The Catalyst

Why a BMW as my first café project? If you followed us on Northern Café Racers or read Where it All Began then you know I spent some time early in my career in aviation as a professional pilot. It’s the opposed cylinders you find in general aviation aircraft that led me to look for a BMW.

Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of vintage BMWs in Alaska.

I learned pretty fast that if a vintage bike - especially a BMW - ever hit Craigslist, eBay, or any other online ad listing, the average guy’s chances of getting that bike were greatly diminished. Once that listing goes live, you're competing with guys with more money, more time and more technology. There’s apps designed to scan online listings nationwide.

The only reason I bring this up is because, ironically, the first BMW motorcycle I purchased I found on Craigslist. I spent all of my time just pounding Craigslist, checking it all the time, trying to find a vintage BMW in Alaska.

Then one day a BMW popped up and I dropped everything and called to see if it was still available. It was. The bike was a 1974 BMW R90/6 that had 50,000 miles on it, which is about average. It had a fairing, luggage rack and auxiliary fuel tank. Which wasn’t surprising since those bikes were originally set up as touring bikes.

I knew what I wanted to do to the bike to make it my own, but you don't tell somebody that when you're going to buy the thing, so I did my best to keep my true intentions under wraps. I haggled with the guy and the whole time I was kicking myself because I knew I was going to pay the asking price. I was going home with this motorcycle. So I went through the motions and we haggled and I low balled him; I was kind of expecting his response of, "No, I think the price is fair." So I offered him a little more than the low ball price and he said, "No, I'm cool. I'm going to keep it where it’s at.” So I paid him exactly what he asked. 

After the deal was done and we shook on it, his whole demeanor changed and we relaxed a little. I chatted him up about the bike and some of the other things you don't ask during the sales process, like where the bike came from, what's cool about it, and what his history was. I did my thing which is to naturally fall into chatting with people and asking questions. We became really good friends throughout this whole process. 

After I had the bike, I rode it to work a dozen times since I have a quick 10-minute commute. Even though the bike was old and vintage, something was missing. I removed the fairing and luggage rack so it was just a simple motorcycle. But something still wasn’t right; I didn’t have that sense of satisfaction that I expected from riding. So one Friday night, I invited some friends over. After 17 or 20 garage beers, the motorcycle was in Ziploc bags and labeled. It was just done. We just tore it apart and then realized what we did. Now what? We had a motorcycle in bins and boxes and Ziploc bags. I wasn’t riding it to work on Monday, that’s for sure. So Friday night’s disassembling started the process of turning the bike into what I really wanted.

The problem was we tore the original motorcycle down in May, at the very beginning of our already short, intense Alaska riding season so I was kicking myself thinking, "We have to get this done now." I’d had the joy of riding on two wheels for about two weeks. It was a great feeling, the wind in my hair and all that other stereotypical jive. But suddenly the motorcycle was taken away. And I was back to four wheels, commuting in a little safety bubble. I really wanted that bike done quickly.

So we worked fast. We were working every single night: cutting, welding, grinding, and doing everything we knew to do to complete this motorcycle. And it got to be expensive. Parts ordered form the UK or Germany were express shipped just so we could get this bike done. 

And of course, what I really wanted zigged and zagged and changed directions several times throughout the process. I had my own ideas and every time I bumped into people they had their ideas. These days, getting inspired with new ideas is easy (and overwhelming) thanks to social media and Pinterest where you can scroll pictures from around the world to look at other people's work. So a fast-paced 14 weeks later, out came this green and cream café racer.

I lost big on that deal. As anyone knows, getting something done fast means paying more. But it was through this whole process that I learned a little bit more about networking and finding people's vices to get my project bumped up their list. It was a fun game for me. When I took something to a machine shop or a new vendor, naturally, I would tell them the story behind the project. They typically responded with “Okay, cool. That will be 2 weeks.” But I was impatient. So I’d continue the conversation to figure out what they were into. “You look like a Bourbon guy" or I’d jokingly ask, "How about a box of white wine?" You know the nastiest stuff I could think of, and they’d get a chuckle out of it. You'd be amazed at what you can get done in a small town with bribes of beer and pizza. That simple step of taking a few seconds to get to know somebody made all the difference. Once you showed that you cared about them, it really put you at the top of their list. I figured that out pretty quickly and stuff got done fast. 

That was probably the biggest takeaway at the end of this first motorcycle build; the people and taking an extra 20 seconds to get to know them. Buying them a bag of Laffy Taffies because they had a sweet tooth. Actually showing that I cared about them got my stuff done faster. They loved it because I wasn't the average customer. I wasn't just the guy that dropped stuff off, picked stuff up and paid the bill. I was the guy that would sit and BS to get to know them. I knew about their kids and what they were into. Doing that added a certain human element that seems so lacking in today’s world. 

There were half a dozen people involved in the process of building that first motorcycle, which was fantastic because I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I learned a ton about people along the way. I learned a ton about motorcycles along the way. All of which you just can't get off the Internet. The Internet is full of nice pictures and a lot of eye candy, so it's real twitchy figuring out who makes what parts and who can solve your specific problems. Do you have to ship the part out to some guy in California or can it be done locally? 

So the result of that fast, 14-week build was my 1974 BMW, Land Rover green with MG white-brown pin striping. I’m pretty proud of that bike, basically built by a bunch of dudes drinking and beating on a motorcycle to shape it into what it’s become. It was featured in BMW Magazine and in OTL (On the Level) - the BMW Rider’s Association Magazine. It was all over the place online. It did really well aesthetically and of course, we staged it in a really unique Alaskan machine shop that showcased the really clean, shed-built motorcycle.

In spite of my impatience, this fast-build provided all kinds of cool takeaways. The lessons we learned in those 14 weeks helped us tremendously as we tackled even more builds in the coming months.

And in case you’re wondering where I found all those vintage bikes to rebuild…it wasn’t Craigslist.

Press Links

Bike Shed - December 2013

BMW Motorcycle Magazine - March 2013

Northern Catalyst Video

Video Credit: Nomad Cinematics (formerly Sons of Winter Productions)