This isn’t the typical retail shop visit. But then, Billy Lane’s workshop is neither typical nor a retail shop. For all of its compact simplicity, it is instead much more akin to an alchemist’s laboratory, a sculptor’s studio or a madman’s proving ground; it might even be all of those.
The fact is, since putting his days of reparation and transition behind him 18 months ago, bike builder and parts designer Billy Lane has established what is more succinctly and commonly described as a custom motorcycle shop. But that fact belies the depth of the work going on in this eclectic space, not to mention the thoughtful engineering, studied patience and honed skill set behind it all.
In about 2,200-square-feet of space near the Iron Horse Saloon in Daytona Beach, Fla., Billy has all the necessary tools of the builder’s trade: a full sheetmetal and machine shop, two lathes, a Bridgeport, and two welders, each one preset for specific use to save time, important because he works alone. A sliver of floor space is reserved for weights and a bench. “I come in and work out first thing every day; that’s what keeps me mellow,” he said.
And though he eventually plans to have a retail store, this is how Billy wants it for now: simple, with low overhead, uninterrupted work time and a stream of uncomplicated online orders. There’s enough customer work and a steady flow of buying, selling and trading parts to keep him busy.
But looking around at the collected mechanical pieces and diverse projects in progress, it’s clear that Billy’s thinking is quite sophisticated indeed. Most of the builds are far from the kind of custom work he did 12 or 15 years ago. What are all those greasy old engines sitting around in various states of repair?
Billy explained: “My strength is as a machinist and I guess that’s why I’m into old motors,” he said. “I didn’t know what they were when I first started buying them, but I liked that you could see the valves move. Me and Indian Larry used to talk about it: he called it ‘the mechanical-ness!’ I thought one day I’d build bikes around these old motors.”
That day is here. The man who led the trend for fat-rear-tire customs in the early 2000s has started a new movement, and going backwards has never been so cool.
As Billy searched out older bikes from the teens and ‘20s, he learned that motors were available but the rest of the bike often wasn’t. For a fabricator and welder of his competence, bikes from that era are fairly simple constructions. “I finally decided there’s not that much to them and started making my own parts,” he said. “I probably have 15 motors: Harleys, Indians, Reading Standards, from 1910 to 1920. The bikes I’m building around them aren’t original but it’s better than having just a motor.”
Inspired by the bikes he’s building around these vintage motors, Billy has formed a coalition of similar minded people who plan to race these retro-styled machines under the banner “Sons of Speed.” The initiative harkens back to the excitement of 1920s boardtrack racing that pitted bikes from iconic brands like Pope, Thor, Excelsior and of course, Harley and Indian against each other.
Like now, racers and builders back then knew each other as a community of riders. They changed employment between the OEMs and maintained a healthy competitive streak to outshine the other guys. Billy explained: “Perry Mac was Harley’s first employee, then he went to Waverly, and on to Pope where their bikes were successful racing. Joe Petrali worked on the Crocker assembly line until Harley stole him. He built bikes for them, started racing and broke records. That’s why we have a Harley Knucklehead.”
Billy is building Sons of Speed bikes for Shelley Rossmeyer, Buzz Kanter and has a Perry Mack-powered bike for himself. His brother Warren, Rick Petko and several others will campaign their own machines. Like bikes in those days, there’s no clutch or brake, just motors touting seven or eight horsepower and the rider’s ability to run flat out and hold a line. Rick and Warren are racing Indian Power Plus motors; Billy says they have an edge thanks to Indian’s sidevalve set-up.
Harley was using intake over exhaust configuration then. When Charles Gustafson of Reading Standard brought sidevalve flathead technology from Europe to the U.S., Indian applied it to a new engine design and started smoking everyone else on the track. The resulting increase in horsepower gave the new engine its name: Power Plus.
This isn’t simply a nostalgic trip down memory lane, either. Both motorcycle and American industrial history have a place here. It’s a re-igniting of the thrill and full-throttle grip of running on the edge of competitive insanity. But practicality has a place, too. “The bikes are purpose-built for racing, but I designed them so I can eventually sell them with a brake and clutch as road bikes,” said Billy.
Moreover, this is the new direction of Billy Lane and Choppers Inc. for now, a shop packed with parts and pieces of Crockers, Broughs and other legendary names that reek of two-wheeled history. It’s a business plan, too because bikes that start out as personal projects can later produce sales. “I’m not a collector. I’d rather build a custom around an old motor and have something nice to ride, a functional bike that looks great and runs well. Once people see these bikes, they’ll want them.”
Billy related his thoughts on the aftermarket parts business, the designs he has stockpiled and how all that might pan out in the future, but he’s patient for now. He and his wife are about to become parents, he’s found contentment, and he has a plan for the next few years. “I’ll be doing a lot of these old bikes,” he said. “I’d work on them all day if I didn’t have to do customer work!”
Some things about running a bike shop never change.