Eleganza: Classic Custom Yamaha Royal Star Motorcycle

Cobra's "Slammed" Star, Denny Berg's Swan Song.

Denny Berg has built all kinds of custom motorcycles since 1970. Starting his career as a tuner, Berg quickly moved to producing cafe racer customs, ultimately building two world championship race bikes before moving on to custom Harleys. Although he says he learned a great deal in his years customizing Harleys, Berg gave up his custom business when he felt he was losing his edge. After a stint as R&D; Manager at White Brothers, Berg felt the old itch return. This time Berg had a two-pronged approach: he restored motorcycles and built full-blown customs.

Since we've featured Berg's bikes in the Summer 96, December 96, and February 97 issues of Motorcycle Cruiser, regular readers are already familiar with bikes built by Berg's company, Time Machine. However, Ken Boyko, of Cobra fame, has built a working relationship with Berg over several years and a colelction of custom bikes. When Boyko contracts Berg to build a custom bike, they sit down and discuss the theme of the bike and how they want to go about achieving it. Both these men, who clearly enjoy building custom bikes for the sole purpose of creating motorcycle art, say the process is not an easy one but one they savor. This Royal Star, dubbed Eleganza by Boyko when he saw the completed product, was one of three bikes Boyko hired Berg to build for this year's Dealernews Powersports Expo in Cincinnati. At the time Berg was building Eleganza, neither knew that Berg would decide to retire shortly after completing the project.

Although the costs and the stakes are high in building big budget customs, Berg claims that when he gets into a project, he's just a kid putting models together. Nonetheless, in the midst of building a bike, Berg feels all he can see are the problems and challenges requiring attention. Not losing track of what the finished product will fit together can be difficult when everything is apart. Immediately after putting the final touches on a project, Berg says he looks at the bike and still sees all the places he could have done more or done it differently. Once six months to a year have passed, he often feels a flash of "Wow, that WAS pretty neat." when he sees one of his creations either in the flesh or pictures. Only then can he appreciate what he created, like he's seeing a bike for the first time.

Polishing the Jewel

Every project begins at the same place, tearing down the stock bike to the chassis. Once the Royal Star was apart, Berg took what many customizers would say was the heretical step of stripping all the chrome off the engine cases and sending them to California Polishing. Why polish? Berg feels that chrome hides the individual characteristics of different metals. Stainless steel acquires a gold patina as it ages while aluminum shows off a deep lustre. Simply put, Berg finds polished metals "more interesting" to look at." Consequently, the engine sports polished valve covers and cooling fins. Before the fins were polished, they were machined to a uniform length with some fins shedding as much as three fourths of an inch. Many other non-engine related parts, such as the fork covers and master cylinders, were also polished.

The engine's modifications weren't just skin deep. While the valve covers were at the polisher, V-Max cams and valve springs snuck into the mix. Further breathing exercises came courtesy of two Mikuni Solex 1970s spec side draft carburetors (often seen gracing the engines of Kawasaki Z1s of the era). Since the left and right carbs are connected with a balance tube, anyone lucky enough to be looking at the carbs when the throttle is cranked wide open is treated to a view of the world on the other side of the bike as viewed through the intake system. Fuel flows to the carbs courtesy of a Pingel high-flow petcock. Jetting the hopped-up mill proved to be arduous because jets for these vintage carbs were difficult to locate. Once the party is over, the combustion byproducts make their way out of the engine through pipes custom made by Tim McKool. Rounding out Berg's go fast modifications, a V-Max ring and pinion, which have one less tooth each and result in slightly lower gearing overall, were dropped in to the rear drive for "a little more get up and go."

Old-Style High Tech

The frame beautification project began with sand blasting and smoothing the welds. The plastic panels around the steering head were replaced with 18-gauge steel that was molded, welded, and smoothed for a clean, seamless front end. Out back the plastic side panels were exchanged for more 18-gauge steel. This time Berg's inspiration came from floating grills of Italian touring cars of the '30s. The steel was hammered and smoothed to perfection. Since the seat would be bolted directly to this shapely perch, the stock seat was covered with leather and a new underside of the seat was fabricated from 18-guage steel to better connect the lines of the frame with the tank Berg had planned.

Berg says he wanted to modify the lines of the Royal Star while still keeping much of the look intact. For example, the carbon-fiber front fender was made from a mold of the stock Yamaha fender. However, before making the mold, Berg filled out the ridges that run down the sides of the fender with a generous application of Bondo followed by shaping and block sanding. The rear fender underwent a similar process, only more so. The rear fender was lengthened by five inches and the sides were lowered so the modified radius could more closely match the shape of the larger wheels Berg wanted to fit to the Royal Star. Not wanting to clutter up the shape of the fender, a set of Drag Specialties clearance lights (which could also work as turn signals if Berg had included a switch on the handlebar) were formed from Bondo into the bottom of the fender. A Cobra license plate holder and the stock fender rails highlight the sano fender.

Readers may be surprised to find out how much Berg likes to use Bondo (which is primarily thought of as a metal-repair material) when building a custom, but he explains that the free form material gives him the total control he needs to let his creativity flow. Berg's modification of the tank provides a prime example of how he uses this miracle tool. First, to clean up the top portion of the tank, the stock gas cap was tunneled in flush with the tank surface. Next, the end of the tank was stretched out to accentuate the long look Berg wanted Eleganza to have. Since Berg says he has always hated the seam on the bottom edge of Japanese cruisers' gas tanks and since he worried he would compromise the integrity of the tank by cutting the seam off and welding it flush, Bondo, built up to a half inch thickness, enabled him to hide the ugly seam and sculpt the underside of the tank to suit his tastes. A layer of carbon-fiber finished off the modifications to the tank.

Carbon fiber makes an appearance in several other places on Eleganza. Instead of fabricating a new headlight mounting bracket out of carbon-fiber, the stock bracket was overlaid with carbon fiber to save time. The speedometer nacelle, however, is a carbon-fiber duplicate of the original equipment and bolted into place.

With all the effort put in to the carbon-fiber treatment of the bodywork, Berg certainly wasn't going to cover all his handiwork with the paint. Damons Motorcycle Creations was enlisted to create an art deco paint scheme that would give Eleganza a vintage feel while still strutting the future-tech carbon-fiber. The final product consists of pearl bamboo (a close match to the Lexus champagne color Boyko originally envisioned) background color with overlaid waves of bronze and pearl cranberry and Cobra logos on the sides of the tank. While the paint job may look simple, Berg gave the folks at Damons a few challenges to pique their interest. In order to produce the coveted mirror finish on the tank, about six layers of clear coat, each followed by block sanding, were lavished on the tank until it was impossible to tell that the carbon fiber was inlaid in the tank.

Ground Floor

Most of the modifications to Eleganza -- lengthening the tank, bolting on long straight pipes, extending the rear fender while keeping the now dwarfed-looking stock fender rail, and attaching the rear fender to the swingarm -- were directed at enhancing the already long, low lines of the Royal Star. Copying a trick used by hot rodders, Berg "slammed" Eleganza two inches closer to the ground through the use of Cobra's fork lowering kit and his own rear linkage. Other clever tricks, like altering the radius of the rear portion of the front fender, fool the eye into thinking the bike is even longer and lower. Similarly, to give the appearance of lowering the frame even more, the stock cast wheels (16x3.5-inch front and 15x4.0-inch rear) were replaced with Hallcraft's 80-spoke wheels. The large 17x3.5-inch front and 17x5-inch rear wheels, when combined with Dunlop's low-profile 160/60-17 tires, help make the frame seem to hang lower. Hallcraft's wheels add more than good looks. The special vacuum silicone sealing allows tubeless tires to be used with the wire-spoke rims, and the wheels' self-balance themselves, utilizing an endless rubber tube partially filled with mercury. As the tire rotates, the mercury constantly adjusts itself to achieve a perfect balance

While other builders might be willing to reassemble their custom after completing the above work, Berg went one step further. In his own words, "I hate seeing customs with their wires and cables hanging out everywhere. That drives me nuts!" Every wire, hose, and cable was meticulously hidden. The wiring harness runs up the left side of the frame, and most electrical components were relocated under the tank. All stock handlebar switches were bypassed save the horn and starter buttons whose wires were routed through Berg's scratch built handlebar from their clever handgrip end location. Only the throttle cable and hydraulic lines are visible without up close inspection, and those slip neatly through the steering stem. The only part of the bike that Berg couldn't dress up was the battery which he tucked tastefully under the seat. A smattering of Cobra bolt on parts (bolt covers and pegs) completed Eleganza.

Now that he's closed his business and moved away from the megalopolis, Berg can look comfortably back on this project. When asked what he'd change on Eleganza if he could, Berg responded, "It would be parked in my garage, not someone else's." Then becoming serious, he said, "Building is a journey, not the end product. The destination is not important." With such a passion for creating motorcycles, we can't help but wonder how long Berg will be able to keep his hands off the tools.

Editor's Note: This piece was written when Denny Berg believed he was probably retiring for good. As it turned out, he returned to bike building on a limited scale a few years later.

Evans Brasfield, former staff editor for Motorcycle Cruiser and Sport Rider magazines, may be reached through his website: EvansBrasfield.com.

For more articles on custom bikes and articles about how to customize and modify your motorcycle, see the Custom Section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.