Motorcycle Customizer Denny Berg: The Father of Invention

Motorcycle magician Denny Berg talks about the art of building custom motorcycles. From the February 1998 issue of _ Motorcycle Cruiser _ magazine. ** By Evans Brafield.**

Perhaps it's his range that makes Denny Berg's work so exceptional. Instead of confining himself to working with one type of motorcycle, Berg has applied his formidable talents to just about every kind of motorcycle imaginable, and even bicycles. Though you probably know him as the guy who has created a series of sensational custom Japanese-brand cruisers for Cobra, that is just the most prominent example of his accomplishments. He has applied his creativity to everything from Harleys to minibikes. The results are consistently original and audacious. His custom treatments of classic machines has infuriated some narrow-minded souls, who feel that such bikes should be meticulously restored, never modified. But, though Berg has performed restorations, asking him to perform a straightforward restoration of a bike would be like asking Picasso to paint a sign saying "milk is on sale today." Berg's genius is not simply the attention to detail required to make any bike look its best, but the original flavor of his creations.

His career as a motorcycle magician may be over however. Early in 1997, Berg closed his shop Time Machine, and moved out of Los Angeles. It was time to escape the pressure of building motorcycles, at least for a while, and take some time for himself. He hasn't yet decided if he will return to the business. We tracked him down and spent a couple of days discussing custom bikes. {Editor's Note: Berg has since returned to customizing on amuch more limited scale, working exclusively for Cobra and building bikes for himself.}

The almost scholarly face of Denny Berg doesn't seem to match the motorcycles he has created. The receptionist at one motorcycle firm looked at the clean-cut person behind the wire-rim glasses, and replied, "You're not Denny Berg! He's a big biker with a beard and everything."

The appearance is appropriate. Berg isn't one to do things the way everyone else does or as people expect him to. "I like it when somebody digs my stuff," says Berg, "but I really don't care if they don't."

His first customs, built in the early 1970s, were a natural progression from the sketches of a farm boy drawing in his notebook during lectures at school. Though those bikes showed some of the same creative spark that distinguishes his current motorcycles, he lacked the resources that he would bring to bear on later objects of his art. "When I built my first chopper," recalls Berg, "I bragged about how little I had in it. These days people just throw money at a project."

When he came to California in the 1970s, Berg worked a stint at Ricky Racer, a shop which sold Laverdas and was very involved in roadracing, a sport which captured Berg's interest for a few years. He made his first splash in the custom-bike world when he moved to White Brothers, where he started doing suspension-development work. That took him to the company's R&D; department, where he started creating products for the Harley market, which was then a new market for the Whites. The White Brothers' Porker Pipes are the best known example of the products he developed for them, though there are many others. In the late 1980s, Berg went into business for himself, opening Time Machine with a partner. Though he went back to White Brothers for a time, he ultimately returned to Time Machine, this time by himself.

His Time Machine days produced numerous memorable bikes: personalized classic machines, beautiful restorations, and truly unique customs based on all brands and types of bikes. His work soon attracted plenty of paying customers, who found a place where they could get true custom work for virtually any project, and not just a place that would assemble a collection of aftermarket pieces. Berg's style is creation and fabrication. He also has a knack for using an unexpected item to solve a styling problem.

"Growing up on the farm, when the corn planter broke, you didn't go to town for a part," explains Berg. "You went out to the junk pile with a hacksaw and tinsnips and made what you needed from a piece of pipe or the fender off a Desoto. When I was a kid, I was putting things together from junk parts of models. This is just the same, only the parts are bigger."

That experience clearly left him with an eye for assessing the possibilities inherent in every piece of hardware he comes across, and not just motorcycle parts. He enjoys pointing out the extraneous components of a project. Here, chrome cabinet knobs serve as handlebar-end plugs. There, a saucepan lid has been chromed and pressed into service as a hub cap. "It was the right size, and the hole was in the right place," laughs Berg. Elsewhere you'll find something from the plumbing department employed as a velocity stack.

"With my own stuff, I collect stuff over years, then -- boom! -- it comes together in a week." For example, he had a shift lever that came off a factory Honda roadracer ridden by the great Freddie Spencer. Some years later, it was just what he was looking for to complete the shift linkage of a custom, also a Honda. "There was a taillight on a White Brothers bike that I'd dragged around for years."

His "own stuff," the bikes he built to please only himself, are more subtle than the motorcycles that have made him famous. Though machines built to make statements and attract attention naturally use bright colors, "my own bikes would be black, white, or gray. That really accentuates shapes. I prefer subtle paint, and to work with different textures, polishes and chrome, the combinations of details, lines, shapes, and contrasts that make the motorcycle when I'm finished."

Even if they were built less to garner attention than to gratify the builder, those bikes he built early in his Time Machine days did attract the attention of plenty of paying customers, including Ken Boyko of Cobra Engineering. Boyko was looking for ways to show the customizing potential of the Japanese bikes for which he was building accessories. He wanted to build custom motorcycles that demonstrated that Japanese bikes could be as cool as anything on the road.

There probably wasn't a better man for the job than Berg. Unlike the Harley segment of the market, which has many companies supplying almost any component or accessory you can wish for, customizing a "metric" machine demanded a completely fresh approach, with very little in the way of major parts -- frames, for example -- to turn to when you wanted to make a major change. The bikes would have to be built from the ground up, just the way Berg likes it.

The first product of this collaboration was the green and white Kawasaki Vulcan 1500A. It showed how effectively a Japanese bike could adopt traditional American-cruiser themes without completely losing its identity. It was a great rolling display case for Cobra's Japanese-brand cruiser accessories.

About the collaboration, Berg says, "Ken has always been good to work with. He knows what he wants and has good ideas. People who don't know what they want kind of bother me." As an example of a bike brought with a precise plan and direction, he cites the Super Chief, the Indian-like Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic that originated as an idea of Don Emde, who took it to Boyko and Berg to execute. The basic bike then came together very quickly. "I spent lots of late nights just moving stuff around to get it in just the right place. Like putting the floorboards at a certain angle and distance forward. I fooled around with the headlight to get it in just the right place -- I got some Vise Grips and made a bracket...`That's it!' Getting the cables just right was important."

The project required Boyko to trust Berg's judgment. Boyko would come into Berg's shop and see this naked chassis and some odd-looking fenders, and ask Berg, "Are you sure that's going to be okay?" Berg would assure him. He was right. Reaction to the bike has prompted Kawasaki to turn the concept into a limited-production bike, which will be called the "Vintage," to be sold in 1999.

Other products of the Berg-Boyko synergy started as clear concepts. "There are guidelines sometimes. Sometimes we draw a concept or hold stuff up to see what it will look like it. A plan evolves." The "Eleganza" Royal Star (Motorcycle Cruiser, August '97) was such a creation. That bike involved "a lot of fooling around with curves and shapes. Lots of decreasing-radius curves, making the shapes match, like the shapes of the tank and side panels."

But the two bikes, the "Green Piece" Vulcan featured on this site and the yellow Valkyrie, that were originally supposed to be part of the same set with the same style, ended up going in their own directions as they progressed. The wild yellow Valkyrie was an opportunity for Berg to execute an idea he had for a Gold Wing years before. The four A.C.E.s built in 1996 illustrate the different processes a project can follow as much as they show how one bike can be taken in different directions. "The Chopper A.C.E. was just '70s nostalgia -- stuff I'd sketched in high school. Some bikes, like the Bagger A.C.E., I didn't know where it was going until it was done. It was finish more than concept."

Personal projects take a different course. "It starts out with time to play. When I'm building a bike for myself, I do something really off-the-wall. I don't give a damn what anyone thinks. Sometimes I have a piece of one idea for a part and build a bike around it.

"A lot of guys spend too much time worrying about what people will think about their bike. Customizing is about making yourself happy. You can't be afraid to try new things and make mistakes. If you are afraid to try things, you have no business building a custom motorcycle.

"Sure, you'll make mistakes. Everyone does. The difference between a good mechanic and a bad mechanic is how you deal with your mistakes." "Some of my favorite bikes were the simplest and the weirdest," he told us at another time.

We asked about other customizers that Berg admires. "Ron Finch from the '70s. Tony Carlini. Arlen Ness's old stuff was incredible, the hot rods. Todd Schuster has done some amazing bikes."

Of course, one our most burning questions concerned his plans for the future. Will Denny Berg build more custom motorcycles? To that question he just shrugs and looks contemplative. "I'm at a place in my life where I could never build another bike and be happy with what I've done. Or I could build more, but this time I wouldn't have anything to prove."

In other words, Berg hasn't made that decision yet. For now he is still in retirement and enjoying it.

And what can he offer a budding customizer contemplating his first project? "There is a difference between bolting on and building. Your first one is probably a bolt-on and paint. Then you make more modifications. Then a full-blown custom. At some point you must make a commitment. You either build a custom bike or you have a modified stock motorcycle. Some people think they might want to go back to stock some time, so they won't make those changes that make it a real custom. Grind those brackets off and do it."

But despite the amazing energy, imagination, and passion he has clearly brought to his art, Denny Berg also retains plenty of perspective on the subject. "It's all been done before. It's not rocket science. The whole point behind building a custom motorcycle is putting your own ideas out there. Just have fun with it."

ART & THE ZEN OF CUSTOMIZING
Customizing lessons from the master

"A custom bike is the sum of its parts. When your eye keeps going back to the same part, it doesn't work. When my eye keeps flowing over it and finding new parts, it works." As an example he cites the yellow Valkyrie built for Cobra. He originally built the bike with the pretty stock headlight shell. "But it looked too conspicuous, so I finally used an A.C.E. shell."

Every part can contribute: "Let a bracket make a statement. Drill a few holes in it, for example."

"If you're afraid to try new things, you have no business building a custom motorcycle."

"You should make some parts disappear. Don't chrome them. Paint them flat black."

Don't be afraid to experiment. "Try new stuff that appeals to you, even if you haven't seen it before."

"A mistake some people make is that they see something they like and copy it, but it doesn't work with their bike."

If time is a factor, remember that paint will take the longest, and allow about six or eight weeks for it. "Get the painted parts ready first. Take pictures of the mock-up, so you remember how everything looks. If time is not a factor, I finish the bike, then paint it."

"Too many people quit too early." The last details of a project make a big difference in the final result. I spend a lot of time running cables, wiring, spark plug wires, and playing with covers and other details to get the right look. Look at brake lines. Do you want two hoses all the way one that splits [from a T-junction] down below? I spend a lot of time getting the right handlebar shape, the right headlight height, putting the footpegs in the right place. Take the time to get the nuts and bolts right."

"Never be afraid to listen to someone else. Sometimes when you're working on a bike, you can't see the forest for the trees."

"Just have fun with it."

Related Articles
To see more of Denny Berg's custom motorcycles on MotorcycleCruiser.com, click on the links below:
Green Piece
The Copper Chopper
Eleganza
Low Star
VooDoo Daddy

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

_It takes an artist to photograph an artist. _ Photography by Fran Kuhn.
_Berg is a master of building powerful-looking motorcycles. This bike is the "Hot Rod" component of the Four Aces quartet. _
_The Valkyrie (built from a crashed bike) sprang from an idea Berg had for a Gold Wing. Everything about its treatment is intended to highlight that big nasty engine. "It's even more of a Valkyrie than the Valkyrie," commented one viewer. _
Ken Boyko (left) and Berg with some of the bikes they have collaborated on. The two bikes in the foreground are part of the "Four Aces" set completed in 1996.
Berg lists the lean, no-nonsense Intruder as among his favorite projects performed for Cobra.
Not all successful custom motorcycles start out with a clear concept of what they will be when they are finally completed. The basic concept for the "Bagger" model in the Four Aces project developed its style and personality as Berg completed it rather than adhering to a pre-conceived plan that was carefully executed from the start.