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Mr. Wheel Works Keeps On Rolling

Andy SaundersMarch 29, 2016
Would you trust this man to rebuild your BSA wheel? You bet! (Photos: Andy Saunders)

Would you trust this man to rebuild your BSA wheel? You bet! (Photos: Andy Saunders)

“So you’ve found a twin-cap 1968? No rust? And you paid $500 for it? Well, that bike would be worth the most in parts—you’ll get $2,000 for the cylinder head alone….”

Chris Quinn is on the phone with a friend who’s made a great discovery in the frozen north of Michigan: a low-mileage, original Ducati 350 Scrambler with rare twin-cap gas tank and even rarer desmodromic head. “Of course the sensible thing to do with it would be to part it out. That head is worth a fortune. If you try to get it running again, it’s like a beautiful woman. High maintenance and a lot of problems.” As he’s saying this, both Chris and I know that the bike will stay together, and its new owner will likely spend thousands restoring it. And he’ll spend plenty of time on the phone, or in person at the shop, talking to Mr. Quinn and getting advice on how to get the old Ducati on its wheels.

Quinn moved his Wheel Works business into its current location, a WWll-era shop behind Hayward Executive Airport, in 1984. He was the third owner of the Wheel Works business, which started long before the auto tire store of the same name. Wheel Wizard might be a more apt name, describing some of the ancient practices Quinn uses to work his magic, building wheels for bikes old and new (but mostly old). There aren’t many wheel builders left these days, Kelly Moss in nearby San Jose being one of the only survivors in Northern California, once a thriving hub for the trade.

Ghostriders: half-century old Britbikes covered in marble dust.

Ghostriders: half-century old Britbikes covered in marble dust.

Amazingly, Wheel Works is still flourishing. Floors, walls and ceiling are decorated with motorcycle dealers’ signs, banners, even the side of a 45-year old Triumph shipping crate. Chris has been in the building so long almost every inch is now used for storage of old motorcycle stuff, with wheels, vintage parts and bikes stacked everywhere. In the back room, marble dust seeps through from the mason’s business next door, and a bunch of old motorcycles are covered in ghostly layer of white. A well-worn trail marks the locations of the wheel truing stands, lathe and spoke machine.

Nowadays it’s hard to find wheel rims that are not already drilled. Most come from China, with holes pre-drilled at the correct angles to suit a specific wheel for a modern motorcycle. Meaning that if you want to use one on your 1964 Montgomery Ward Benelli 360, it’s not going to work. But Chris will find a way, especially if your bike is old and Italian. Just don’t ask him to remove or install the tire. He hates that job, did it too often as a youngster.

In the early ’70s, Chris was working in East Bay motorcycle shops and already building up a store of Ducati single-cylinder parts, some of which he still has. Racks of old Ducati engine cases line one wall; bodywork is tougher to keep in stock these days. On the wall in the back, a classic piece of Ducati art: the polished aluminum fairing he used on his race bikes for many years. The piece is called the Anteater because of the long snout, and it envelops the frame and engine of the Ducati single, totally covering the top end while funneling cooling air to the cylinder. During the ’70s he was an AFM racer on two and three wheels, later competing in and winning AHRMA vintage races. He also sponsored many local racers. These days, his racing continues as a member of a team contesting land-speed records at Bonneville with a 650cc Triumph twin, which set an AMA speed record in its class in 2012; the Triumph’s fairing leans against a wall.

The Contessa, with parts from Aprilia to Zanella.

The Contessa, with parts from Aprilia to Zanella.

Nearby lives the Contessa, Quinn’s Moto Giro training bike, built for a local woman rider who entered the Italian Moto Giro rally. It’s open to pre-1957 bikes of 175cc and smaller, and she wanted to practice riding a smaller vintage machine. The 160cc Monza Junior has been transformed out of all recognition, with a Gilera seat from a bike sold by Sears, Zanella gas tank (from an Argentinian motorcycle) and Parilla headlamp. Chris built the tiny Monza motor with coil valve springs to improve reliability over the stock “hairpin” items, and the owner spent many hours zooming up and down curvy Northern California roads before heading off to Italy.

Officially retired four years ago, Chris can still be found four days a week in his shop, talking with customers, or with Max and Rusty, a couple of the neighboring cats who’ve found a home nearby. Turn up at Chris’ shop on a good day, when he’s not already busy with other projects or off helping vintage racers at Bonneville, and he’ll true your old spoked wheel in a few minutes, for a fair price, and envelop you in motorcycle history.

For more information: Wheel Works, 1957 W. Winton Ave., Hayward, California 94545; (510) 785-4396

Every piece tells a story, etched in metal.

Every piece tells a story, etched in metal.

Quinn reflects on a lifetime of memories, inhabiting every horizontal space.

Quinn reflects on a lifetime of memories, inhabiting every horizontal space.

Thousands of wheels have rolled from Quinn's truing stand.

Thousands of wheels have rolled from Quinn’s truing stand.

Chris Quinn's portal to the past.

Chris Quinn’s portal to the past.

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