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Photo by James BunoanSometimes winners finish second, which was what happened Sunday.
If you were watching the Discovery Channel's The Great Biker Build-Off, you saw two custom motorcycle builders from Orange County—Fullerton's Matt Hotch of Hot Match Custom Cycles and Yasuyoshi Chikazawa of Chica's Custom Cycles in Huntington—face off with eight others by builders from around the country.
"We share the county. It's us and them in Orange County," a gracious Craig Reinhardt of Hotch's shop told me, shielding Hotch from my prying eyes and praising "Chica" Chikazawa, 38, to the skies.
When the dust settled Sunday, Hotch was Discovery's winner, as voted on by fans—but everyone tells me that Chica's the comer here. That's because just as hot rod makers did six or seven years ago, motorcycle builders have reached a fork in the design road.
"The market is splitting," Chica's shop manager Johnny "Johnny Chop" Vasco told me recently. "There are the wide-tire bikes, and there are the narrow-tire bikes."
The schism is between the wide-tired, expensive, high-concept bikes that West Coast Choppers and Orange County Choppers in New York make and the earthy, narrow-tired bikes made by Chica's, Zero Engineering in Japan and a few other shops. They mix handmade and off-the-rack parts for an elemental, stripped-down look that pays homage to the board track racers of the teens and the choppers of the '60s.
Hotch's shop is the West Coast Choppers of Orange County—on a somewhat smaller scale. He holds patents for trick things such as flush-fit gas caps and springless kickstands—parts that shops like Chica's buy—that earn him around $3 million per year. With this for financing, Hotch is free to turn out around a dozen high-dollar, high-concept bikes per year for people who can pay $80,000 and up.
Those are Jesse James prices, and Hotch builds bikes in much the same style: superwide, low-profile rear tire; extended frame and gas tank; new superexpensive motor; hand-milled "billet" aluminum wheels; lots of shiny paint.
Chica don't play that. His style is the opposite of that—more or less. Mainly more, which, oddly enough, turns out to be less.
"Less is more," said Vasco, a Stockton native who does most of Chica's talking. Chica, a Japanese native who's lived in Southern California 10 years, eight of them working in Huntington, sticks to building bikes that start at around $40,000 (not too far from a loaded Harley) and go heavy on simplicity.
"That's Chica's philosophy," Vasco continued. "You don't have to have a lot of parts on a bike to make it look good."
Cutting down on all the geegaws, complicated shapes and paint effects draws the eye to what's left: bicycle-style seats, with two little chrome springs; truncated rear fenders that mount chrome bullet-shaped taillights; painted, spoked rims that run narrow, vintage blackwall bias-ply tires; high, straight exhaust pipes like the flat trackers; and short, chrome springer front ends.
Chica builds bikes in two silhouettes—ground-huggers like the racers that ran on flat board tracks so many years ago, and choppers with raised front ends like the Hells Angels popularized 40 years ago. Neither shape is overly stretched-out, as so many custom bikes are today. They're as long as they need to be.
"Fat [rear] tires and things like that are the current trend in bikes. Nothing against them," Vasco said. "I personally don't like them visually, and I don't think they handle all that well."
Industry folk are starting to agree, with a little help from traditional holdouts like The Horse magazine of New York, a longtime proponent of what it calls old-school styling.
"The problem is all these big-dollar bikes are looking the same now," says Horse managing editor Geno DiPol. "So, just so that guy will stick out of the crowd, now he wants to go back to the old days." Without all the wacky junk.
"It's just like street rods back in the late-'80s, when [Anaheim-based] Boyd Coddington was big," Vasco said. "How many red '32 [Ford] coupes can you do with billet wheels and tweed interiors? It got to the point where it was done to death, and that's what's happening now with motorcycles."
Except, of course, once everyone has a vintage-styled retro bike, everyone will look like everyone else again. Better order yours today.