Director and photographer Adam Weiss spent some time with Walt Siegl in his New Hampshire shop, chronicling the last stages of the his top-secret build for Puma. The resulting footage was used to create this tight promotional piece with Walt’s own words on his deep personal passion for motorcycles. The video that Weiss put together is a testament to the artistry that Siegl puts into everything he does. –From the crew at Iron & Air
The Walt Siegl / Puma collaboration bike is an early 2-Valve Ducati 900 which is now a blue printed BCM 944 big bore unit. Full carbon kevlar body and chromoly frame weighing a combined 30 lbs.
Tucked away in the basement of a historic brick mill complex in a former machine shop is a place akin to Frankenstein’s laboratory, filled with tools, machinery and body parts. Walter Siegl is the scientist of sorts, and his creations are custom-built motorcycles. At first glance, his 1,700-square-foot space looks more like a playroom, with its shiny chrome and eye-catching paint colors at every turn. In a way, it is.
Siegl, who has operated Walt Siegl Custom Motorcycles for five years in Harrisville, started out racing motorcycles.
His first race was in his native Austria when he was 18.
Motorcycles are in his blood. His father and two grandfathers rode them. But he wanted to ride them more than just as a weekend hobby.
“Street riding wasn’t interesting enough for me,” Siegl said.
He participated in endurance racing all over Europe as part of a sponsored factory team.
“It consisted of racing on closed roads through villages to the tops of mountains,” he said.
It all came to a grinding halt when he had a serious accident during a race at Le Mans race track when he was 21. His injuries landed him in the hospital for four months.
Although his career as a sponsored racer stopped then, he financed his own racing (he rode a Ducati V-twin) off and on in the years that followed. At his wife’s request, he decided last year would be the end.
“I’ve gotten too banged up,” he said.
Siegl, a former sculptor, came to the United States in the mid-’80s to work as a diplomat for the Austrian Foreign Service. At the same time, he opened a studio space in Long Island City, N.Y., where he built motorcycles for himself and for friends. The first bike he built was a Harley-Davidson Sportster.
“I existed under the radar,” he said. “I never planned to build clientele — I did it to make my hands dirty and explore the possibility of building bikes.”
But the motorcycle lifestyle took over and sculpting took a back seat.
Not much has changed since Siegl moved to New Hampshire (he lives in Nelson) in 2007 — only now he’s not just building motorcycles for friends.
Last month, The Motorcycle Industry Council forecast modest declines in new motorcycle sales through 2012, although the organization reported the dozen leading brands were up 0.3 percent last year compared to 2010.
Siegl isn’t worried about how the economy is affecting the motorcycle business. His customers are a select group who come to him from all over the world, mostly through word-of-mouth. He doesn’t pay a crew of employees (he has one assistant) and he doesn’t have the overhead of a showroom.
Siegl keeps hours in his shop by appointment only, and he needs to do only roughly five jobs a year to stay in business.
That’s because a Walt Siegl motorcycle costs between $30,000 and $100,000 and takes up to five months to build.
Among fans of his work are artist and friend Arthur Sordello, who raced one of Siegl’s creations at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and actress Angelina Jolie, who bought one as a Christmas present three years ago for her partner, actor Brad Pitt.
“People have gone back to the fun factor of riding motorcycles,” Siegl said. “There’s a completely new culture out there who are not just about looking good going down the road.”
The culture is known as the “cafe racer,” a term that refers to the motorcycle and rider and with roots in Europe in the ’60s. Then, riders would race from one coffee bar to another. The cafe racer is a motorcycle modified for speed and handling rather than comfort.
Not that his motorcycles don’t look good. His starting platform is a Ducati engine; the frame for each bike, meanwhile, is built from scratch.
The result is a classic design reminiscent of a ’60s-’70s Harley-Davidson, but with an emphasis on contemporary performance with modern components.
He aims to employ local businesses — at least within New England — for outside jobs. His painter is based in New Hampshire, for instance, and the carbon fiber he uses for some of his motorcycle components comes from Rhode Island.
His interest in mechanics in general helps with technical aspects of motorcycle building.
“I’m interested in how a watchband is assembled,” he said.
His work as a sculptor, he said, helps him tap into the creative elements of building a bike.
“It’s a creative process — I just apply function to my creative endeavors,” he said. “That happens to be motorcycles.”
His design sense led to an order from Puma International, for which he is creating a motorcycle to serve as a launching pad for footwear he is also designing for the company.
Siegl’s mechanical knowledge goes beyond bike building. He worked in France as a shunter in a train yard and as a toolmaker and welder in Germany, Austria and Italy. Later, he worked for a steel company in Moscow.
Anyone who wants to start out in the custom motorcycle building business needs to know machining inside and out, he said.
“You need to know the properties of metal and how to work with metal,” he said.
Although tools manufactured in the U.S. are hard to find today, Siegl advised being patient before opening a workshop.
“Tools are the most expensive part of what I do,” he said. “It took me 20 years to acquire the ones I have — I’m still acquiring them. You need to shop (for tools) carefully.”
Having experience as a racer is another key to success in his business, he said.
“I know what not to do,” he said.
Having a lot of technical know-how is also helpful, he said, but knowing how to edit is more important. “Try not to use everything that pops into your head in one package,” he said. “Be as clean as you possibly can. Hands-off is usually the better choice.”
No matter what kind of custom paint job, wheels or exhaust the customer wants, Siegl said it is critical to be sure-footed in your work.
“If you come across aspects you’re uncertain about, you cannot wing it,” he said. “Give the job to someone who can do it properly. Someone’s life is in your hands.”
See more at waltsiegl.com