The iconic Detroit cus­tomizer


hrough the won­drous magic of so­cial me­dia, we of­ten find our­selves re­con­nect­ing with peo­ple who’ve long since left our lives, much to our dis­may (old friends we miss, cer­tain exes) or to our joy­ous glee (old en­e­mies, cer­tain other exes). “Yosemite” Sam Radoff was a pro­lific cus­tom car and mo­tor­cy­cle cre­ator back in the 1960s and 1970s. His work ap­peared all over the coun­try, but at some point he fell out of the cus­tom life. That is, un­til his wife pushed him to pull out his old pho­tos and get them back into the pub­lic eye on Face­book and In­sta­gram.

We saw a lot of his cool bike stuff pop­ping up on our In­sta­gram feed. Wast­ing zero time, we got him on the phone, emailed back and forth, and pulled both an in­ter­view and a bunch of pic­tures of his work for you… YSR: I got that nick­name in the mid- or late 1960s af­ter I got out of the Army. A friend of mine called me that when we were rid­ing; he stuck “Yosemite” in front of it. A lot of peo­ple at that time were get­ting nick­names. Mine used to be Lit­tle Sam, which stuck with me for years.

SC: TELL US ABOUT HOW YOU GOT STARTED IN BIKES AND CARS. YSR: When I was young, I lived in a lit­tle neigh­bor­hood in Detroit that was a hot bed for cus­tom stuff. The Kaiser Brothers, all the lo­cal builders of the day were in that area ex­cept Bar­ris. I started mak­ing model cars, which led to pin­strip­ing them. The locals picked up on it, asked me to stripe their cars. Then I went into the Army. Af­ter that, I bought a mo­tor­cy­cle. The peo­ple I hung out with wanted nice bikes, so I started paint­ing bikes for them and that blew up real quick. Next thing I know, I’m weld­ing frames, mak­ing tanks, and do­ing full chop­pers. I was in the right place at the right time. Most of the time I’m in wrong place at wrong time [laughs]. SC: LET’S START WITH THE OB­VI­OUS. HOW’D YOU GET THE NAME?

SC: WHAT WAS YOUR SHOP LIKE BACK THEN? YSR: I’d al­ways said that if I ever had a shop, it would be a cus­tom shop. I stayed true to that my whole ca­reer, just do­ing cus­tom stuff. I orig­i­nally opened up a shop in the base­ment of an old farm­house I rented then moved to friend’s garage then a shop in the tough­est part of Detroit at the time. Some of those shots I sent you show my shop build­ing with painted char­ac­ters on it. There were no checker­board floors and bull­shit like that; checker­board looks good, but you have to be a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire to have it. My shop was one step above a dirt floor. That’s as close as we came to checker­board, but we cre­ated a lot of cool bikes, cars, vans.

We bought up a bunch of tanks and fend­ers, painted ’em up, and folks would come ex­change theirs then we’d re­paint that stuff, hang it up, and sell it also. If I had a video cam­era and filmed the shop, it’d be the coolest show ever on TV. It was a fun time. It just de­vel­oped.

SC: AND THE CUS­TOM SHOWS? WHAT WAS YOUR IN­VOLVE­MENT THERE? YSR: We wanted to make a name na­tion­ally, so we started mak­ing a few bikes to take and show. I learned over the years to never take a knife to a gun­fight. Peo­ple ev­ery­where are prej­u­diced and lie; they’ll tell you the lo­cal judges aren’t bi­ased, but if you’re from out of the area, it’s harder to win.

So we started build­ing rad­i­cal bikes. On the West Coast, they were into that nar­row, slim look. I was into tak­ing what was on cars and putting it on bikes. Frenched-in lights, moldedin plates. I’d in­cor­po­rate the car feel into bike feel.

We won tons of “best paint” awards all over the coun­try. One of those bikes you have there in the pho­tos won best paint over the cars at a show. We were the first to do that. We won hun­dreds of awards. Peo­ple think I’m bull­shit­ting when I say that, but it’s true.

SC: WHY’D YOU STOP EN­TER­ING BIKE SHOWS? YSR: We de­cided to stop show­ing be­cause the worst thing you can do is com­pete against your clients. They don’t want to think you did your show­bike bet­ter than you did theirs. I think the young kids are in­ter­ested in find­ing out about this kind of his­tory.

It’s noth­ing like to­day. There was no school back then. You learned on your own. The old guys guarded their se­crets. Peo­ple would come in want­ing some­thing done. If I’d never done it be­fore, I learned on the job. In all the years I’ve been do­ing this, I’ve never looked at any of this as a fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion. If a guy wanted some­thing painted, I’d get into it and think, “How cool would it be to add this?” and I’d do it at no ad­di­tional charge. That’s the way it was done. Most of the paint jobs weren’t the best at the show, but they had the look; they had the de­sign. It was a psy­chol­ogy game. Now you see pin­stripers do­ing pan­els. Back then we knew the bikes would last a lit­tle while be­fore they got toasted. We’d paint some­thing sim­i­lar on a piece of plas­tic for the cus­tomer. That’s how the panel thing got started.

SC: OF ALL THE MO­TOR­CY­CLES YOU CRE­ATED, WHAT WAS YOUR FA­VORITE? YSR: The one bike I won Amer­ica’s Most Beau­ti­ful Chop­per award with. The head­light that came out of its gas tank was a chal­lenge. They’d go into the tank when they were not on. There was a lot of cool stuff on that. It was the most chal­leng­ing thing I can think of.

Nowa­days, Yosemite Sam Radoff re­sides in Canada. He still does a lit­tle cus­tom work lo­cally. What you may not know is that he’s also a pro­lific metal sculp­tor. You can see more about Yosemite Sam Radoff at yosemite­sams.com, rad­of­fo­rig­i­nals.ca, or on his In­sta­gram and Face­book pages. SC

Sam has been fea­tured sev­eral times in Street Chop­per mag­a­zine—like this cover bike from the Jan­uary 1975 is­sue.

Yosemite Sam at the 2007 Pin Stripers show in Detroit, Michi­gan.

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