If you’ve ever had the good fortune to attend a Bike Week festival like the one held annually in Daytona Beach, then you know that it’s quite a spectacle. No joke, there are thousands and thousands of motorcycles everywhere, in a seemingly endless variety of shapes, sizes and types. Their owners proudly show off their rides at the Speedway, on Main Street or just cruising around the city. Some have customized the bikes themselves as a labor of love sometimes lasting for years, but others have gone to one man. His name is Paul Yaffe and for the past thirty years he’s been making Harley-Davidson owners’ dreams into reality at his Yaffe Originals and Bagger Nation shops. Johnny Killmore and I got the chance to fire some questions at the man known as “The Governor” about his life, career and of course motorcycles.
MLAS:When did your passion for motorcycles begin in general?
Paul Yaffe: When I was a kid… I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in southern California where most folks think all things custom and hot rod began…All the hoodlums in my neighborhood rode dirt bikes, inline Honda 4’s or Kawasaki GPZ’s. I was surrounded by the stuff. My pop had Enduros and Triumph choppers that I would steal when he was at work or visiting my honor ranch counselor’s and adolescent behavior modification experts. I wasn’t exactly a model child growing up. When I was old enough I got my first Harley and immediately took a saw to it in my parents’ garage.
MLAS: Where did you learn to customize bikes?
PY: I’m self-taught I guess. Still learning every day. I would hang around local shops growing up or anywhere anything cool was being created. I was (and still am) fascinated by anything custom. In 1989 I moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to attend the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute to gain knowledge in all things motorcycle. I got a ground level education in 2 and 4-Stroke Engine Theory, Electrical Theory and current and early model Harley-Davidson Service. I still use that education every day.
MLAS:Who influenced you in the early days?
PY: Like I said, the neighborhood hoodlums were my heroes in the early days. Wesley Manger, Pat Monday, Craig Pike, David Korrel were some of the guys who I thought were so cool growing up! Later when I got into Harleys it was Billy Westbrook, Arlen Ness, Grady Pfeiffer, Alan Deshon who I would follow around wherever I thought they may be showing their bikes.
MLAS: What was your first build?
PY: My first bike that I customized was a Sportster… then a Softail Custom… My first ground up bike I built with Jack Gould, who is still my service manager today. It was a rigid frame shovel head that we built in our spare time while we went to MMI together in 1990. I sold it soon after it was done. It financed my first shop, American Legend Motorcycle Company which I opened in Phoenix in 1991.
MLAS:Why did you switch from choppers to baggers, and what do you think of the chopper scene in general?
PY: Choppers came on so hard and fast in the late ‘90s. Along with their incredible popularity came a booming aftermarket. By 2001 there were companies popping up like 7-Elevens offering “custom” choppers built entirely from aftermarket parts. These companies preyed on the unaware trend followers and marketed them as Custom Harley Choppers…There wasn’t one HD part on them. I like to refer to them as transvestbikes! Most were junk, worth next to nothing once they left the lot. But you could drive through Sturgis and on every other corner there was a lot full of them with every obnoxious paint job imaginable. Each a clone of the other and easily acquired with a small down payment and easy payment terms… Eventually this flood of choppers completely ruined the legendary custom bike platforms stature and coolness and basically destroyed the trend in our industry. Since 90% of the HD aftermarket was riding the chopper wave, the whole industry seemed to crash when choppers died like somebody turned off a light switch. It was just that fast. I was lucky, I had already turned my eye to the Bagger platform. Please understand that customizing Baggers was nothing new. I had tried to introduce a line of custom Bagger parts in 1998 and failed miserably! I have a magazine article on the wall in my office chronicling that attempt and failure. Several well-known builders had also tried the Bagger path, I remember when Arlen Ness introduced several innovative Baggers. Hell, he invented the Stretched Saddlebag I can’t tell you how long ago? Everyone in the Bagger game has a version of his original design in their catalog today. Arlen in my opinion started it all probably before I had a driver’s license!
Things really seemed to change in 2006/2007. I had customized the first 2006 HD Street Glide unveiled it in January 2006 at the Easy Riders Shows along with the Bagger Nation brand. Everyone seemed super interested. Then, when I rode it to Sturgis, everyone went nuts over it! At the same time, my buddy Brian Klock was introducing a killer custom Road Glide on a TV bike competition to compete against a totally radical hand built Boardtracker. The coolest thing happened, HE WON! It seemed like everyone was ready for the winds of change to start blowing. We quickly published our first Bagger Nation catalog (most of the parts in it came out of a container in my back lot) they were all the parts I had tried to introduce ten years before and crashed and burned…now I couldn’t make them fast enough! Next came raking the Baggers for big wheels which I believe really was the difference between 1998 and now. The big wheels gave the Bagger platform a chopper attitude with an amazing ride quality that choppers just didn’t have. It was the best of both worlds. Radical looks, awesome ride! What more could you ask for?
MLAS: What about Harley-Davidson’s Street 750 and 500 electric bikes?
PY: I have a dealer that wants me to customize the 750 but I actually haven’t spent any time with one yet in person. As for what the motor company is thinking it’s going to do for them I haven’t a clue? They are after all Harley Davidson though so I imagine the last thing that concerns them is my approval! (laughing) The electric bike looks cool in the video? Has anyone seen one in person? I know I’d like to ride one! I’m also curious on the battery life and how far it can go on a charge? Can I ride it all day?
MLAS: Does the shape of a bike you’re starting out with affect the design at all?
PY: Certainly most of the time but not always. Usually when customizing a stock HD we want to keep the essence of the bike’s heritage and personality while enhancing its performance and cosmetic appeal… There is a reason the customer chose that particular model in the first place. On occasion though we have a vision of something totally unique and different and we’ll completely restyle a bike. When that happens we’ll choose the donor bike for engineering and function factors depending on the intended eventual use of the bike when completed. Ride-ability and reliability are huge factors in anything we design…
MLAS: Have you ever done racing bikes?
PY: Not really. Does a sled pulling three-wheeler count?
MLAS:Do you have overseas customers?
PY: Many. Our products are distributed worldwide and we have been commissioned for custom builds by customers in Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Canada just to name a few… I was also part of a design team for Custom Chrome Europe, a large European distributor of aftermarket parts.
MLAS:I read that you’re “commissioned to create about twelve projects annually.” From start to finish approximately how long does a project take?
PY: That’s an old quote! Today it’s more like 40 a year. Ground up bikes can command a year or more of my time. Most Baggers are considerably quicker and command less than half of that. There are however the few really radical one-offs we do and those basically just take as long as they take… I could spend months just waiting for inspiration!
MLAS: Is there any project of which you’re particularly proud?
PY: All of them are you kidding! These things don’t grow on trees! Every build gets a part of me in it and I’m attached to every one of them! There are milestone bikes that I’m particularly proud of and attached to. I build a full custom every year and ride it to Sturgis. Every one of those bikes has a personal adventure attached to it and therefore tons of memories.
MLAS: So much that you’d buy it back from the owner if the opportunity presented itself? We do that all the time!
PY: I just purchased my 2000 Oakland Roadster Show Champion “Prodigy” from the original owner’s wife. Unfortunately the owner passed away. It’s probably one of my most famous bikes. It’s the bike I retired from competition with. It was Easy riders Magazine’s “Bike of the Year” and earned me “Builder of the Year” honors. If that wasn’t enough Mattel made a Hot Wheel out of it! That was a pretty huge feather in my cap!
MLAS: What do you do when you’re not in the shop?
PY: My how life has changed! My wife Suzy and I recently welcomed our son Nash to the world. He’s 15 months old today and is the size of a 2-3 year old. So he’s pretty much a full time job. With another daughter in college my life after work is cooking dinner, honey do’s, changing diapers and whatever else needs doing. I’m all about my family and wouldn’t trade that time for the world!
MLAS: What advice do you have for someone who wants to start customizing bikes as a business or maybe just one.
PY: First, LEARN! Skills are everything! Education is power and creates opportunity. One of the biggest things that sets us apart from our competitors is the ability to create what doesn’t exist and to engineer the things we dream up to exude quality and forgotten craftsmanship. This ability is what keeps us on the cutting edge and has earned us the reputation as trendsetters. Second, surround yourself with people that challenge you and that know more than you do! That is truly the core strength of myself and my company… I have an AWESOME crew! There is no “I” in team. Everything we accomplish is a group effort. Once you decide you know it all or know better, I’ll imagine that will be the beginning of the end. I surround myself with people I admire, not those that admire me. What kind of fool would admire ME anyway?
A Final Word
When Johnny and I brainstormed over this interview, we realized that although race bikes and custom bikes are very different from each other, builders are builders. They rely on imagination and then bring that it into being through skills and good old-fashioned hard work. Paul Yaffe sits at the top of the custom bike builders’ food chain in Phoenix but still manages to be confident but unpretentious and wise, in a culture fueled by rivalries and huge egos. You can see those in play on the new History Channel series, Biker Battleground Phoenix which airs on Tuesday nights at 10pm ET/PT. To see more about Paul Yaffe, check out the websites for Paul Yaffe Originals, Bagger Nation and the official BN Facebook page.