Custom Builder Detroit Bros

October 25, 2007
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

Working out of their shop in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale  brothers James and Dave Kaye are up-and-comers in the custom builder scene as the aptly named Detroit Bros.
Working out of their shop in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale, brothers James and Dave Kaye are up-and-comers in the custom builder scene as the aptly named Detroit Bros.

Detroit is world-renowned as the Motor City. Driving down the wide city streets past the towering Art Deco skyscrapers downtown to assembly plants that are still scattered through the suburbs, there’s no doubt that this is a city made and broken by the automotive industry.

But during a visit to Detroit earlier this year, our vehicular industry search was of the two-wheeled variety, with the manufacturing production at a much, much smaller scale. Motoring out of downtown Detroit on Woodward Avenue we crossed the notorious 8 Mile Road and headed North into the suburb of Ferndale. We knew we had found what we were looking for when we spotted shining chrome and obvious aftermarket adornments on a two-wheeled custom creation parked on the sidewalk. We had arrived at the shop doors of Detroit Bros.

Brothers James and Dave Kaye have been running Detroit Bros. since 2002, with the siblings creating some of the more memorable custom bikes we’ve seen. Our first encounter with Detroit Bros. was at the 2007 Easyrider’s Custom Show in Portland, but many readers will no doubt recognize the young brotherly duo from their two performances on the now defunct Discovery Channel Biker Build-Off.

Although in business for five years now, the real beginnings of the Detroit Bros. story stretches back to the Kaye family garage, where the two brothers were instilled with a creative drive and a love of all things industrial from their father.

“We were always kind of influenced by hotrods and stuff like that growing up in Detroit,” says James. “My dad was always into art and building different kinds of cars in the garage and stuff. He got us into sheetmetal and bodywork.”

As for their interest in motorcycles, the boys just fell into it.

“We got into bikes when we got old enough to ride them,” recalls Dave. “I always had a Ducati and he (James) always had a BMW, and we had a Sportster we cut up… so we’ve kind of always been into it.”

While they are brothers, the two Kaye boys have different personas. In their early thirties, Dave is the younger of the two and a graduate of the University of Michigan Business School, except this businessman has traded a three-piece suit for jeans, t-shirt and playful mohawk. With a black goatee, James looks the part of an older brother, although his Misfits t-shirt matches his brother’s punk/alternative look. While both brothers were inspired by their father, their melding of art and industry was further enhanced when each attended the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit.

We knew we d found the right place when we passed this green custom on display outside the Detroit Bros. shop doors.
We knew we’d found the right place when we passed this green custom on display outside the Detroit Bros. shop doors.

The Kaye boys took career detours, however, before starting up Detroit Bros. together. Dave’s business degree found him on the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange as an options trader, while James had headed out to the West Coast to hone his skills as a fabricator. Having trained as a sculptor at CCS, James had hitched up with Russell Mitchell at the California custom builder’s Exile Cycles shop. After a while, however, the Michigan native realized that it just wasn’t for him.

“I feel like I learned a lot and it made me feel like I really wanted to do my own thing,” says James of his experience at Exile. “It was a small shop, so I really got to see how to run a small motorcycle business. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough of a creative outlet for me. I needed to be in control and have some decision-making power.”

Dave also found his profession lacking in fulfillment, so the brothers returned back to Michigan and founded Detroit Bros., building kickstands, gas caps, and anything else they could fabricate out of their own personal garage. From those humble beginnings, the Kaye boys started tinkering with their first ground-up custom build.

“The custom bikes were cool, but when we started we didn’t really have any money,” recalls Dave. “So we just kind of hobbled together our first bike with swap meet parts and an old shovelhead engine, and just stuff we could get for free or on trade or whatever.”

After two years the duo finished their first original and also moved into their current shop location in Ferndale. Just as they were settling in, the brothers’ big break came when they were featured on Discovery’s Biker Build-Off where they faced off against James’ former employer, Russell Mitchell from Exile Cycles.

“We’d built a handful of bikes before and one of our custom bikes, and based off that bike they gave us a spot on that show,” says Dave on their Build-Off success. “So that put us on the map and gave us instant exposure, and the second one just kind of helped our credibility.”

While the exposure on television and in the press are good for business, Dave insists that he tries to steer clear of allowing the industry to determine the DB style.

“I try not to even read the magazines, because I just don’t like to be too influenced by what other people are doing,” says Dave, who does much of the company’s product design. “And I don’t mean that in an elitist kind of way, I just mean that if I got an idea for a front end or something that I’m trying to work through in my head and I see that somebody else did something like it, I’ll be like, ‘now I can’t do that.’ I want to keep all our ideas fresh and unbiased.”

Having worked as a fabricator for Exile Cycles  James Kaye realized he needed his own shop to fulfill his creative outlet.
Having worked as a fabricator for Exile Cycles, James Kaye realized he needed his own shop to fulfill his creative outlet.

Stylewise, the Kaye brothers are yet another representative of the next generation of custom builders. Like the well-known Roland Sands or less renowned Nash Motorcycles, which have been featured here at, Detroit Bros. have their own younger, more contemporary take on the “custom” motorcycle. You won’t see these two rolling up in ass-less chaps and leather jackets sporting H-D logos on them. Instead you’re more apt to find James or Dave crouched down in their low-slung designs in jeans and skate shoes. So just what is the source of their inspiration?

“Probably all the LSD I did as a kid,” deadpans James, before breaking into laughter. “No, I’d say a little bit of Ron Finch, little bit of Russell Mitchell…(both former employers) also some fine artists that I learned about and sculptors at CCS.”

“We’ve always liked the same type of bikes, the Mad Max industrial-style bikes,” adds Dave. “We never had to have a discussion about it. We just started out having the same vision I guess. We disagree here and there but generally speaking we’re really in tune in terms of the vision.”

An example of the Detroit Bros. style can be seen on the green build which we spotted outside their shop. The custom was a bike that one of Dave’s Chicago buddies handed over for the brothers to rebuild. The Sportster had already been built up, but Dave and James obliged their old friend’s request to freshen it up with some Detroit Bros. flair and the finished product sure doesn’t look like any Sporty we’ve ever seen.

Although still a work in progress with an unfinished seat, the bike is a showcase for the Detroit Bros. parts catalog. The polished aluminum Eliminate Wheels are DB originals, with braking components from Roland Sands’ Performance Machine shop. The front end has been modified, keeping the Sportster tubes and sliders but with the Kaye brothers fabricating the fork stop caps, triple trees, headlight, risers and handlebars. The fuel tank also survived from the original Sportster, but DB provides the new gas cap, as well as forward controls and upper engine mount.

The bike’s rolling chassis features Detroit Bros.’s Drop Seat frame, which is the shop’s signature component. Almost every bike leaving the Ferndale garage utilizes some variation of the rigid design and its distinctive lines can be purchased from Detroit Bros. online for as little as $999.99.

As far as engines are concerned, the Kaye brothers keep an open attitude. They’ve built custom bikes around existing motors, but they’ve also tapped out S&S or TP Engineering mills as well, with an S&S Twin powering the bike above.

The Detroit Bros. custom creations sport a look which the Kaye brothers like to describe as  Mad Max industrial-style.
The Detroit Bros. custom creations sport a look which the Kaye brothers like to describe as “Mad Max industrial-style.”

The brothers also aren’t shy about sourcing vintage components if they like the looks. A prime example of this is the gas tank you’ll see on many DB customs. Although they hold the Detroit Bros. badge, they are in fact from the Harley-Davidson Rapido – a 125cc dirtbike sold by The Motor Co during the late 60s and early 70s. If you can’t find a replacement fuel tank for your old Rapido, blame Dave and James, because they’ve been snatching them up online for years and are now having a difficult time finding the retro tanks themselves. In fact, if you got one handy, you might be able to pick up some quick cash from the Kaye boys.

The future of Detroit Bros. is wide open, with both brothers mentioning the possibility of a production line at some point.

“I want a production line of bikes but where no two are ever exactly the same,” says Dave. “I mean more than just paint job. I mean different exhausts, different components, so we’re not just building the same bike over and over again.”

James has even greater expectations, one where Detroit Bros. is able to transform into one of the old-school original manufacturers from the early days of motorcycles. An operation that casts its own engine, and builds a small run of bikes all in-house. For now Detroit Bros. is dealing with the typical growing pains of a successful small motorcycle shop, balancing high demand for its product with its six-man crew.

“It’s had its up and downs,” admits James, “but when we put ourselves aside and work as a team, I really feel like we’re unstoppable.”

With a successful parts line and plenty of work orders coming in for their one-off builds, the Kaye brothers don’t figure to fall off the custom builder map anytime soon.

For more information about the Detroit Bros. and the shop’s list of available parts check out

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