story by Roland Gilmore
photos by Dana Edmunds
“How cool is that?” says Roger Kuwahara, grinning like a teenager as he retraces his journey to becoming one of Hawai‘i’s best-known builders of custom motorcycles. Roger says this a lot, smiles like this a lot, but he’s no kid: Trained as a machinist, he spent a fair amount of time working as an auto mechanic back in the 1970s before making the incongruous jump to flight attendant for Hawaiian Airlines, a job he has now held for going on thirty years. At the moment, he’s explaining how he got back into the bikes.
“In high school, everybody played with motorcycles. I had one, but I had to hide it at my friend’s house,” he says with a laugh. “I always had a passion for motorcycles, but when I got married, my wife didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Then one day … my wife cuts hair, and one day she just out of the blue says, ‘One of my customers is selling his Harley—you wanna go take a look at it?’ So, I ended up buying it. ... No wait, actually, she ended up buying it for me. How cool is that?”
This was in the early 1990s, and to understand the road Roger’s traveled since then, it is helpful to know what was going on with Harley-Davidson at the time. Founded in 1903, the company was, from the 1920s to the 1950s, the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. But owing to a variety of factors, Harley’s quality and public image both went into a long skid, culminating in near-bankruptcy by the 1970s—a turn of events that ultimately served to boost Japanese manufacturers to the front of the pack. Long story short: In 1983, the US International Trade Commission imposed a five-year, 45 percent tariff on imported motorcycles with engine sizes of more than 700 cubic centimeters. It was no coincidence that Harley-Davidson, then the only large-scale American motorcycle manufacturer, specialized in the “heavyweight” class—that is, the 750-cc-and-up engine size. By the time Harley-Davidson introduced its now-legendary Fat Boy model in 1990, the company was experiencing a worldwide resurgence.
“That was the beginning of the Harley explosion,” Roger continues, “when everybody started buying them. But it was all stock bikes—people weren’t really customizing them. Back in the ’70s when I worked in the machine shop, it was real choppers. Everyone was building their own, and guys were doing all kinds of crazy things … the mentality being, the crazier the better. So I really wanted to make one, like back in the day.” Here he laughs again at the memory. “My wife said I couldn’t do it … unless I built her one. So I did, and that bike won show after show after show. By 1998, I was working on other people’s bikes all the time, and we decided we might as well start selling parts instead of buying them from someone else. So we started this shop.”
“This shop” is Kustom Fab, a parts and customizing company that Roger founded with business partner Mel Takano in 1999. If you’re familiar with any of the several cable television shows that have mainstreamed choppers over the last few years, you might be surprised by the size of Roger’s and Mel’s Sand Island shop. This is no cavernous beehive of activity. Instead, the 1,800-square-foot shop is segmented into three walled-off spaces: the fabrication area, where all of the welding and other machining take place; the “clean side,” where motorcycles are assembled; and a customer service area. Including tools and workbenches, each of the two building bays is large enough to fit perhaps three motorcycles side by side. The customer service area would barely fit two standard-size bikers side-by-side. Everyone who works here—besides Roger and Mel, that’s Darren Ho, Tom Dolormente and Norio Akai—has a “real” job somewhere else.
To the uninitiated, all choppers no doubt look alike, and in one sense they are: Virtually all of them begin with a factory-made frame—this is because such frames come pre-stamped with a vehicle identification number, as required by state law. But from there the frames are almost always cut apart—hence the term “chopper”—and re-welded to change any number of angles; custom parts are either bought (and often further altered) or machined from scratch. And while it’s true that there are ultimately physical limitations to what will and won’t roll down a street, beyond these, the only constraint is a builder’s imagination—and every builder, like every artist, has a recognizable aesthetic. While his bikes vary, Roger’s work tends to be a hybrid of his old-school roots and Space Age engineering—Easy Rider meets Blade Runner. “There’s so much technology today that I can build you a bike that’s over 10 feet long, and it’ll handle just like a regular bike,” says Roger, again with the grin. “Except that it’s just like you’re driving a bus.”
Roger is also highly regarded for his ability to design and fabricate complex, intricately styled components from scratch—often using only a three-dimensional, mental image. For instance, while it might sound a bit odd to call a motorcycle seat elegant, looking at photos of a one-off seat system he designed for a custom bike known as “Fusion,” there’s no other word for it: The complex series of linkages, designed to create a spring-loaded, shock-absorbing seat, surpasses being an act of engineering prowess and rises to the level of functional art. Every piece works together not just on a practical level but a visual one. “That was really surprising,” he says, again with the grin. “It was only meant to be the prototype, but I got it right on the first try.”
As he’s talking, there’s a rumble in the distance. “Here comes ‘Tiki,’ says Roger, recognizing the growl of an exhaust system he built. As the bike closes in, Roger explains his general design ethos. “Pretty much every bike has a theme—sometimes we start out with one, sometimes it emerges as we work on it, or it comes with some pau hana (after work) liquid inspiration”—insert that laugh. “For the Tiki chop, we wanted something that represented Hawai‘i in a way that was different from the cheesy stuff you usually see. So it’s got things like hand-tooled koa handgrips and foot-pegs. And because we were aiming for an old-style look, we also added touches like painted wooden stringers in the gas tank and the fenders, like in the old-style surfboards. …” And just then, Mike Perez rolls up. Mike bought the bike from Roger six or so months ago and is clearly stoked with his purchase. It’s also clear that Roger’s enthusiasm is contagious—it seems that everyone around him is always smiling, always using superlatives.
“Yeah, it’s perfect!” says Mike. “One day I’m gonna figure out a way to keep it in my living room so I can see it all the time—either that or I’m going to be living in the garage. It’s so inspiring—I’d mount it on my wall if I could!”