From Hobby Shop to Custom Garage: An Interview with Vintage Steele

British Customs talks to Vintage Steele about saving old bikes from the scrapyard, riding in Vemont, and making motorcycles by hand

Vintage Steele Motorcycles
Josh, Chris and Sarah of Vintage Steele MotorcyclesBritish Customs

Vintage Steele is a custom motorcycle garage in Brattleboro, VT founded by Josh Steele and Chris John. Vintage Steele started as a hobby shop run out of Josh Steele's garage, until they opened a storefront and grew their business into a full custom vintage motorcycle shop and repair shop. They were invited by Thor Drake of See See Motorcycles to put their latest custom motorcycle on display at the 2016 One Moto Show in Portland, OR.

British Customs: How did Vintage Steele get started?

Josh Steele: Vintage Steele got started six years ago as a hobby shop. I moved to Brattleboro, Vermont where I met and befriended Chris John. He, my partner Sarah, and myself wanted to resurrect dead motorcycles, so we started filling my house’s garage with tools and bikes with the hope of one day opening a shop. We just kept buying more bikes and more tools, and we put all our extra time and money into shop we were running out of my garage. People started asking about doing repairs, and we eventually were doing enough business to rent a storefront which we built from the ground up into a complete shop. The new location is actually one block from my house, and I get to walk to work every day. We got into building custom bikes to help supplement our income during the long Vermont winters when it’s too cold for people to ride. Building bikes is a real-time learning experience where you have to hone your skills and discover your style.

BC: How did you learn to work on bikes?

VS (Josh Steele & Chris John): We aren’t mechanics; we’re entirely self-taught. Learning how to do everything we needed to do involved a lot of asking people, reading books, watching videos on YouTube, and just doing it. We’re still constantly learning, and we’re always figuring it out as we go. We’re always driven to figure out how to make the next piece better than the last one. It’s scary, and it’s a challenge, but it’s all about gaining the confidence to do it. Because once you do it once, it’s not so bad, and then the next motorcycle isn’t as intimidating.

Triumph Bonneville Scrambler from Vintage Steele
Custom Triumph Bonneville Scrambler from Vintage SteeleBritish Customs

BC: What does it mean to you to be able to build these bikes by hand and create things yourself?

JS: It means a lot to me, especially the outcome. The process is frustrating and aggravating and I challenge myself and I invest so much time and energy into something, but in the end I realized it’s what I live for. It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. It’s why I work 100 hours a week. It’s exciting and I look forward to it every day.

CJ: When we’re building bikes, some part of it is always new. I’m always learning, I’m always figuring something out, and that process is so valuable. That’s real, and that’s useful.

Honda thumper custom from Vintage Steele Motorcycles
Honda thumper custom from Vintage Steele MotorcyclesBritish Customs

BC: What inspires you to work on these dead bikes?

VS: The biggest thing is keeping them out of the scrapyard. They’re beautiful machines, and we can’t stand to see them discarded. The truth is they don’t make them like they used to; vintage bikes have so much more style and character than modern bikes. We call them resurrections, not builds. We keep them affordable to help new riders get involved, and we take the thought out of rebuilding a bike and do the hard work ourselves. We want to keep people riding, keep people on the road.

BC: Vintage Steele is committed to empowering the motorcycle community. Why is that?

VS: We want to help riders be independent. We want them to be informed consumers. We want people to feel connected to their motorcycles by working on them, the same way we are. We love it when people explore their motorcycles, with regards to what they can do with them and to them. We want people to know how to troubleshoot their bike if it breaks down on the side of the road.

Vintage BMW airhead custom from Vintage Steele
Vintage BMW airhead custom from Vintage SteeleBritish Customs

BC: What is the motorcycle community like where you are?

VS: The community is pretty small, because there just aren’t that many people in this region. On top of that there is only a 6 month-long riding season; it’s too dangerous otherwise. But we try to get involved in as many events as possible because we love being a part of the community, from swapmeets to rides to shows. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of time to get out of the shop: we do repairs all summer and custom builds all winter. But we make it count when we have the chance to get out.

BC: You’ve worked on quite a range of bikes, running your own garage. Do you have any preferences about what kind of machine you like to work with?

VS: We enjoy working on all bikes, anything with two wheels — even three wheels — gets us excited. Our personal preference is carbureted air-cooled systems though. Everything is exposed on those bikes, making them easy to work on. You also have the most control over a carbureted bike, since there aren’t any blackbox electronics to deal with.

Vintage Steele
Custom Yamaha XS650 from Vintage SteeleBritish Customs

BC: Where do you think the custom motorcycle scene is going?

VS: The beauty of the custom scene is that people have been modifying motorcycles since they were invented. The beauty of it is that it’s always evolving and changing. That’s exciting to us. We’re excited to be a part of it and to be involved. We have no idea where it’s going, but it’s exciting to know it’s going somewhere. If you want to know where we hope it goes though, we do want to see it go more towards making fully functional bikes that are comfortable and aesthetically beautiful.

BC: What’s the build you’re making for The One Show going to be like?

VS: It’s a 1985 BMW K100 called “The Commuter” we’re building in collaboration with Papa Wolf. It’s meant to be functional, practical, safe, and really good-looking — which is a notorious challenge for the model. It’s a commuter bike, but it’s been customized to be rideable on both dirt roads and highways. There are a number of players that brought this build together, and the people we’re working with are incredible because they set everything aside to rush many of its components to us. Lyle Leathers made one of the most beautiful and functional panniers for us on such short notice. The paint was done by Pat DeSalvo, and the powder coating by Khameleon Koatings. The most beautiful part of this bike is the support from the people helping build it.

For more interviews with builders from The One Moto Show, and more information on their awesome customs bikes, check out British-Customs.com