Pictured: Metal artisan, craftsman and purist James Crowe, doing what he loves…building motorcycles.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Crowe Custom Metal Co., in Portland, OR. The real deal bike shop shares space in a small ground level building that is also home to Hufnagel Cycles, a tattoo machine factory, a pottery studio, and Lemolo Bag manufacturing. The creative energy is buzzing to say the least. These shared artisan spaces are becoming more and more popular across categories. Whether building bikes or developing ad campaigns, open dialogue and collaboration among professionals will always trump going at it alone.
Before entering Crowe Customs, you’re greeted with music, which is always on and always loud; this time it was Bob Dylan that was muffled by the sound of machines. Then comes the aromatic experience of burnt metal, industrial grease and dust…i.e., a factory. Motorcycle wheels, fairings, frames and random parts are scattered all over. The machines are all surrounded by metal debris and design notes. What may appear to be a mess is simply work in progress. James is extremely focused, and his top quality manufacturing speaks for itself.
Click through for some real talk with James Crowe after the jump.
James is a laid back guy, soft spoken and very humble. Growing up as a ski and mountain bike kid in Whistler B.C., has certainly left it’s mark. James is constantly seeking adventure and pushing himself to advance. On this visit James was manufacturing some parts for a Canadian rally-car racing team, so his work is not limited to motorbikes. His love for motorcycles and travel have taken him all around the country, and every year he makes it to Bonneville Salt Flats for speed week. According to James, Portland is very similar to Vancouver, BC, but the custom motorcycle market is much bigger in the US, and it’s also cheaper to run this type of operation in the US. James works on bikes for various customers, always one project at a time with complete focus and devotion. If you catch him around town, most likely he’ll be wearing his red flannel shirt and sitting on an old air-cooled BMW boxer which he regularly uses to haul firewood for camping trips.
Tell us a little about yourself?
I’m 24, from Whistler BC, and I grew up outdoors. My family has a long lineage of ski bums. As a kid I was always building stuff. If your lawnmower or chainsaw went missing, it was most likely being used in one of my go-karts. I started getting into bikes at 19 while taking some metal work class to learn about the machinery and fundamentals of shaping. I got great exposure to machines, and acquired priceless knowledge. Then I was recruited after 6 months of class to work at my current auto shop.
Have motorcycles always been your passion? What is it about bikes?
No one in my family has ever worked on bikes, so it’s not something that was passed down to me. It was really my first passion that I found on my own. I have always had a love for vintage cars, and I have always mountain biked which led me to motorcycles. I am drawn to motorcycles primarily because everything is exposed and small details are out in the open, not hidden behind bodywork and covers. And I love the feeling of the open road, on something that you created.
What is Crowe all about?
My only goal in anything I build is for it to still evoke emotion and desire 50 years from now, to focus on the little details and forget about the flash. I want people to be drawn in close and discover small things that are usually forgotten about in this day in age of quantity over quality.
If you weren’t making bikes, what would you be doing?
Who inspires/influences your work..?
Inspiration comes from all the talented people around me that are fallowing their dreams, struggling, not sleeping for what they believe in, no matter what it is.
What’s your best story from a ride?
Lots of good memories, most recent ride was riding from Whistler to Portland in the middle of winter, got caught in a snow storm at 2 in the morning, had to stop under a bridge and set up camp on the side of the freeway, got woke up by the cops poking me, they where a little confused.
Any words of wisdom for someone looking to invest in their first custom bike?
Find something that fits you personally, don’t buy a trend..buy timeless, functional and understated. Do the research and make it your own, not someone else’s idea of your bike.
What music is playing in the shop..?
Is it just you? Are all the parts fabricated on the premises?
I do all metal work and machining in house, Ginger at New Church Moto does my upholstery.
Talk to me about the design process.. Does it start with a pencil and paper? Is there a lot of time spent on concept and brainstorming.. ?
No usually it just starts with ride height, and wheels, then it evolves from there. Sometimes I go weeks without touching it.. and just look at it and maybe change a ¼ inch here and there. It’s always a work in progress.
What’s your dream project?
Someday I will build a motorcycle from nothing, engine and all. Paul Brodie has been a very inspirational builder to me, he built custom mountain bikes in the 80’s/early 90’s that my dad raced on. Now he is building 1919 Excelsiors from nothing, true craftsman, very humble and focused.
That Honda..tell me about it?
The cb750 belongs to Scott of the Tarantulas. He came to me with some simple ideas for a new seat. Things snowballed pretty quick and turned into a full build, Scott had lots of good ideas and allowed me the freedom to do what I wanted. I started with lots of foam mock ups and played with the ride height, a shaped custom cowl, put battery under cowl, the oil tank got moved under the cowl and hard lines were made. I did not want to use any modern looking parts, we got a factory dual disk set up for the front, I mounted a remote master cylinder under the tank that is actuated by cable. I made some clip-ons, levers and a throttle that keep things looking simple and clean. Engine is stock. Lots of metal finishes and satin.
What about that Yamaha..?
The Yamaha is the first bike I built for myself 5 years ago. It’s a pretty generic rigid 650. I did a loop frame, shaped the tank/rear fender, made bars/throttle and simplified the electronics.
What colors are you feeling right now?
Really understated natural metal finishes.. no chrome.. mostly satin or matte..
What particular style of bike are you liking?
Doesn’t matter what style, it either looks good or not
How does your day begin?
I wake up at 6am, coffee. Head to my day job building vintage classic cars. At Steve’s Auto Restorations. I put in 8 hard hours, and, with the help of coffee and a burrito, I head over to my shop where I work on my own projects late into the night.
How do you and Jordan from Hufnagel know each other? Your work must really influence each other?
We met through the industry and close friends. I have to admit, I was hesitant to meet Jordan at first because I thought he’d be some douche bag hipster. But I was way wrong. The first time we met was on a mountain biking trip, and Jordan totally killed it..blew me away. He traveled the country riding BMX in his 20’s. And he took a swan dive off the biggest cliff at the river spot, which pretty much sealed the respect from me. Our works definitely influence each other, and are constantly learning from one other and sharing ideas. You can definitely expect some collaborations in the near future. WEST AMERICA..coming soon.
What are you working on right now?
A 71 triumph for myself with a bunch of subtle details. It will be a fun and practical bike for jamming around town. I’m also working on a product line that will hopefully be available sooner than later.
What’s your most prized piece of work? http://realsteel.com/project_image.php?projimageid=3208&projid=16
This grill and grill shell was a project that I was pretty stoked on, the shell is a one off brass casting that was filed to shape, the shell is stainless tubing that was crushed then sanded, bent, polished and fitted in place. Their was no way to know if the highlight lines and spacing would work out till the end, there was over 100 hours into the project.
Aside from Crowe..who’s the best custom bike shop around?
I still have too much to learn, the best shops around are the ones we will never know about, the old man in his shop that doesn’t have the internet to distract him.
What’s in your personal garage right now?
BMW R80, 650 rigid, 71 Triumph
What do you wear when you ride? Do you make custom helmets?
Same thing everyday, Levi’s jeans, a white t, a red flannel, work boots and an open face helmet. No custom helmets.
Is this your dream job? Where do you see Crowe in a few years down the road?
At the moment I am living my dream, its always evolving. I see Crowe customs slowly growing into a reputable shop built upon honesty and hard work.
If you weren’t riding a custom bike.. what do you like straight from the factory?
A non sidecar ural, they still have a simplistic feel to them.