Californians love to customize. Perhaps it is the ripple effect of the perpetuity of pilgrims seeking stardom at The Dream Factory, but it seems everybody in the Golden State has their own shtick. California culture is all about making life, and especially work, serious fun. And why do business if you can’t be casual?
Ryan Reed has shtick. Living his dream, he has created custom motorcycles and automobiles for the legendary So-Cal Speed Shop, recognized as the paragon of the genre since its origins in the 1940s, when its hot rods ripped up the dry lakebeds on which they raced.
Whether he is managing the build of a ’32 Ford Highboy at So-Cal, or glamming the ’08 Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe profiled here, under his own shingle, Reed’s Ride Designs, Reed’s expression of eccentricity is welded to a solid framework of aesthetics and engineering.
"Some guys will make these outrageous components rather than focusing on the overall bike," Reed points out. "But for me, it’s important that not any one thing gets your attention-it’s the total effect that matters."
Born into a family both artistic and mechanical, Reed approaches his creations much as an Impressionist painter does, standing back from the canvas, often bringing the unfinished work out into the natural light so he can see every flourish and every flaw before he takes it to finish. "Rolling your stuff outside and looking at it from a distance-or from the kind of perspective you’d see if it was going by, like a three-quarter rear view-is really important," he says.
Born and raised in Corona, home for the past century to a rich variety of motorsports endeavors, the now 30-plus Reed treasures his memories. Photographs of his father looking like an extra from a Nancy Sinatra biker flick, and the custom motorcycles the senior Reed built, adorn reedsridedesigns.com. From his teenage years onward, the Life of Ryan was bound to metal and motor. He sought out the gurus of his craft, apprenticing to "Fat Jack" Robinson, who had been building street rods ever since the term had been invented. Suitably schooled, he then convinced the irascible founder of So-Cal, Pete Chapouris, to give his portfolio a glance and a greenhorn his shot.
The investment paid dividends, as Reed became a significant contributor to a shop that consistently takes home the blue ribbons and silverware at hot rod shows like the prestigious Grand National Roadster Show in Orange County, among others. While he enjoys the awards, Reed eradicates pretension from his mindset. "I don’t believe in building machines that sit on a pedestal," he says. "I want people to have fun riding the wheels off my bikes."
For the Texas-based owner of the Reed Softail, Reed continued to elaborate upon his ability to, as he puts it, "do motorcycle styling with an automotive feel." He cites the late, venerated Ed "Big Daddy" Roth as one of "the guys who are car builders who roll over into bikes, and vice versa." He respects Roth as a man "true to his own style. Sometimes people try to pressure you to build something that looks like something else they’ve seen. But you just have to stick with what you know, because that’s what works."
Taking as familiar a ride as the Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe and giving it the Reed treatment meant recasting the mold, rather than breaking it. The motorcycle in stock form suggests both Clark Gable and Elvis, but the idea that one would be just another in a crowd of Softail Deluxes is anathema to individualists. For Reed, the key was restraint. "You don’t have to be cutting edge to be cool," he says. "So it was really a process of taking away and making some very subtle but special modifications."
Gone is the festival of chrome, replaced by flat black. The forms have been made leaner, without losing the voluptuousness. The hand-formed sheet metal dash; lowered and repositioned fenders; shaved turn signals and emblems; modified ’38 Chevy taillight; and leather-lined vintage tool box that doubles as storage, add up, one-by-one, to a makeover that is complete without being extreme. But, perhaps it is the color that is most exceptional. Think hot butterscotch-a smooth Isaac Hayes riff that punches and seduces at the same time.
The essence of Harley remains, but Reed discreetly amplifies it. "It’s an exciting challenge to adjust what factory designers have come up with, turning it into what you think the bike should look like," he explains.
Stepping away from the vehicle, the interface of form and function gives one pause. The bike fits the rider like those made-for-walkin’ boots fit Nancy, with just enough swagger to let you know it means business. Business casual, of course.
Photos by Cordero Studios