TRAVERSE CITY — A motorcycle crafted by Traverse City’s Brandon Keene drew attention in August both at Sturgis, South Dakota, and at a motorcycling rodeo in Fowlerville, Michigan, where it won the People’s Choice award.
The first question some people ask when they see one of his low-slung bikes is “How fast will it go?” Keene’s response is instant and matter-of-fact.
“No speedometer. As fast as you want to go.”
He’s telling the truth about his custom motorcycles having no speedometers. They’re also short a few other things he considers unnecessary clutter — front fenders, air cleaners and chain guards. Chains and gears can be beautiful, so why cover them up? His design sensibilities revolve around simplicity and clean lines. His creations can weigh 200 pounds less than a stock bike — and that can allow them to go faster.
Keene has been building custom motorcycles for more than a decade as a hobby.
But Keene, 47, and his wife, Amy, in April went into business as B Keene Built. They’re already gaining attention on a large stage. Keene bikes have been featured in two motorcycle magazines.
The couple recently returned to their Traverse City home from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. A bike Brandon built was featured in a curated exhibit — “Motorcycles as Art” — of 36 show bikes, chosen from hundreds of entries submitted by builders around the world. That bike, named “Showtime,” was appraised at $50,000.
The Keenes sold it to a Michigan buyer for a bit less, but stipulated that they still can show it off at events around the country. The Keenes plan to take it to Daytona Speed Week in March.
Another item that most of Keene’s creations lack is rear springs. Bikes without that luxury have been around for a century, and are called “hardtail” motorcycles. The design allows a particularly low-slung appearance. Traditionally, the lack of springs between the rear wheel and the frame was balanced by springs built under the seat. Keene skips those, too. He does provide a bit of seat padding on some his creations. But on one bike, he shaped an unpadded piece of steel and mounted it atop a pair of small springs. He considers the result quite comfortable.
But he admits his show bikes are best suited for local rides. He rides motorcycles up to six months a year in all weather conditions, and frequently cruises to Classic Motorsports to talk about bikes. But if he plans to spend more than an hour in the saddle, he generally takes his big touring bike, which has rear springs and a more traditional seat.
“You don’t want to travel on one,” he said of his show bikes.
The custom motorcycle business is all about appearance, and making that happen is what Keene enjoys the most about the couple’s new business venture.
“I like the design part,” he said.
Keene begins with a donor bike that provides most of the moving parts, generally a Harley-Davidson or a Triumph, and discards the stock frame. He typically buys the rear half of a custom frame, which gives him a head start on the build, then crafts the front half of the frame from scratch. His shop is equipped with a drill press, tubing bender, gas welding rig, TIG welder and lathe.
Brandon’s brother-in-law, a machinist by trade, recently bought a CNC machine. Brandon hopes the ability to use the computer-controlled machining device will help build a custom parts business that could provide a secondary income stream for B Keene Built. It’s a market that he believes has growth potential.
Each of Keene’s custom motorcycles highlights his creativity.
One of his bikes features a retractable license plate that virtually disappears when the bike is at rest. It automatically slides out from behind the engine when the kickstand goes up. He bends exhaust pipes to flow around the engine and transmission. He custom machines hand grips. He fabricates oil tanks, fender struts, handlebars. One bike features a brake light made from a string of LED bulbs that wrap around the rear sprocket.
The Keenes lived for 10 years in Thompsonville before moving to Traverse City a decade ago. Brandon is a carpenter by trade. He’s between projects right now, so has more time to devote to building bikes. He created his first custom motorcycle 11 years ago, and recently completed his ninth. As of last week, he had two bikes available for purchase, each priced at $18,000.
“I sold a few,” he said.
Some of his creations remain in the family.
He built a custom bike for Amy from a four-cylinder Honda.
“I ride ‘em as much as I can,” she said.
But that’s less than she used to ride. She was injured three years ago when a car hit her motorcycle while she was waiting at the stoplight at South Airport and Cass. She’s still recovering.
Amy handles the business side of B Keene Built: chores like bookkeeping, scheduling and marketing.
The young company is developing a customer base that is spread around the country. The Keenes currently are talking about potential custom builds for clients in Colorado and Florida.
“It’s not really a local deal,” Amy said of B Keene Built.
More information is available at www.facebook.com/bkeenebuilt.