Wire wheel wonders
Spoke nipples, and lots of ‘em.
Ask any classic motorcycle restorer who built their wheels, and chances are they’ll mention Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim. Whether you’re building a set of custom wheels or simply getting your old wire wheels repaired, the Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim crew are the “go to” guys for all things wire wheel related.
Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim is a second-generation, family-run, southern California business with a global presence. Jim Buchanan started the business in 1958, and Jim’s two sons, Robert and Kennie, run the business today. Jim, an energetic 81-year-old, is still active in the business, while Robert is the general manager and Kennie, who started helping out around the shop 40 years ago (at age 6!) is the chief engineer.
Way back when
Jim Buchanan’s motorcycling career started shortly after World War II, when he bought a surplus Indian Scout and rode it around southern California. Soon, he upgraded to a 500cc single-cylinder BSA ZB34A, which he still owns. Jim also got into flat track racing on the BSA, and his machining, tuning and racing expertise landed him a job in 1952 with Louie Thomas Modern Cycles, a BSA dealer in East Los Angeles. Jim wanted to work on engines, but the only opening “Louie the Bandit” had was for a wheel and frame straightening man. That’s how Jim became a wheel expert.
Jim stayed at the BSA dealership, becoming an expert on all things related to wire wheels and motorcycle frame straightening. In 1958, after realizing he was a good wheel and frame man and that he liked the work, Jim and his wife Vernice opened their own wheel and frame straightening business in Monterey Park. Jim started small (the original shop was in the corner of a gas station), but the business quickly took off. By 1961 the business had grown enough that Jim bought land in Monterey Park for a new facility, and when the business grew beyond that, Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim moved to its current location in Azusa, Calif.
Parts and pieces
At first, Jim bought spokes and nipples from outside suppliers, but demand for Buchanan wheels eventually forced him to make his own. Buchanan used to buy spoke blanks from England, but by the late 1960s England was drying up as a manufacturing country and quality was suffering, with too much variability in spoke length. Jim started making his own spokes and nipples in 1971, and in the mid-1970s the company started selling packaged spoke kits to other wheel repair shops. Buchanan exited the frame straightening business in 1987 to focus exclusively on wheels.
As with spokes and nipples, Buchanan used to buy rims from other suppliers, but the company now makes many of the rims it sells. Aluminum extrusions are bought in flat form, which Buchanan’s then rolls. Once rolled, the extrusions are placed in a tightly-toleranced forming and welding tool that positions the extrusion, creates an arc between the two mating ends, and then forces the molten portions together to form a strong weld joint. This is followed up with a computer-numerically-controlled (CNC) machine for trimming weld flash. They also stock or can order rims from manufacturers like Akront and Excel.
Heavy equipmentTo make its wheels, Buchanan’s uses a blend of antique, modern and custom-developed equipment. Jim sourced much of the company’s spoke and nipple production equipment years ago in Europe. “Some of this equipment goes back to the Great Depression,” Kennie says. “These machines were originally driven by leather belts connected to a common drive,” he continues, pointing out the pulleys the belts drove almost a century ago. Interestingly, the threads on the spokes are not turned on a lathe. Buchanan’s machinery forms the threads by compressing the material into the required shape. It makes the threads stronger and it makes the parts less expensive to produce.
Kennie also explains the workings of a rim-drilling fixture that his uncle George Hansen designed in the late 1970s. The fixture enables Buchanan’s to determine the location of rim holes and then drill rim holes for positioning spokes at any angle. “We stopped keeping track of the development costs on that machine when it passed $100,000,” Kennie says. Many years in the industry have given the company extensive data on spoke lengths and angles, and other specs for many antique and modern wheels. “If we don’t have the data for a particular wheel, though, we can put the rim and hub in our truing fixture [which can hold the rim concentric to the hub with the correct lateral placement] so we can verify lengths and angles.” Kennie says. A few feet away, Buchanan technicians quietly and intently lace and true motorcycle wheels. Each craftsman spins the wheels by hand and examines run-out against a probe. They deftly and quickly tighten a couple of spokes with a wrench after each spin, and then spin the wheels again. Each cycle of activity seems to take only a fraction of a second, and before long, the wheels are true. “We’ll get these to within 0.015 inch,” Kennie says.
Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim provides spokes, nipples and rims to wheel makers and repair operations all over the world. Interestingly, China and Taiwan provide parts for Harley-Davidson wheels, which they can do because of the limited variability in that product line. Today’s metric cruisers and their many variations, however, require greater flexibility in the product mix and manufacturing capability, which is where Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim excels. Motorcycle spokes, nipples and rims comprise over 90 percent of Buchanan’s business, with other production related to automobiles, particularly vintage wire wheels.
Today, Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim is the only wire wheel manufacturer in the U.S. that produces its own spokes, nipples and rims. Buchanan also makes custom wire wheels if the client provides the hubs, and can repair or restore motorcycle and automobile wire wheels of any type. “If it has something to do with wire wheels, we can solve the problem and supply the parts to make a finished wheel, regardless of who made the original part,” Kennie says.
Part of what makes this work is the simple fact the Buchanans are serious motorcycling enthusiasts. Jim, Robert and Kennie own a 1964 BMW, two BSAs (Jim’s old 500cc single and Kennie’s 1971 650 twin), an SL70 Honda, a 1996 Harley-Davidson Sportster and a Yamaha IT400. Kennie road raced up through the 1980s, and he recently laced up a new set of wheels for the 1970 Honda CL350 parked in front of the factory (which now belongs to the oldest of his three sons).
Wheel building is something of a lost art these days, but if you want wheels made to exacting standards bringing together the best of old world craftsmanship and modern technology, look no further than Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim. MC
Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim, Inc.