It's mean, loud - and it comes in pink

`Biker chick' producing motorcycles as more women take up riding

April 24, 2005|By M. Daniel Gibbard | M. Daniel Gibbard,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

HERRIN, Ill. - Christine Vaughn hits the starter on the low-slung chopper she designed and built, and as the pipes spit unmuffled thunder from a big chrome engine, she changes.

The self-described "good girl" and mother disappears, shoved aside by the outlaw biker chick from Alaska who created Wicked Women Choppers, the company she bills as the first run by women to design and produce bikes for other women.

Hear her roar? No, hear her rumble.

"We want it to be just as mean, just as bad as a guy's bike. We want to make it look like we're going to get off and take the boots to you," said Vaughn, 35, who has long blond hair, a husky smoker's laugh and a quick sense of humor thoroughly devoid of political correctness.

Her company's slogan - and philosophy of life - is borrowed from a Harvard professor: "Well-behaved women seldom make history."

The difference in the bikes, barely noticeable, is size. Vaughn, who is 5 foot 6, designs her motorcycles with narrower handlebars and a lower frame and seat that create a lower center of gravity and an easier reach.

"A wrong-size bike is not only uncomfortable, it's unsafe," she said.

Vaughn's vision has struck a chord with riders. She and her year-old company have been profiled in newspapers and magazines. A PBS station is recording the process as she and her team create a bike from the frame up, and an independent production company plans a reality show pilot.

Suppliers quickly jumped on board: Tool companies sent new gear to use in her shop, and dozens of dealers have asked about selling her lines, she said. She has received inquiries from prospective buyers in Japan and India.

This despite the fact that she just got her first firm order last week and has not begun production.

The attention has been a little overwhelming, she said. "I knew what the niche was," she said, but "I just had never anticipated the reaction. I wanted to just build a couple of bikes a year."

Instead, she said, she will probably end up producing about 50 annually once production is up to full speed, perhaps by late summer.

One reason for all the attention is the rapid growth in the number of women owning and riding motorcycles.

From 1998 to 2003, the estimated number of female owners jumped 36 percent, from 467,000 to 635,000, according to a survey by the Motorcycle Industry Council. Ridership increased similarly, and there are now more than 4 million women operators, the trade group says.

"We got tired of looking at the back of someone's helmet," said Lois Wyatt, a trustee with Women on Wheels, a riders club with more than 100 chapters.

Wicked Women's first model is the Shady Lady. It is lower to the ground than most men's bikes, with narrower handlebars and seat, among other features geared toward women.

The prototype sports a 96-cubic-inch - 1,600-cubic-centimeter - S&S motor, pipes that Vaughn designed and enough chrome to cause blindness.

On the other hand, its heart-shaped flames are painted fingernail-polish pink.

"It's a bike every man would be proud to ride except for the pink," said Vaughn, adding that she chose the color to show up in photographs.

"Women want to be macho," she said. "We want the loud pipes, the power, all the stuff that makes you feel you know what testosterone is all about."

With all the trimmings, the bike lists for $34,500, which she says is competitive with a similar Harley. She also plans a downscale version, the Vixen, and a hardtail (no rear suspension) model called the Black Mariah.

A seventh-generation Alaskan from the rough-and-ready island town of Ketchikan, Vaughn credits frontier roots for her independence.

Wicked Women Choppers' name comes from the Old West, Vaughn said, and refers to any woman who defied the conventions of the day.

The company motto is a quote from Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that Vaughn came across in a magazine about quilting, of all things.

"It's about women who are independent and live their own lives despite what society says," Vaughn said.

She got her first motorcycle when she was 10, a dirt bike from her father. When she began doing stunts on it, he decided she should channel her efforts into something slightly safer, such as racing.

Sometimes she competed against girls; other times she would enter boys' races as "Chris." When she finished in the top three, she would take off her helmet during the trophy ceremony and shake out her long hair.

That, she said, did not always go over well in conservative Alaska, though her father used to sit back and smile at the reactions.

Her brother, Dan Diamond, also raced, and she would watch as he tinkered with the machinery.

"It looked important, so I tried to do the same thing," she said. But, "I usually ended up with a lot of parts left over."

Her dad and brother just laughed, so she taught herself how to fix her own bike.

In her teens, she would "borrow" her brother's street bike, which is when she realized that the taller, top-heavy cycles were not made for someone her size.

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