THIS MUCH I KNOW…
CHRIS RICHARDSON / BIKE BUILDER / 46 / LOS ANGELES
THIS MUCH I KNOW…
CHRIS RICHARDSON / BIKE BUILDER
46 / LOS ANGELES
“I pretty much just wing it.
If I don’t like it, I rebuild and keep going.”
Chris Richardson grew up in his father’s home garage as the nut and bolt sorter, progressing to parts cleaner before working on bicycles, go-karts and eventually motors. Louis Richardson was a hot rod guy who taught his son to work on cars, while Alfred Tedesco used his 42 years of experience as a fabricator for Southern Pacific Railroad to show his grandson how to weld and shape metal. The combination of family love and a desire to build things with an obsession for detail, saw Chris work on a 1961 Chevy Bel Air hardtop at age 15.
His first street bike build was a 1966 Harley Davidson Shovelhead which provided the inspiration to turn his hobby into a business. Now a multi-award winning builder and the founder and owner of LA Speed Shop — Chris shares his memories of meeting the grandfather of American bike-building for the first time, starring on a reality TV show and having molten metal burn through the crotch of his jeans!
Photos of Chris by Agne Bak, Heidi Zumbrun and Grant Payne.
Tell us about your bike-building design philosophy?
It’s really simple; I pretty much just wing it. If I don’t like it, I rebuild and keep going. I suck at drawing, probably couldn’t do a stick figure properly and have certainly never used AutoCAD. I don’t look around on the internet or social media at other bikes — I don’t want to be swayed from the picture I have in my head. When I look at a bike (or a car) I start at the front and do a sweep with my eyes across the entire body, I want it to be a seamless movement, nothing must hinder this process. If something catches my eye that doesn’t look right I will start over and work 24 hours a day if necessary to achieve perfection. Customers trust me and I work alone so that I have complete control in the workshop.
All successful artisans have a breakthrough moment, tell us about yours?
Mine was more initial relief than revelling in success, and a feeling I remember so very clearly. I got invited to the 2010 Artistry in Iron contest, an invitation-only master builders’ competition in Las Vegas. Only 20 builders from around the world were invited for a $10 000 winner’s cheque. I was so stressed at the time, money was eventually going to come in, but I think we had $64 in our home account and $78 in the LA Speed Shop account — with rent and bills to pay and two kids to feed. I really didn’t recognise myself amongst that sort of company, and honestly didn’t expect to even score a place. My wife Fiona and I were standing at the back of the convention centre and they start reading the bio of the winner [without saying the name] and Fiona looks at me with a jaw-dropping OMG face before saying, “That’s you!” I was quite overwhelmed, and sometimes tear-up thinking about that moment and the timing of it all. We deposited the cheque the next day, paid the bills, bought bunk beds for the kids and took them to Disneyland for the first time. The money was crucial at the time but looking back at it now, the fact that my peers voted for my build means a lot to me.
What current build are you most excited about at present?
I’m busy with a 2017 BMW R nineT Racer that needs to be ready for a show in April in Austin, Texas. I’ve really enjoyed taking it apart — to see how it was built — identifying what modules, sniffers and sensors they’ve used. It’s been a trip dissecting and cutting stuff out, unchartered territory for both parties really, BMW are entering a whole different sub-culture of customising and I get to work on something other than vintage choppers and bobbers with a bare bones style.
Tell us about the time a big brand approached you and wanted to buy your own personal bike?
Oh yeah, [laughs] never sell out, always try find a way so that both parties benefit — good life lesson that. I built a 1947 Harley Davidson Knucklehead for myself, basically a personalised 74-cubic inch engine with a stock frame and four-speed gearbox. Representatives from Sailor Jerry Ltd. came into the workshop asking for a bike to be built as a promotional tool. They saw mine and wanted to buy it immediately. But that was my bike, I didn’t want to sell and I only do one-off customs — no copies, no repeats. So we comprised, I re-did it, the old skool bobber now has beautiful artwork (hand painted tattoo images) and Sailor Jerry Ltd. rent it from me for shows. It’s been all over America, the longest journey I made was from Joplin in Missouri to Dells in Wisconsin putting in 1 200 miles (1 900 km) over five days visiting five cities and five bike shows.
From what we gather within the industry, you’ve never been in it for the acclaim, but isn’t it human nature to want to be acknowledged by your peers and have your work praised?
I’m lucky to do something I love, no doubt about it and while I’ve never actively sought recognition, I’ll share a story that brought me tremendous personal satisfaction. Fiona and I attended a Custom Chrome industry show at their HQ in California and are sitting in an empty dining room before they get started. I grab something to eat knowing I’ll be nervous when the contest starts later and won’t be able to eat, when Arlen Ness — the grandfather of American motorcycle design and customisation — comes over, greets me by name and asks if he can sit with us. Naturally I stumble over my words before somehow blurting out a “yes” and the next thing Arlen’s son Corey, and another supremely renowned builder Paul Yaffe join us. And then Dave Perowitz sits down with us! My childhood friend Jeff Quinn and I grew up pouring over magazines in the 7-Eleven with these guys on the covers! Fiona is chatting away with all these guys, not knowing who the hell anyone of them are, while I’m shitting my pants hoping to get some words out! I honestly thought I was having an out-of-body experience. I’m still in awe today when I see ‘Dave Perowitz calling’ on my cellphone.
How did your role in Pawn Stars come about?
[Reality television show on History Channel about a pawn shop on the Las Vegas strip]
They approached me after Danny Koker left the show and I was involved in approximately 20-30 episodes as the motorcycle expert. The show was hugely popular when originally aired, but after it got syndicated it really blew up and did a lot for me and my business.
Naturally there are hazardous elements to your work, any injuries or close calls during a build?
Oh yeah, several cuts and burns, but two incidents stand out: A piece of metal once lodged in my eye and I tried to drag a magnet across my retina (which sometimes helps) but failed this time. I foolishly worked through the night and by the time I gave it the necessary attention — it had rusted! Another time while welding on a car chassis I saw [through my hood] a molten piece of metal fall off straight onto my jeans. It burnt through my Dickies right onto my dick! I was out of commission for three weeks … and still have a scar. There have been plenty of times where I’d have hallucinations due to lack of sleep during a build.
What events or destinations are on your wish list?
I want to travel to Sicily to see relatives and ride around the island where my great-grandparents hailed from. Then there’s the Isle of Man TT, the annual time-trial that is often referred to as the most dangerous racing event in the world — every motorcycling enthusiast wants to see that, right?
What’s your most treasured possession? Although I obviously I don’t ‘own’ them, my wife Fiona and our two daughters, Bella and Faye.
What’s your favourite journey? The one I make tomorrow. I’m so pleased to get past yesterday, I can’t wait to see what happens!
Who was your hero growing up? My dad and my grandfather, who both taught and inspired me to become what I am today.
What’s the greatest ever TV show? Leave It To Beaver. I like the old stuff, The Twilight Zone too.
What will you never drink or eat? Kombucha and duck eggs.
What do you never leave home without? Cellphone and wallet.
How do you choose how much media to consume? I scroll through Instagram for example, until I remind myself of what I need to accomplish today and then put it away. I’m pretty disciplined that way.
Who or what do you learn from? Definitely my wife — who has taught me to be more patient and how to control anger.
What activity have you got better at with age? Sex!
What is your guilty pleasure? Sodas, mostly Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Your three rules for a happy life? Don’t steal, treat others with respect and tell your friends and family [often] that you love them.
What was the first record you ever bought? A ‘45′ LP from the Stray Cats, which was probably ‘Built For Speed’ released in 1982.
What infuriates you? Fake people I guess, those that take credit for work they didn’t do. In bike-building there’s a difference between designing a bike and building one.
What’s your final meal? Cheese enchiladas, french fries, white birthday cake.
You leave tonight: What city, which band? Bora Bora (French Polynesia) to see the Black Tibetans.
Who would you like to be:
Sitting on plane next to? Dean Martin.
Stuck in a lift with? Dean Martin AND Frank Sinatra!
Having dinner with? Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.
Follow Chris at @laspeedshop on Instagram / Visit www.laspeedshop.com / 2028 E 7th Street, Los Angeles.
Interviewed by Barry Havenga for LNLA