Baltimore Chop

$100,000 ride: A custom motorcycle shop succeeds in turning a plebian symbol into an upper-middle-class fantasy.

March 25, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Larry McCullough's long nights of tinkering in his garage on a motorbike he bought for $1,000 as cheap transportation are over.

He still gets to tinker, but the stakes are higher: Today, clients pay him $30,000 to $100,000 to build them a bike from the ground up.

McCullough has sold or designed motorcycles for television news anchors, bank executives, former professional football players and restaurant owners. One of the bikes at his expansive garage in Southwest Baltimore's Pigtown/Washington Village is being customized for the vice president of Under Armour, the Baltimore sportswear company.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Business section misidentified the location of the Orange County Choppers motorcycle shop. It is in Rock Tavern, N.Y. The Sun regrets the error.

Custom bikes are a growing, if small, segment of the motorcycle industry, fueled in part by corporate executives and baby boomers with disposable cash and an urge to hold onto vanishing youth.

"In their working role, they've got a lot of restrictions on them and they've got people above them to answer to," said Carey Brown, director of marketing at the American Motorcycle Institute in Daytona Beach, Fla. "This allows them to show the rebel off in their soul."

One sign of the trend is the popularity of the Discovery Channel's American Chopper program, which tracks the daily happenings of a Long Island motorcycle shop, the Orange County Choppers. The show achieved such cult status that America Online Inc. used its characters in a series of Super Bowl commercials this year.

Motorcycle sales have climbed for the past 11 years, including last year when they were up 6 percent. About 996,000 motorcycles were sold in 2003, up from 936,000 in 2002. Custom-made bikes make up about 3 percent to 5 percent of the market, according to California-based Motorcycle Industry Council.

Harley-Davidson Inc., the revered Milwaukee manufacturer that is the nation's only major motorcycle maker, a decade ago was making a limited number of customized bikes. That opened the doors for independent shops to begin their own work.

"As the industry changed a little bit, there became a niche market that was independent of Harley-Davidson," said Don Brown, president of DJB Associates, an Irvine, Calif., research company that follows the trade. "People wanted a more extreme-type bike that they couldn't get from Harley. They wanted their own personal bike and had money to pay for it."

A year ago, McCullough's company, then called Pro Paint & Fabrication, was about to fold. Though skilled in the art of motorcycle maintenance, he couldn't manage the books, he admits.

"The enjoyment I used to feel for what I love to do was being absorbed by all the paper cuts I was getting from doing so much desk work," he said.

A friend he'd met years before in a bar talking about motorcycles came to his aid. Don Fishell was running an industrial maintenance company with his two sons. The Fishells, two of them motorcycle fanatics, considered McCullough a legend and didn't want to see him shut down. So, they offered to become his partner.

They changed the name of the company to MF Motorsports and moved it from a 7,000- square-foot facility to a 27,000- square-foot garage on Wicomico Street. By expanding into custom motorcycle parts, clothing and hybrid cars, the group hopes to expand MF into a $100 million company.

Don's son, Jason, the only member of the family who doesn't ride, agreed to handle the finances of the business. McCullough would have all the time he needed to work on bikes. Don Fishell would help with the artwork.

"Some people buy boats when they retire," Don Fishell said. "I'm doing what I love."

The team also brought on Shawn Darby, an information technology specialist and a friend of McCullough. He modernized the shop and computerized orders and inventory, although McCullough still preferred pen and paper.

The shop has dozens of bikes in the works at a time. One day this week, they were creating a Star Trek-themed bike for a client, complete with an airbrushed picture of a pinup girl in a Star Trek uniform. The owner also wanted a picture of the Enterprise spaceship on the front.

"I think they're just way ahead of the curve," said Jim Deakins, a First Mariner Bancorp executive who ordered new frames, pipes and a paint job for his motorcycle. "They're very innovative and they do incredible work."

Deakins began riding bikes as a kid, but bought his first after graduating from high school because it was the only vehicle he could afford. Now he owns two bikes and rides them mostly for fun, and sometimes to work.

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