Shop Stop: Ron Simms - Level Five Graphics

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Shop Stop: Ron Simms - Level Five Graphics
Shop Stop: Ron Simms
Building a Rideable Chopper
real short, fat, big-inch motor bikes, that
was always our deal. That’s what we were
known for. There are very few people in
the United States who can attribute a style
to themselves. Most people pick off of
someone else, or just copy. Fortunately,
we’re not one of those people. You look at
a Simms bike, especially from the last 25
years, you know it’s a Simms bike. At least
people who know the scene.
Story and photos by Alan Lapp
I
f there’s anything more iconographically
American than the custom chopper, we’re
not sure what it is. Regardless of how you
feel about motorcycles that are built more
for show than go, you still have to admire the
effort and workmanship that goes into these
big-bucks machines, as well as the ingenuity
and expertise that’s often reflected in them.
Within the panoply of custom builders,
several famous ones come from right here in
the Bay Area.
Would you say your style is function
over form?
Absolutely. You know, the first thing that
people notice are the style of the bike, the
paint jobs and everything else. Our thing
has always been “they run better than they
look.” It’s not like our stuff is so chopped
up or so far out there that only a certain
amount of people understand that. Our
stuff is basic, real functional. We focus on
the running part of it, and the handling
part of it. That’s why you never see a bike
come outta here with a 45-degree rake,
20-inch-over front end, or something with
a 300-inch back tire with no back fender.
Ron Simms is a builder who has lived here for
the majority of his life. One of the founding
fathers of the “East Bay” custom style, he’s
been building his clean, low-slung bikes—
festooned with his signature skulls and other
imagery—for 45 years, and his bikes are
identifiable by Harley-Davidson aficionados
world-wide.
The Simms shop is conveniently located
off 580 in Hayward (21129 Foothill
Boulevard,510/537-3338, ronsimms.com).
Part sales floor, part machine shop, part
tattoo studio, the facilities are surprisingly
large, tidy, and clean. The shelves are well
stocked with OEM and aftermaket parts. We
sat down and chatted with him recently.
Whenever I see a guy with a bike with no
fender, I tell them that they don’t ride that
bike. They always say “Yeah, I ride that
bike,” but I know they don’t. I ride bikes.
I’ve wound up on the back fender. You’ll
get it jammed up your ass. Eventually, the
guy will come around and say “Yeah, I built
it more for shows,” and I say “Then that’s
what you should say.”
How did you get into building customs?
In this area [Oakland], bikes have always
been real prominent, from back after
WWII. When I got out of high school,
the people living across from me had
motorcycles, and I was really mechanical. I
could just look at stuff and understand how
it works. Which is good, a real plus. I was
an architecture major in high school and
college, so I look at things a little different
than most people.
There are Fresno styles, Frisco styles, what
makes them that specific style? Is every
custom a chopper?
It just depends. We never really called our
bikes choppers. We just called our bikes
“bikes.” Our deal has always revolved
around going fast. We never built choppers
for cruising. When we got started, we built
that he completely took offense to, was that
whoever loses the challenge can challenge
the other guy to a fight. Now, I thought that
would have been real cool... Yeah, okay, this
is what it’s really like. He wouldn’t even talk
to me after that.
What’s your take on your reputation?
Why don’t you build build bikes with big
rear tires, isn’t that a popular style?
““Orange County Choppers”
is a sit-com. It doesn’t have
anything to do with real
motorcycle people.”
We did a couple 280s, and we only did a
few of them. We did a couple rigid frames
with 280s, a couple swingarm frames with
280s, just to try ‘em. But riding a bike like
that is just such a borderline thing that it
takes away from enjoying riding, you have
to think too much.
Why aren’t there more V-Rod customs?
It’s a state-of-the art motorcycle that
they’re improving, but it doesn’t have
anything to do with Harleys. To me, it’s
not a Harley. We’re more traditionalists
here. We like the regular bikes. Anything
with a radiator, we don’t consider. The
[V-Rod] styling is a little past what we’d
do. We’ve only had a couple of them in the
shop. It’s just something we haven’t had the
opportunities to work on them, we don’t
care to work on them, either.
How are you doing in the current
economy?
Right now, everybody is in their survival
mode. We’re sticking with what we know.
Anybody that says they’re doing good in
this business right now, they’re fucking
lying. It’s just not happening. There might
be a guy that built a bike last year, and this
year he’s doing two, so he’s doing twice as
much as he did. But anybody that’s been in
business for a long time, they’re feeling it.
October 2010 | 16 | CityBike.com
What about the “Chopper Boom?”
One of the biggest things that happened
to mess it up, besides the economy, is
that right before the economy started
its downfall, the sport got ridiculously
popular. Everybody was building bikes. All
they were doing was flooding the market,
and a lot of it was really inferior products.
They’re putting together a bike that
cosmetically looks like a custom bike, but
when people buy it, they have a multitude
of problems. If you take companies like
American Iron Horse, or Big Dog, or Titan,
all these guys have had a tremendous
amount of problems with their product
line. They’re representing it as a custom
bike, and it might be that the first custom
bike [a customer] ever bought and it broke
down before they even got to the freeway.
Their experiences with them is really bad,
and that really hurts [established builders].
and cheap parts. They fell into a situation
with the TV producers who were looking
for something to do. The first [builder]
backed out, they got them. Everything is
scripted. I hate that shit, you know. Their
bikes were completely un-functional, unrideable. Never knock anybody for being a
success, but their run is over.
How about less-theatrical shows like
“Biker Build-Off?”
I’ve got the reputation of being a real prick.
People say “oh, he charges too much”, but if
[list price] says to charge $1200, I’m selling
it for $1200. It’s a business, you’re only
making 20 to 25 percent, that’s not a lot. So
that’s not a lot to work with, so you have to
sell a lot of stuff. I hear that all the time, and
I’ll say “Yeah, I’m a dick.” Why? Because I
want to keep my doors open? I’ll never put
a part up for more [than list]. I got times
when one of my guys sells stuff, and they’ll
say “I sold it for $350”, but the price is only
$275, well, the guy comes back in, I’ll tell
the guy “we over-charged you, you’ve got a
credit”
So you’re a dick with principles?
[Laughs] Right, yeah, that’s it.
When all the TV stuff was going, when the
TV people coming to us, wanting to do
“Biker Build-Off,” we turned them down.
We’ve done quite a few shows, but we’d
only do shows that were related to how we
build the bike, what the bike’s going to be,
none of the scripting, none of the acting up,
none of the bikes falling off stands, none of
that stuff. When we got to the last season,
when I knew the show was going to be over,
I told him “I’ll do one”. But, these are the
What’s your opinion of chopper shows, like conditions: absolutely no scripting, none. If
I say somebody is a punk-ass, he’s a punk“Orange County Choppers?”
ass. You can bleep it, but you better make
It’s a sit-com. It doesn’t have anything to
it understood that’s the way I feel about
do with real motorcycle people. I met the
him. The other thing is put me up against
people 10 or 12 years ago in Laconia, I was somebody that I don’t like. Don’t put me
with Jesse James. They stopped us on the
up against somebody that’s a buddy where
road, and their bikes were really horrible.
you can do all this joking around. My last
You could tell they were pieced together
thing, which I thought was the coolest,
October 2010 | 17 | CityBike.com