Writer's Ramblings

Interview with Donnie Smith

Written by  February 28, 2006

At the Wide open Bike Show I got the chance to interview another legend in the motorcycle world. Donnie Smith has been building custom motorcycle for over 30 years and after talking to him I don’t think he will be slowing down anytime soon. He is easygoing and cordial and takes his celebrity status with a grain of salt. You would never know that he has won lifetime achievement awards from Hot Bike and V-Twin magazines as well as being inducted into the Sturgis Hall of Fame in 1995. I truly enjoyed talking with Donnie and hope to get the chance to visit with him again in the future.

CC: What do you have new and exciting being built in your shop for 2006?
Donnie: Well, right now we’re doing a series of bikes that all three have 145 [cubic inch engines] from S&S which make 180-some horsepower and 180-some foot pounds of torque. We’ve got two rigids which is on Motorcycle Works frame Frank Pederson Good looking bikes, one is just about done. One is in paint. The other one is in fab that is a Softtail model from Upholstery Framework, so we are pretty excited about them. They are going to be some fun bikes.

CC: With the tires getting wider and wider with the 330 and 360, do you think it’s going to get wider, or are we going back the other way?
Donnie : I think we are going to see it come back because it is getting out of proportion for the bike in a way. If that’s what you gotta do, that’s what’s you gotta do, but with the bobbers kind of coming in a little bit, I think you may see it kind of stop there. I know Metzeler went with a 280. They built a new tire and they didn’t jump up to the next thing to try to outdo Avon. There seems to be a race between those two. Avon only went to the 330 which kind of means they weren’t trying to play the 360 game, so I think it’s maybe kind of met its match a little bit and it seems like the bikes almost look out of proportion with the big tires.

CC: What do you think about all the new EPA laws for all the manufacturers?
Donnie : Well, I think it’s something they can’t enforce. It’s been on the books since 1978 and they haven’t done anything about it since, so I think it’s something that once they figure out how much money it’s going to cost and how little damage to the environment that we’re really doing; I think it’s a joke.

CC: Do you think the Motor Company has screwed itself because when it’s time to make the EPA numbers, they’re going to have to revert to the V-Rod motor if they want to stay within guidelines?
Donnie : Yeah, I think that’s been their way to get people used to water-cooled engines and see if they can get people to accept that. I don’t know how satisfied they are with the results of that bike. It has not been their best effort, I think. They’re hard to sell. It’s something coming down the road. It’s too hard to control and get the proper control on an air-cooled motor. You can’t control the temperatures, especially in slow traffic and stuff like that. They gain too much heat.

CC: Every builder I’ve ever interviewed has their own favorite bike that is their personal ride. What’s yours?

Donnie : Well, I just built a new 140-inch Twin Cam with a blower, and that was pretty fun, and then I’ve got the blue chopper which is sitting in my booth now that I’ve had for about three or four years, and I really enjoy riding that bike. It fits me good and rides good. It’s still a good lookin’ bike after all these years. I kind of like that one.

CC: It’s beautiful bike. That girder just kicks ass. It’s got a little bit of the new and old together. A lot of the new builders are referred to as “young guns.” Of this group, whose stuff excites you?
Donnie : Well, Roland Sands has made a good mark, and Jesse Rooke has done well. They are probably the latest of the new guys. I’d say a guy that is probably kind of not quite the latest, you know, like Paul Yaffe and Eddie Trotta. Guys like me and Arlen and David Perewitz and Ron Simms, we’ve been around for 30-some years and some of those guys who have been around about 10-15 years, and some have been around about 5. They’re doing well. Matt Hotch is probably the hottest name out there right now. He is doing real, real well. He has some good products, seems to build a very nice bike. He has a good eye for what he does. There are a lot of guys who probably don’t have a name yet. You’ll go to shows like this and you’ll see a bike from a guy who is just a guy off the block that does a good job, and those are the guys you have to appreciate, because they don’t have stuff to work with. I’ve got a full-time machinist and a full-time fab guy and a full-time motor guy. These guys are in their garage either hacksawing or figuring it out somehow, but they get a pretty good job done working on a limited situation.

CC: After 30 years plus of building, do you ever get tired of it?
Donnie : Well... It is my chosen profession, but I still really do enjoy it. I enjoy the people and I enjoy building bikes. I probably could have got into manufacturing a lot of products that I have had on bikes that have probably gotten stolen from me, so that’s a whole other big headache. I’ve done that before, and I really do enjoy building bikes. I enjoy going to the rallies. I’ve got tons of friends. I really enjoy my friends. It isn’t like when you first get into it. A very good friend of mine named Randy Smith who has passed away, he was the first guy to shoot bikes in the magazine for us, and we were talking about how it was cool that we had taken a hobby and made it a business, and he said, once you take a hobby and make it a business, it’s no longer your hobby. And he’s really right, because it isn’t like when I get home I really want to go riding, because I just did 8 or 10 hours of motorcycles, but I do enjoy riding. The weekends are more my deal, to go riding on weekends rather than every night.

Interview and photos by Loney and
Stephanie Wilcoxson