Sunday, April 10, 2011

Interview with World-Class Bike Builder Stephen Galvin

Stephen Galvin of Wikked Steel has probably won more major bike shows in recent years than any other bike builder in North America, including back-to-back "Best of Show" wins at the Rat's Hole 2011 Daytona Bike Week and Leesburg Bikefest Shows. Here's his advice.

You can move to Southern California when you become as rich and famous as Jesse James. But if you want to make a name for yourself by winning bike shows, you should probably move to Florida where there are a lot more big-name bike shows and bike rallies.

“We only had three bike shows to look forward to when I was building bikes in Southern California - LA Calendar Show, Love Ride and Santa Maria Bike Fest,” said Stephen, who relocated to the Tampa-Saint Petersburg area in 2005.

He now has 8 Rat’s Hole trophies for “Best of Show” and 1st Place wins at Daytona Bike Week, Daytona Biketoberfest and Leesburg BikeFest, 2008 to 2011. He has “Best of Show” trophies from the Boardwalk Shows – Daytona Bike Week & Biketoberfest, and he won “Best of Show” at the 2010 Thunder Beach Rally Spring & Fall bike shows, as well as “Best of Show” Easyriders – Atlanta 2010 and New Orleans 2009; and “Best of Show” Great American Bike Show – Atlanta 2008; and “Best of Show” - Pro Builder Rick Fairless Bike Show 2010 in Dallas. He won the Florida Bike Builders Invitational in 2008, 2010 & 2011 and was the 1st Place People’s Choice Award at the Ultimate Bike Builder’s Show at Daytona Bike Week 2011.

“My first experience with bikes was with my brother's Triumph 650 Bonneville chopper,” he said. “Cool bike but it WAS English so I was the one to keep it working.”

Stephen grew up in the suburbs of Boston, where he worked on bikes and played guitar. He followed a career in music to California, and for several years owned his own music store. “It wasn't until the late 80's that I started really focusing on bikes and went to work for Bartels Harley-Davidson. Bartels was THE hotbed of HD customizing at the time.”

Working on his own in a 2-car garage, Stephen learned the art of steel fabrication by way of books, videos and experience and became totally hooked. “With each bike I build, I learn new things and apply what I’ve learned to the next bike,” he said.

He decided on the company name Wikked Steel to emphasize his passion for steel fabrication. “Because of the complexity of the shapes in my bike builds, many people incorrectly assume they must be fiberglass,” he noted. “But they are all hand-crafted steel fabrications.” -

In 2008, Stephen built a Dragon bike that collected a string of “Best of Show” wins.

Click images to enlarge.

“I finally understood just how much you have to focus on every detail, and I’ve been doing that ever since.” The Dragon bike was built on a Pro-Street frame with a 45 degree rake, 6-inch stretch and stock height; Springer front end, Ultima El Bruto 120-inch engine with a Trik-Shift 6-speed gearbox. It has a 330 Avon rear tire and 120-70 front tire with wheels from Tight Customs in California.

In 2009, Stephen built the Yamaha SpeedStar Warrior that landed one of six spots in the Yamaha 2010 company calendar. His bike, Geisha built with Will Robertson will be featured in the Yamaha 2011 company calendar.

The SpeedStar was built with an extremely modified Road Star frame, retaining just enough frame to cradle the Yamaha Warrior engine and highly modified transmission with a custom dual carb manifold.

Stephen then went on to build "Area 51," the Ultimate Bike Builder People's Choice Award winner and "Best of Show" at Rat's Hole Daytona Bike Week 2011.

"This bike began as a challenge to myself to design and engineer as many unique parts as I could on this bike," said Stephen "I wanted to create a design that looked like it had either come from the future or from some other place entirely. I knew that this meant that I would have to fabricate almost every element myself to have that level of unique design, but I felt confident that I could muster the necessary effort to make it happen."

He started with a one-off frame custom built by Pro-Tube Frameworks with 45 degrees of rake, -2 in the dual downtubes, 5 inches of stretch in the front and 4 more inches of stretch in the rear. The oil bag is incorporated into the chin fairing(s) and holds almost 6 quarts of oil.

"The sheet metal work was all done in-house as that is my favorite part of fabrication," he said. "The front end design was probably the biggest challenge both from a design and functionality standpoint. The fork legs are chrome-moly and boxed in with 16 gauge steel. The front swingarms are solid billet and were CAD designed by me. The steel fork tips, pegs, grips, axle block covers, exhaust system and many of the other unique parts on this bike are also proprietary designs. I spent a great deal of time teaching myself Solidworks in order to create these elements myself and not have to rely on someone else to interpret my ideas."

The wheels are one-off 7 piece designs created by Pickard USA that use the design of the tank as the spokes and the shape of the rear fender as the elements in-between the spokes.

A Baker 6 speed transmission designed for Big Dog was used, as well as a modified Baker DSSC open primary drive. "I love the narrow design and by moving the starter back and down it kept the space under the seat open and clean," Stephen noted.

The engine started out as an Ultima El Bruto 120 CI, which has become Wikked Steel's powerplant of choice. "I then re-designed the heads and cylinders to have a more modern and unique design and to add to the mystique of the bike," said Stephen. "The Ness pushrod covers and lifter blocks complemented their design nicely."

"After the bike was completed and assembled I decided that, as a result of the rear stretch in the frame, my chain was very long (130 links) and not very attractive. I then got on the computer and designed the billet covers for each link and thus turned a negative into another point of interest on the bike. My speedometer is a Garmin GPS which also plays a slideshow of the build when on display."

In an interview during the recent Daytona Bike Week, Stephen said, he loves watching the reactions of people to this build as they explore all of the intricacies of the fabrication. "I also love their reaction when I explain that this and all of my bikes were built in a 2-car garage behind my home. No fancy shop with thousand of dollars worth of machinery."

Click images to enlarge.

Along with other changes, Stephen also disassembled the bike completely for a new paint job by Jason Trimbach Artistry. "It made me crazy to look at the previous paint job and I felt it compromised all the work I had done," he said. "Now she is truly finished and I am proud of every square inch!"

The Area 51 bike presented a number of challenges, and when it first showed at a Rat's Hole Bike Show in 2010, it placed 4th in it's class. A very disappointed Stephen Galvin sat down with Wolfgang Knitterscheidt, a German manufacturers representative and long-time International Rat's Hole Bike Show Judge, who is also a world renowned private collector.

"I saw the Area 51 Bike first appearing in 2010 and I already liked some of it's appearance," said Wolfgang. But in his personal opinion of the bike, he told Stephen he would have to make a lot of changes to improve the bike's ratings in the major bike shows.

"I did not think that he would put himself through all this," said Wolfgang, " But Surprise, Surprise! I saw the bike coming into the Rat's Hole Show in Daytona, and I was flattered. He did 100 percent what I told him he would have to do.

"I asked him if it is for sale and secured it for myself before it was even judged," said Wolfgang "Area 51 is a real beauty. I can't wait to ride this baby all over Germany and see the crazy reactions of all the jealous people!

"I am a collector of over 1000 Radical - still the King's class. I simply bought THE BEST. If anyone knows I should know. 

Damn ....... Area 51 will be amongst some of the nicest bikes ever built in the last decade: The World is not Enough, Triangular, Purple Hooter, Moulin Rouge etc. not to forget all my rideable Vintage Harleys.

"Thanks Stephen," said Wolfgang "This year you were the best!"

(c) 2011 by MJ Lloyd-Reynolds, all rights reserved.

An earlier version of this interview was published in the Leesburg Ratty Rag, April 9, 2011. No part of this interview can be reproduced without written permission.