Steed: Built to Ride

Territorial Pissing - The Art of the Upgrade.

Tech Tip Index

John's first custom Steed, circa 1974
Upgrades - what makes an upgrade? This Rumble issue is dedicated to upgrading your bike. What may be an improvement for you could be absolutely worthless to somebody else. When you "upgrade" your house, it implies that you've added value to your property. We're talking motorcycles here, and upgrades are usually financed by 'fun-money' and most of us don't upgrade our machine as an investment, expecting to receive some sort of financial pay off for our upgrade. We're upgrading our bike for the fun of self-expression or the thrill from the feeling of increased performance while riding.

Upgrading your bike can become a complete obsession. We've all seen motorcycles so far over the top to the point of becoming absolutely useless for its originally intended purpose: RIDING! That's cool too. There's a group of people whose whole intent is to build a "Show Bike". When people build bikes with the purpose of becoming works of art, ultimately to be admired because of their designer's sheer creativity and self expression, some people still just don't get it.

On the other hand, there are builders out there that can't get enough horsepower and can't wait for the next Dyno shoot-out. They're building bikes with crazy pumped up motors purely to compete on a stationary dynamometer machine that will document the bike with the most power at the event. The point is to take home a trophy or a slip of paper to prove that their machine is the baddest on the block. Some people are content with the amount of power in their stock bike and just want to ride to clear their heads or just want to hang with their friends who ride.

These are just a few of the many examples why we spend our hard earned dollars to participate in our chosen beloved passion of experiencing a motorcycle. The old cliche, "If I have to explain, you just won't get it" holds true to form. The rationality to 'upgrade' your bike is totally unexplainable to somebody who doesn't get it. Unless you're participating in this niche, the reality is that the majority of people buy a motorcycle purely for transportation.

John and his old man cleaning up the
Briggs n' Stratton, circa 1973
Upgrading and customizing what the factory designed can strike you at a young age or can be discovered later in life when you suddenly find what you've been missing. In 1972 I signed up for my very first paying job as a paperboy for the Phoenix Gazette. I may be dating myself here, but that was way back when you could ride a bicycle without a helmet and kids actually could get a job before they were 16. Somehow the do-gooders have eliminated both of those freedoms for kids today, and I'm sure we can all agree that the world is much safer now. Right?

Anyway, my main goal at the ripe age of twelve was to earn enough money to buy a brand new Schwinn Stingray bicycle. I had a hand-me-down cruiser bike that my brother gave me when he went away to college, and it was just fine for delivering newspapers, but it just didn't feel like it was mine. As much as I begged and pleaded with my parents, they were not going to just buy me the yellow Stingray, which I so dearly desired. This vision of my dream bike was the motivation to ride my brother's old cruiser to deliver papers every afternoon and save enough dough to buy it.

Once my folks realized I was actually committed to saving the money I was earning schlepping papers, and it was going to go towards the goal of buying my personal ride, they decided that they would assist me. They told me they would meet me, dollar for dollar, to fund the procurement of my elusive Schwinn.

Sure enough, the day finally came when I had scratched together about $50. This was the day my dad took me to Landis Cyclery on Indian School road in Phoenix to buy my $100 ultimate ride. The next day after school I immediately ripped the stock handlebars off and put on a set of wide "Boxer" bars with a taller riser. I made a deal with a buddy who had a matching yellow Schwinn 10 speed in his garage collecting dust. I needed the front fork of his 26" wheeled bike. With the longer fork installed on my new Stingray I figured thought it would make my 20" wheel look really cool with the extended fork, just like the posters of the bikes I'd seen for the movie Easy Rider.

John and brother Dan with his first
spray rig, circa 1975
It took me most of the next afternoon to complete the "upgrading" of my brand new bike from a stocker into my vision of the ultimate custom newspaper delivery machine. I couldn't wait for my dad to come home from work and see what I'd accomplished. When I got home from delivering the papers on my newly customized bike, I ran in the house. I promptly dragged the old man out to the garage to see how I fixed up my new bike.

"You ruined a brand new Schwinn! What have you done? Put it back the way it was, NOW!"

I guess I got his attention. It wasn't the reaction I had in mind though. This wasn't the only rift in the father-son relationship thing, as you can tell by my vivid memory of the day, but it was an eye opening event for me. He had no idea why my factory Schwinn that I had wanted for so long had to be modified immediately.

There was no way that I was going to put it back to the "un-cool" state that it was the day I got it. No way. He wasn't the one riding the bike; this one was "all mine". I held my ground, he wasn't very happy about it, but my mom intervened and somehow all the drama eventually blew over.

John Delivering latest Steed project to
Petro VP Dave Latimer, circa 2005
I guess in his mind, the guys at Schwinn put a lot of thought into building their Stingray model bike. What business did a 12 year old kid have in "destroying" it within the first 24 hours? He figured he had a 50% stake in the venture and I wasn't going to degrade his "investment" by making a total abomination out of their perfectly designed machinery.

What's the big deal? Territorial pissing, that's what! That's right, one person's right to do whatever they want to their personal property to "Make it mine!" It became such a passion for me it's been my life's goal to somehow personalize everything that is "mine". I put spikes in the stripes in my Addis sneakers to make them look tougher. I painted a racing stripe on the walls in my bedroom. I bought an air brush kit and started spraying most all of my possessions that had a paintable surface. Even the family wheelbarrow ended up with hot-rod flames on it. I modified everything within my reach and my dad finally gave up. He never quite got it, but he figured it was just a phase I was going through. Many years later, miraculously, I've managed to create my dream job of building custom motorcycles every day. There are plenty of people who still don't get what or why we build them, but that's just fine with me.

Unlike the premise of the movie Fight Club, "nobody talks about Fight Club"; the first rule of upgrading or customizing is that there are no rules. If it works for you, do it. Who cares what anybody else thinks. Do it just because you want to.

One of the coolest things about owning an American motorcycle is the ability to put a piece of your personality into your machine by customizing with your own vision of what makes it cool. There are more options out there than ever before to gather the combinations of components for upgrading, or to find people who can help you bring your custom vision to reality. Whether you want a 'sleeper' looking stock bike with a monster motor, or a flashy bike slathered in chrome and custom paint; it's your machine - have fun with it. Not everyone is going to have the same vision of what you think is cool, that's why you're doing it, not them. The whole point of having a motorcycle is to have fun with it. Now get to it, whatever that may be.

Keep the rubber side down.
- John at Steeds