The High Price of Motorcycle Customization

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IT WAS 1979, and I was assigned a wreck estimate. But first, I had to pressure-wash the bike because it was covered in oil from a punctured engine cover. That wasn't the worst of it though: hanging on the broken windshield bracket was a piece of ligament that had been torn from the rider's leg.

In 1988, I met a student at MMI who had a hole punched through his ankle from the spiked footpeg he thought was hardcore-cool. When he installed the footpeg, he never imagined that a simple laydown (normally resulting in a little road rash) would end up with a bone graft and a permanent limp.

In 2006, a friend of mine experienced a parking lot fall on her customized Harley, which had aftermarket exhaust pipes that were turned outward and machined to a point for cosmetic effect. The pipes cut Kate's leg down to the bone, requiring internal and external stitches. Then the infection set in. It was scary for a few weeks while the doc fought the infection with higher and higher dosages of antibiotics, but the outcome could have been much worse. Does "Peg Leg Kate" sound cool?

Fast forward to May 9, 2009, at the Smokeout Rally in Cottonwood, Ariz. This is a great event that showcases little-known customizers and a whole lot of low-budget wannabees (they build what I call "Cobbers," not Bobbers). As I walked the event, I was reminded that in 30 years, some of us ain't learned much. Spiked footpegs, spiked handgrips and spiked handlebars were commonplace. These weren't show bikes; most had license plates — meaning real people were riding real dangerous bikes.

But wait, it gets worse. One aspiring builder from Phoenix thought it was fashionable to remove the front brake, like we did back in the '60s. An employee of said builder said proudly, "Who the f*ck needs a front brake?" Well, I do, you dumbass!

Just because someone builds a show bike with spikes and pulls the brakes off for visual effect doesn't make it OK to build a road bike with same. As mom told us, "It's all fun until someone loses an eye." How about a pair of gonads? Yeah, think about that.

In the service business, we make decisions every day that weigh risks against rewards. For example, the risk of someone getting horribly injured when you remove a front brake system is high. The reward is low: you'd probably sell the bike even if you left the stock brake on.

The risk to installing a wild-looking air cleaner cover is low. Unless it weighs two times what a stock cover would, which stresses the carb mount and can lead to a fracture and gas leak. You have dozens of safer covers you can sell and install. My advice is to stock and sell the ones that weigh no more than the stock cover, to play it safe.

Your customer's safety should be your No. 1 priority. As a business engaged in the sale and service of powersports vehicles, you're considered the expert. You're supposed to guide your customer toward safe products and services. And there is no such thing as a "Get out of court free" waiver. A waiver is proof you knew the part or service was dangerous or illegal. And If you service vehicles for minors, your risk just doubled. If it's judged that you had responsibility in the death or injury of a child, you can kiss your financial well-being goodbye.

Six other high-risk areas to be mindful of.

  • Product Representation: Advertise, demonstrate and describe products and services accurately and make sure warnings are expressed clearly (Not to be confused with waivers).
  • Vehicle Set-up and PDI: Before delivering the vehicle, you should assemble, adjust and inspect the vehicle following the manufacturer's specifications. This includes properly completing the paperwork and performing a test ride.
  • Documentation: Make sure repair orders accurately describe what was ordered, discovered, installed and performed. Write customer complaints in their own words, and if the owner declines to have a safety-related repair performed, have them sign the R.O. Indicating that refusal.
  • Vehicle Service: Perform services following the manufacturer's procedures. Use their parts and perform a test ride to verify road-worthiness before closing the R.O.
  • Safety Campaigns: Check every vehicle in the store for outstanding safety recalls and make the repairs following manufacturer's procedures. If the recall kit needs to be ordered, hold the vehicle in the shop to keep it off the streets until you can finish the work.
  • Modifications: Obviously the manufacturer wants you to follow its procedures and use its parts. But many customers aren't satisfied with factory pure. My advice is to choose your aftermarket products wisely and avoid major modifications to areas that could affect vehicle handling, braking systems or vehicle control. If you're a trained technician, you know what I'm talking about. If not, stay away, you're dangerous.