I had a chance to get away from the shop for a few days and decided to fly down and see my friend Billy Lane. There was no event, no bike to shoot, just a chance to hang out and relax with one of the best bike builders I know.
Billy’s shop is much more low key now, just business, like it was when he started. I spent the better part of two days helping Billy work on a Shovel that gave us a real challenge. I think if I tried to explain what we did, it would seem rather passé, but it was one of the best times I’ve had in a long time. The joking around, sharing stories, making up a few more, and just hanging in the shop with the bike as centerpiece were priceless.
After spending the day in the shop we hung out in his house on the ocean; a place I could get used to fast. Side stepping the bikes strewn along the various rooms, sitting on hard wood floors, made for a striking contrast to the otherwise very contemporary home. We talked bikes, music, and just general bullshit. I noticed Billy has some daily routines: drink coffee, play the guitar, watch the sun come up. He remarked that he tries to re-group every day on a daily basis no matter what. Get all the negativity out of your life and then learn that there is a lot of good there. Every day he rides one of his motorcycles to work (30 miles one way) and sometimes does the trip twice a day. He rides everywhere he can; it reminds him why he does what he does. Motorcycles have been a major driving force and central focus of his life for 20 years. Some people have a house full of kids and that’s what drives them; he has a house full of motorcycles. This is where he invests his time and money.
Billy remarked that he thought motorcycles were going to have huge resurgence, like they did in the 20’ and 30’s. People are going to realize the fuel economy of a bike, and embrace them like never before. First, they will buy cheap imports, then they will graduate to more elaborate and expensive models. And then there will be the status seekers, who have to have the best of whatever is popular. People like us, who have always made our way in the motorcycle business, will always be here. Others will come and go.
All this worked up an appetite. What else are you going to eat besides seafood on the beach? I had something off the fresh caught list, a diet coke and probably more bread sticks than I should have. In regards to Choppers Inc, Billy feels that wherever the industry is going is where they’re going. Billy’s been in the business now for 20 years this year and is fully committed at this point. Motorcycles are about 100/105 years old now and the custom scene is 70 or 80 years old really and if you look at the past 10 or 15 years, Choppers Inc. has re-found choppers and now has re-found bobbers. It’s not that bobbers or choppers have ever gone away, but as a public, we have re-found them. Billy said that he is looking into what created the initial interest years ago: Speedway Dirt Track Racing and Boardtrack Racing. Before they were going to Bonneville they were doing it right here in Ormond Beach, Florida in the early 1900’s. Glen Curtis was racing his bikes and breaking speed records.
Some more bread sticks and we started talking about Knuckleheads and Flatheads. Because of their popularity, Flatheads and Knuckles use to be worthless and now people are paying a premium for them. Billy’s Henderson is less than an $8000 build. That’s all he has in it. He built functionality into the bike, something I can relate to. Billy said he thinks about what it’s going to be like to work on it and what problems may occur. You see all these show bikes and are you going to ride them cross county? Are you going to ride them on a 500 mile or 1500 mile trip? He tries to make it interesting again.
This is not to say that Billy has lost interest in choppers, quite the contrary. He still loves choppers and he’s still going to build them. But he’s always liked bobbers, that’s really what he liked before he was even into Choppers. As I recall, when Hammer first ran across Billy and Warren in Sturgis, it was a bobber style Knuck that caught his eye. Billy says there is so much that is unexplored out there and that is what he’s interested in. “There is a future, a present and a past. I have no interest in the present; what is coming out of Milwaukee today, they will never be classics. The future, who knows what that will be? It could be interesting or boring. I hope to make it interesting. But the past has a lot of interesting stuff out there. I’ve never been a big horsepower guy. I’ve always been like, let’s strip ‘em down like they use to before people knew how to make horse power so that’s what I’ m doing. I’ m making 300 pound or less motorcycles that don’t make monster horse power but they pack a huge punch. I think we all need something to look at and say, ‘Wow, that’s cool and inspiring.’ ”
Anyone who knows me knows that I need a Starbucks x every hour, so after stuffing a few extra bread sticks in my official Stevenson Cycles dress/ casual/work shirt, we made our way over to a Starbucks for something that didn’t sound too French.
I asked Billy if it was true that he couldn’t get a motorcycle when he was younger. “Yeah, my brother cut his knee on a chain from a mini bike when we were kids and mom and dad said that was it, no motorcycles for either of you ever. Luckily, he stood up to them and got one and created a diversion for me to sneak in and get mine. My first bike was a 1950 Panhead that I bought as a basket case. The guy’s wife told him to sell that piece of shit. I made an offer and the guy said no. I started pulling out of the driveway and she cane running out yelling, ‘come back, come back’ and out he came hanging his head and sold me his motorcycle. It worked out for me. The things is, today things are kind of like they were when I bought my bike. You can still get them cheap again, and if you want one, because you really want one, then it’s out there. If you want one because you think you are going to get it and become Jesse James then it isn’t going to happen.”
We talked about the value of an education. I don’t know how many of you now it, but Billy went to Florida State. He made a promise to his parents that he would go to college and graduate and he did, with a degree in engineering. Ironically, he couldn’t relate to the corporate types and preferred the company of bikers who had been around and had bike shops; that’s what interested him.
“My brother and I, back when we lived in Miami, were still in high school. He had a bike shop and was dating this girl from Sweden. South Beach was a big vacation spot for people from Sweden and Europe. She would bring back these Swedish chopper magazines and they all had wide rear tires on them or car tires on them and we had never seen rims like that. We had her bring one back for us and all it really was just a car rim. We went to the junk yard and found some rims off a Ford Econoline van and they were 15 X 8 1/2. Nobody had wheels that wide back then. So I started using an acetylene torch and cut the center out of the rim and ground it smooth and made a jig to drill the holes in the rim. Looking at a standard Harley 40 spoke lace pattern and lacing it to 16” spokes and into a 15” rim and instantly had motorcycle rims. That’s where I truly got started in parts, doing wheels. That was before they even had the Cincinnati Dealer Expo back so we took them to Indy and people were freaking out because the tire looked so wide, entirely different. Then the tire war started. I did one bike with a 280 and I was just like ok, that’s ridiculous and I was just done. My favorite of all the big tires is the 240. Really as far as main stream this is what I thought I was going to do for myself but now there are wheel companies everywhere. Everyone had to have Boyd wheels at one point. I try to stay away from saturation when I see it I move on to something else. I was making wheels and no one had the frames to put them with so I started making modifying and making frames. Then the frame industry took off. Everyone had to have a Rolling Thunder frame. They had to have that frame, Boyd wheels and a Merch motor and a Baker tranny. Baker has done really well. They have survived through it all. They make a great product and they don’t have any real competition. They have done really unique stuff and followed what the market demands. He does stuff that might not always seem like the best business move but he does what the market demands. That is why he is successful. I will sit sometimes and look at some old mags and ads. I look and see what was available and the prices. Look at the 90’s and what was popular and then just think in 5 years how different things will be again.”
Billy has a lot of new stuff. He gets into something and the flow comes and goes so he starts something else. He has some interesting projects he’s working on with the Waverly and the Henderson. The Henderson was mechanically one thing after another and now that it’s all worked out and he’ll start riding that a lot more.
The Starbucks was wearing off, so I tapped into the breadsticks and asked Billy about the Crocker. “I have a ’41 Crocker that I want to take my time with. They are hard to come by. I picked a Crocker (Jeff Decker’s) in a bike show awhile back and people were pissed about it, but that was because people didn’t really know them or their worth. I didn’t really care, I really liked the bike. At that time, I didn’t know how rare of a bike they were or what they were worth. Since then their value has gone up. I wanted one but didn’t think I could afford one. I just happened to walk into this in-line valve engine. Including the motorcycles there were only about 120 engines made. They made about 7 Hemi-head engines and then they had a lot of problems with them so they started making the in-line valve. There are only about 60 motorcycles left. I found engines but they were unaffordable. I finally found one in really rough condition and I worked it out so I could afford it. It needed a complete rebuild, a lot of broken stuff, a lot of welding and had to make a lot of parts for it. I did all the metal repair and then paid to have it built right. Now I am ready to build a bike around it. I am learning a lot about them and really learning what Crocker meant in its day so I can build the right kind of bike around it. I found a guy who had a frame and a front end and he wanted $35,000 for them. I didn’t have that and even if I did I wouldn’t have spent it on that. That gives you an idea of the value of a Crocker. Al Crocker was trying to compete with Harley and Indian. He made a way better product. He would build the bike after people would order it. He had a guarantee; if you bought a bike from him and you were beat in a race by a Harley or Indian he would give you your money back. He went out designed his own engine, trans, frame and front end and made a superior product. Then World War II killed his business. I think it’s a significant part of American Motorcycle history and I am lucky enough to have one and I value the significance of them.”
Right now Billy is working on a ‘38EL, 1000cc’s Knucklehead. He got it all in one piece, with the original fenders on it which he still has. He plans to eventually paint it to match and put it all back together. He built the HH Kelsey Hayes wheels for it because that’s what it’s suppose to have.
I asked Billy where his original shop was. “My dad and my brother had a shop in South Beach working on cars. Then my brother got me into motorcycles. I have been in Melbourne for 10 years this year, 10 years prior to that in Miami.”
I ran out of bread sticks and my caffeine levels were low, so I was running out of steam. I asked Billy what stands out as a truly memorable event. He paused and said, “I’d have to say if I had to pick one thing was when I went to Hawaii for the first time, we did this 4th of July show over there, with Indian Larry, Paul Cox, Mondo. It was pretty relaxing. We took our bikes over there and rode. That’s what I enjoy most; getting out and riding with the people who are kind of like minded.” He also mentioned he’d like to ride in Russia, so maybe we’ll see another burn out on Red Square?
As much as I respect Billy as a bike builder, I value our friendship more than anything. It was a pleasure spending time with him away from the maddening crowds. He is a gracious host and a true friend.
Written by: Steve Broyles