Bruce McQuiston was 16 when he bought his first motorcycle.
He bought the Yamaha D250 for $500, just a couple of years after his first motorcycle ride. But his parents didn’t know. And when they found out, he had to sell it.
“It was my mistake to have the title sent to the house,” he said, laughing. “I wasn’t the brightest kid.”
But McQuiston would still keep racing and riding.
To this day, he says, his parents still pretend he doesn’t ride motorcycles — even now, as the 57-year-old Pennsylvania native customizes old European motorcycles for a living, turning the retro into art.
That passion for custom bikes has become a Miami business, Moto Studio, and will be featured Sunday on “Ride with Norman Reedus,” a weekly biking show on AMC, when actor-host Reedus and “Easy Rider” star Peter Fonda stop in for a visit before heading south on the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys.
It’s a chance for McQuiston, who earned a sculpture degree from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, to showcase how he combines his design background with the machines he loves.
“It’s a merger between classic motorcycle architecture and modern materials,” McQuiston said.
ROMANCE OF THE ROAD
McQuiston can explain why he began sculpting. He always liked art, and he always could draw. But ask why he likes motorcycles, and the answer doesn’t come as easily.
It’s something about the growl the motorcycle engine makes when he revs the engine, the feel of the machine beneath his hands.
“There’s a certain romanticism to motorcycles and the freedom it gives you,” he said. “It’s really liberating.”
McQuiston kept riding motorcycles through college as he earned his sculpting degree, choosing art over the practical business degree his father wanted him to get. “I have to love what I do, or I can’t do it,” he said. “I don’t know how to do stuff I don’t love.”
Even now, in the Miami River warehouse where McQuiston spends his nights designing and building the motorcycles, there are glimpses of his sculptural work: pieces hanging from the ceiling; sleek wooden tables; and slabs of wood waiting to be carved, propped against the walls.
He took a break from sculpture to teach other drivers as an instructor at the Skip Barber Racing School in Georgia, setting the occasional record at racetracks across the East Coast. Eventually, he made his way to South Florida, where he began sculpting again.
And it was in consulting with a client over a sculpture three years ago that McQuiston stumbled into the business of customizing motorcycles. The client saw a motorcycle he was designing for himself and asked if he could have one.
Soon, McQuiston would be spending so much time designing bikes for new clients that it would be months before he finished his own motorcycle.
“He builds a really incredible product,” said Landon Harris, a client who’s looking to buy at least one more bike after his first purchase roughly two years ago.
He only works with Moto Guzzi and Ducati motorcycles because he prefers the visceral nature of the Moto Guzzis and the sophisticated touch of the Ducati.
“They make great noises,” McQuiston said. “And they’re fun to ride.”
As he modifies the bike, McQuiston maintains the classic look but switches in his own parts or better technology to give the ’90’s cyles a modern feel on the road.
“I’m interested in the aesthetic of the older bikes and the functionality of the new bikes,” he said. “I like things that are a little eccentric.”
By the end of the month, McQuiston will have completed his 12th bike.
He estimates it can take up to 10 weeks to make the motorcycles, varying due to the demands of the client and the demands of the design. He’ll work at night, sketching parts, designing carbon fiber parts and working with independent contractors.
“I do the designing and most of the fabrication,” McQuiston said. “But it’s up to the client what they want.”
The bikes cost anywhere between $20,000 and $70,000 depending on the design. His clientele are mostly men, architects, investors and engineers with successful careers who can afford what McQuiston calls “luxury art.”
In 2011, Florida accounted for nearly $1.5 million of the nation's almost $20 million in motorcycle sales, trailing only California and Texas, according to the National Council of Motorcycle Dealer Associations. By 2014, the Sunshine State had the second highest number of registered motorcycles with nearly 560,000 bikes registered, according to statista.com.
But few of those are customized quite the way he does it, said McQuiston, and his customers seem to agree.
Rafael Reyes, who was drawn to a picture of one of McQuiston’s bikes on a motorcycle website a year ago, said he sometimes has to park his customized Moto Guzzi motorcycle far away from his destination to avoid onlookers if he doesn’t have time to answer questions. Someone, he says, always comes over to admire the bike.
“It just sounds really neat and nasty,” Reyes said. “It looks a little stealth but classic. It’s an attention-getter.”
He said he was intrigued by the combination of a classic motorcycle design with updated technology. While his wife won’t let him display it in the house because of the gasoline smell, Reyes tries to park the motorcycle in front of his Pinecrest home as often as he can.
“I do believe it looks like a piece of art,” he said. “I think that’s why so many people are attracted to it.”
Harris, who has known McQuiston for 15 years through racing, keeps the bike in his “man cave” alongside his Porsche or Ferrari. Out of the four motorcycles he owns, McQuiston’s creation — a Ducati motorcycle named Racer 5 — is his favorite.
“You get the older look that I like, but with modern day performance,” he said. “You get the best of both worlds.”
Harris said the most impressive aspect of McQuiston’s design is his ability to preserve the retro look of the bike while improving its performance. McQuiston removed about 100 pounds from Harris’ motorcycle, making it easier for Harris to turn on winding roads and stop.
“This bike is fantastic,” he said. “It’s the difference between driving a Ferrari and a ’57 Chevy.”
He’ll be watching Sunday as McQuiston rides down to Key Biscayne with Reedus, who is currently filming “The Walking Dead,” and Fonda.
McQuiston ended up on the show because a friend’s friend reached out to Reedus about McQuiston’s bikes.
McQuiston is hoping Reedus may even purchase one of his custom bikes.
He’s also hoping the show will bring a bump in business that helps expand his capacity.
There are already a few untouched motorcycles in his warehouse, waiting to be turned into art.