Masters of Their Craft
The objects of a mainstream pop-culture fascination, customized choppers have now been transformed from social misfits rebelling against society to center-stage television stars. Offering compelling viewing even for non-motorcyclists, shows such as Monster Garage, Biker Build-Off and American Choppers have catapulted the motorcycle industry to the forefront, giving new validation to the custom bike world.
In light of this remarkable transformation, I asked a few of the industry's most respected innovators how things have changed, where they see it headed, and ultimately, what makes a “Master Builder”?
The new machine from Mondo Porras. Photograph by Michael Lichter.
Television producer Hugh King, the instrumental force behind such shows as Monster Garage, Motorcycle Mania II, Motorcycle Mania III, and Biker Build Off, clearly has the credentials to render a valid opinion: “In my mind a ‘Master Builder' is an artist and fabricator whose bikes are absolutely unique in design, stance, and construction. They can build a bike from the ground up, designing and making each part without relying on any pieces off the shelf. To do this, he or she must be an ace welder and metal former, and have mastered the other arts necessary to make a bike literally from scratch. Their one-off must have design, engineering, and personality which sets that creation apart from all other bikes. When you see it, you will know without question that the creation was made by him or her and no one else.”
Dubbed “the Godfather of Choppers,” Mondo Porras, owner of Denver's Choppers, is simply part of chopper history. In the '60s, Denver Mullins created Denver's Choppers. Mullins, with his larger-than-life persona, was a master of long bikes who set standards still seen in the industry today. Mullins and longtime associate, partner, and best friend Porras were known for perfecting their “no flop” steering design. Tragically, Mullins was killed in an untimely boating accident, leaving heir apparent Porras to carry the moniker and run Denver's Choppers.
“The term ‘Master Builder' is thrown around too loosely. It's very overused and it's disrespectful to hear guys who haven't earned it call themselves a Master Builder, or worse, see it in their advertising or hear their publicist promoting them with that term,” says Porras, who adheres to that genre of motorcycle that can be summed up in the three words “less is more”.
However, there is certainly an upper echelon of builders who represent the term well. Considered a bike builder's builder and an engineering genius, Roger Goldammer is a reluctant celebrity in the custom bike world. Modest and camera shy, he has earned a level of peer respect that few have acquired. Competition for Roger lies within himself. “I'm involved in the motorcycle industry both as a manufacturer and as a custom bike builder and fortunately, the two seem to work hand in hand. Bike building is my passion, what I truly love to do. And, to some extent, the manufacturing can be rewarding. But it's also the means that allows me to build the crazy ideas that are in my head. On the flip side, the resulting bikes are great ways to promote the company and the concept parts which can then evolve into production parts.”
Mondo Porras' Japan bike. Photograph by Michael Lichter.
“Motorcycles began as a hobby 20 years ago and have slowly turned into a business along the way. When I first started out, I and others built the custom parts on our bikes largely out of necessity. The parts simply were not available. Since then, the aftermarket has grown and there are many great manufacturers out there making it all too convenient to order up the parts and just slam them together,” Goldammer observes. “One still has the option to fabricate unique pieces which will separate your bike from the others. I think the creation of unique parts is what elevates builders to the so-called ‘Master Bike Builder' status. This is a moniker that I am not very comfortable with for myself. In light of all I still have to learn and attempt.”
Oddly enough, there seems to be an inner circle in the custom bike building world which is difficult to penetrate for some, yet extremely easy for others. How and why each individual gets there is as varied as the styles of the bikes themselves. Goldammer concluded by saying, “I see today's industry as oversaturated to some extent and I believe that things will probably slow down somewhat. But, the people who are involved for the right reasons will always survive and prosper.”
Eddie Trotta, another highly respected figure in the industry, is well known for his ability to combine form with sophisticated function, along with his incredible eye for detail. Eddie's thoughtfully engineered custom motorcycles are revered for their consistent standard of excellence. Surrounded by motorcycles his entire life, he started building them at the age of 14. Eddie is the owner of Thunder Cycle Designs based in Ft. Lauderdale. Since 1991, he has been manufacturing billet parts, custom exhausts, frames, and, of course, fully custom motorcycles. Eddie tells us, “Things have changed quite a bit. It's very easy to build a custom bike right now. Ten years ago, when you needed a fender, you had to make it. Now you can open up one of many catalogs and order every part you need. It does seem that every person with a Custom Chrome catalog is now called a ‘Master Builder'. The term actually came from Easyriders and V-Twin Motorcycles magazines when they felt a builder had reached a certain point in his career. They would then do an article called ‘Master Builder'—they have done it twice on me—then and only then would I ever consider myself a Master Builder.”
Roger Goldammer's Lowtek. Photograph by Cordero Studios.
Eddie continues, “I think the industry is about to downsize a little. There might be a few too many shops that have opened in hopes they would be the next Orange County Choppers. There is nothing wrong with dreams, but you must have motorcycles on your mind 24/7.”
The last builder I spoke with is known for his unique builds and engineering concepts that continue to evolve the motorcycling industry. Although a young gun, Aaron Green is justifiably recognized for his customization skills. Aaron is the owner of Paramount Custom Cycles, which supplies limited production motorcycles to dealers nationwide, along with manufacturing frames, sheet metal, handlebars, and exhaust pipes. “I started in the industry in early '94,” he tells us. “Back then, it was cool to put a 150 tire on the back of your Harley. Custom-built bikes were few and far between, there was not the availability of parts that there is today. Magazines were the ultimate media for the bike shops to get their products out and recognized. Getting bikes in the magazines was difficult, and anyone on those printed pages was the real deal. Nowadays, parts availability is abundant and incredible parts are available for the first-time builder to assemble a motorcycle that looks professional and custom built.
“I find the term ‘Master Builder' is extremely overused throughout the industry and abroad,” says Green. “Everyone who assembles a motorcycle seems to be a Master Builder. This is not the case. The term used to be reserved for certain individuals that, over years of hard work and mastering their trade, reached a thorough understanding of all aspects of their profession. All aspects—from fabrication, to engineering, to mechanical know-how and complete fit-and-finish, right down to electrical and paint. The term is a grand statement that should be awarded only to very skilled craftsmen. Secondly, no one can self-title themselves a Master Builder. For anyone to say they are that themselves is completely out of line.
“I hope to see the term not used in the future, especially when it seems to hype a person up to be something they are not. I believe the industry will tighten up. It takes very smart business decisions to stay in this game—new ideas and new directions, always. Smarter ways of building bikes, from engine to chassis, will only increase in the years to come.”