Rid­ing Mo­tor­cy­cles, Build­ing Mo­tor­cy­cles, and Be­ing Left Alone ........



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.


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

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