Steve Carpenter's custom Honda CB750 cafe racer — and the other amazing bikes he's built — are making him a legend in classic motorcycle circles.
It’s not often you have the opportunity to meet a legend — especially before he becomes one. But with two big wins at this year’s Pomona show, Steve Carpenter’s well on his way, and for evidence one needs to look no further than his custom Honda CB750 cafe racer.
Steve builds hammers: strong, hard-hitting, aggressively graceful hammers. “Carpy’s” palette of choice is Honda’s venerable CB750, a model that captivated motorcyclists when it was introduced in 1969, and still captivates today. Through his craft, Carpy’s managed to carve out a unique niche in the motorcycle world, but not before exploring his options and paying his dues.
I found out about Carpy by accident: a friend turned me on to him when I was at a crossroads with a 1978 Honda Super Sport. I had no idea who he was or what he was about, I just needed help with my CB. I gave him a call, and before long, I knew he was the Don of the CB750.
It’s easy to think right place, right time, but that’s not this story. A native of London, Carpy’s history with motorcycles and hot rods is as rich as a Kuwaiti oil company. His dad, Dick, used to hang out at London’s famed Ace Café and was one of the original members of the 59 Club (so named because it formed in 1959), and Carpy built his first hot rod at 18, a chopped and channeled ’32 Ford three-window coupe.
For 20 years Carpy worked the streets of London as a motorcycle courier; he figures he crossed the Tower Bridge a hundred times a day during his courier years. When he tired of the grind of London, Carpy moved to Australia where he built hot rod radiators and focused on his 1950s-style hot rod art, which eventually gained a large following in Japan.
At one point in Sydney, he worked as a postman delivering mail on a scooter. He talks about riding in Australia as if it was another world, recalling his 220-mile round trip commute (killing a chain and a sprocket every five weeks) and how he had to avoid big lizards running out of bushes and kangaroo’s that didn’t look both ways before crossing — just to hop on a 90cc scooter and have giant funnel spiders try to attack him every time he opened a post box. Not to mention once-a-year territorial magpies accosting him during mating season. “Magpies always go for the eyes when they attack, so I put Moon Eyes on the back of my helmet. They would still dive bomb, but they hit the back instead of my face,” Carpy says.
Fast-forward through decades of building and riding bikes and here he is, a working-class kid building working-class motorcycles.
Operating out of the cramped two-car garage at his house in Orange, Calif., he spends anywhere from one month to a year building a bike, sourcing parts wherever he can, whether from a neighbor’s back yard or Japan. His garage is packed with physical reminders of Honda’s racing years of the 1970s, and you’ll find everything from Rickman and Dunstall tanks to Invader and Lester mag wheels, Tracy bodies and finned rocker covers for CB750s.
Trying to talk to Carpy while he works in his shop is like trying to have a conversation with a fox during an English hunt; he never stops moving. Although he prefers e-mail (he spends half the night answering messages), when he’s in the garage he’s dedicated to helping people ride motorcycles, whether on one of his creations or addressing questions to get someone on theirs.
The phone rings constantly, and from comments like, “hey I really love your bikes,” to questions like, “what’s the best way to switch rear disc to rear drum on a ‘78 SS,” he treats callers with the same enthusiasm and kindness your grandmother does when you remember her birthday. Carpy is the kind of guy you take camping just to listen to his stories around the fire.
Other than what I’d picked up during phone calls and what I’d gleaned from his web site (Carpy’s Café Racers — definitely worth a visit), before this interview I still didn’t know much about this modern-day alchemist. What follows is but a glimpse into the enigmatic labyrinth that is Steve Carpenter and the café bikes he builds.
Q: You won first and second at the Hot Rod Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, Calif., last January. How have things been?
A: Well, I have been busier than a one-armed Bricklayer in Iraq since Pomona. I have so many e-mails and telephone calls congratulating me on my efforts in the show, I feel like a celebrity right now.
Q: What started this?
A: Well, the main reason I make this style of motorcycles is simply because I lived this style. I grew up with motorcycles in Great Britain. My old man had a 500 Matchless café back in 1959 and there have been motorcycles in the family ever since.
I live and understand an older way of life, the classic Fifties and Sixties culture, with a twist of Seventies and also a little bit of dry British humor.
Q: Tell me about the first bike you built in the U.S.
A: Easy question, that. My first café was built in 2000. I had just moved here and was restoring old 1940s travel trailers in Orange, Calif. I bought a cheapy bike on eBay to get me around and it was the good old reliable CB750. In a few weeks I had transformed the heavy, bulky iron monkey into a snarling classic café racer. It started to turn more heads than a neck specialist with 80 percent off.
Q: The Tracy will tickle the underside of your cranium. What’s the story on her?
A: Well, the Tracy Café was just something I put together out of parts from around the garage. I had a lot of snot and grimy parts just hanging about my shed, so I thought I would build a little something and see what happens. I was trying to get the feel of a real 1970s custom café. I had three Tracy bodies, and this was the early series. I had a set of invader Mag wheels, too.
I wanted to capture every year of the SOHC on this ride, using parts ranging from 1969 right up to the last year of SOHC, the 1978 model. After all the hard work and cut knuckles, this plethora of 1970s parts came out more stunning than jellyfish shampoo.
Q: The Darius Special is a lot of machine. What started you down that yellow bike road?
A: You know what, that ride was a real task, as I was e-mailed from a café fan looking at my web site. This guy literally is a rocket scientist for NASA down in Florida.
He loved CB750s, but wanted something sleek and smooth, yet powerful and head turning. As there were no Olympic female skaters available, I said he may like something like a 1978 750 Super Sport, but radically different from a stocker. That was 12 months ago and I have finally dialed it in.
It was a difficult build, because nothing had been built over here like this and I had no formula to go by. This build fought me tooth and nail, and last night I pretty much finished this ride and will be getting it registered later this week.
It has all the bells and whistles on it, from a stretched K series gas tank to an original Series One Yoshimura Racing exhaust. This will bark like a dog at a mailman. I have Tagasaki rims and old, classic-style tires, too: a real cool machine with a lot of elegance.
Q: What’s in store for Carpy and what can we look forward to coming out of that hand-polishing two-car garage of yours?
A: Well, I love to stir the pot. I’m always trying to think of cool designs and what would really make the bike perform well, as well as look cooler than an Eskimo’s back garden.
After winning first and second at the show in Pomona, I can only try and step up to the plate and come up with some more cool rides that people will enjoy and talk about longer than a politician at a homecoming rally.
Q: Any last words of to leave us with?
A: Live your dreams. I am, and enjoy every minute. Although not the day I had to have my eye drilled after getting CB750 metal in my retina. Peace and grease. MC