American V-Twin Chopper
The chopper brings out the animal in us. No matter how self-effacing or demure we may claim to be, the presence and defiance of these motorcycles stirs the renegade within. With the bikes elongated crouches, they are like Dobermans ready to pounce, packages of barely controlled violence balanced on the edge of beauty and lethality. Baring their teeth, their engines growl the challenge to us: command them, or live forever in fear of them.
So it is with Big Dog Motorcycles. Out in the heartland that is Kansas, the new canine kings of the road are bred. Founded in Wichita in 1994 by Sheldon Coleman Jr., whose family’s century-old line of outdoor and camping equipment remains a global benchmark, and whose success has facilitated the indulgence of his two-wheeled passion, the enterprise is rooted in stout stock.
Coleman Sr., son of founder W.C. Coleman, personified the character of the engaged clan. Described as "a blend of superlative sportsman and masterful businessman," Coleman Sr.’s accomplishments included creating athletic scholarships at Wichita State University and paddling some 5,000 miles and. "Don’t let life put you back on your heels," he declared. "Lean into it." A prescient statement most assuredly, for the values of his legacy imbue the motorcycles built by his son.
Cruising the Hollywood Hills, the Big Dog Bulldog is a strident presence. Photography by Don Williams. (Click images to enlarge)
Big Dog Motorcycles, or BDM as they are often known, has produced some 20,000 examples. With 250 employees, BDM stakes its claim as the world’s leading manufacturer of street-pro customs and choppers and number two among America’s V-Twin companies. "Like many enthusiasts, Mr. Coleman started out customizing his own ride. As friends saw what he did, and friends told friends, a business was born. Seeing the growing niche for custom bikes, and a need for an alternative to mass-market production, he set out to build the best custom motorcycle in America," explains Paul Hansen, the firm’s Public Relations Director. "So, he dictated that not only would Big Dog motorcycles look dramatic, they would also incorporate the best in technology and functionality. Our objective is to satisfy the client who wants to make an intense and definitive personal statement and appreciates our combination of meticulous finish, aircraft quality materials, and top-drawer engineering and performance."
I reflect upon these statements as I meet the Big Dogs at Carl’s Speed Shop in Daytona Beach, Florida. Daytona is misrepresented by the narrow perceptions that result from the annual invasion of half a million bikers and the publicity that pretends they are mostly of outlaw stripe. In fact, Volusia County and surrounding areas offer a quality of life increasingly appreciated for its balance of seaside and sylvan beauty with energetic urban spaces.
From Orlando to Ocala, up to St. Augustine and down to Cape Canaveral, the motorcyclist will find that an empty stretch of satisfying blacktop is never more than just a thought away. On any given day, one will be saluted on multiple occasions by fellow riders on cruisers, choppers, dual sports, tourers, and sportbikes, whose mounts are more often than not daily drivers. No one looks at you strangely if you show up at the office in your leathers and lid. Even the local constabulary is properly munificent, for most of them are motorcyclists, too.
In this setting, a motorcycle such as the Big Dog becomes more than simply a fashion statement destined to putter from garage to hangout and back again. Here, these hounds can hunt. Loosed off the chain, they can run at the head of the pack and vindicate the inspiration that has given them life.As for Carl Morrow’s establishment, it mirrors the matter-of-fact reverence for motorcycling that is omnipresent in Daytona Beach. In sharp contrast to the all-American retro-style signage that marks the spot, the building is fronted by a waterfall that would not be out of place in a Japanese garden. Housing showroom and shop, the edifice radiates an unaffected, elegant simplicity, like the man who built it.
Morrow is a legend among motorcycle tuners, with a reputation built over 40 years of performance engineering and a client list that has included Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, bad boy builder Jesse James, Evel Knievel, and the Sultan of Malaysia. Morrow has ridden more than his share of runs on the Bonneville Salt Flats at close to twice the ton. His array of patents and innovations has earned him guru status among the cornucopia of Harley-Davidson aftermarket fabricators. Morrow’s Typhoon carburetor, Ram Air kit, special grind cams and gear drive kits have powered the pride of Milwaukee to record-shattering heights. His trophies and photos populate the pinewood panels of his impeccably manicured showroom. But like most exceptional individuals, Morrow speaks softly and with self-deprecation. (Click image to enlarge)
Morrow confirms that the Big Dog is as high style and cutting edge as it purports to be. "We looked long and hard at this product before we made the decision to become a dealer," he says. "We’ve made the commitment to representing them exclusively because, well, the quality speaks for itself." A walk-around confirms that affirmation. "Look closely. See just how much billet aluminum is used to make this bike. These braided steel brake lines with a special coating. The precision of the joins and welds. Big Dog pays attention to all the little details."
Lined up alongside each other, the children of Sheldon Coleman Jr. are a gleaming invitation to explore the beast within. All powered by the esteemed overhead valve, 1900+ cubic centimeter, 45-degree V-twin motor from S&S, the current quintet of Big Dogs—K-9, Mastiff, Pit Bull, Chopper and Bulldog—are defined by subtle distinctions. They weigh in around 700 pounds; all feature Baker six-speed transmissions, electronic single-fire ignition, primary chain drive and belt final drive. Four-piston calipers, front and rear, promise secure stopping. Except for the rigid Pit Bull, a hidden shock rear suspension mitigates the effects of less-than-agreeable pavement. The fat 300 rear tire runs across the range, with the Chopper being the exception. The Bulldog distinguishes itself with its 56mm inverted front suspension, whereas the rest of the family employs 41mm telescopic forks.
With a 77-inch wheelbase and a length of over eight-and-a-half feet, I contemplate, with a mixture of excitement and reserve, the prospect of experiencing this handsome animal out on the road. Here in the epicenter of the motorcycle universe, where rebels and racers have woven their one-upmanship into the tapestry of Daytona’s biker history, I imagine myself aboard the Bulldog, strutting with the best of them. Morrow makes the offer I dare not solicit. "Come by tomorrow," he beckons. "We’ll take her out. And you can see for yourself."
The morning of our ride has come. The master is astride his own hand-built one-off, a massaged H-D whose mojo has been awakened by Morrow’s magic. The Bulldog poses for me, waiting. The boys at Carl’s Speed Shop have started up the 117 cu in V-twin mill, and it emits a low, steady growl. My soles crunch the fine shale of the driveway as I approach, and my soul is singing the outlaw beat of a highway hymn. My adrenalin pump is in overdrive. In my mind—or is this all a lucid dream?—I see the shadow of an angel sitting on the tail of the beast, a blonde vision in denim and leather, a down-home gal whose blood is as hot as she is cool. It is my male ego inventing her of course, I know, and it is the Bulldog’s karma soaking into my ethereal self. There’s some right powerful juju in this bike, and I haven’t even ridden it yet.
I swing into the saddle of "my" Big Dog and the fantasy merges with reality. My angel is nesting herself behind me, her slim frame fused to mine as she coos, "Hey baby, this dog is soooo bad." My right wrist flicks, the accelerator twists, and the S&S engine barks like a thousand whips cracking. I am a meteor sling-shot down a flaming road, windblown, muscles flexed, screaming out my glee like one of the Divine Horsemen of the Apocalypse.In just a few moments, the Bulldog and I have become friends. Morrow leads me along our day’s route, and he has cleverly chosen a variety of road configuration and surface. The Bulldog proves its worth accordingly. As we surge forward, the power and finish impress equally. The controls are crisp and all of a piece; this is clearly a custom designed and built with rigor and coherence. The bike communicates solidity and confidence, and I enjoy the suppleness of the machine. Its chassis delivers handling that belies the length and weight of the bike, making it feel like an extension of my newly discovered "bad" self. The suspension tames irregularities in the tarmac. The engine provides useable power across the curve, with instant excitement on tap, its sharp growl raising the hairs on the skin. My angel is smiling.
From a more real-world perspective, the ergonomics of the Bulldog present no evident issues. The chassis balance and smooth power can be exploited by riders of various physiques, irrespective of sex, as male and female Dog lovers will testify. The reach to the bars is not extreme, and the seating position is a natural one.
An all-day excursion saddled up on your new best friend along the back country roads around Volusia County, speeding along past the farms and forests, punctuated by pauses at the panoply of watering holes, juke joints and fish camps is an escape into a time warp that will not fail to please. As Morrow points out, the purpose of this kind of motorcycle is to provide a means of intense and satisfying escape, almost like a psychological cleansing. "It’s a bike you can ride for even a half hour," he says, "and whatever was on your mind, well, doesn’t really matter anymore." Type A personalities, take note.
As we pull back in to Carl’s Speed Shop, the urge to acquire a Big Dog looms large. The impression is indelible. My pulse is racing with the charisma that emanates from a custom meant to be ridden with an intensity to match the stares it elicits. Enthusiasts will be hard pressed to resist the idea of a Bulldog in their kennels.
Expounding on Big Dog’s future with understandable enthusiasm, Hansen says, "We are now a true OEM, with full two-year factory warranties and finance programs. Focusing our strategy on serving the discerning client has paid off. Our order book is healthy, and we expect to roll our 25,000th bike off the line by spring 2008. We are full members of the Motorcycle Industry Council and committed to securing our position at the upper end of the market."
True to the desires of its constituents, Big Dog Motorcycles offers a complete array of personalization choices from paint schemes to performance parts. For those who wish to travel two-up, suitable seating can be arranged. They also organize events around the country where Dog owners can show off their best of breed.
Wichita has reason to be proud. A unique poetry is woven in the winds that caress the Kansas plains. It celebrates our individuality and our incontrovertible need to become one with our destiny; as noted motorcyclist Bob Dylan sang, "To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free." No matter what chains the world may put upon us, or we upon ourselves, the motorcycle allows us to slip their bonds, and live all of our lives in a single minute. This spirit is unleashed in the Big Dog Bulldog.