August 26, 2008
Motorcycle popularity has grown substantially in recent years, and many small shops that produce custom-made and limited-production motorcycles have sprung up. Two such shop owners, Brad Ruel of The Wrench and Mark Evans of Diablo Chop Shop, took it one step further and joined forces to combine their experience in designing and manufacturing semifinished (kit) motorcycles, completed bikes, and a substantial line of aftermarket parts.
It's no secret that motorcycles—and attitudes toward them—have come a long way since Marlon Brando roared onto the big screen on a Triumph Thunderbird® in “The Wild One.” Then a niche mode of transportation and a symbol of rebellion and lawlessness, motorcycles moved into the mainstream long ago. By many counts, motorcycle popularity has grown phenomenally in recent years. U.S. motorcycle sales tripled in eight years, from approximately 350,000 in 1997 to 1,100,000 in 2005, according to www.webbikeworld.com; motorcycle-oriented television shows number in the dozens; and attendance at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally grew from 400,000 in 1990 to more than 500,000 in 2007.
The trend is not just in motorcycle production; the aftermarket motorcycle parts industry is alive and well too. This industry feeds the compulsion of many motorcycle owners to strip standard parts from their bikes and replace them with unusual or unique parts.
Look a little closer at the motorcycle industry and you'll find a more radical element: motorcycle shops that supply unusual and unique motorcycles. Look beyond the big manufacturers, and you'll find plenty of small shops that manufacture one-of-a-kind motorcycles or limited-production models.
Two such shop owners, Brad Ruel of The Wrench and Mark Evans of Diablo Chop Shop, took it one step further and joined forces to combine their experience in designing and manufacturing semifinished (kit) motorcycles, completed bikes, and a substantial line of aftermarket parts.
Ruel didn't start out with any grand plan to design and build custom motorcycles. Granted, it seems like fate. He raced motocross in his youth, and before that his father built custom motorcycles for himself. Eventually Ruel outgrew motocross and gave up competitive riding, but he didn't give up motorcycles. He later bought a Harley-Davidson and was a customer at The Wrench, a shop in Orlando, Fla., that provided maintenance and repair services for Harley-Davidsons.
“I asked the owner if he was interested in selling the business, and the next thing I knew, I owned The Wrench,” said Ruel.
Ruel changed the shop's focus to building frames, parts, and complete motorcycles from scratch, using his own concepts and designs. It wasn't long before Ruel was winning competitions with them. Recognition and accolades came fast and furious.
“My first bike took the first place at the national Easyriders® Bike Show,” Ruel said. “My second won first place in a Rat's Hole competition. At Thunder By the Bay I won the Builder of the Year award.” He took first place at two other national Easyriders competitions and in 2005 was selected to build a cruiser-style bike on “Metric Revolution Motorcycle Build-Off,” a television series on ESPN 2.
Meanwhile Evans founded Pitbull Motorcycle Co. in 2001. The company produced 120 to 150 motorcycles a year, all custom, many one-of-a-kind. In 2006 he founded Diablo Performance, which focused on building sport bikes, metric cruisers, and structural parts such as swing arms.
Evans, whose shop also was in Orlando, met Ruel in 2001. Because their companies specialize in different areas—The Wrench in frames and sheet metal parts, Diablo in complete bikes and kits—they did some business together. Evans bought frames from Ruel, and it soon developed into a two-way exchange. When Ruel and Evans saw an opportunity to set up a shop in Sarasota, Fla., they formulated a plan to put the two companies under one roof.
A look around the shop The Wrench and Diablo share is all it takes to realize that motorcycle motifs are limitless. A motorcycle with a tiki motif has a distinctly Polynesian appearance. In keeping with the tiki concept—exaggerated faces carved in wood—the motorcycle has faces painted on the gas tank, rear fender, and tooled into the leather seat.
A Flash Gordon-inspired model has lightning bolts cut from 3/16-in. sheet metal and contoured so they match the curve of the gas tank. Another motorcycle is covered in skulls, large and small, in a variety of shapes and forms. More than 300 skulls.
Other paint jobs are tame—solid colors with contrasting stripes, for instance.
“We do everything from mild to wild,” said Ruel.
“Mild to wild” also describes some of the parts on the motorcycles. For example, one of Ruel's creations doesn't have down tubes, the tubular sections that form the lower portion of the frame and connect to the forks. An industrial-looking model, it is fitted out with a frame section from a truck frame. The frame and many of the motorcycle's components have been powder-coated in black, which provides a nice contrast against the forks, which are copper-plated. Ruel is willing to let the Gulf Coast environment work over the copper to see what develops.
The companies experiment likewise with swing arms, the structural parts that keep the rear wheel in place. Motorcycles generally have two. Several years ago the single-side swing arm appeared on racing motorcycles, which cut the time needed to change a tire. The style later appeared on street bikes. The Wrench and Diablo make both types.
“Mild to wild” refers to performance too. For example, 80 cubic in. is a standard engine size for custom motorcycles; The Wrench recently built a motorcycle with a 131-cubic-in. engine.
“It has twin superchargers, and it has never been on a dynamometer, so we don't know how much horsepower it has,” Ruel said. Of course, some are wild in appearance and performance. One of The Wrench's creations is a big, black bike that is part motorcycle and part car.
Performance is to go and appearance is for show, but much more important is a good, solid frame.
“We don't skimp on anything,” Ruel said. The industry standard for a neck is 1/4-in.-wall tubing, Ruel said. The Wrench uses 3/8-in.-thick tubing. The industry standard for the main tube is 0.120-in. wall thickness; The Wrench uses 0.156 in. Diablo and The Wrench make heavier-than-standard swing arms too.
Does using heavier-duty materials pay off?
“I have never had a frame break,” said Ruel.
They use a name-brand tube bender for many parts, but it doesn't do everything The Wrench and Diablo need. Specifically, the machine couldn't bend one of the swing arms the way Ruel wanted it bent. His next move was a typical entrepreneur/fabricator move.
“We put together our own setup,” he said. It's not sophisticated—a hydraulic press and some proprietary dies and fixtures—but it expanded the shop's capabilities. Ruel also tries to make the work as foolproof as possible. For example, every jig and fixture in the shop has a scribed centerline. Likewise, every tube that goes into one of these motorcycles has a scribed centerline. Centering a workpiece in a fixture is simply a matter of using a laser alignment tool to ensure the two centerlines line up. The shop also uses digital levels that are accurate to 1/10 of 1 degree.
Custom Models or Production Models? Although The Wrench is a custom motorcycle shop, it also has its own product line. Ruel has seven unique frames; three gas tank designs; and a handful of unique oil tanks, fenders, and primary covers. From these he developed a product line of seven distinct models—Fat Daddy, Hard Time, Pinch Hitter, Heavy Hitter, Big Papa, Stinger Soft-tail, and Stinger Rigid. This line has features, or combinations of features, that appeal to nearly every rider: a standard-height seat, a low-slung seat, dual swing arms, a single swing arm, high handlebars, low handlebars, an extra-wide rear tire, and so on.
“We have something for everyone,” said Ruel.
Zero-horsepower Models. Motorcycles welcome—indeed, they almost beg for—modification. Many motorcycle enthusiasts spent countless hours browsing biker magazines, searching for components to add a bit of individual flair to their bikes. At the extreme end are motorcycle customers who purchase a frame with wheels but no engine, transmission, or primary drive, which is known as a roller in the motorcycle business. Far from the dabblers who swap out mirrors or add a decal or two, this caliber of customer buys and installs the drive train himself.
The Wrench makes plenty of rollers. In 2007 The Wrench and Diablo put together 300 frames and sold about half of them as rollers.
It's not just all about building a better motorcycle. When Ruel and Evans teamed up, they set out to build a better motorcycle shop—one steeped in talent and capabilities.
First off, Ruel and Evans were careful to select skilled, capable, and easygoing people.
“Everybody here knows his job, and does his job well,” Ruel said. “Having too many egos under one roof has killed a lot of shops in this industry. Nobody here is more or less important than anyone else.”
Second, they have gone to great lengths to be independent. Other than the drive trains and a few small parts such as hardware, mirrors, and electrical components, The Wrench and Diablo fabricate nearly everything. Relying on their combined in-house capabilities for nearly all of the parts, assembly, and painting gives them extensive control over their schedules. As a whole, the motorcycle parts industry isn't known for timely deliveries, according to Ruel, yet on-time deliveries are an important part of their business.
“We don't have to wait on anyone for anything,” Ruel said. “We commit to a delivery date and we stick to it. Every bike has to be finished on time—otherwise we'll get no word-of-mouth advertising. Well, I should say, we'll get no good word-of-mouth advertising.”
Third, in addition to sharing manufacturing space—and therefore the overhead costs—the companies share information about manufacturing techniques and ideas and concepts for new motorcycle designs.
Ruel, whose accomplishments in many competitions and a television series have made him a celebrity in the custom motorcycle world, probably spends more time looking at motorcycles than building them.
“Brad makes quite a few appearances at local and national events,” said Evans. Ruel gets nearly continuous exposure to custom motorcycles, which is fuel for his creative streak. And while Evan's primary focus is on running the shop, he also gets out of the shop when he can, and remains a driving force in the shops' concepts and designs.
“Mark is always going 900 miles per hour, and he's good at spotting new trends, knowing what's new and what's next,” said Ruel.
Small motorcycle shops such as The Wrench and Diablo invite comparisons to well-known shops such as Orange County Choppers (OCC). They use many of the same processes and do many of the same things to achieve the same ends—producing custom motorcycles with unique themes and unusual paint jobs.
While OCC has a higher-profile show and arguably is more well-known, Ruel and Evans are confident that The Wrench and Diablo have skills and talents—mechanical aptitude, fabricating savvy, creative vision, a competitive spirit, and everything else that makes a custom motorcycle shop successful—that are on par with OCC's.
Apparently, OCC thinks so too. It recently paid The Wrench and Diablo the ultimate compliment.
“OCC recently hired three of our guys,” Ruel said.
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