(This Retrospective article was published in the June 2006 issue of Rider.)
This is one man’s view of how his motorcycle should look—it is a true custom.
Many people talk about having customized bikes, but for the essential meaning of the word “customize” we should take a look at Webster’s book of definitions: “to build, fit, or alter according to individual specifications.”
Unlike the multitude of cookie-cutter customs that have no real individuality, these “limited edition” machines are quite popular, but there is a risk. Owning one is a bit like a woman buying an expensive Dior gown to wear to a lavish party, and then seeing another attendee with precisely the same dress. Nor are we talking about the expensive one-off creations of builders like Chica or Pontarelli, because the design is really theirs, not the fellow who buys it—the guy with the title just wants to look cool on his Chica chopper.
What we have with this motorcycle is one man’s vision of how he wishes his motorcycle to look. Admittedly, it may not relate to anybody else’s vision, but it satisfies the owner…which is the point of the exercise, and much more satisfying than trying to please the world. Any motorcycle can provide the basis for customization, be it a brand-new Gold Wing or an elderly Virago—in this case we have a middle-aged Suzuki, which has been owned by JP for 20 years.
When this Madura rolled off the assembly line in 1985, it was rather sophisticated from an engineering point of view, less than enthralling when it came to aesthetics. This was Suzuki’s belated entry into the muscle-bike finals begun by Honda’s V-65 Magna, pursued by Yamaha’s V-Max, all with big, liquid-cooled, V-4 engines and shaft drive. And this one even had six speeds.
The owner, the visionary JP, was taken by the power, more than 90 horses at the rear wheel, with maintenance-free hydraulic valve adjustment. This was a motorcycle that could go from sea to sea without doing anything more than filling up the gas tank. On the down side, the visuals did not satisfy him.
He did like the look of the extensively fendered Indian motorcycles, those worshiped by many classic lovers. JP had come to the sport of motorcycling some 30 years after the last Indian Chief was made in Springfield, Massachusetts, and he had seen many restored as well as decrepit versions in his wanderings. Much as he loved the Indian design, he was not enamored of the idea of a side-valve V-twin, which would probably need a lot of attention as well as be down on power. Nor did he like a three-speed gearbox that was shifted by hand. And the rudimentary drum brakes had about one-twentieth the stopping power of three discs.
What if he could customize this Madura to resemble the lines of an Indian Chief—an early 1950s Blackhawk model, with the telescoping fork? Fully valanced fenders were available as aftermarket items, and with a little diligence this ex-Coast Guardsman bolted them into place. Fortunately JP is competent with tools, which is essential for serious customizing; once you give your bike to a professional, it is out of your hands, and the results may not be quite as you wished. He attached a little reproduction of an Indian head to the front fender and wired it up to glow in the dark.
JP, a traveling man, was not fully happy with the Madura’s 3.4-gallon gas tank, which would be drained in less than 150 miles. The tank’s styling was OK, and rather than go through the misery of trying to mount a larger reservoir, he located a pair of auxiliary tanks originally made for use on Gold Wings, and fit them in place of the side panels. Hit a switch, and the three extra gallons would be pumped up the main tank.
The paint required serious thought; butterscotch and root beer would be his colors, and he did hire a professional for that part of the job. Then, to further the Indian motif, traditional Indian head-dress logo decals were added to the gas tank, and the scripted Indian name written on both sides of the front fender with a few feathers painted here and there to complement the Indian-ness. To confuse the curious, he welded Indian nameplates on both sides of the engine. JP dubbed his oeuvre the “Big Chief.”
This custom job was not done in six weeks in order to make it to a show, but took place over the years. An artist can say that his painting is never “done,” and will constantly fuss with it until a collector buys it. The same with the Big Chief, except it is not for sale.
On a motorcycling trip to New Zealand he found and bought a large, brown sheepskin, which now covers the saddle of the bike from back rest to gas tank, giving it, as JP notes, a buffalo look. To match that he glued some faux fur to the covers of his Givi saddlebags. What a superbly beastly look the Big Chief offers!
Not to mention all the smaller accoutrements that JP has added. Serious fringe hangs off both bar ends and levers, and a leather strip with a fringed concho runs down the middle of the gas tank. To add to the Western motif and the carrying capacity, he has one of Craig Vetter’s Bronson Bags mounted above the headlight and a smaller bag below, both leather, both adorned with conchos. On a functional note, several extra gauges, an altimeter and a voltmeter, have been added to the handlebar, and a digital clock/thermometer has been attached to the dash. Auxiliary driving lights were added to aid in night riding.
Lest you think that this is all hometown frou-frou, just for hanging out at the local biker bar, think again. This bike travels;
it has more than 140,000 miles on the odometer. And JP loves taking it to rallies. He can park close by the latest Arlen Ness creation, and in a minute or two the crowd is all around his Big Chief. It is a friendly bike, a teddy-bear of a motorcycle that people like to touch—at least the fur part.
Very occasionally an Indian purist will voice some objection, until JP reminds him that his Big Chief does not pretend to be an Indian, but is merely one man’s homage to the design. This customized Suzuki is, at the base, a very sincere form of flattery in the eyes of one man.
And JP can be quite sure that he will never meet a similar motorcycle coming down the road.