An international résumé of diverse life experience is put to work creating custom machines that exemplify passion and old-world craftsmanship.
CELL PHONES DON’T WORK IN RURAL NEW HAMPSHIRE,
which is fine with Walt Siegl after 20 years of living and working in New York City. He’s nearly off the grid—and out of the hubbub where he founded Walt Siegl Motorcycles—but hardly out of the limelight. His career arc is definitely unique, from art-school dropout in Austria, to part-time endurance racer in France, to tool-making engineer in Germany, to project manager in the Soviet Union, to Austrian cultural attaché in NYC, finally landing on two wheels as a career, after decades of building bikes for fun. His was a long journey from the center of the world to a quiet 18th century mill complex, and his life story makes Siegl a fascinating and worldly character, carrying a lifetime of experience into his work designing motorcycles.
Growing up in Austria, both his father and grandfather were daily riders on Puchs, Horexes, NSUS, and Harleydavidson flatheads. Young Walt absorbed their talk about how bikes looked and how they made them feel. “When I was six, a local chimney sweep bought a purple Triumph 500 with polished aluminum fenders,” he says. “I was completely blown away. It killed me. I would run across a bridge to see the him after school—i knew his schedule.”
By 14 he rode a Puch dirt bike and started art school, but his schoolmates scorned his interest in bikes. Says Siegl: “They thought I was not a real artist because I had motorcycles. I couldn’t see a conflict.” But there was conflict at home, as his father, an electronics engineer, pressured him to think about making a living. He left home six months before graduating, rode his Honda 550 to Marseille, and took a job loading trains at the port. “I was a skinny longhair artist, my co-workers were North Africans, and my boss was a Legionnaire. It was tough!”
There were bright spots in Marseille. He raced time trials on weekends and caught the eye of a privateer endurance racing team. “I did 18 months of racing with a Swiss guy, on a bus with room for two bikes,” he says. “It was really fun, but we were not very competitive.”
A crash in Belgium ended Siegl’s race career, and he took an apprenticeship with a German toolmaker who taught him everything from how to hold a file to running a milling machine. “That knowledge allows me to do what I do now,” Siegl says. “There’s nothing I don’t know about machining, how to work a lathe, welding, et cetera.” A job as an industrial welder in Padua, Italy, led to a gig in 1980 with an Austrian firm managing a huge project in the Soviet Union. Siegl was fascinated with the changes happening in the USSR: “It was all very volatile and exciting and sometimes really scary.”
When his office was suddenly shut down, Siegl stayed in Moscow. “The country under Andropov was really interesting,” he says. “We all knew—even the Soviets—that the end was near. I got a job in the Austrian consulate and watched as perestroika started and the Soviet system dissolved.”
New York City seemed the next logical, exciting place for Siegl, after watching the world shift on its axis. A friend mentioned a job at the Austrian Cultural Institute, and two weeks later he was in NYC with a job and an apartment. He embraced “everything American,” which of course meant buying a Harley-davidson.
“I saw a Sportster sitting on a milk crate on Lafayette Avenue and asked this guy smoking pot on his porch if he’d sell it,” Siegl says. And $600 later he was a real American with a Harley and discovered the world of aftermarket parts. Working in his carriage-house studio, he transformed the bike into “my version of a Sportster,” he says. After riding a ’69 Shovelhead for years in all weathers, he “got a little bored
WALT SIEGL MOTORCYCLES WAS QUICKLY RECOGNIZED AS A TOP-TIER CUSTOM SHOP, WITH A SUPER-CLEAN, SOPHISTICATED DESIGN AESTHETIC WORTHY OF AN ART GALLERY…
with the performance” and bought a Suzuki GSX-R. But when the Ducati 916 came out in 1994, it blew him away.
“I started building bikes in NYC in 1985, but it wasn’t a business until 10 years ago,” Siegl explains. “I worked two jobs, going into Manhattan every day to promote Austrian art then cycling back to my studio in Long Island City. I’d pick up my girlfriend [now wife] Laura after her job as a waitress, we’d stay up a while, then I’d wake up at 6 a.m. to go to work. I did this for 20 years every day, even on weekends.”
Fate, the politics of foreign service work, and the NYC real estate boom of the 2000s changed everything. “Ten years ago I was ‘offered’ a transfer to Rome—someone else wanted my job,” Siegl admits. “Laura was pregnant with our son, and my workshop space was sold.”
With increasing demand for his custom motorcycles, he jumped, leaving a secure position with the Austrian embassy and his life in NYC. “Laura’s family had a place in New Hampshire, and every time we’d visit I’d see this old mill outside town, and said, ‘If we lose our space in Long Island City, I’m going to knock on the door.’ That’s exactly what happened; our son was born in NYC and a week later we moved to Harrisville!”
That was 2006, and he’s adapted well to country life. “Not having access to tool shops is a problem, but the country keeps my head clean,” Siegl says. “At the end of the day we have dinner, I go to bed with work in my head, and wake up the same. I look out at the lake and tidy things up in my mind. It really works for me.”
Despite its rural locale, Walt Siegl Motorcycles was quickly recognized as a top-tier custom shop, with a super-clean, sophisticated design aesthetic worthy of an art gallery, which is where I first saw a WSM bike, in the window of the BDDW store on Crosby Street in Manhattan’s Soho district. It was exciting to see a beautiful Ducati hot rod in a swank design store. The bodywork, stance, quality of workmanship, and perfect paint scheme were streets ahead of the custom scene as I knew it, and I’ve been following Walt Siegl ever since.
That dramatic bodywork and distinctive paint/graphics are a visible signature of a WSM machine but actually the last item on their agenda. Siegl considers the whole package: “I prefer to pick geometries for what the bike is intended to do—road or racing—but of course the bodywork is important.” He experiments with shape using signmakers’ foam, carving away with bodymakers’ files, then honing in with 40-grit sandpaper, and finishing off with Bondo to fix the fine details. That buck becomes a mold for the first fiberglass “splash,” and if WSM is making multiples, it gets 3-D scanned and Cnc-machined molds are made. “We use jigs in the shop for our chassis, so a perfect, consistent fit is essential,” Siegl says.
What’s also essential for WSM is Siegl’s control over the
DOCOL HAS A HIGHER SHEAR AND TENSILE STRENGTH THAN CHROME-MOLY, AND IT’S ALSO MORE FLEXIBLE— A CRITICAL QUALITY FOR TRELLIS FRAMES.
process: “I’ve been doing all the design; it all comes out of me. I simply can’t allow it to be touched by anyone else—otherwise I couldn’t live with it. I’m not an easy person and I admit that.” He doesn’t work alone though. “I’ve got a really good guy, Aaron,” Siegl says. “We think alike in the shop, and that makes my life so much easier.”
Siegl’s wife, Laura, is also a critical part of the team. Besides managing the business side, she keeps WSM projects grounded with practical feedback. “She’s my ‘outside eye,’ ” Siegl admits. “Sometimes I’m so entrenched in the process after six or seven weeks, it becomes too much a part of me.” Laura provides real-world critique on stance, colors, handlebar height, and reminds Walt who his clients are: “I sometimes get too adventurous, and she calms me down.”
Walt Siegl Motorcycles is nearly finished developing a new chassis for Ducati engines, with the capacity to house both four-valve and two-valve engines, everything from a 916 to a 1098. It’s a bold move, to presume you can design a better chassis than the acknowledged masters of the art, but small shops like WSM have the freedom to specialize even further than factory-built, limited-production superbikes. OEM factories have strict design limitations, especially around noise— anything smaller than 5 liters for both airbox and exhaust volume makes the music too loud. While not particularly sexy, a new airbox was the motivation behind Siegl’s new frame. “My previous design was limited on horsepower, as there simply wasn’t enough room for an airbox. We use pods, but you can only get so much air into a charging system—that’s the reason behind the new chassis.”
WSM is digging a new composite steel, Docol, from Sweden. It’s only been available four years and, like most exotic materials, hails from the aircraft industry. Docol has a higher shear and tensile strength than chrome-moly, and it’s also more flexible—a critical quality for trellis frames. “It’s difficult to weld but great stuff,” Siegl says. “Chrome-moly is fairly stiff, and you need to leave enough flex in the chassis so the tires don’t have to do all the work. With some flex engineered into the frame, the rider gets better feedback.”
Since Siegl didn’t walk the engineer’s path to chassis design, his process is to pick and choose contemporary chassis geometries for the handling characteristics he wants. “There are only certain numbers you can work with,” Siegl feels. “I start out with a 24-degree rake on the frame, and by using different forks you can increase or decrease the trail significantly.”
The swingarm length and location of the pivot point create options for geometry adjustments too. “Let’s say we start with ‘corsa’ numbers then add 15 to 20mm to the swingarm. That gives us room to degree the handling to our liking, to give a more stable bike at speed.”
For example, if WSM uses a superbike fork dropped 10mm, it alters the rake to 23.5 degrees. He’s also fond of the new TTX Öhlins fork, which is designed with an adjustable ride height, making geometry and stance changes “fairly simple.”
With the motivation for the new frame inspired by better breathing, clearly WSM is interested in gaining power, but maximum horsepower isn’t the goal; it’s all about the power-to-weight ratio. “We’ve designed the frame for 120 to 140 horsepower,” he says. “There’s enough chassis bracing to handle that easily. We are working on more power for our racebike, and our goal is a maximum weight of 300 pounds complete with all fluids. With our street Leggero and mag wheels, we’re at 310 to 335 pounds depending on equipment, with the two-valve engine producing 110 to 115 horsepower. Tuning the two-valve motor too high shortens its life span, but more than 100 horsepower in a 310-pound package makes a lot of fun.”
WSM steers clients away from the inevitable horsepower conversation, preferring to discuss how handling affects the rider’s relationship to the machine. “If you have a good-handling bike from the get-go, it shows your potential,” Siegl declares. “If you feel safe, you can hold momentum in the corners, there’s plenty of feedback, and you think, ‘OMG, I can do this.’ ”
Siegl feels neutral-handling bikes with “lots of digital stuff” like traction control and ABS don’t foster better riding skills, but high-performance machines with attention paid to suspension and geometry do make better riders. “That’s what I’m after with my bikes and trying to convey to my clients,” he says. “If you have more fun, you feel like a better rider. I’m lucky most of my clients have had several sportbikes before they arrive at my door. They’re not your average rich guy who wants another toy. They’re already motorcyclists. It’s much easier for me to build them a bike that makes them happy.” Which makes for a few lucky owners—the rest of us can be happy just looking at his gorgeous bikes.
The lovely WSM Leggero, this one reserved for customer Brad Pitt.