THE MECHANIC AND THE ARTIST: SHINYA KIMURA
Riding Motorcycles, Building Motorcycles, and Being Left Alone ........
“I LIKE THIS LIFESTYLE. I DON’T WANT TO CHANGE.”
Shinya Kimura, of Chabott Engineering, explains from the dimly lit loft above his shop. What was once a Honda C50 stands extended across the coffee table in front of us, the orange light of the Edison bulbs in the room reflecting off of the hand-hammered surfaces of the gas tank and fender. “I build two or three bikes a year, and here the canyon is so close for good riding,” Kimura explains. He sits back on the couch to think about it for a second, and then stays silent, like he has decided that was enough.
After 30 years of riding, building, and modifying motorcycles, Kimura has found his balance: a lovely girlfriend named Ayu who works in the office at his small shop in Azusa, California; a home close by with direct access to some of the best riding roads in the United States; and his motorcycles.
He’s found fame and notoriety through sponsored builds for Yamaha’s Faster Sons custom program and Discovery Channel’s Biker Build-off, but it’s apparent now, sitting in his loft, that fame was never the goal—it almost seems he’s found sanctuary here in Azusa.
When he was 23 years old, Kimura started working at a dealership in Japan, repairing motorcycles, straightening frames, and restoring classics. For the next eight years, he learned about bikes and their engines—but he was getting tired of restoring classics and was itching to do something more creative. At 31, he left the dealership and opened his own custom shop, Zero Engineering, with backing from major Japanese parts-and-accessories distributor Plot Inc. Still in Japan but without a teacher, he had to teach himself everything he needed to do in order to make his visions a reality. He learned how to weld at the dealership, but when it came to metal shaping and the fineries of assembly and construction, he was left to his own devices.
“WHEN I CAN RIDE IT WITHOUT THINKING OF ANYTHING ELSE—NO WORRY ABOUT THE CARB TIMING, MECHANICAL SYSTEMS, OR ANYTHING BUT THE RIDE—THEN I KNOW IT’S DONE.”
While his style had begun to take shape at the dealership, it was at his shop where it was really honed and perfected. Long days and late nights spent with sheets of metal, mallets, and his sandbag. Hitting, polishing, welding, repeating. What eventually became known as “Zero style”—a long, low goosenecked rigid-framed Harley-davidson, typically with some patina or brass or copper details and Kimura’s signature handformed metal—was developed. The bikes were starting to gain international attention, and Zero style was blowing up. As the shop gained notoriety and fame, it was natural for Plot investors to want to expand, and for Kimura, this provided a welcome escape. So he left the original shop in Okazaki City, where it is still open, and opened a new U.S. base in Las Vegas.
“I had no particular reason,” Kimura explains. “I just maybe escaped something. Too many jobs, too much pressure, too many customers. Motorcycle custom culture is more mature here; it’s been around longer,” he responds when asked why he wanted to move to the States. But his fame followed him across the world, and Zero Engineering continued to grow. His style of raw, aggressive, artful, and functional motorcycles was catching on, and people wanted to see more. As the company expanded, custom kits and production parts became more of the focus than handmade motorcycles, no doubt making more money but unfortunately sacrificing some of the art and attention to detail at the same time. After a few years in the United States running the Las Vegas shop, Kimura left to open up his own independent garage: Chabott Engineering.
This time, he would be building one-off handmade motorcycles only. And there wouldn’t be anybody to tell him otherwise.
Now his shop sits among a row of garage doors, nondescript except for the motorcycles sitting outside. Inside is a dense network of parts, tool chests, cabinets, trinkets, and motorcycles. Several desks—each designated to a specific project with neatly broken-down engines placed atop them—line the walls as though that is the workbench for that build. There’s a couch that looks like he has napped in it a thousand times, and a single chair in the back where he takes his tea. There are bikes here that blew my mind 10 years ago, changing and evolving as he and their owners see fit.
As a rider and a racer, he would determine a stance for each bike but never draw out the design before each build. The ride would shape what it would become.
“The first time I ride the bike, it is only about 50 percent done. The design is done, but I will ride, and feel, and change until it is perfect,” Kimura says when asked about finishing a build. “When I can ride it without thinking of anything else—no worry about the carb timing, mechanical systems, or anything but the ride—then I know it’s done.” Each build would bear his signature Zero style, but it grew and evolved, and no two builds were the same. It had changed and taken on a different shape from the early days. Longer hours in the shop alone had led to more labor-intensive and more involved builds.
“As a young man, I thought the best custom motorcycle builder must be 50 percent mechanic and 50 percent artist,” Kimura says. “But now, I think 10 percent artist, 90 percent mechanic because seeing other bikes that look beautiful but may not ride as well started gradually changing my mind. Ten percent artist is enough.”
Kimura has always been one of the most artistic and sculptural builders in the world, so to hear him say that he wants to be only 10 percent artist was surprising. The line is here—he defines a mechanic as someone who makes a motorcycle run well and ride right. An artist makes something that looks pretty. He builds bikes the way he builds them now; his art has gotten easier and his style perfected, but he’s gotten much better at making them ride right, run right, and stay right. The mechanic is just who he is as a rider. He builds bikes that run well, are fun to ride, and, on top of that, he makes them look really nice.
“He mostly works at night, so we spend the days riding,” says Ayu, who has been with him since she was hired to help him run the shop over 10 years ago. She owns a handful of bikes and rides with Kimura daily, favoring her SR500 or newly acquired rigid ’58 Triumph that she had ridden in the day I was at the shop. She’s as in love with the bikes and the lifestyle as he is.
To many, this level of complete contentment is unimaginable, but Kimura’s got it. Is it that he gets to work at his pace and do what he loves? Is it that he’s finally left alone to do it? Is it that he gets to ride with his awesome girlfriend every day through amazing canyons outside of Azusa? Or is it just knowing that he’s always done it his own way and come out on top? Whatever it is, he can call himself the mechanic, but to all of us on the outside, he’s an artist of form and function. HB