An in­ter­na­tional ré­sumé of di­verse life ex­pe­ri­ence is put to work cre­at­ing cus­tom ma­chines that ex­em­plify pas­sion and old-world crafts­man­ship.

Cycle World - - Contents - By Paul d’or­léans


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


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


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.

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