"This is the most important bike that I have. This is the bike that I built from pieces. This is a bike that was a Frankenstein, and I assembled the bike over the years."The tanks came from a bike that Steve McQueen canned. Those tanks were on the cover of American Motorcycle, a book from the '80s, and then the bike got rerestored, and I got the tanks because they wanted to put on perfect fresh tanks."Why would they throw away perfectly good stuff? Fortunately, Cyclone ran the same forks as Indian, so I could take Indian forks, and I just had to chop and then modify them slightly, and then they're the identical forks. The frame started as an Indian, and then I did special castings and things to modify it into a Cyclone frame, so it is a little bit of merger there."
"Over here we have a 1919 Indian; this is the first bike to do a mile a minute. The single cylinder is a 30-50. It's as raced! Super important. Probably, of all my collection, this bike has the best providence, raced as is. There's even a clipping from the 1940s that says, 'Who knows where Poppy so-and-so's bike is,' and it's in this state when the picture was taken."
"This is a one-off Excelsior racer with original tires. Those blue streak tires are the only ones known to exist. There are no other white tires like that in existence. You can see why. The black petrifies, the white flakes and powders and goes to dust, so ..."
This year at Sturgis, he had his world-famous '41 Crocker and an absolutely mint 1912 Pierce inline-four.
The Art Of Jeff Decker
For those of you who don't know who Jeff Decker is, let's just say he won't be the guy with "love nuggets" stuck all over a stock bike with accompanying factory chrome bolt-ons. He'll be the guy on a bike that most will not even recognize yet in fact will be cooler than anything in that particular time zone.
Some gave curious glances, some studied them more than any other bike on the Grease Monkey Mayhem lot, and for very good reason, but an amazing amount of "bikers" didn't even give them a second glance. Different strokes, or simply not getting it; your guess is as good as mine.
Many people know Jeff as the country's best lost wax/bronze artist and as the Harley-Davidson licensed sculptor-Milwaukee would seem to agree. To some, he is a vast encyclopedia for early motorcycle history. To watch him and Lonnie Isam of Competition Distributing talk about the early board trackers and motorcycles from that period will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck and will leave you feeling like an impotent little girl in your ignorance. Don't worry; they humble most of today's industry giants as well.
Highly intelligent and gifted artists are a special breed, usually very onconformist and independent; the inability to compromise their art often leads into their personal lives. In short, they more often than not end up being called "dysfunctional." Unable to cope with "normalcy" or the ineptitude of others (real or, at times, imagined), their lives are often misunderstood by the layman and those of "higher education" alike, with their only true respect coming from their peers. Unfortunately, and again, more often than not, the general public rarely, if at all, appreciates these "dysfunctionals" until they're gone.
With Jeff, nothing could be further from the truth. His family and business life would be an example for any man to follow. I am very fortunate to call him friend and was privileged to get to spend some time with him and his family recently. The premise of my visit was to get an article for a magazine; the reality was we just wanted to hang out. From the minute I arrived, I was like a kid in a candy store-all hopped up on sugar and unable to concentrate. Before any of us realized it, it was time for me to get on my bike and head back east before the tape recorder ever came out.
I had ridden in from points east, and the last day of the trip was an easy 360 miles from Gunnison, Colorado, so I made it in well before dark. I met Jeff at his Springville, Utah, studio, and he took me over to the family restaurant, the Art City Trolley, for some fine dining at one of the coolest places you'll ever eat. A mint Panhead ('57, if I remember correctly) mixed in with a ton of items you'd never expect to find at a family restaurant (think a nicer and more intimate artistic motorhead version of Cracker Barrel) kept my head spinning as I headed to the men's room to wash the road grime from my face and hands.
As we ate, I found out that besides the day-to-day business and family obligations, Jeff is also very busy with two very high-profile projects. The first is a life-size-and-a-half hillclimber bronze for Harley-Davidson, and the second is a pair of life-size Elvis bronzes, one for Graceland H-D in Memphis and one for Rossmeyer's H-D in Daytona.
The hillclimber project is an extension of sorts of a previous piece. Many of you have seen the great bronze of the 1930 DAH factory hillclimber. Now imagine that piece at 15 to 18 feet high. Jeff's pushed so much clay just for the base (hill) of this project that he has to wear braces on both arms to (hopefully) help ward off increasing carpal tunnel issues. The size of the project is such that he has to do it at his home. Along with his hot rod (the Cole Foster Special K), the mint 1930 DAH Harley factory hillclimber (used for scale reference), the foam mock-ups and clay hill, his garage is filling fast.
The two life-size Elvis bronzes will be a spin-off of sorts from his recent commissioning by Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises in cooperation with Bruce Rossmeyer and Harley-Davidson. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of Elvis's passing, 30 "Softail" reproductions of Elvis's '57 Panhead were made. Twenty-nine of them were sold through a lottery-type drawing and were accompanied by a Decker bronze and David Uhl print. These bikes were delivered at Graceland on the 15th of August, and the final bike, No. 30, is currently planned to be auctioned on Elvis's birthday, January 8.
After eating, we headed back to the studio, then took off to pick up the Decker kids from school and had an evening with the family. The next day I got the Springville tour. Kelly (Jeff's unbelievably wonderful wife) hooked us up with massages, and we finished off the day taking care of some running around that needed doing. We also found out that we were leaving for Brooklyn for the Grease Monkey Mayhem Block Party followed by the Hard ck/Legacy/Buckcherry event in Manhattan (yes, Kelly arranged that also). The flight left the next morning, so by the time we got back from an unplanned and great week with our friends at Indian Larry Legacy, I needed to get on the road and head south and east. We took part in a filming of the hillclimber piece at the house, and then it was time to head back to the studio to get my bike loaded for the ride home. Before leaving the studio, we took a walkthrough, and Jeff filled me in on some of the goodies that lie within.
HBB: Where are we right now, the shipping area?
Jeff Decker: Yeah, we're at the shipping area, when you get to the photographs you've taken of the Elvis Presleys; they're the 1:10 scale Elvis Presley. We did 30 of them; they accompany a motorcycle [a Harley-Davidson limited-edition reproduction of his 1957 FLH model] with a print, and they were licensed through Elvis Presley Enterprises, through Graceland. So all these Harley sculptures went out. That was a mass deal; they promoted it ... I've just got to keep up with the shipping.
HBB: This is a big area ... what else is going on down here?
JD: Downstairs you're gonna see the shitty area ... that's where I do my wax shaping and stuff like that. Noteworthy of this room would be an original Dave Mann painting. I'm sure you've got a picture of it. It's signed to Ed Roth, which makes it even more important to me. Ed Roth is a bigger hero than Dave Mann, you know. Because Dave Mann was primarily a motorcycle guy and Ed Roth a car guy, I picked this thing up at a car auction, so it was kind of like the wrong crowd to be selling it to.
HBB: The panoramic shots are pretty bitchin' too ...
JD: Yeah, early panoramas; they were great because the clubs-the early, early clubs, which were riding clubs, you know-it wasn't about a "gangster" thing or, you know, a "tough guy" thing. It was really more about men who enjoyed riding motorcycles together.
HBB: This one looks like it's from the early '20s ...
JD: 1919-a lot of them are real early ... that's a particularly nice one [pointing to the shot next to the one I was looking at], because it's not a panoramic as much as it is a race photo of 1925. You can see the Excelsior racers, Indian eight-valves ... that's a killer. Also, another Ed Roth, posters, this and that.
A little soapbox racer. The bike was Dan Haybe's KRTT . That's an original factory Harley racer, 1968 KRTT. It won the Daytona 200 ... both '68 and '69 on a bike like that, and this is a poster that commemorates that event. Of course, it was Cal Rayborn who won that on the No. 25 bike; this is the No. 22 bike.
HBB: This room looks like the "pieces and parts" room ...
JD: Yeah, you can see some metal and junk in here. This is basically stuff from raw casting that's been halfway welded together.
There's a pile of stuff in here [entering the next room]. This is a '56 KHK, and that's pretty much a complete bike. I've just got to lace up the rims to the hub, and then it's ready for assembly. The whole bottom end has been rebuilt completely; the tranny's been rebuilt. It's just really assembly at this point.
That Elvis velvet painting came from the J.D. Sumner family. There's a skull. [In true Decker form, I'm shown a real skull.]
HBB: How's the gold Elvis?!
JD: Yeah, the Elvis in his gold LeMay suit ... that's a thing from Graceland.
HBB: What's up with this painting?
JD: That's a shitty painting. That's a painting that a friend did for me of a sculpture I did, and a Japanese guy fell in love with it, so I signed it to him and I'm sending it to Japan. It gets to the point where you've just got too much shit, so if somebody likes it more than you, you give it to 'em, you know?
Carney Ride-this is a little cutie ... I've got a better Carney Ride upstairs. This is kind of a circus deal. This is neat.
What they used to do is the circus would be set up outside of town, and they would set up on the rails. They'd go off a tiny spur that allowed for their 20 cars or whatever ...
HBB: The circus is how the Army learned the best way to get their troops around ... they studied and then totally used their loading and unloading methods.
JD: Did they really? The circus did? I didn't realize that.
HBB: Yeah, those guys were the pros at rail transport ... Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey and so on.
JD: Yeah, well OK ... they had it down! Because they had the animal cars, you know, in the front, and in the back would be all the performers and the luxurious [accommodations]. If you were a real heavy-hitter performer, you had a whole car to yourself ... you had a full apartment there, you know. And then, if you were a lesser performer, you were broken into two or three or four, and then the workers piled in as tight as they could. The animals were just shoulder-to-shoulder going across the country. Then there'd be one [car] that was just a tent carrier, and there'd be guys sleeping on the canvas, but what they would do was while the guys were setting up the tent, they'd take the menagerie out and let 'em breathe, shit and move, and then they would traipse them through the town. And then there would be tumblers and jumblers and freaks and all that kind of stuff, and they'd get that circus parade going, and people would follow them back to where they were. And that was the tradition of it, and this is just some twisted version of it.
HBB: They did have some weird stuff in "jars" ...
JD: They did! They had all the freaks up [front] ... a lot of the things that they had were just phony bullshit, but they did have freaks; they did have real freaks, you know, but it was people with goiters or whatever.
HBB: The engine of this Cyclone is just beautiful ...
JD: The engine had a lot of work going on in there, but it's a running Cyclone motor.
HBB: What's the deal with the 1922 Daytona Indian Big-Valve Chief and Flexi sidecar racer?
JD: What was neat about this is that the sidecar would move. The sidecar stayed level while the rig rocked, so the bike could turn left or right.
Into the garage, and we have a speedway bike, a 1948 chrome frame JAP speedway and a 1937 Crocker chassis. The motor's got the hemi head, and it's out at George Hood's house being built right now. The tank's at Tay Herrera's, at Tarrera, and he's doing a full engraving job on the tanks. He says it's the biggest job he's ever done in his life.
There's an old Wall of Death bike, a '30 Scout and a menagerie of good stuff up top.
HBB: What about these three? There's got to be a story behind those.
JD: Yes, there is. Those are Hoppy Hopkins' things. He was the first guy-American guy-to make a stir on the European motocross circuit in the '50s. The helmets are from 1968. The full-face helmet and tank are both from his Montesa racer and painted by Von Dutch. And then the little pink helmet was his open-face motocross helmet, also painted by Von Dutch.
HBB: You better not let Bill Dodge see that Montesa tank!
JD: Oh, he'll want it, huh?
HBB: Yeah. I mean, hell, you can't blame him ...
JD: He'd had to build that one for the boss, because the boss would be the only one who would come up with the money I'd want to get rid of it. Got some new, old stock racing tires. Also, this XLR60. Looks like a Sportster ... it's not! ... Pure race bike.
HBB: What year?
JD: 1960; it's got a Jim Baland frame. Everything on it's Italian with the exception of the motor, but it's a full needle bearing race bike.
It's basically a Sportster motor, you know what I mean; that's essentially what it is, but there are barely any interchangeable parts with a Sportster at all. Full race one. This was set up for drag racing. They were killer drag racers. Some of those records, you know, that they set out at Bonneville were on bikes like that. There was a pair of XLR motors put into a streamliner that set a record.
This is neat. This is a 1959 T100R Triumph, and they were only sold through JoMo in California. Johnson Motor Company, and they only made 50 of them in '59 and another 50 from '57, I believe. The only difference on this one, the '59, is the port, the intake, the carburetor port, came out at an angle, so your manifold came straight out at an angle. The other one just came out straight.
At that point, the tape ran out, my brain was full, I had miles to cover and it was time to go. I can't wait until next time. I hope you enjoyed this brief look into Jeff's home/studio, some of the projects he is working on and some of the bikes that inspire him. Thanks for everything, Jeff.