Custom Builder Big Dog Motorcycles

May 12, 2004
By Ken "Hawkeye" Glassman
2004 Big Dog - Chopper
“Since the TV shows on the Discovery Channel have come out with Jesse James, and Orange County Choppers, the chopper craze has been ignited,” explains Messer. “We’re seeing people, who never would have thought about buying a chopper, getting on choppers.”

On the eve of its 10th Anniversary, and with their 10,000th bike having just left the factory, Big Dog Motorcycles has established itself as the largest specialty motorcycle manufacturer in the country. The company’s growth has been phenomenal, and is a real American success story.

The idea for Big Dog Motorcycles grew out of the desire of Sheldon Coleman, of Coleman camping gear fame. Coleman simply wanted a rubber mounted Harley Davidson Fat Boy to ride cross-country with a group of his riding buddies. Those were the days before the Road King. So he built himself a nostalgic looking Harley, tamed with a rubber mounted engine and other modifications for the trip. Many of Coleman’s riding buddies were so impressed with his creation that they asked him to build bikes like that for them. So he started modifying and customizing bikes with a mechanic out of his personal garage in Wichita, Kan. But the requests kept coming in, so he eventually got a shop and hired a few more people to help build his custom bikes.

Today, Big Dog Motorcycles has over 175,000 square feet of production facilities with 320 employees. In the last 12 months they’ve added 145 new jobs, which makes Big Dog Motorcycles a very important part of the Wichita business community. They have also developed an outstanding relationship with the town. And since Wichita is such a large center for the aircraft industry with companies like Cessna, LearJet, Raytheon, and Boeing having a major presence there, Big Dog Motorcycles is fortunate to have a large pool of highly skilled workers, engineers, and designers available to help make their company even stronger.

Last year, Big Dog Motorcycles sold nearly 4,000 cruisers spread among 6 different models. The Ridgeback and Pitbull are rigid models, while the Mastiff, Bulldog, Boxer, and Chopper have suspensions. This year the company plans to build over 5,000 bikes.

I recently had a chance to sit down with Nick Messer, President of Big Dog Motorcycles, to get some insights into the company and learn why they’ve been able to grow so fast.

MCUSA: Nick, how long have you been with Big Dog Motorcycles?
Nick Messer: “I joined the company after it had been in business for a little less than a year, so I guess that’s 9 years now. Sheldon asked me to come on board to head up the sales department and to develop a dealer network. So I loaded a bike in a trailer, drove down to Dallas, visited virtually every motorcycle dealer to show them our bikes, and to explain what we were all about. In my first year I set up 3 dealers and we produced 52 motorcycles.”

2004 Big Dog - Mastiff
“Our motorcycles are designed and engineered to fit together like a puzzle, so everything goes together like it’s supposed to, from electronics wiring to all the other components,” Messer adds.

MCUSA: So 9 years later, do you think of yourselves as a “custom motorcycle builder” or “semi-custom builder”, or do you use another term to describe Big Dog Motorcycles?
Nick Messer: “I think of Big Dog Motorcycles now as a true OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer). When we first started, we had a unique frame, but we were buying our parts from S & S Motors, using a lot of Harley-Davidson parts, and ordering other pieces from Custom Chrome, Drag Specialties, and other supplier’s catalogs to assemble our bikes.

“Now we have no Harley parts, we don’t buy anything out of a catalogue, and we go direct to the people who make components to have parts made exclusively for us to our specifications.”

MCUSA: So what does OEM status mean to you as a company, and to your customer?
Nick Messer: “To us it means that we’ve crossed the threshold from an assembler or custom shop to a true manufacturer. It separates us from the hundreds of companies who just buy parts from catalogs, piece them together, and call themselves manufacturers. Then they have to modify them to make them work… like taking a gas tank and trying to make it fit on a frame that it wasn’t intended to go on. Our motorcycles are designed and engineered to fit together like a puzzle, so everything goes together like it’s supposed to, from electronics wiring to all the other components.

“And to our customers, I think it just gives us credibility and the knowledge that they’re getting a high quality, well engineered and designed bike every time. And we were the first company to be listed in the Kelly Blue Book and NADA, so we have a track record for resale, and they can see that our bikes hold up well in the used marketplace. And that makes it easier to finance our motorcycles if they wish. By the way, we were also the first company that met DOT standards and emissions requirements for the US and California.”

MCUSA: You use S & S motors exclusively. Do those come to you fully built in crates ready for installation?
Nick Messer: “No. Most of the components come from S & S but are made to our specifications. Certain components we like come from other suppliers and are made especially for us. We assemble the engines here and we’re responsible for making sure everything is perfect. We fire and test each motor. We check the charging system, the oil pressure, operating temperature, we check for excessive noise, just to make sure the motor is up to our standards, not anybody else’s. So you can’t call S & S and buy an engine from them that is just like ours. We offer two sizes of motors, a 107 cubic inch model is standard, and a 117 cubic inch optional motor that is available on any of our models.”

2004 Big Dog - Pitbull
2004 Big Dog – Pitbull

MCUSA: In the 10 years you’ve been in business, you have seen dozens of motorcycle companies come and go. What has Big Dog Motorcycles done to make it survive and thrive where the others have failed?
Nick Messer: “Despite the growth that we’ve experienced, we actually consider ourselves a slow growth company. We don’t spend more money than we make. We believe in grass roots marketing, so we don’t spend enormous amounts of money on gimmicky marketing schemes, or flashy semi trailer trucks. Look at Excelsior-Henderson, for example. They even went public, blew 90 million dollars, and are gone today. We watch our costs closely. We always know the true costs to build a bike. Other companies have set prices for their products and found out later that they cost more to build than they sell for. And we have a surprisingly small marketing budget, and are strict about sticking to it, in turn staying out of debt. So we’re profitable. And we have always put out a quality product, and we make them even better every year.”

MCUSA: How many dealers do you have, and are there any dealers overseas?
Nick Messer: “We’ve got 95 dealers in the US and none overseas. We get inquiries all the time from foreign countries, but we can’t always satisfy the demands of the dealers we already have, so it makes no sense to go offshore. Other companies have done that just for ego sake, but it makes no sense to me. Perhaps when we can get our volume up to the point where we can satisfy the US demand, we’ll look to other countries.

“And it wouldn’t be fair to our dealers who are an important part of our success. We choose dealers carefully, and the most important factor in choosing dealers is not their sales potential, but their attitude toward customer service and satisfaction. A big part of that is requiring every dealer to send us at least one mechanic to our training program every year, so we’re confident that they know exactly how to work on and service our products, and our customers know that the technician who works on their bike is fully qualified. They also must maintain a certain inventory of parts and the correct tools necessary to work on the bikes. So we strive to maintain a good relationship with our dealers, and therefore, have very little turnover.”

MCUSA: Geographically, where are your best markets?
Nick Messer: “Naturally, it changes with the seasons, but overall California, Texas, and Florida are always strong. But Ohio and Chicago are big for us, as is the Northeast.”

2004 Big Dog - Boxer
2004 Big Dog – Boxer

MCUSA: What’s your best selling model?
Nick Messer: “Right now it’s the Big Dog Motorcycles Chopper. Since the TV shows on the Discovery Channel have come out with Jesse James, and Orange County Choppers, the chopper craze has been ignited. We’re seeing people, who never would have thought about buying a chopper, getting on choppers. I met so many people in Daytona this year who have never even been to a rally tell me that since those shows have come out, they have an urge to buy a motorcycle, and they want it to be a chopper. They haven’t been on a motorcycle in years, but they want a chopper. Now we’re the #1 chopper manufacturer in the world in volume.”

MCUSA: If a client visits a dealer, and wants his bike painted in a certain color with specific graphics or airbrushed murals, can he order it that way from you?
Nick Messer: “Pretty much. We have certain stock graphics and color combinations that we do. We don’t paint our frames; we powdercoat them instead, which is more durable. We have certain frame colors that clients must work with, but it’s a pretty wide assortment. After that, we can pretty much match up any colors to that frame. And as long as we have a drawing, or photograph of what the customer would like, we can do it. We did one bike where a client asked to have a portrait of his wife painted as an angel, placed on the tank, because she bought him the bike. Another client was a dog lover, and had portraits of his two dogs painted on the bike. We’ve done show bikes for corporations with their logos painted on them, so we can pretty much do almost anything a customer wants.”

MCUSA: Can customers order a certain model, but request changes to the rake, or height of the frame, etc.?
Nick Messer: “Not from me they can’t. We’ve done enough trial and error engineering so we know what will work, and what won’t work, and I don’t want the liability for something that we haven’t tested. Sometimes a client may think he knows what he wants, but doesn’t know it won’t work. He can choose paint, wheels, seats, but the frame configuration and forks that go on it; we keep to our proven specs. We also have accessories available like sissy bars, and leather saddlebags for some models, as well.”

MCUSA: Describe a typical Big Dog Motorcycles Customer.
Nick Messer: “Our demographics are a college educated male, married, with a six figure income. Seventy-eight percent have now or have owned a Harley-Davidson, so they are experienced riders. For 70% of our buyers, a Big Dog is the second motorcycle in his garage. But what is so exciting to me is that our age demographic is getting younger, as opposed to Harley’s for example that is getting older all the time. I’m amazed at the number of guys in their late 20s and early 30s who are buying our bikes. These were the guys who were supposed to be buying V-Rods, but they’re buying our Chopper and Ridgeback models instead. They want an exciting motorcycle to ride and to stand out in a crowd.”

2004 Big Dog - Ridgeback
2004 Big Dog – Ridgeback

MCUSA: Any plans to build a touring cruiser model with saddlebags and a windshield?
Nick Messer: “No. There are so many players in that market building great bikes, and the air is kind of thin as to who looks to purchase that bike. And if we built one, it would have to cost too much to build sales. There are so many great cruisers out there, and they’re doing great things to modify them, so we don’t want to play in that arena.

“One of the strengths of the company has been our ability to anticipate what the consumer wants, and be able to provide him with that product. When the first Jesse James TV shows appeared, we were able to design and engineer a comfortable and affordable chopper in a pretty short amount of time, to hit the marketplace as the craze was just getting started. So we’ll keep looking to fill the niches that the consumer is looking for. And our Dealer Advisory Council gives us great feedback as to what the customer is asking for and looking for when they visit the showrooms, and we can respond to that in 9 to 12 months.”

MCUSA: Tell me about your upcoming 10th Anniversary Party on June 11 and 12.
Nick Messer: “We’ve always held an Open House in the past, where people came out to the factory, (not just Big Dog owners) to see and tour the plant. But this year we’re expanding that to have a ride-in on the 11th & 12th of June, right here in Wichita. It will be a big celebration, and our founder has a great rock band called Dewy and the Big Dogs and they will be performing. That’s his “alter ego” and that’s where the name of the company came from. We’ll also have a bike show, some fun contests, and give out trophies and prizes for the owner who rides in from the farthest point in the country, for the oldest Big Dog motorcycle, the highest mileage bike, the best customized bike, and a few other fun things. We think it will be great for our customers, who are such a valuable part of our history, to come out here and meet and interact with the folks who built their bike and built our company, and to see the process we use in manufacturing them. We’ll have several thousand people here, so it will be a really fun time!”

You can learn more about Big Dog Motorcycles by going online to and finding the dealer nearest you. Then stop by a dealer and see one in person.

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