Strolling the rows and rows of custom and semi-custom choppers and bobbers that populate bike shows nowadays is overwhelming. What began as an iconoclastic exercise in personalization has become something of a commodity. These extreme machines are no longer the emblem of the self-proclaimed fringe; they are a category of limited production motorcycles. While displays of extreme design abetted by unlimited budgets continue to result in motorcycles that are sculpture rather than transportation, one company has chosen to focus on satiating the demand for those whose desires are more tempered.
From its factory just outside of Pittsburgh, Hardbikes is rolling out a custom that is truly tailored to the customer. The origins of the operation are rooted in the entrepreneurship and ingenuity of the founder, inventor Gene Kirila, cited for his innovation and accomplishments in lean manufacturing by no less than Time and Fortune magazines. Making his mark in the physical education machines that became the well-known Cybex brand, he then developed Virtual Engineered Composites, whose patented fully-automated closed molding technology has revolutionized the recreational marine industry. The lessons learned convinced him that his knowledge base and capital could be applied to building customer-centric custom motorcycles.
Kirila believed that riders wanted a bike that specifically fit them. His view of many customs was that they made owner/riders contort themselves into extreme postures that were, he felt, ultimately self-defeating and even unsafe. He also believed that it was possible to offer a custom for an affordable price—an entry point of about $20,000—while providing a comprehensive menu of personalization options. Gathering around him a brain trust steeped in the intricacies of the two-wheeled world, and after a year of research and development, Hardbikes began operations in 2005. With 600 orders on hand in the first year alone, the company has been ramping up its production line and dealer network. "Hardbikes is unique because every bike it builds will be designed by a customer with the support of a Hardbikes-trained designer based at one of Hardbikes dealers." Kirila stated at the company’s launch. "Our customer designs the bike of his dreams, and we build it for him."
"Work Hard, Play Harder" being the company’s motto, the goal is to make choosing and building your Hardbike enjoyable, as well as simple. One’s quest for the machine of your dreams might begin at the company’s stand at the next major bike show. You might be greeted by Bob Kay, who heads up Sales and Marketing for the company, drawing on his extensive industry experience. "This is a new way to buy a custom motorcycle," Kay states confidently as he sizes you up for your new Hardbike. "The industry has recognized us for our innovation in designing with a custom fit. We’ve come up with a system so that the individual can have all the features in their motorcycle that they like personally."
Contemplating and interacting with the jigs that assist you in matching your height, reach, leg length and preferred seating position to your bobber or chopper is not unlike getting a custom-made pair of shoes where a cast is made to match your foot, or having your measurements replicated on a tailor’s dummy as the template for your bespoke suits.
As Kay adjusts the variety of mechanisms that determine rake, trail, handlebar position and seat height, it’s easy to see the ergonomic influence of Gene Kirila’s background in gym equipment manufacturing.
The design configuration is assisted by a computer program that invites the buyer to select from a menu of features and build in real-time at a dealer or online, at his discretion. "This takes us back to the original idea of customization, where the customer can make their choices before the bike is built," Kay says. "The software program allows you to pick the model, the colors, the wheels, the graphics, and any type of option you’d like to upgrade your motorcycle."
The complete catalogue of options approaches almost a million possible combinations,"but that’s just part of the program," Kay explains. "The magic really begins after you’ve selected the bike and we actually fit it to you so you have a more comfortable and safer ride. Hardbikes has created a comfort triangle formula that calculates what we call an individual’s Hardrider number, which dictates the relationship between foot peg, handlebar and seat position. The result will be a perfect fitting bike, every time." As Kay makes the attendant adjustments on the jig, from neck angle to bar stretch and angle, peg position to seat angle and height, he answers the questions that most riders ask only after they’ve logged their first hundred miles and nursed their aching joints on other machines. "With a Hardbike, you’ve got a machine that suits you and your riding style," he says.
In contrast to "showroom customs", built on spec and delivered to the dealer to vie for the favor of potential buyers, Hardbikes has opted for the modern just-in-time business model, with its manufacturing driven by the orders it receives. This is intended to liberate dealers from the obligation of static inventory and the burden of that investment, so Hardbike dealers can remain focused on optimizing customer and cost-value relationships. (Click image to enlarge)
"We wanted to address what we felt were three key issues in the custom motorcycle world," Kay continues. "One, we wanted to get the end user back into being actually involved in the design process; two, to allow a customer to make the bike fit them at the time of manufacture, rather than after the purchase; three, achieving a safer ride through better ergonomics." Hardbikes maintains that personalization anchors their manufacturing philosophy. "When we talk about build-to-order, we feel most companies really use that as a marketing angle, whereas, that aspect is really at the core of what we do and how we do it," Kay says. "Every bike we build takes advantage of our lean manufacturing technology and marries it to a true made-to-measure approach." If a customer decides to select a model off a dealer’s showroom floor, the adjustability can be carried out on-site, as Kay points out, "in as little as two hours, because our dealers will stock the handlebars and mounts for very little inventory cost."
This customer-centric relationship also carries over to sales of pre-owned Hardbikes. "Another advantage of our system is that when the bike is resold, the new owner can have it re-fit to suit them, while maintaining all of the warranty features," according to Kay, "and that strengthens the value in the secondary market." (Click image to enlarge)
While the current Hardbikes website includes a version of the configuration software used by the dealers, Kay says the company plans ongoing improvements that will eventually result in the prospective buyer being able to fully explore his imagination in a virtual environment, not unlike some of the online programs some custom luxury yacht builders now propose. "The whole idea is for us to be fluid, so we can respond to our clients in the most agile and suitable ways," Kay explains, "and it’s a tremendous learning process for us that connect us constantly to a changing marketplace and changing tastes." Kay adds that the company fully appreciates the element of spontaneity that compels a custom motorcycle aficionado to want to experiment with a seemingly endless choice of options, while admitting there are those who simply want to mix-and-match options. "After all, this kind of motorcycle is really an impulse buy," Kay says, "so we want to make it as easy and fun as it can be while delivering the product that satisfies our client."
Some of that market input has resulted in the creation of specific models premiered at industry and consumer shows. "At Cincinnati this year, we featured a 200 rear tire, 36-degree rake soft tail with full touring fenders, a 5-gallon tank and a touring seat," says Kay, "that showed just how we can appeal not only to the hard-core custom audience but also the one that wants some every day practicality." (Click image to enlarge)
Two basic iterations serve as the platform for all Hardbikes, in chopper and the pro-street bobber styles. Powered by venerated V-twin engines from S&S Cycle, and transmissions from the trusted brand Baker, Hardbikes also proposes several sets of skins meant to resonate with classic and radical sensibilities. The plethora of paint schemes and accessories, sourced from the industry’s leading aftermarket vendors, is staggering.
Entering the market last year with ten models using six different chassis configurations, the full line of bikes was premiered at Sturgis Bike Week. The various Pro Street, Neo Bobber, Softail, Rigid, Chopper and Retro versions in 330, 300 and 200 trim (so-named for their rear tire dimensions) look the part, and extensive product testing confirms their robust fabrication. An exclusive two-year warranty with unlimited mileage speaks to the commitment of Hardbikes to its product line and vision. Given the growing desire for personalization, they may well have found a sweet spot. Riders will rejoice at their freedom of choice.