Chris Richardson

‘The problem with trends is that it’s like locusts destroying cornfields’

As boss of one of America’s most revered custom shops Chris Richardson can pick and choose his jobs. He explains why he spiced up his 1947 Harley for Sailor Jerry at Art and Wheels.

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The art on the gas tank, oil bag and fender might be fresh but the patina on the motor tells the truth. This bike has been ridden. Chris Richardson, from the LA Speed Shop, built it six years ago – for himself. It’s basically a personalised 1947 74 cubic inch Knucklehead with a stock frame, motor and four-speed gearbox. Last year he was approached by Sailor Jerry to build a bike that could be used as a promotional tool for their shows and parties. Trouble was that a Sailor Jerry exec caught a glimpse of Chris’ bike and said it was perfect for their marketing. “This was my personal bike,” says Chris. “I said ‘It’s not for sale – and I don’t copy stuff either.’ I only do one-off customs and I really didn’t want to sell the bike. It rides so well. But in the end we came to a compromise – I offered to re-do my bike and Sailor Jerry now rent it off me for shows etc, which I’m cool with.” The end product is an old skool bobber with some beautiful artwork. “It’s subtle,” says Chris. “Sure, there’s a lot of flash art on it but it’s broken up with the black paint and gold leaf. We just worked the flash paper onto the bike – and every one of the tattoo images is hand painted.” The last time Chris put serious miles on the Knuck was in the 2014 Geico Motorcyclebacked Hot Bike Tour, from Jopling, Missouri to Wisconsin Dells – five days, five cities, five bike shows, five big evening parties. “We did 1200 miles on the Hot Bike ride with this bike,” says Chris. “Something like 20 invited builders. Only three riders made it without breakdowns and I was one of them. We had a great response to the bike.”

The Sailor Jerry Knucklehead

Builder & owner: Chris Richardson, LA Speed Shop ( Year & make: 1947 Harley- Davidson FL
Engine: 1947 Knucklehead 74 cubic inch, with copper-plated rocker tins and pushrod tubes
Transmission: 1947 four-speed Harley ratchet top. LA Custom shifter handle made from a Model A Ford shifter, with original 1947 Bakelite shift knob. Primo 1-1/2-inch open belt drive.
Carb: S&S Super E with air cleaner made from Offenhauser cast-aluminum part. Electrical: By Berto, Mobile Custom Wiring.
Pipes: MCM trumpets Frame and forks: 1947 Harley- Davidson frame and springers. Stock rake.  Black powdercoat.
Handlebars: Drag bars on original Flanders dog bones Rear fender:  Off an old Triumph
Headlight: Bates original
Gas tank: Wassell
Oil tank: Custom made by LA Speed Shop using two Offenhauser air cleaners
Seat: Handcrafted the leather seat using Sailor Jerry artwork by renowned French craftsman Pascal of Hollywood Riff Raff
Front wheel: 21in rim with original Star hub
Rear wheel: 19in rim with original Star hub
Tyres: front Avon, rear Coker
Brakes: rear mechanical, no front
Sissy bar: LA Speed Shop from half-inch solid steel.
Battery: Mounted underneath, inside my oil tank.
Controls: Machined mid-control mounts to take Anderson pegs.

Chris’s LA Speed Shop is highly successful but Chris also does work for Harley dealers and private customers alike – even repair work. “There’s just me, my wife Fiona, my painter Michael ‘Buck’ Ramirez (Buck Wild) and an apprentice. When people come to LA Speed Shop they want me to do the work. I’ve got a two-and-a-half year backlog on orders but I like to try and help Sailor Jerry first. My customers understand.” Which is just as well since his link with Sailor Jerry seems to be growing.

“Sailor Jerry is a great company to be sponsored by. I’ve done this [corporate builds] before with smaller companies. What’s different with Sailor Jerry is they came to ask me for my opinion. A lot of companies don’t work like that. They just tell you what to do. Sailor Jerry trust me not to do something that’s gaudy. It’s about building something that the sponsor is proud of. It helps when you know what kind of guy Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins was: down and dirty; not extravagant. He loved his country. And he had the same kind of pride in his work that we have in ours.”

Chris had just finished a dozen, specially-prepped Sailor Jerry Sportsters that were being shipped out to Harley dealers across the States – as raffle draw prizes. “Harley would not sell us 12 bikes brand new so we had to buy used Sportsters. Buck painted them all for us over a two-week period. The whole thing was a massive job because we had to rebuild each bike – a real A-Z rebuild – to make sure it was in great condition. It probably cost us more than buying new. “I’m also doing a bike based on a 1994 FXRP police model for Norma Reedus of the Walking Dead. It’s for Fleet Week (Memorial Day) – a five day Sailor Jerry-backed party from May 20 to May 30. It’s like Sailor Jerry heading back to the military.” Chris initially got his hands dirty working on vintage cars, following a lead set up by his dad Louis and granddad Alfred Tedesco who was a fabricator on the Southern Pacific Railroad.

“I was 13 when I started and my first car was a 1961 Chevy Bel Air hardtop when I was 15,” he says. “My first bike was a 1966 Harley Shovelhead and I’ve been working on bikes for 25 years now – 11 of them in business. The difference is that [custom] cars could take three years to do. Bikes take less – six weeks maybe. And they take less space. If you are trying to do a bike in six weeks then you can spend two and half weeks in the final stages of a build with virtually no sleep to ensure you hit a deadline. Near the end you feel like you have flu – your body aches all over and you start to hallucinate.

“It’s not always fun working on vehicles. You constantly have sunburn on your arms from the ultra violet light from the welder. But it can be worse. I was doing some welding on a cross member of a car chassis and I saw this big piece of metal drip. It burnt through my pants and stuck to my dick. I have a scar…”

As well as building a succession of award-winning bikes and working closely with Sailor Jerry, Chris is also the motorcycle expert on Pawn Stars, the reality TV show chronicling the daily activities at the world famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Vegas. If it wasn’t for bikes, Chris reckons he’d like to make mid-century furniture. He’s not the first custom builder we’ve met who shares that kind of interest. He also owns a 1964 Sabre Craft Impala boat.

He explains: “There was only 110 of them made. I bought mine for $800 from Oregon. I saw a guy sell a restored one for $25,000. Working on that will be a getaway for me. I love building bikes though – and I love riding. “I also make jewellery for my wife Fiona when I’m having a bad day. I just put my tools down and focus on doing something for her.

She’s a great woman and an understanding wife. I was lost without her being here this weekend.” Chris is an infrequent visitor to mainland Europe: “I do Europe once a year for a show. My wife’s dad is from Tipperary and her mum is from Belfast – she was born in Ireland. We’ll get back there some day. I’d like to visit Australia – there’s a big custom scene there – but I really want to go to the Isle of Man and see those races.”

But bike building is his trade and he’s already achieved special status in US folklore as one of the innovative and meticulous of builders. “My goal when I started all this was to get the cover of Easyriders magazine. I’ve had five or six cover bikes with them plus front covers of custom bikes all over the world. I never expected that.”

As you can see from the Sailor Jerry bike Chris likes to keep things simple and isn’t one to jump on the latest custom bandwagon. “The problem with trends,” he says, “is that it’s like locusts destroying cornfields. That’s what happened to the fat rear tyre billet chopper. Those big, blocky bikes that are so hard to ride.”

So what about baggers – the big US custom trend that almost caricatures the traditional Harley Road King concept? Chris looks uncomfortable… “Paul Yaffe is a good friend of mine and builds some great baggers but it’s not what I like. But as long as others are happy to build and ride them, that’s fine by me. It’s like everyone is trying to outdo each other. “I built a bagger recently but it was a Panhead bagger and everything was in metal. The pegs were still the widest part of the bike and it had a 23in front clincher rim, like an old boardtracker. I like minimalist bikes though. I can do new stuff, but I’m mostly into old skool.”