s bike and I feel an immediate affinity with it.
Morrow has informed me that the clutch lever has a helper spring attached, making the action light as a feather to operate. However, the engagement is late in the lever‚Äôs throw, so it takes a bit of getting used to moving off the line – a challenge well worth the trade-off for such an easy action on the left hand.
The 86″ is torquey and pulls strongly from low-down, making this a pleasantly natural machine to ride. The gearbox is solidly agricultural. That is not as bad as it sounds, but it does need deliberate action and a firm foot to engage each gear. The lever is high off the floorboard and requires raising my boot to actuate it, and false neutrals between the four speeds are common. Happily, once a gear is selected, there is so much torque pouring out of the V-twin that shifting can be kept to a minimum, and the visceral feel of the bike is just plain enjoyable.
As Ventura disappears in our mirrors we head out to Casitas Vista Road. It has some nice sweeping corners and the Harley holds its line well. It is balanced – the low-slung weight easily moves around, and I am pleasantly surprised at how well it handles. Ground clearance is limited on the tight bends, so I have to be careful. Certainly, the riding position is comfortable, with my feet canted slightly forward and resting securely.
The brakes – like everything else on this custom bike – need careful forethought. They work well enough, but the motorcycle is relatively heavy, so braking needs strong, deliberate action, and sensitivity to the machine’s personality.
As I settle into the bike on the long straights, the sprung-post seat moves up and down easily over elevation changes‚Äîeven fairly major bumps are absorbed and not passed through to my spine. The thumping motor, the warm California wind passing over my incongruous full-face helmet (some habits die hard), and the comfortable easy ergonomics of the Harley help me get lost in what is truly the essence of motorcycling.
The ride back to Ventura gives me a chance to sample a Triumph that Braff has been working on. Braff’s bike takes minimalism to another level. Even more than on the Harley, feedback coming off the road is fed through every part of the machine, because, like the Harley, it has a hard tail rear end.The Triumph is light and uncluttered, and with a smooth road underneath it, the machine is responsive and a joy to ride fast.
Having ridden a Morrow Vintage Custom, one understands the intensely personal craftsmanship that goes into each of the motorcycles. Morrow admits to suffering from post-partum depression. “It is extremely difficult to let go of the bike when I’m done. I expect them to love the bike like I do. If they don’t, I get my feelings hurt,” he lets slip. “It’s very emotional. I work late at night and early in the morning. I spend a lot of time making the piece that no one is going to even see.”
If a bike is in for service, it re-inspires him. “If you look at that bike,” gesturing toward a machine on a lift that he built for an engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, “you will see that I turned all the fasteners so they have the same diameter head. Everything is consistent about that bike. It was built during some very good times. I felt good. The guy who owned it was a good guy. I put everything I could into the bike and it shows.”
Occasionally, a bike will come back with a slightly unhappy owner. Perhaps the bike leaked some oil in his garage. Morrow considers this part of the territory with authentic vintage motorcycles. “These bikes do tend to blow oil out the breather at speed. That’s the type of motorcycle it is,” he says. “When you pull in, it’s going to drip when you set it somewhere. The guys do get used to that. It‚Äôs gonna drip. I just hand them a shop towel.”
While Morrow is not a fan of the business side of custom motorcycle building, economic realities have expanded his horizons – not a bad thing, really. His original mantra was “Knucklehead. Panhead. Shovelhead.” Now, he has more expansive ideas. “I’m branching off into Triumph; it’s my first British bike custom. I have a Norton 850 Commando project that I’m doing. I’m going to keep the suspension and make it a real nice bike.”
We aren’t the only people interested in Morrow’s work. Documentarian Tom Stork has been working on Kurt Morrow: Man of Steel for over a decade, and we shot footage as we toured the shop and interviewed Morrow. What seems like a never-ending process may be coming to fruition soon for Fighting Twenty Ninth Films. We’ll stay tuned.
If a Morrow Vintage Customs motorcycle piques your interest, you may not want to dawdle. “I don’t like much about the business. It’s the hardest thing to deal with,” he says with an eye toward the future. “The materials and the motorcycles are what I like. I love to sculpt on the metal, even though I don’t consider myself a sculptor. That part is a lot of fun – the actual bending, filing and the shaping of the steel is what keeps me going. Now, it’s going on a motorcycle. Ten years from now, it may not be. I just let it take me where it takes me.”
At the end of the day, Kurt Morrow is a motorcyclist, like every one of us. “I love the sound and the riding,” he says, echoing many a rider before him. What sets him apart from the rest of us is the end of his sentence, “but I really love to build.”
Story from a previous issue of Ultimate MotorCycling…to view the digital edition, click here.Google+