Custom motorcycle builder, Richard Pollock talks to RideApart about what makes a beautiful street tracker.
Richard Pollock, owner of Mule Motorcycles, will build you the custom street tracker of your dreams. While on a recent trip to Southern California, I had the pleasure of visiting his shop, seeing his latest builds and talking with him about his philosophy on building and riding.
Read on for his unique perspective on the world of motorcycles.
RideApart: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
Richard Pollock: I currently live in San Diego, CA and came out here in 1975 from Florida because I wanted to be in the center of the motorcycle universe. At that time, as well as now, that would be Southern California. Also, I was very much into surfing and you may have heard about that being popular in SoCal as well. I took an interest in cars first as a kid and bikes a few years later growing up in upstate New York. Pretty much anything with wheels got my attention. My dad took me to the stock car races when I was so small, I couldn’t even see out of a car window. I drew lots of pictures, then built model cars and later started modifying bicycles. When I started working, naturally it was as a mechanic. Motorcycles, airplanes, more motorcycles then missiles and finally back to motorcycles.
Now, I just build/create motorcycles. I do it every day and I love it. There are many obstacles and setbacks, but overcoming them is what keeps things interesting. I primarily build bikes of the “street tracker” variety (that’s what I get the most requests for), but have really built all sorts of bikes. I’ve raced motocross, flat track and road racing so I think everything I build has competition in its DNA. Race cars and motorcycles as well as airplanes and missiles have a high-tech, mechanical look that is unmistakable. Their functional nature breeds certain lines and characteristics that fill my mental data bank. So it comes out in what I do, sometimes subconsciously and sometimes by intent. That, I believe is what makes my builds unique. Traditionally functional, not retro, I call this look “High Function.”
100 hp and 350 lbs. What's not to like?
RA: What makes your design-process, production-method and overall product unique? Why do people come to you to build the bike of their dreams as opposed to other builders?
Richard Pollock: The design process would have to be described as old school. Not a guy sitting a at a computer working with CAD (ed. Computer Aided Design) program. Most everything is in my head. That’s where it starts. Next, I try to describe it to someone how cool it is, and that someone usually has no idea what I’m talking about. Then, maybe I’ll draw some pictures to have something I can see more clearly and then tweak the lines. What needs changing? Does it look the way I thought it would? Sometimes I keep the pictures, sometimes I throw them away and just start building. This could be a component, a fix for a problem or maybe a complete bike. It could also be something for the house, the truck or whatever. But that’s how the process starts. Then it’s time for something 3-dimensional. I start making it. For most of the sophisticated machining of parts, I’ll draw a blueprint and hand it off to a local machine shop. That would be things like hubs, triple clamps, inner disc carriers, bar mounts, etc.
The production method? I have 20-30 bikes in work at any one time. Some are similar to bikes done previously, some are totally unique, but all are lots of work and every nut and bolt gets lots of TLC. I have to bounce around from bike to bike, part to part, idea to idea. The trick is to keep it all that gathered up in your head. Projects run out of funding and suppliers run out of needed parts or components. Also, I think every builder has started the same way I have. You do a couple bikes that come out nice and then it takes off. If you learn from your mistakes, treat people decent, don’t try to control the market or get greedy…then you may have a chance.
Customers generally come to me for a bike because they want something that has a competition look, is well thought out, and is made with good components and a lot of care. Quality and value are always in style and generally attract the educated buyer.
Mule's custom Triumph front end running Yamaha R6 forks
RA: You started with Harley Sportsters, but now you are doing a lot of Triumphs. What is it about the Triumph modern classics that appeals to you? Are there any inherent qualities about the bike, their motors, or their chassis that lend themselves well to customization?
Richard Pollock: Actually I started with Yamaha motorcycles, building bikes only for myself. One day in 1993, a friend brought a Sportster by and wanted help doing some upgrades. That turned into a big project that got a lot of exposure and more business. Then I did another one in the street tracker style which helped keep the momentum. For some reason, the common comment was, “If Harley built a bike like that, I think I would actually buy a Harley.” Harley doesn’t, so I do. Same with Triumph. I did a street tracker concept bike for the U.S. distributor which they took to shows. It got a huge response and I really thought that would lead to some involvement with the factory. However, the corporate people know best and the Scrambler, the Rocket 3 and models like that are the result. Yes, I’m a bit cynical in that regard. Meanwhile, I could probably sell two of my style bikes a week if I had the build capacity.
The Triumphs however, have become very popular, have held their value pretty well. The motor is literally bombproof and they are extremely responsive to all sorts of upgrades. Plus, they start out 100 lbs lighter than a Sportster. The Triumph motor can be upgraded to achieve 75-100 hp at the wheel and still be stone reliable. Better suspension, brakes, exhaust, ground clearance, appearance, lighter weight, are all areas that appeal to customizers. And I firmly believe that when an owner spends money on their pride and joy and it yields real world results, that enhances the experience big time.
What do you do to a new $16K Panigale? You install $500 carbon footpeg brackets or a titanium shift linkage because you want to personalize it any way you can. Not quite as rewarding. Is it a much better bike than a T100? No doubt. But incremental improvements made by you, in your garage, have a much greater psychological payoff and that’s what keeps people coming back as enthusiasts and not just fad buyers. I read years ago that the average H-D buyer spends $2000 on average on bike accessory upgrades in the first six months. In the aftermarket Triumph world, you are much more limited, now anyway, to small chrome goo-gahs and British flag stickers. There are a few companies making true performance parts, but just a few. So, making custom parts for these models keeps me very excited about the new Triumphs and the possibilities are wide open.
A brace of Triumphs fighting for attention in Richard's shed.
RA: Some of your bikes couldn’t and shouldn’t be called a Triumph or a Harley anymore. The amount of work, re-design and fabrication you’ve put into the builds warrants a different badge on the tank. What do your builds feel-like, ride-like, go-like and sound-like compared to a stock or typically modified Triumph twin or Harley Sportster? What sets them apart from a more humbly modded bike like my own Triumph Bonneville?
Richard Pollock: Not sure the bikes are ready for a “Mule” badge quite yet, but yes, a huge amount of work goes into them. Maybe someday. How do my bikes compare to the stock models? Faster, lighter and I think better looking. Uncorking the exhaust a bit with a stainless megaphone(s), make the bikes sound even more exciting. Take your stock Bonneville for example and remove 45-60 lbs, add 20-30 hp at the wheel and go for a ride. That’s what they feel like! Lighter wheels make for better acceleration, better suspension makes for improved ride quality, better brakes and handlebar controls lets you feel more in control. Turn the loud handle and you get a bigger rush. Pull the brake lever and it feels like a sportbike. Just the way people expect a current bike to perform, yet they are not available in stock form.
I couple of Sportster projects.
RA: The price ranges for your builds range from $26,000-$50,000, a fair chunk of change for most people. Who are your usual clientele? Is there a typical customer or are they all different? You also mentioned to me that business didn’t fall off after the 2007-2008 economic crisis, but rather it steadily picked up. Can you theorize about why that is?
Richard Pollock:That’s a complicated question. The economy tanked and my business took off like a rocket straight up. I think it was a few factors though. My build/business philosophy was kind of in the Japanese tradition as opposed to the typical American approach. Here, it’s let’s start a business and focus on capitol investments, R.O.I., profit margins, marketing studies, blah, blah, blah. You need to start turning a profit by the third quarter of the first year or we’re outta here. The Japanese approach, such as I understand it, is more like, let’s make a good product that continually improves, get control of our costs, refine our manufacturing, penetrate the market and gradually get the final prices where they need to be….. but taking as long as 5-10 years to do this. Meanwhile the market has come to know you over time as a rock-solid entity that’s in it for the long run. And then…they respect and need you.
My customers are generally a bit more of the creative types that have been successful. They understand a couple basic principles. Find someone competent to do the job, pay them well and leave them alone to do what they know how to do. As managers of other people or as business owners they know good stuff takes time. So, for the most part, my customers could not be more pleasurable to work with.
The client docket.
RA: How do you see tastes, aspirations and designs evolving over the coming years in motorcycle culture and the industry as a whole? Where do you see failures on the part of the industry and where do you see success? Is there room for growth in the customs market?
Richard Pollock: I think a book could be written to answer that! When you say “tastes”, I read that as fads or trends. Look back at the Harley boom years. The trend was to be a “Harley owner”. A million guys that knew squat about bikes bought Harleys. They bought them for their girlfriends and wives and their neighbors even bought them. They were now “bikers”. But Harley has tunnel vision. They perceive that the entire world of motorcycling can be served with a few very large, heavy road models. That’s fine as long as the trend/fad holds up. What do you do when the baby boomers check out of motorcycling and next three generations come along and start expecting lightweight and performance? Not just from their iPhone, coffee maker and LED TV, but also from their motorcycle. Harley owned MV Agusta, which is probably one of the nicest looking brands on earth with a long, successful racing pedigree, and they owned Buell. They kicked Buell to the curb and MV back to Italy. My opinion is both of those brands could’ve kept H-D in the hunt with future riding generations. Instead, their answer is the XR1200 which is a 600+ pound sportbike.
The big four from Japan seem to me have circled the wagons and are playing it as safe as possible. They are right at the edge of technology but are hesitant to charge off in any new innovative styling directions as the MC market is being rebooted since the economic downturn of a few years ago. They have been cautious and it’s exactly why they’ll weather the storm. That said, sportbikes have become so refined, that they are like high-end stereos of the 70’s. Stereos got so good, the differences were imperceptible. The differences in the prices were very clear though. Sportbikes have evolved from an axe into a scalpel. Problem is, the average sportbike buyer is more lumberjack than surgeon. You can quote me on that. I know guys that can take a current sportbike to a race or a track day and burn the tires off, but they are rare and they are the exception. So where do sportbikes go from here? Faster, lighter and more expensive most likely. They are fairly expensive right now for the masses. Then who will be able to buy them? Middle aged guys that can actually afford them? No, they don’t want to be all hassled up into a sportbike riding position on their way to work or to Starbucks. Now…in Southern California, we have thousands of miles of beautiful twisting mountain roads. So they serve a strong purpose here. But for cities and the grid pattern roads of the flat lands? Not so much. Where the Japanese seem to be putting a lot of focus though is on the Cruiser lines. I guess that’s a sure thing now.
It seems as though Triumph crept up on everybody and did the slow, methodical build-up. The finish on a lot of their stuff is super quality, the reliability is very good and they seem to be pushing the model line-up at a decent pace.
I think BMW could rule the world of motorcycles, but they have a plan and that’s just the high-end market. The S1000RR has been impressive and like Harleys to the cruiser riders, if you want a “real” adventure bike, it has to be a BMW GS. They tried expensive dirtbikes (for who knows what reason) and that didn’t pan out.
Italian bikes? I drool on those when I need motivation or ideas. You want passion? Go Italian! I always said, “If only Erik Buell had hired an Italian to design the back half of his bikes, they would have been much, much better looking.”
Meanwhile, what do I see everyone on the internet clamoring for? Carport built, rat-bike, café racer, salvage yard, pipe-wrapped specials with flat seats and cables sticking out at odd angles. That is a trend that is puzzling. It is the “Occupy Motorcycle building” style of bikes. Good news? Guys are digging in and trying to build stuff. Bad news? They all look the same and are not that well thought out. More good news is that some of these guys are trying some really weird stuff that hasn’t been tried (sometimes for a very good reason), but they are challenging the conventional wisdom. I just wish this trend would pass quickly and the guys would think about all the stuff factories did to make bikes safe and work well and keep a few of those traits intact.
The customs market (and that doesn’t mean choppers), will grow as long as the OEM’s fail to provide simple motorcycles. Simple, most of the time, means fun. Simple doesn’t mean slow or dull. It means less frivolous junk and fancy, expensive plastic. My view may be biased as I grew up with simple motorcycles, simple riding gear and lower costs. People want what they want, regardless of what is available in the shops. When they can afford it, they’ll get a bike made exactly as they want it. Motorcycling is a sport made up of individuals and many riders want to be seen as unique. They want to stand out in the herd. Custom is how they get there.
Adjustable offset triple clamps on the Russian build.
RA: Give us some advice. What would you tell someone who has a vision and wants to build custom motorcycles? And what would tell someone who just wants to make their bike better, bit by bit?
Richard Pollock: Start with a cheap bike and do a few things. Building custom motorcycles or furniture or houses or cars, bicycles, boats or whatever it may be is all about digging in and get your hands dirty. You have to start somewhere and then keep at it. Do another one. And another and on and on. Learn from your mistakes. That’s how it was in the old days when people had a much longer attention span. To get good, you have to chop away and sometimes for a very long time. Go to shows, races, swap meets, talk to people, hang around in motorcycle shops, look at pictures by the hundreds. Study what makes stuff you like look good and what you don’t like look bad. Search for clues. Best of all would be to get a job in a shop and learn a lot every day. I started in a Honda shop for $65.00 a week and had to drive 30 miles each way. It was what I wanted to do more than anything else in the world.
Want to make your bike better bit by bit? That can involve a lot of trial and error, but a good start is usually going for lighter weight. The bike will improve with everything you make lighter and it costs the least. To a point. Trying to keep up with your buddies by putting more trick parts on your bike is very expensive. Next thing you know, they’ll go out and get a newer model and then you have to start all over again.
A creative mind must have organized tools.
RA: What do you absolutely love about motorcycles? What is that "thing" inside that keeps you out in the shop late at night?
Richard Pollock: Motorcycles are many things. Part transportation, part tool and part toy. They make nice sounds, they produce thrills, require lots of skill or sometimes require very little skill. They are entertaining to look at, watch and to work on. You can see and smell things on a motorcycle that you never will in a car. They are mechanical art. They are my life, not just a hobby or a passing interest.
Richard explaining some of the finer points of Triumph front-end geometry.
RA: Do you ever think the day will come when you will modify an electric bike? (As they are getting more prevalent by the day.)
Richard Pollock: I hope so! I wanted to build one for flat track racing where it would have be the perfect application a couple years ago. I contacted every E-bike company but they all said they were already committed to a “sportbike” type program and showed almost zero interest. The cost of the motor, controller and batteries is too high for me to jump in without the electronics expertise of an engineering dept at one of these companies. If I did the “E” part wrong, the learning curve/failure would be costly. I have a lot of ideas on this but really need to partner with a manufacturer for it to succeed. And it would!
Note the slimmer clutch cover with hydraulic clutch fittings.
RA: If money were not a concern, what bike would you choose to modify and why?
Richard Pollock: I would like to build many, many bikes and although the project is a secret, I am currently building my very own “dream bike." Also, I’d like to build a street tracker from a 650 Ninja twin. I like the new Yamaha FZ9, and the KTM RC8 sportbike would be a good one to go under the knife as well. I’m not a fan of the hard angle, stealth fighter plastic bodywork look. And in fact the worst thing about the Stealth fighter that these bikes try to emulate, is the aerodynamics. I haven’t done one in a stock frame but an earlier Buell could be made to look and go really good. When you get into the high-end stuff, I think the bikes like MV’s and Ducatis are a little too locked into their original packaging. Changing too much on those can have an adverse effect. Harleys have been done to death as have CB750 Hondas. I think there are a lot of nice 4-stroke singles that could evolve into something very interesting as well. The starting point or “The bike I’d like to modify” is every bike I see really. Carving up a Desmosidici or something like that would be fun but no more fun than a 1966 BMW Boxer twin. The one requirement to me is that the motor is not going to end up being fragile.
RA: Final question: Whose work do you most admire at the moment?
Richard Pollock: There are a few guys. Clay Rathburn at Atom Bomb customs makes really clean, simple early Triumph bobbers and recently did a street tracker and a motocrosser that are super, super nice. Freddy Krugger in Belgium is in a class by himself. Every bike he builds is earth shattering! Roland Sands’ bikes have all sorts of combinations of finishes that end up really sweet and the Radical Ducati bikes are I think closest to what I would try to build given a Ducati clientele. Their bikes are all custom and all race track all the time. Kraus builds about the nicest bikes ever, but there are too few to look at. DP Customs in Arizona are developing a unique style that when refined will become a future trend, so says, “Mule, the prophet.” These are the guys that I keep an eye on. They aren’t copying each other or anybody else. They are all unique and making great bikes.