Custom Rod and Bike Market Reality:Is There a Place in for Custom Engines? - Engine Builder Magazine
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Custom Rod and Bike Market Reality:Is There a Place in for Custom Engines?

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Have you ever dreamed of starring In your own reality television show? Is the human drama and bickering in your shop great enough to hold America’s attention week after week? Well, you may not impress the Nielsen families, but you could guest star as a custom rod or bike engine builder in your own local demographic.

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You may have noticed something while you flick through channels in the evening: American television is full of reality shows, and many are gearhead-friendly. With the proliferation of cable channels and automotive related television programs, hot rodders and custom bike builders are capturing our imagination like never before. Shows such as American Hot Rod and West Coast Choppers have allowed viewers inside the shops of these great builders and have revealed a few things. For engine builders, one of the most notable aspects is that the engines being installed in these vehicles are mostly of the crate variety. For the most part, custom rod and bike builders install crate engines in their machines, but that’s not always the case. And even when these builders do use crate engines often times they are modified in some way. Can engine builders find a foothold in this market?

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Over the past ten years or so, the custom motorcycle and hot rod markets have exploded. Everybody wants something different than the next guy, says one engine builder. In fact, to many, a hot rod or custom chopper is more than art alone; it’s the ultimate in self-expression, much like a tattoo. A custom bike can really portray an owner’s personality unlike any mass-produced motorcycle you can buy off the showroom floor.

The bike market overall has been a real juggernaut for more than a decade, with sales in 1992 of 296,000 bikes to over one million estimated bike sales last year. Much of the bike market growth has come from traditional manufacturers of sport bikes, cruisers and touring bikes, but custom bikes represent fairly healthy numbers in this niche market.

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Most of these healthy numbers can be attributed to the baby boomers in large part coming of financial age where many now have the wherewithal to afford the toys of their childhood dreams. According to some experts, the custom bike market is now full of expensive “kit” bikes all dressed up to look different yet the same. One engine builder referred to these machines as “yuppie choppers.” True – these bikes present a certain image or status that is very much in style right now, like BMWs were in the ’80s. But some engine builders in this market don’t believe there is much room left for custom engines.

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“In the last two or three years so much is now available in the aftermarket for Harley’s and other V-twin engines that I’ve lost about 80 percent of this work,” says Dana Johnson, Import Machine, just outside of Boston, MA. “Harley engines have become like small block Chevys: You can get anything for them these days. I’ve got some customers who ask me ‘should I have the dealer install new Screaming Eagle heads or should I have you port my heads?’ I tell them it’s their choice, but when I tell them that the bike is still under warranty if the dealer installs new heads, that’s where most people draw the line. The guys who have older bikes are still bringing their bikes to me, but around here there’s a lot of wealthy people and most are buying new bikes with warranties. Many of these guys take the new bike and add a few chrome pieces and call it a custom. That’s what I call a ‘Yuppie Chopper,’ and it’s all under warranty.”

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Although most of the bike market’s growth has been in new motorcycles from major manufacturers like Harley-Davidson, Honda and others, the custom chopper is the ultimate biker fantasy that expresses speed and art, and often with price tags as much as $100,000. Custom bikes evoke many emotions and have long been associated with the “outlaw biker” image that has been portrayed in Hollywood and now on cable television’s newest hits. But custom choppers are hardly for “bad boys” in today’s market. The custom bike market is largely made up of older, more affluent riders than the typical Harley-Davidson owner, and many see their bikes as salvation from their daily stresses. So the builders who cater to this market have a lot to deliver.

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“I’m a rider first and foremost,” explains Jim Feterle of Crooked River Choppers in Litchfield, OH. “I don’t build bikes only for shows. I build bikes that are fast that you can ride. I used to do a lot of service work for Harley’s mainly because there’s so much of that work out there, but I’m moving away from that and into what I really want to do – make things go fast and build nice bikes.”

Custom bike builders like Feterle typically use a variety of crate engines such as S&S, Rev-Tech and others, but often put more into the engines than what is stock. “We’re doing a lot of S&S hot setup kits and whatnot to get more horsepower from these engines,” says Feterle. “So even though we may purchase a crate engine, we don’t just leave everything bone-stock. We don’t do much of the machine work ourselves right now but in the next couple of months we’re going to add a full service machine shop so we can control everything a little better instead of farming things out all the time. But there are things you can do to the engines. For example, I have a 124 cid S&S motor sitting here for a customer’s bike we’re building (the engine is the first thing he buys and everything else is based around what he chooses for a powerplant). We looked at the whole package and then made choices on cams and things to where now the engine is putting out 130 hp.”

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S&S V-twin engines are a popular choice among custom bike builders and some of the biggest custom builders use these engines almost exclusively. One of the things custom builders like about the S&S crate engine is that it comes with a warranty. According to Feterle, a lot of people go that direction. He is now an authorized S&S Pro Tuning Center, which will enable him to work on the engines and add certain aftermarket parts without voiding the warranty of the engine.

While the crate engine may be a popular choice among custom rod and bike builders, it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to all builders and enthusiasts today. Industry experts say that the true meaning of “Custom” is that it’s not mass produced in any way. “The days of the run of the mill crate motors doesn’t impress anyone any more,” says noted hot rod expert, Doc Frohmader, editor, Webrodder.com, a resource of technical information about the industry, and fellow Engine Builder contributor. “When you lift the hood and all you have is a generic small block crate engine, no one will be impressed. What people really want to see is something different and unique.”

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The core of the hot rod industry, whether it’s bikes or cars, is based on passion for building something completely unique. With television programs like Overhaulin’ and Orange County Choppers using the industry as a platform for entertainment, it is further proof that there’s a great deal of passion for Custom Rods/Bikes among the large audiences who follow these TV shows. Industry insiders say that the sky is the limit for growth in the hot rod industry, fueled in part because of these shows. Some experts also believe that there is room for custom engine builders to carve out a niche in the market but there will always be crate engines to compete against. So engine builders who choose this path will want to look to build something you can’t buy from a box. “Cadillac, Ford FE and the Hemi are examples of engines that are not your run of the mill,” says Frohmader. He notes that Hot rods with engines like these are different enough that people will take notice and tip their hat with respect for choosing to follow a different path.

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The reality for engine builders looking to get into custom rod or bike markets is that there are a lot of crate motors to deal with, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to carve out a niche that will work for you. If you are interested in becoming involved with these markets you need to get out to local events, say industry experts. There are a ton of local car shows and bike rallies you can check out on the weekends and even make it a fun event for the entire family. After you get a good look and talk to people in your area about their needs and wants, you will have a much better idea about where you may be able to fit into the market. Many of the local rod and bike builders don’t have full service machine shops so you may be able to line up work for these types of shops if you show a genuine interest and produce quality work, of course. It’s one way to get a foot in the door, and you’ll be well on your way to starring in your own reality show in no time!

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The V-Twin Engine Past and Present

The V-twin motorcycle engine started out in 1903 with a whimper before success in the 1907 Indian motorcycle. Bill Harley designed Harley-Davidson’s first V-twin in 1908 but it proved to be a failure at that time until its redesign in 1911. Today, the popular V-twin is not just for Harley’s. Many manufacturers from Honda to Suzuki have adapted V-twin engines to their motorcycles. The V-twin cylinder configuration allows for optimum torque for a given displacement. And most V-twin engines use only one pin on the crankshaft big end so the pistons fire at almost the same time, giving the V-twin its unique, throaty, in your gut sound.

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