THE ROAD TO HANDBUILT
Our first run-in with Michael Higgins came during last year’s Distinguished Gentlemen’s Ride here in New York City (to clarify, we weren’t on our motos). Among the 150 of us riding that day, we were fortunate enough to share post-ride beers with dapper Mike under the towering Standard Hotel in NYC’s Meat Packing District.
With much of his time being spent in the ad world, Mike knows a few things about storytelling. So it came as no surprise when Mike approached us about his own adventure he had in the making. A trip that would take him 4,000 miles from his NYC home to Austin, TX, home to the ever-popular HandBuilt Motorcycle Show. -GSCo.
THE ROAD TO HANDBUILT
Words & Images: Michael Higgins
The invitation arrived in one of those old-school brown envelopes with a string-tie closure. Opening it, I had a good idea of its contents, but was still surprised to see it in physical form. A hand-embossed thin slab of leather read, “You are cordially invited to show your work at the Handbuilt Motorcycle Show.”
I was in Austin, TX for the 2014 show, gawking at the custom builds and shiny examples of eye-popping form and heart-pounding function, leaving me totally impressed, inspired and with one over-riding thought, “I want to be part of this.”
Not a professional builder myself, the idea seemed fleeting at best. Now, running my fingers over the letter pressed leather of the invite I was both shocked and beaming. The invite was, of course, not so much for me, as for my bike – a ‘67 Honda CB450 “Black Bomber” I proudly spin through the streets of NYC on daily. It’s the Bomber that is to blame for my slip from rational 40-something professional, to giddy-as-a-school-boy nut that plans weekends around parts shipments and weather forecasts.
I had bikes growing up, but when I spied this particular model, it had a similar effect for me as it did for Honda when it was introduced. I took notice. Never a real threat to the Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs that ruled the 60s, the CB450 was a “game changer,” announcing to the world that Honda could compete.
The Bomber became a hobby turned obsession my dad and I restored from the frame up over a sweltering month back in Kansas. The invite I so proudly clutched was my chance to bring the bike back home for a visit, to show it the country, and show it off to friends and perfect strangers. My levelheaded reaction should have been, “Austin, TX! That’s a 4,000 mile round trip haul – there’s no logical way I can do that.” Instead, I jumped on Google Maps, and then started looking for a truck rental. Logic has no place in matters of the motorbike.
I got on the road a few hours behind schedule and in a heavy rain. Slipping into the Holland tunnel to cross the first of what would be fourteen different state lines, I was weary but glad to be underway. The Ford F150 king cab I would call home for the next 10 days was roomy and comfortable, and the Bomber seemed cozy in the back, despite having to be loaded in diagonally to fit in the shortest “full-sized” bed I’ve ever come across. Rain was my major complaint.
I decided I couldn’t be precious about my vintage wheels getting wet, despite the fact that the only shower it’d seen since the restoration came from a hose or soap soaked sponge. It’s a motorcycle, it’s designed to get wet. Plus I planned to labor over it until it was show-ready and fully detailed once it was back in KS. Instead of fretting over the drizzle that would eventually become a driving deluge, I just cued up Pandora and entered Indianapolis into the Google GPS on my iPhone … and drove.
And drove. I was determined to make INDY before calling it a day, and couldn’t wait to get the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s never ending collection of tunnels, turns and spray-inducing tractor-trailers into the rearview. It was nearly midnight before I laid on the horn to announce my departure from the Keystone State, finally. West Virginia quickly became Ohio and fighting fatigue quickly became my main concern. It was time for a proper truck stop intermission.
Flying Jhas to be the best slice-of-life look at middle-America available, and the perfect eye-opener for me. With inventory ranging from jerky to jumper cables my senses were inundated, and reawakened. Gassing up, a ginormous cup of very average coffee balancing on the edge of the truck bed, I checked the tie down straps and wiped at the bike’s rain dappled fenders until the pump announced its readiness for me to get on my way.
My euphoria and caffeine buzz finally wore off. Slipping just past the Indiana border I gave in and turned into a rest stop, another of mid-America’s little gems of humanity. Rolling past the rigs, their cabs aglow with amber parking lights, I found a spot and with a turn of the key shut down. I’d be awakened soon, not by the sun, but by the cold. Firing back up the Ford to get some heat going I saw that I had dozed about 90 minutes. A splash of cold water on my face, and the sight of light breaking to my east was enough to get me back in the mood, and back on the road.
Fueled by a second wind, and an egg sandwich I wrangled from some just off the highway pizza shop turned morning diner, I rolled toward KC, ticking off guideposts along the way; Illinois, the Mississippi, the Gateway Arch, the Missouri. The only thing that kept me from reaching my first official destination by noon was an unplanned and unavoidable side trip into Higginsville, MO. Drawn in by the fact that the town shares my surname, I was determined to procure a novelty t-shirt or trucker hat emblazoned with the moniker. My efforts we’re in vain. Not even a postcard could be found, despite plenty of gear at the local store supporting the Mizzou Tigers, or Kansas City Chiefs. Alas, town founder Harvey Higgins surely wasn’t in it for the coffee mug.
Lawrence, KS was the next stop. And the night’s slumber was about as good as it gets. Waking up to Easter Sunday having shared drinks and conversation with old friends before succumbing to badly needed sleep, I felt emboldened, and eager to experience another nostalgic ride, this time kicking up dust and old memories of my college days. This homecoming of sorts seemed somehow more gratifying and noteworthy astride the CB. Zipping down Lawrence’s Massachusetts Street, I wondered why?
Far from the conquering hero returned aboard his trusty steed, I did feel a certain pride in coasting past the Mom and Pop Shop hold-outs and retail chain pop-ups along the college town’s main strip (a 6 block stretch I’d put up against any in the U.S. for charm and history). Having left this area for the east coast 15 years earlier, it was the fact that a piece of NYC was back with me. A piece of my NYC. And I had the bright orange license plate to prove it.
I’d proudly grown accustomed to the bike being a head turner, but that plate was proving to be a head scratcher. Two questions persisted whenever I pulled up to darken another doorway along memory lane. Is it new? And, did you ride it here? The first, “No, it’s vintage,” linked directly to the second, “No, it’s vintage.”
A sense of belonging to the city increased within me when I brought the newly restored Bomber to the Village. New York is a city of transplants and transients, I among them. Having a bike with a NY registration and a garage had cemented it more as home somehow. And the culture and camaraderie that it had opened up to me among the moto-enthused in the 5 boroughs furthered that sense. I wasn’t just part of vast city, I was part of a group. A group I was eager to explore, and become more immersed in with each ride, rally, or meet up. A group I was traversing ten states to rub greasy elbows with.
GETTING SHOW READY
“I never thought I’d see that back here,” dad said at the site of me backed into his drive to unload on Monday.
I felt the same. It’d been nearly two years since he and I had turned my newly acquired example of classic 1960’s design into a pile of parts and painstakingly labeled zip-lock baggies. Turning her back into the jaw-dropper I dreamed for had taken five weeks of hard days, and a few hard knocks … but we’d done it. We now had three days to get her ready for a show I knew would be filled with eye candy on the sweetest scale. I didn’t expect her to be a stand out among the highly pedigreed company, but I hoped I could at least get her in shape enough to fit in.
Two days of pretty constant rain had left plenty surface rust in tough to polish places. I just started pulling parts. By the time day one was wrapping up she resembled that pile I remembered more and more. What was I thinking? On day two things were going back together, and handsomely so. By the time I turned my efforts toward polishing the aluminum engine cases my grin in their reflection was ear to ear. It had taken far more effort than I expected, but worth it.
The one “handbuilt” feature I was excited to add was a custom leather saddlebag I had designed and had embroidered with the classic Honda Motors wing logo. After a bit of retrofitting to get it to feel part of the bike, rather than an unwieldy appendage, it looked at home tucked behind the air box cover. She was polished and ready for her day in the sun.
Sun for me though, was fleeting. The skies were darkening from the late hour, and another approaching storm front. Dad and I wrapped up day three by collaborating one last time to figure out an exit strategy for my final eight-hour leg to Austin. The thought of driving the show-ready Bomber through anything more than a scattered shower was not desirable. Nor was arriving into the Texas capital at two in the morning. We decided that a pre-dawn departure was the answer. It would let the red and gold band on the Dopler radar clear out, and it’d get me into town at midday, with plenty of time to unload before the deadline. Four A.M. came early.
I’ve stayed up to see the sunrise far more times than I’ve gotten up to see it in the past 20 years. Quietly loading by flashlight and slipping away under cover of darkness felt more like I was stealing the Bomber than heading off triumphantly. Nonetheless, it felt inspired and special. The storms had cleared the skies and left things feeling refreshed. I too had a renewed excitement for the road ahead. Settling into the driver’s seat I winked at the Bomber in the rearview once again, the glint of the streetlights off that signature tank winking back. Next stop, Texas.
Despite hitting the morning rush hour as I pulled through Waco, and getting hit by one short and uneventful shower, I made great time and could make out the Austin skyline by noon, right on schedule. I found The Handbuilt venue at the Fair Market in Austin’s ever popular and bustling south 6th street district. But rather than unloading I chose to make a quick detour first.
Having to resort to Google maps, I finally found myself parked in front of one of the town’s landmarks. Spinning around the block to utilize a high curb or incline that would help me unload on my own, I returned with the bike and my camera to capture an iconic, if not cliché, portrait of the Bomber parked proudly in front of the “Greetings From Austin” mural to mark my official arrival. That triviality accomplished, I raced back to show HQ.
“Hey Mike! You don’t know me, but I’ve been following your progress on Instagram,” echoed through the grand, vaulted space as I wandered back toward the Bomber, still at the top of the ramp. “I’m Alec,” he continued, “So excited you brought the CB, man. I love the old Hondas, and this is one of the great ones. And you’ve done an amazing job with this one, man. What a beauty.”
I thanked him and got the lay of the land, and my marching orders. I was immediately humbled and felt a bit like an impostor. I appreciated my bike’s status as an important model and knew full well the amount of time, energy, work and even skill that had gone into rebuilding her. But some of these bikes were literally built from scratch, each one another example of master workmanship and customization, if not outright design. I was overwhelmed, and in awe. I was tired, dirty, and damn hungry … and Austin is one hell of a good place to be hungry.
Opening night was easily three times more crowded than the show I attended a year prior. The setup felt similar but the entire experience had more energy and somehow more legitimacy. More than anything I believe that today’s motorcycle culture, specifically the strand of it on display here, simply caught up with the event. The nod-to-the-past meets DIY-customization has created something unmistakingly old-school, but decidedly modern, and all its own.
Motorcycle riders and enthusiasts are always going to flock to this sort of event, but this show seemed to attract a larger contingent. It’s not a vintage show, with die-hard aficionados debating the nuances between a ’58 and ’59 carb setup. It’s not a modern show, with vendors jockeying to showcase the latest hydraulic swing-arm tech. Yet it has appeals to both those crowds, along with the crew just in it for an excuse to have some artisanal pickles and pulled pork, and enjoy the great entire aesthetic and great vibe.
The show is very much skewed toward European and Japanese makes. The stripped down, simple yet aggressive lines of the 60s lurked in every design. Plenty of wonderful exceptions existed, but the overall feel was way more British Café Racer than American Chopper. An eclectic mix greeted each turn through the maze of iron and steel sculpture on two wheels.
Adding to the overall gestalt were several exhibits and attractions that perfectly complimented the emphasis on moto culture. An inspired collection of limited edition prints wonderfully curated by John Christensen, now in its second, year was a big draw. The Wheel of Deathproved a worthy distraction too. With it’s daredevil appeal, carny showmanship, and death-trap construction, the guys that take this thing around the country certainly raise eyebrows and heart rates with each crazy, g-force inducing spin past cheering crowds. A series of Tintype portraits from Paul d'Orléans served as a wonderful backdrop as well. Hanging stoically along one of the long walls, the current day images captured using a hundred-year-old process felt other-worldly and somehow served as a quiet respite from the louder aspects fighting for your attention.
The Black Bomber held down one corner of the grand affair, and seemed to hold its own. Perched at the end of an aisle, it proved to be a great spot. Watching people pour over my very own contribution was a real thrill, and I quickly let go of any insecurity I felt about its place in this world of moto-madness. This show was about unpretentious, unabashed and unconditional love for the motorbike. I loved my bike, and others seemed to love it as well.
I began to feel a real kinship with the group of builders too. Plenty of them call motorcycle design and fabrication their careers, but several were more from my camp – enthusiasts that let a hobby become a lifestyle. Everyone with some tie to the show had a great story and a truly great bike, none much better than the hometown boys that call Revival home. Wonderful hosts as well, they opened up that home to all of us for one last celebratory gathering when things finally wound down on Sunday evening.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
I took my time getting back to NYC. Far from the mad dash in reverse, I allowed it to be a more leisurely ramble through the less traveled lower Midwest. I chose a few landmarks I wanted to hit – New Orleans, Memphis, Bourbon Country – and let weather and my whims dictate the rest. The ramps went up and Bomber came down every chance I could muster, of course. A quick zip through the French Quarter dodging raindrops was a thrill. A stop in at Sun Studios was a treat. A gorgeous day throttling from one distillery to the next over the undulating bluegrass of Kentucky was a highlight.
The route gave me a chance to see a bit of the country I’ve not had the pleasure of knowing, and the time behind the wheel gave me plenty of reflections on the week, and the accomplishment. Pulling back through the Holland Tunnel to see the entire journey to Handbuilt through to its illogical conclusion, I was both elated and disappointed to be home. The truck’s trip computer told the vital stats – over 4600 miles and nearly 90 hours on the road.
I unloaded the Black Bomber and let it coast down the ramp into my local garage. I gave her a quick dusting off and threw the kickstand into position. Walking away, she looked a little ragged from the trip but no worse for the wear. I too felt the effects of the past ten days. It proved to be a whirlwind. It managed to live up to the expectations I put on it. And it certainly succeeded in furthering my immersion into the bike culture. A culture I feel a stronger connection to now for the experience – a bit less wide-eyed by the hands-on perspective, but no less starry-eyed for it.