Jeremy Cupp looks to the past for the lines of his motorcycles and the tradition of handmade craftsmanship.
LC Fabrications – Looking to the Past to Bring Custom Bikes into the Future
It was the third decade of the 20th century. The Great War had just ended. The revolutionary changes the war had brought to internal combustion were trickling down to the world of civilian transportation. In a little Indiana garage Freddy and Auggy Duesenberg were hand-building their first motor cars. On a San Diego airfield Don Hall, Hawley Bowlus and Chuck Lindbergh toiled under a 60-day deadline to complete the Ryan NYP.
The two-wheeled world was no different. Thousands of manufacturers, with names like Williams, Megola and Windhoff, were set up in small garages spread out over the United States and Europe trying everything from linked brakes to cast wheels and hub centered steering. Now, nearly 100 years later the 1920s are called the Golden Age of anything involving pistons and gasoline. In rural Virginia a custom motorcycle builder brings the spirit of that age into every project he puts his hand to.
“Back then there was no set pattern and no rules. Motorcycle makers had weird ideas and tried new things,” said Jeremy Cupp, proprietor of LC Fabrications. “I try to make my bikes like what they would have built in the 1920s if they had modern equipment.”
Inspiration often comes from tragedy and Cupp’s introduction to two wheels was no different. A neighbor kid wrecked his XR80 and broke his leg. Neighbor kid’s mom decides it’s time for the bike to go. Cupp buys his first motorcycle. What followed was a string of four-wheelers and rock crawling 4X4s. A brief flirtation with low rider trucks introduced Cupp to the world of custom building and car shows. At the time he was working at a metal fabrication shop, staying after hours so that the old hands would teach him how to use welders, the paint booth and the tools in the machine shop.
In 2004 he bought and re-assembled a basket case 1989 Sportster as his first street bike. But Cupp wasn’t satisfied with the 883 as Harley had built it. It was the heyday of chopper reality T.V.
“I thought, ‘I’ve seen these guys on T.V. building motorcycles and they look like idiots,’” Cupp recalled.
Believing that he could do better, he set out to build his own bike from the ground up. Cash was short so the Sportster was cannibalized. Then Cupp took his off-roading mechanical aptitude and his paint and metal fabrication experience and threw them at the pieces. The result was “Outcast,” a low, board track-inspired bike with a handmade frame and combination of antique and one-off parts. Cupp’s first custom build immediately got recognition and was featured in Street Chopper magazine. He started taking the machine to custom shows.
“I started out going to small shows and moved up as my confidence built,” he recalled.
Outcast was followed by the “Panster,” an Ironhead/Panhead amalgamation with Silent Grey Fellow lines, and the “TT Deluxe” with its vintage café racer design wrapped around a contemporary Triumph engine. In the process Cupp formed LC Fabrications, a bike building business that also sells the custom parts he has designed for his projects online and through Low Brow Customs.
Cupp built LC Fabrications based on a simple idea; a craftsman, working with his own hands and answering to no one, builds works of art based on his own rules.
“We live in a world where everything is cheap and throw-away,” Cupp noted. “People are working just to get that check and go home. They aren’t connected to the things they are producing.”
The “Birmingham Bee-liner,” what Cupp calls “a cross between a drag bike and a dirt bike, if you can imagine that.” Cupp certainly did.
For Cupp each new project is a learning experience, an opportunity to push his own limits and acquire new skills. When he wanted a custom seat he learned to craft leather. When he wanted a gas tank he learned to form sheet metal.
“Nobody else touches my bikes,” Cupp said. “Everybody does their thing, but when you take parts out of a box and put them together that’s ‘assembling’ and not ‘building.’”
It’s all part of his bike building philosophy based on the direct relationship between craftsman and product, a link composed of hand, tool and metal. Hammer to aluminum. Hacksaw to steel. Brain to paper.
There’s no room in between for digital interference. Designs aren’t laid out on a CAD program. Cupp forms them in his head and then scratches them out on paper. His list of style rules is short. No chrome, no ape hangers, no fat back tires and no sportbikes. He starts with the engine and wheels, laying them on the ground and then moving them around until they are in the right relationship. Then he builds a frame to hold them all together. It’s an organic and fluid process where the machine’s current state inspires the next step.
“Sometimes you build something at night that you think looks great and you come in the next morning and think ‘Man, that looks horrible,’ so you tear it apart and start over again,” Cupp said.
Cupp claims his goals aren’t fame and fortune. Fame means taking commissions. Commissions mean having other people tell you how to make a bike.
“It’s hard to go by someone else’s boundaries,” he said. “When you start forcing things it ends up looking like crap.”
Sometimes motorcycles remain sacred in stock form. Cupp with a 1972 Norton Commando “the only bike I won’t touch.”
Cupp explained all of this to me as he stood in his shop housed in a former grocery store in the small town of Grottoes, Virginia, a Black Keys’ album playing in the background. He has that lean and hungry look of an underground bare knuckle boxer, that bloodshot gleam in his eye that could be artistic madness or simply the exhaustion of a work day that started well before dawn.
“I live in my head and motorcycles are my piece of sanity,” Cupp said. “I figure everybody is on their own. Even in a group of people you’re by yourself.”
In our commercial world independence is a lonely place to call home. Over the years Cupp’s machines have taken honors from Smoke Out rallies to Easy Rider awards and have been featured in the pages of magazines. Then it’s back to those lean months of barely surviving while another project is being built. But all of that may be changing. Cupp’s latest design, “Old Black,” is bringing him international attention.
Old Black is a showcase of the maturity of Cupp’s mechanical, design and fabrication skills. The Sportster-based bike mimics the lines of a vintage hillclimber, complete with chained rear wheel. The engine features two rear heads and exposed valve rockers that flow into dual chain drives and twin drum brakes at the rear.
The machine took first place at the Charlotte, NC part of the Ultimate Builder Custom Bike competition, a regional component of the AMD World Championship that takes place at the International Motorcycle Show venues. The win gave Cupp a ticket to the UBCB national show, which took place at Daytona Bike Week. There Old Black took first place in the Freestyle category making it Grand National Champion. The machine then went on to the 2012 AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building in Sturgis a few weeks ago where it captured second place in the coveted FreeStyle Class, making him the top American finisher in this year’s competition.
Even with his recent successes Cupp considers himself a “hobbyist” builder. He still puts in a full day at his stepfather’s machine shop before heading over to his garage to start his bike work. The machine shop work keeps his family fed. His online parts sales fund his next builds.
There’s no brand loyalty at LC Fabrications. The shelves are filled with American, British and Japanese parts.
“These are my backroom art projects,” he states proudly motioning to the bikes in various states of build and re-build scattered around the shop.
LC Fabrications was born as the custom chopper bubble was beginning to burst. Gone are the days of people with plenty of extra cash to spend on expensive customs. But in the economic desolation that this new century has brought Cupp sees hope for the custom bike world.
“The yuppies that were buying $70,000 bikes are gone,” he said. “But now there are people everywhere building bikes in their garages. There used to be 10 guys at the top dictating the style but now there are thousands.”
That puts Cupp on the frontline of a garage-based bike building insurgency where the weapons of choice are steel and a TIG welder, a leaderless grassroots movement whose politics are independence and the integrity of a man that builds things from the ground up with his own hands. Only time will tell if builders like Jeremy Cupp are ushering in a new golden age, but what is certain is that they’re doing something that Auggie, Freddy, Hawley and Chuck would be proud of.
To see Jeremy Cupp’s creations visit www.lcfabrications.com.