Matt Harris, owner of 40 Cal Customs bike shop, is full speed ahead while also honoring the history of the craft. Harris shares his genuine love for building bikes and why he chooses to use tools from the 1930s.
Talk about how you found yourself owning a shop and building custom bikes.
I grew up around hot rods and race cars most of my life. I went to college, played football and majored in psychology. I had some jobs around psychology and some around welding since my dad’s a welder. I bounced around between the two, but I always worked on motorcycles and hot rods in the evenings. We started to get busier, and it got to where when I would go to work, I felt like I was rushing to get home because we had customer bikes and lots of opportunities. Last year we had the Hot Bike Tour and “#BikerLive,” a TV show with Discovery Channel. Work was getting in the way of motorcycles.
We took a long time to make a decision. We thought about it, prayed about it and I talked about it with my wife. After a few months of anguish I decided let’s go do this! We have all our lives to work a regular job, we only get one opportunity to do something really special. We’ve been doing the full-time shop for about a year now.
Tell us about your shop.
My shop, 40 Cal Customs, is on my property in the backyard. It’s a small shop full of old tools. One of our lathes was made by a locomotive manufacturer in 1937. I have a mill that came from Italy in 1957.
We have all these old tools and machines, a lot of times because they’re less expensive, but also because they work really well and are extremely reliable and dependable – all manual machines here. It’s cool because you work on this machine – sometimes it isn’t the fastest, it’s loud, greasy and dirty – but while you’re making something you think about the guy who used to make a living with this machine. It’s almost like you pass along part of that soul to these parts you make for bikes
How did you get involved with the Discovery Channel TV show?
I had seen an ad on Instagram. I went online and couldn’t find the application so I called them, and they said it was closed. And I said, “Shoot! Well I’d really like to have an opportunity. Who do I need to talk to?” So I talked to the casting agent for a few minutes and she sent the forms. I filled them out and did interviews. Next thing you know, Hollywood showed up at the shop and wanted us to build some motorcycles.
We were guys in a small shop winning some big shows – I think that gave us some relevance. On the show, we were pitted against two other shops who were full-time pro guys. We had five weeks to build the bikes. The reveal was live and people voted on Twitter. We won the popular vote. And from there we’ve just been climbing the ladder.
What sets you apart from other custom builders?
I think what sets us apart is that we enjoy what we do. The bikes that we build are an extension of ourselves. We put a lot of pride, care and thought into the products that we make. It has our name on it so when it goes somewhere you never know who’s going to eventually own that product. That’s a reflection of you and who you are, and that’s very important to us.
How does your passion guide your work?
We’ve always liked that vintage feel. Even if something is new, like the bike we built last year for Hot Bike “Speed and Style.” We used a brand new Harley-Davidson 120R engine, their new race engine. When we got done, it looked like something that could’ve existed in the 1920s or 1930s. I’ve had people tell me before that I have an old soul, an eye for the older stuff. We aren’t afraid to use new stuff, but we somehow always end up putting a vintage feel on it.
What are some of your recent projects?
We just finished building a bike for Red Kap to race at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for the land speed time trials. Red Kap was founded in 1923 so they said it would be cool if we could find a 1923 model engine. So we found a 1923 Harley JD model engine and transmission. Now, like with any business, as the ball gets rolling, that timeframe felt shorter and shorter so we were in a hustle to put the bike together. And right after that, we took that same bike from Bonneville and raced it at the Hot Bike tour.
Speaking of Red Kap, you’re one of The Craftsmen for the brand. What do you like about Red Kap products?
Their products are very durable and industrial. They’re built very well and hold up so you don’t have to keep buying clothes. A lot of guys who are welders and fabricators, if they don’t have a uniform service at their place of business, find out that they go through a lot of clothes because you wear out T-shirts, work shirts and pants. Red Kap clothes last. Month after month, they get abused. We work in a shop with these clothes, and these are the same clothes we take out when we ride and race motorcycles. We work in them, we crash in them, we wreck in them. Not only do the clothes hold up, they are comfortable.
How do you balance enjoying what you’re doing and the people you’re with, with wanting to expand?
Complacency is the worst place to be. Nothing ever grows there. We’re working toward growing. We’ve got some really great people behind us and some companies that are great supporters, but time management and good old-fashioned hard work are the two things that can really get something like this to grow. Keep scratching, keep digging, roll your sleeves up and go to work. It takes a lot of heat, a lot of pressure to turn a piece of coal into a diamond, and we’re just smashing on our block of coal trying to get it to change.
We’re just getting started! We’ve got a long way to go to get to where we need to be. We’re constantly striving to get to the next level. So we’re going to keep pushing. We have high hopes.
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