I judged my first custom sportbike show just six years ago. I remember the winning bike-a mean, green Kawasaki ZX-7R with a polished frame, fluorescent wheels, some anodized hardware and even a space alien mural on the fairing-and I clearly remember thinking it was the most outrageous sportbike I had ever seen. My, how times change...
That shined-up Ninja might have been all that and a bag of barbecue pork rinds back in the day, but it's not even from the same planet as a modern custom like this ZX-10R from Steve Kehler, owner of Hatboro, Pennsylvania's Tricked Out Custom Cycles (www.tocc.biz), who built this bike to compete in the upcoming custom sportbike build-off TV show Metric Revolution (www.metrictv.com). Featuring a stretched swingarm with a 300-series rear tire, a raked front end with an oversized, 19-inch wheel, custom bodywork made from pieces of at least five other bikes, gobs of chrome and stunning paint that looks like liquid metal poured over the bike, Kehler's ride looks like something sent from Planet Insane Sportbike to banish weak efforts like that pimped Ninja I remember from the custom sportbike world for good.
That assessment pleases the uncompromising (and insanely talented) Kehler, who knows more than a little about the art of custom sportbikes. After all, Kehler's been building them since those bad old days when a neon windscreen was considered hot sh*t, and he tells us that more than 300 tricked-out Hayabusas alone (!) have rolled out his doors since he opened up the Tricked Out Custom Cycles shop. "I've done everything you can do to 'Busas," he says, "and I honestly felt like if I saw another one I'd throw up because it wasn't really a challenge anymore. Now I'm really looking to do something different, something like this."
The Metric Revolution premise is simple-take nine of the best custom sportbike builders in the nation, give them a brand-new sportbike and 180 days, and challenge them to build the craziest sportbike they could imagine. As you might have guessed from the above quote, Kehler would have been happy to take any bike but a 'Busa as the basis for his entry. Actually, Kehler was hoping to land the keys to one of Kawasaki's new ZX-14s, something that no one had customized before, but instead he scored the 14's smaller sibling, the Kawasaki ZX-10R. Kehler, of course, wasn't about to let a little thing like not getting his first choice of bike get in his way. "I know I can take anything and make it look like a showpiece," he says. True that.
Kehler, who talks like a machine gun (and a profane machine gun at that!), tells us that he didn't waste any time getting started with his build-off bike, immediately sketching out a custom that looked as much like a sea monster from a Hollywood movie as a serious sportbike. The Kawasaki's stock bodywork was merely a starting point for Kehler, who cut the fairings up in pieces and then put them back together again with parts from various otherm sportbikes to create an utterly unique style.
Kehler and his crew started with the upper fairing, liberating the central ram air duct and relocating it six inches forward and down, at the very tip of the fairing, where it was molded in, complete with an aggressive point at the chin. The stock ZX-10R headlights were binned in favor of a pair of quad-projectors taken from a late-model Yamaha R6, and then the windshield (actually an R1 tailsection mounted upside down) was stretched and filled before it was cut out in the center to create the dramatic, flying-V upper profile.
The fairing is mostly ZX-10R except for the "ear vents" visible in the front view-these come from a Yamaha R1 tail-and the entire fairing has been plastic-welded together to eliminate mounting hardware and any unsightly seams. The leading edge of the bellypan has also been extended three inches to close the gap between the fairing and front wheel. The razor-edged tailsection is made from two different R1 tails and some GSX-R bits too. The sleek saddle is all custom, consisting of an all-weather vinyl cover (painted to match the rest of the bike) on a hand-built aluminum pan. "I worked hard to make it look flowing and stealthy, and it does just that from the tip of the tailsection, through the sub-frame, all the way to the nose," says Kehler, who estimates that he spent four months perfecting this bodywork. "It's all symmetrical, and the lines all match and flow and pick up on one another."
Of course, the chassis that all this bodywork hangs from is just as far-out. While the back half is conventional by modern custom sportbike standards, featuring a double-braced extended swingarm from fellow Metric Revolution competitors C&S; Customs with a 300-width rear tire, the front end is almost chopper-like with a raked fork and oversized front wheel. The extra fork rake is achieved via a set of gorgeous, carved billet triple clamps made by Kehler himself that increase the rake an additional six degrees, giving Kehler the extra-long, extra-low look he wanted this bike to have, and also making room for the bigger front wheel he planned to use. The wheels themselves are one-off custom pieces made by Xtreme Machine, and the front one is 19 inches in diameter-two inches larger than the 17 inchers typically found on the front of sportbikes. This turns out to be one of Kehler's most inspired-and effective-design decisions, as the taller front wheel gives the bike more visual presence than a traditional-sized hoop, an almost larger-than-life look. The bigger diameter also leaves more of the rim visible behind the large brake rotors, an added bonus.
The raked front end also insured that Kehler would have plenty of room under the deck for his other big-bucks mod on this bike-the Velocity Racing Stage 1 turbo system hanging off of the front of this motor just behind that big front wheel. Before the turbo went on, Kehler gave the 1000cc motor a full turbo prep, including a set of J&E; low-compression turbo pistons, and afterward, as if a few pounds of turbo boost wasn't going to be enough, they plumbed up a Nitrous Express dry nitrous oxide injection system too! With twin bottles hung under the sub-frame and a purge valve rigged to exit out the front ram air duct, this wild one stomps out a serious 255 hp through that massive rear meat.
Like any true custom bike, the little detail mods all over the place are what really set this bike apart. The instrument panel is a work of art-the factory Kawasaki gauges have been relocated to a gorgeously bent aluminum trim panel made by MD Racing, while the handgrips and levers were also fabricated by Kehler from aircraft-grade aluminum. The bar ends are by Kehler too, and are actually spinners-the nitrous purge is routed through the handlebars and makes them spin! Kehler also made the gorgeous rearset footrests that share a theme with the Xtreme Machine wheels. Kehler's 20 years of experience building custom sportbikes and, before that, custom cars, shows through in these parts.
We can't go any further without discussing the insane light system concocted for this bike. Three thousand-yes, that's right, three-zero-zero-zero-miniature LED bulbs are installed on this bike, and don't bother looking for them in the pics because Kehler went to outrageous lengths to hide them from sight. "I always thought it was cheesy when you could actually see the LEDs people placed on bikes," he says. "When this bike lighted up I wanted it to look like you were seeing the light of God, with the light reflected off of everything just like when the clouds part in a movie." Adding to the after-dark spectacle are strobes wired in to make the headlights pulse, with special reflective paint surrounding each headlight to create an eerie afterglow following each pulse. And how do you run that many lights off of a simple motorcycle charging system? "Carry a big-ass battery charger," Kehler suggests with a laugh.
Last, but certainly not least, we've got the small detail of this bike's amazing paint. Done in a novel and elegant combination of rich brown, gold and copper tones, this bike looks like someone melted down the jewelry counter at Saks and poured it over the top of this bike. The color combination, along with the Pharaoh's Curse-style murals that give the colors form, are all the creation of Kehler's longtime painting partner Fred Sicoli from Philadelphia's Killer Kreations.Kehler tells us that Sicoli had to put a full-time bodyman on this project and that he used "a bathtub full" of body filler to smooth out the custom body panels for paint, but it was well worth the effort as the paint looks like glass, and there's nary a ripple or wave in the stitched-together bodywork that lies beneath. Equally flawless is the finish on the dozens of chrome-plated parts that grace this Kawasaki, thanks to first-class chrome work by Sport Chrome in Westminster, California.
Even if he doesn't run off with the Metric Revolution sportbike build-off win, Kehler says that his immense efforts with this bike were well worthwhile, just to show the world what Tricked Out Custom Cycles is capable of. "I just want my bike to be seen by everyone all around the country," Kehler says. "After that, I don't care if it's sold and the money donated to a charity, as long as people see it first. People think customizing sportbikes is just about bolting stuff on and using a lot of chrome and flash. This bike shows that there's more to it than that. I invest the time and money into all of my bikes to make sure they're true customs-bikes that are unique and covered with details that you won't see anywhere else."
It certainly is an amazing machine-the likes of which a certain ZX-7R builder, and the nave judge who called that same ZX-7R the ultimate custom sportbike six years ago, couldn't even begin to comprehend.