Spreading the Gospel of Grease: Moto Guild Chicago

Anders Carlson visits Moto Guild Chicago, a new communal motorcycle workspace.

Steven Jackson giving a clinic on rebuilding Honda CB350s, with Ken, Craig and Andreas paying close attention.

Photo by Anders Carlson

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Sometimes, everything old is still just old. If it was new, it would run. What fun would that be? And therein lies the charm of vintage motorcycles. As a cure for the incomprehensibly complex world of rider aids, traction control and even fuel injection, old bikes offer that most elusive quality — simplicity.

Simplicity is just the thing for new riders, the gateway drug to the harder stuff. It’s easy to see why new riders are drawn to old bikes. To the uninitiated, a free basket case or a $200 project bike is just a weekend’s worth of work away from tearing down country roads or sparking motorcycle lifestyle photo shoots. All you need is gas, air, spark and elbow grease to hurtle you down lonesome highways. Right?

Most of us know the answer to that question as a punch line to a joke. But every one of us started our motorcycle love lives knowing nothing.

Hard-won wisdom from lengthy projects and restoration pitfalls isn’t cynicism, it’s tempered optimism. Newcomers just need a guiding hand and some invaluable resources to make naïve dreams a reality. Hipster-this or trendy-that, it doesn’t matter. The world is a better place with more hands resurrecting old bikes.

Enter Tony Riccardi. Sometimes necessity is the mother of all invention. And sometimes it’s just inconvenience. Tony explains: “I spent my adult life in Printer’s Row, in downtown Chicago, wrenching on my bike in a parking spot. I always wondered why there was nothing in Chicago to facilitate people working on motorcycles together?”

This led to an insight. Street-wrenching and losing bolts in the dark sucked. What if you could wrench on bikes and get access to all the tools you needed while hanging out with fellow enthusiasts and people smarter than you? Tony wasn’t the only person to ponder this question.

An idea is born

The original Moto Guild location in San Francisco opened in 2011, started by Wilder Grippo and his wife, Aleks. Like Tony, necessity and a love of riding led them to pioneer the concept of a curated garage space as a resource for tools and motorcycle knowledge.

Deciding against a restrictive franchise idea, they decided on a licensing and consulting arrangement. By design, this lets each location fly its own flag, so to speak. Wilder explains, “We want each location to be itself and have its own personality representative of the motorcycling community around it. So we went with a licensing and consulting agreement, where we help the other locations open and get up and running and we continue to work together as we all grow and evolve.”

A good idea is a good idea. So Tony started Moto Guild Chicago. “I bought into their intellectual property and they figured out how to make a business plan that actually works. I’m the principal owner and investor in my garage. Moto Guild Chicago is mine, 100 percent.”

Located west of West Loop and south of the Ukrainian Village, Moto Guild in Chicago occupies a gritty, yet gentrifying stretch of Grand Avenue. The storefront is deceptively small. Inside, you’re quickly aware of a sweeping L-shaped shop space divided into two parts, encompassing some 7,000 square feet of space. The shop bay contains five lifts, with the rest of the space dedicated to storage, plus a small lounge that hosts MotoGP viewings on Sundays.

The clientele

So is the average Moto Guild customer into old Japanese bikes, Harleys or sportbikes? Hard to say, says Tony.

“Right now I think it’s about 50-50. You’ll see brand-new Harleys up there with guys putting Stage 2 kits on and going to town on them. And then you’ll see guys building a café racer, like Kevin Ladd. He spent six months straight on his CB750. It was a barn find, with ape hangers and a sissy bar. He drove the finished bike out this summer, and it was immaculate.”

So, who’s a typical customer at Moto Guild? Tony laughs, and then thinks for a second before responding, “It’s an eclectic group of people at Moto Guild.” Wilder concurs. “We see all types here, all age groups, men and women, sport bikes, dual sport, adventure, café, cruisers, race bikes — you name it, and we’ve helped someone work on it here.”

To judge from Moto Guild Chicago, it’s a motley crew. From grease balls tending to UJMs to slicked-back bankers fussing over old Italian iron, there’s an easygoing coexistence at the shop. Everyone’s here out of sheer love and a crippling obsession over their bike. It grows on you. You might just be dropping off a bike to store, but hot coffee, cold beers and the company of fellow gearheads always beckons. There’s always a class happening or a great project in progress on one of the lifts. It’s hard to just stop by without sticking around for an hour or so.

“Moto Guild is simply a space for people to come work on their bikes. The idea is so simple and easy, people overlooked it. It’s just a space with heat, light, tools and lifts, with somebody there as a curator to be there all of the time. It’s that simple,” Tony says.

He’s being modest. They’ve offered classes and clinics, everything from Maintenance 101 to three-team bike builds featuring three basket case Honda CB350s. More recently, they’ve featured build-offs, where three teams compete to rebuild a CB350, from basketcase to showpiece.

Recently, Moto Guild Chicago even served as a location for the TV show Chicago Fire, serving as a vintage bike backdrop for a bad guy hiding from the law. Jesus could be riding pillion with Buddha to an orphanage potluck, but it would still somehow be “badass.” Oh, motorcycle culture.

Success begets success, and as soon as one dream starts taking off, it’s time to latch onto new ones. Both Wilder and Tony envision taking Moto Guild to the next level. “Over the next five years we plan to grow our own shop, adding more fabrication tools and classes and workshops for said tools. We’re also focused on opening more locations around the U.S. and maybe beyond,” Wilder says. Moto Guild locations also exist in San Jose, California, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Tony is similarly optimistic. “I’m pretty burned out on the (Chicago) weather. We were talking about maybe going to Nashville or Austin or some other location. I don’t know Austin all that well, but I do know Nashville and I think Nashville would be great for a new venture.”

There’s an unintended consequence to filling a space with great resources and people using them. Moto Guild is becoming as much a social space as a workspace. Whether it’s MotoGP Sundays, clinics or classes or just repeatedly bumping into a fellow wrencher, bonds are formed. Previously you hibernated by yourself in a garage over the course of a build. But at Moto Guild, the process now involves other people, friendly advice and such. It’s a tonic for the indecisive psychosis that can set in during lengthy solo builds. I recently mounted two tires at Moto Guild, considering the hourly rate a small price to pay in order to do it right, with help from Tony. I went in, asked questions, got it done and spent a good hour catching up on everyone else’s build. 

In the two years Moto Guild Chicago has been open, a growing flock of regulars, hangers-on, wrenchers and hoarders have become part of the atmosphere. It has the feel of the start of a renaissance, of something big.

Chicago is already home to its share of builders, racers and scene makers. Whatever your preference in the motorcycle landscape of new, old, begged, survivor or built, more hands in the toolbox is nothing but a good thing. To borrow the marketing strategy from Soichiro Honda, better to grow the pie than fight for slices. Moto Guild as a concept is shortening the distance between novice wrench and seasoned builder.

Thanks to Wilder and Tony’s hard work, the ranks of new riders and vintage bike enthusiasts is growing. It’s all about spreading the gospel of grease, one new bike owner at a time.

On the web at MotoGuildChicago.com and MotoGuild-SF.com. MC