Builder Interview - Stephen Pate
Stephen Pate is our next Moto Guzzi Originals featured builder. With many years of experience he still enjoys the process of learning, taking inspiration from different industries such as aerospace. Read the full interview with Stephen below.
1. When was the first time you ever rode a motorcycle or scooter? How old were you and can you tell us a bit about the experience?
The first time I ever rode a sort-of-motorcycle by myself was around the mid-1970s, at about 4-5 years old. My grandfather found one of those mini-bike frames that came from Montgomery Wards in the 1960s that you put a Briggs & Stratton type engine in. It had front and rear "suspension" and a rub-brake on the rear tire. Fancy! We were constantly modifying it and putting on other parts we would find at flea markets. It was way too fast for what it was! I rode that thing thousands and thousands of miles around my grandparents place for years... I had a two acre circuit that I would time myself on. It was all downhill from there, as they say.
2. When did you design your first motorcycle? How did you customize it?
Because I primarily work with vintage machines so far, my customizations have always been heavily influenced by two things... period performance upgrades and what the factory and/or privateers did when racing. Regardless, I try to keep modifications period specific. It starts there for me. My first bike that could be considered "designed" or customized, looked fairly stock, but had every single thing modified in some way. Super trick! I enjoy the skill and discipline that kind of project takes. I've been doing a lot of historic restoration type of work the last 7-8 years, but even with those projects I try to do every improvement I can, but with no harm done in the process. My business is slowly shifting to vintage custom projects for racing, which is a natural progression and allows for a lot more freedom and experimentation.
3. What’s your favorite motorcycle that you’ve ever designed and built? Tell us about the project.
I always look at anything I've done.... and I just see all the things I would do differently. My favorite one is always the one I'm working on, because that's the process. I'm finishing up a bunch of long term projects right now, so I'm super focused on that stuff... Several custom Vincent engines, a Brough Superior, a custom street-racer Vincent, a 1914 Zenith 500, a couple rare Laverdas... A couple Guzzis and BMWs too. All of them totally different from one another. That variety is what I like the most.
If you are ever completely satisfied or even just happy, with anything you do.... you're just not trying hard enough. Or, maybe you haven't really studied transportation history enough to realize that most likely; your "great idea" has been done before. Never look back to your own work if you can help it.
4. Can you lead us through your process of building bikes?
I've always been a rider... First and Foremost.
That's THE thing for me. So, anything I make is dictated by riding, not always so much by aesthetics. Often times, the best bikes to ride are not the best bikes to "look at" and vise-versa. Ideally, they should be both... But very very few people can achieve that. The process is very different for every project I get to do. All my projects start with a unique bike, and a customer with a clear vision. I don't take customers who don't ride actively, so most of them are highly knowledgeable in the history of transportation and know what they want. It's my job to make it all work and focus the ideas to the ones that will be the most appropriate. It's most often the simple ideas that are the best. Coming up with good or even great ideas isn't usually the challenge...the challenge is about editing all the ideas down to only the best and most appropriate ones, then executing them better than you at first thought possible.
5. What’s your favorite part of customizing motorcycles?
The process. The pursuit of craft.
I enjoy collaboration. There certainly are a lot of people way smarter and more experienced than I am, from different areas like aerospace, that I get to learn from. It's that learning and collaboration process specifically that keeps me doing it. The end result isn't as important to me, personally. The joy is the work... the process... the doing.
At this point, I really only want to take on projects that are going to make me feel like an idiot on a daily basis. I need to both love and hate it, equally. Ultimately... I know I also have to be prepared to fail. A lot. If I don't see an opportunity to learn new things and improve my process, my craft... I don't want to take on the work. There is only so much time. It takes a very special type of customer to make that kind of project work... and sometimes it just doesn't.
6. What part of the motorcycle fascinates you most and inspires your creativity?
The engine. What else is there? I'm fanatical about Guzzi and Ducati engines.
I start with an engine. The heart. It's the only thing that makes sense to me. I've been doing custom engine work as a core concentration for the last 4-5 years... so I have strong opinions in this regard. I don't understand the kind of design process that begins with a tank or a seat, etc. First things first.... fundamentals. What kind of bike are you building and what are you going to do with an engine for that, specifically? What is going to be improved, different or unique mechanically? The majority of engine work results in things that most people aren't ever going to see... the engine internals. So a lot of people either can't or don't want to put in that serious effort on their builds. Probably because there's no chance for that work to get them "glory" at shows and on bike blogs. But it should be the core in every design decision you make, if you're really a motorcycle builder / designer. If you are just making something that "looks cool", you really aren't a designer. You're not solving problems and coming up with new or innovative solutions.... you are an amateur stylist. You're faking it. Sadly, there aren't any new Lino Tontis building custom motorcycles... not right now at least.
7. Are there any odd design ideas you’ve been dying to try, but haven’t had a chance to?
I'm currently building a land speed racer for myself. It's a supercharged Vincent Comet that will run nitro-methane. I'm gonna blow that thing up a bunch, surely! I also really want to build a land speed bike out of a Guzzi 4v engine, if I could ever find the right donor. I just couldn't butcher one that wasn't nearly beyond repair to start with.
8. Where is your favorite place to ride in the world?
I'm fanatical about most any riding, but I enjoy dual sport / off-road the most. I did the continental divide a while back... the primarily off road route, about ninety percent dirt. That was incredible. For road riding, I really don't think you can beat the south and south east... West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina.... Absolutely incredible. I've got fantastic riding right out my door... But I don't get out enough lately. I used to average 30,000 miles a year, mostly on my Guzzis, but the business owns me now, rather than me owning it.
9. If you were not a motorcycle builder, what would you do with all of your extra time and money?
I'd like to go on a more expansive world-wide motorcycle trip. I've done a lot of moto travel, but I haven't been able to make the time to do a dedicated world trip. Not working on motorcycles...that's not an option for me. It took too long and too many sacrifices to get here. It's been about a decade, and really... I feel like I'm just getting started.