Darla: A KTM-based Masterpiece from Jesse Rooke
The creation of a hand-built motorcycle is a series of philosophical milestones on a path of many forks. Some lead to the circus of today’s custom bike world, others to obscurity, with fortitude and integrity the only companions on a route to transcendent reward. “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values,” wrote Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead. The works of builder Jesse Rooke would have enriched her lexicon of individualism, for this is a happy man.
On the near side of 30, Rooke wears the mantle of genius bestowed on him by motorcycle press from Utah to the Ukraine as casually as the flip-flops he sports. In the unassuming warehouse in Huntington Beach, California that he shares with Todd’s Cycles, Rooke pops open a pair of fruit-juice flavored Rockstar energy drinks, courtesy of his sponsors, and introduces me to the latest in his line of metal goddesses.
Her name is Darla. Rendered in flame orange, black and gold leaf, she looks like nothing else. Her cheetah-like physique exhumes the board track racers of nearly 100 years ago, like the Indian Eight and the prescient Cyclone. Touch the starter; the howl of scalded cats convinces you she is even faster than she looks. Climb atop her studded leather-skinned metal seat and you are instantly racing biplanes through a time warp that lands you back in the 21st century, gasping for breath.
“People kept telling me that my motorcycles looked like Schwinns,” Rooke muses. “I raced and built my own bicycles. It’s natural for that to have an influence on my thinking.” Rooke’s new category of custom honors the industry’s pioneer marques—such as Schwinn, and his Hendersons and Excelsiors—that blended cycle and motor with a bygone style and individualism in an era when all was ripe for invention.
Rooke has pursued his path unencumbered by rules and conformity. Growing up in Arizona, he rode motorcycles from the age of 3, and was soon competitive in skateboard, cycle, motorcycle and kart events, reaching world-class levels in the US and Europe. His racer father “constantly brought home motorbikes that were basket cases that my brother and I learned how to fix, because we really couldn’t afford a new bike.” He learned his trade “like a blacksmith,” finding ways to invent, improvise, build and craft from scratch.
His talent for speed merged with his ability to build what he rode and raced. An innate business sense earned him relationships with major manufacturers and world-class suppliers. But racing accidents, one of which left him non-ambulatory for three years, led him down the fork to the path he travels today. “I was watching a TV program about Jesse James building customs, and thought, ‘I can do that.’”
2002 saw his first custom, a chopper he named Diane. Its unique single sided suspension, innovative rear wheel hub and fresh styling caused a sensation, winning every show it entered. The custom cult in the US and Europe caught Rooke fever. Celebrity clients, including Brad Pitt and Indy 500 champion Jimmy Vasser, have enhanced the exclusivity of Rooke Customs, whose production Rooke limits to ten new builds a year.Probed as to how his ideas emerge, he confesses, “I just do it; there’s no real process. I’ll make some chicken scratches on a napkin while I’m on a plane, or maybe something will come to me while I’m listening to a piece of music. It might be a melody or even a beat I listen to over and over again.” He shows me a sketch whose instantaneous vigor is evident. Rooke is at once appreciative and dismissive of the adulation. He is the first to say the title of master builder some confer upon him is premature, preferring to acknowledge his elders.
When asked why so many of his bikes are named for women, he shares the inspiration openly—some are named after past loves; others for significant influences, like a close friend battling a terminal disease. Perhaps because of this sensitivity, and the fact that Jesse himself has overcome adversity, there is an emotional content in his work that gives soul to the steel.
We sit in the warehouse as the conversation unfolds, contemplating Darla center stage among her predecessors; and unfinished rolling chassis and pieces of projects that are still embryos. “For me, a motorcycle is like a painting. I’ll add and take away, until I feel it’s right. And it’s never really finished, because you can always keep shaping it, tweaking it, making it better.” Like a painter, he demonstrates a holistic inspiration, as if the bike is born, rather than built. There is indeed, like Rousseau and Gauguin, the sophisticated and primal in Rooke’s work.
Rooke combines whimsy and humor with the swooping lines that have become his signature. The chess piece that is his Rooke Customs logo shows up as a retro-graphic decal on the front of the steering tube. The motif is repeated in a machined billet aluminum crown that tops off the steering head. His trademark front forks are crescent-shaped, with a single shock that connects directly to the handlebars. Jesse’s fascination for number plates means every bike is emblazoned with a numeral that gets distinctive treatment.
Nearby, Brad Pitt’s “Special Blend No. 9”, with its Cabbage Patch camouflage paint and grass-stained denim saddle looks straight out of a Li’l Abner comic strip. A few feet away, a clue to Rooke’s future direction is revealed in Slotard, his dual-purpose off-road/motocross S&S V-twin-powered beast.
Darla is a milestone for Jesse Rooke. Responding to a challenge from The Discovery Channel’s Biker Build-Off television series, Rooke put together a commando team to construct his vision within the required ten days. “When you’re under that kind of pressure, you may be unable to refine the technical aspects, but there’s an excitement that can force you to come up with really new ways of doing things that sometimes work even better.”
The vision is a deserving one, at any angle, from a distance or point blank range. At rest, the motorcycle seems to crouch in wait for its prey, or a signal to explode in a burst of speed. The frame is a few brush strokes, barely clothing this truly naked machine.
Nose to tail examination is a rich menu of Rooke’s knowledge and the expertise of his sous-chefs. The Austrian-built KTM 950 Adventure, one of the most respected on-/off-road motorcycles in the world, is the origin of the new bike’s powerplant and many of its components. Rooke’s dirt racer reputation helped cement the working relationship with the company’s American affiliate.The wheels are powder-coated jet black with a 60-percent gloss, 60-spoke billet, specially fabricated by HDW in Los Angeles, 21-inch at the front, 17-inch at the rear. The look is part motocross, part custom Harley.
The rims wear one-off Dunlop Qualifier slicks that have been specially hand cut, courtesy of Rooke’s long time relationship with the tire manufacturer. The front hub is billet, with a ten-inch stainless steel disk brake from Performance Machine, with two-piston calipers. Darla sports Rooke’s crescent-shaped, bicycle-inspired front suspension. He describes it as “something I’ve perfected over the years.” The single front shock, designed and assembled by Progressive Suspension with special valving, “works just like a springer on any girder-style frame; it’s really just an old-school front end with bigger, modern hand-rolled tubing.” While the visual effect appears eccentric, Jesse affirms its robust functionality. “This was a challenge for their technicians, and they were excited to solve it.”
The cables are exposed for a deliberately retro look, with vinyl chosen over braided steel. The Renthal handlebars and grips, KTM risers and KTM/Brembo hand controls remain from the factory bike, along with the clutch and master cylinder. The headset is topped by Rooke’s aluminum crown. Fully legal headlights include a powerful spot and flood by Lazerstar that clip on and off. The finger-size rear lights, discreetly housed in anodized units, belie the potency of their LEDs. The throttle cable housing is motocross-style.
A trio of frame tubes arches seductively atop the engine, framed by lateral scallops, with a single down tube beneath that splits to form the rigid rear end. This approach is an evolution reaching back to his Kali Kruiser, with a stem to stern flow that is logical and esthetic. “I wanted the frame rail to go out and around the carburetors and for the rear main frame to roll all the way to the front of the neck, so while it has a nice line, it also creates structural integrity, like a roll cage.” The oil is held in the spine of the bike. The fuel nacelle behind the seat, with its crown-shaped cap, is the faintest suggestion of a bobber’s rump.
With the innards to be exposed, the Darla project team went to work on the covers for valve, timing, clutch and water pump, giving them what Jesse calls “a radical look” in anodized black billet, as well as improving their performance by, for example, adding cooling fins to the water pump housing.
The radiator’s placement was inspired by Rooke’s karting experience. He envisioned a radiator behind the engine that could supersede a fender. After modifying the mounting points, the unit was tucked into place. Potential issues of overheating were pre-empted by an electric fan and the absence of a catch tank so the engine could blow out excess heat even while, as Jesse puts it, “hot-rodding around town.”
The exhaust by FMF Racing is a twin coil of titanium that adds artistry while delivering on the engine’s performance promise. Its blue-purple hues are a natural result of titanium’s response to heat, and the visibility of welds enhances the bike’s industrial look. FMF’s Donny Emler Jr. is proud of the role the 35-year-old company founded by his father played in the building of Darla. “It was a great opportunity for us to put our R&D guys to work on a special project. Jesse laid it out, and said, ‘you guys go for it.’ Some of what we achieved, we’ve never done before. This bike was like putting a great puzzle together.”
Each of the collaborators speaks of the experience with veneration and enthusiasm. Troy Lee Designs, known for its exceptional paintwork for helmets and bikes, assigned a three-man team to give Darla her color. TLD’s Paul Gauvry explained how the seven-stage PPG Industries paint process imparted a resplendent depth. The base coat of Gold Mine gold was shot over black and followed with four stages of metal flake, ice white, ice orange and abalone flake, and layered with candy yellow and orange for further vibrancy. The striping accents are off-white, shot with a classic white over a PPG black base. The number plate is decorated with a special variegated type of gold leaf that is applied by hand and smoothed out along with the sizing that holds the leaf in place, and finally hand-tapped so it looks absolutely even.L-Tek’s Felipe Salazar, who built the custom parts for the engine, observes, “Besides performance, we wanted to see what we could do to give each part a character and craftsmanship that was aerospace quality.” The abundance of aircraft aluminum and titanium throughout the bike underscores his point.
This goddess is not made simply to be adored; she must be obeyed, and Darla’s command is to ride her with commitment. Just under 300 pounds and propelled by 106 hp, with a torque curve that pulls enough to provoke wheelies when dropping the clutch, it’s a sensation that delights Rooke, like taming a wild mustang. He makes no bones about his intentions.“I build these bikes as entertainment. They’re loud, hairy, powerful mechanical beasts. They’re two-wheel hot rods.” In Darla, he has a beast that is as fast as it is beautiful, attaining 120 mph at El Mirage Dry Lake, and close to 140 on the drag strip at Willow Springs International Raceway. “The ride was amazing. I really had no idea we were going that fast.”
Rooke Customs will build several sisters of Darla. However, Rooke underlines that, for the moment, he is in no hurry to turn himself into a figurehead that simply directs an army of worker bees building ersatz customs. Being intimately hands-on with every build remains his mantra. “I want to stay true to what I do,” he says, “and make bikes so that the one who owns it feels like they’re the coolest person in the universe.”
Photography by Brian J. Nelson