Walt Siegl started racing as a young man and after coming to the United States became the builder of some of the most beautiful custom racers around.
Walt Siegl caught the racing bug as an 18 year-old in Austria, barreling through the mountains TT-style in local time trials. A year later he left art school to join a road race team and compete in endurance events. It was during this time that Siegl started working on motorcycles as well, doing all he could to squeeze a little more power, or drop a little more weight, out of the bikes he loved.
Siegl later took on jobs outside racing to earn his bread; working as a toolmaker and welder in Germany and Italy, in the train yards of France and finally as part of an Austrian steel company that sent him to Moscow during the final years of the USSR. Siegl added an impressive breadth of mechanical expertise to his already acute artistic sensibility throughout this period, but living under the crumbling hammer and sickle took its toll. Siegl began to dream of living somewhere completely antithetical to the failed communist state; so he decided to pull up his stakes and move to New York City.
He was hired by the Austrian Foreign Ministry as a cultural attaché and immediately set out to gain his footing in the Big Apple. Thanks to a steady job that paid well, he was able to rent an apartment and spend $600 on a disassembled 1968 Harley-Davidson Sportster, which would become his first bike build in the United States.
“I wanted to embrace everything American, so I bought a Harley,” explains Siegl. “Putting that thing together made me realize that the States have quite an extensive choice of aftermarket parts for Harley bikes and I finished it within the first year of coming to the States, which was in ‘85.”
Not long after finishing the Harley, Siegl rented a studio space in Long Island to continue building custom bikes in his spare time. But he was obliged to live a double-life, working for his diplomatic paycheck during the day and indulging his creativity and passion during the night.
“For all the years I spent in New York as an attaché, at the end of the day at six or seven o’clock I would have a bite to eat and then go to my studio space. I’d work there till 12 or one in the morning and that was pretty much my private life. Spending eight to 10 hour days in my regular job and then spending the rest of my time at my studio/workshop. I just started building bikes for myself and friends, building them and riding them until they sold and then starting the next project. Slowly I created a foothold in the New York biking community and then after almost 24 or 25 years I made the jump to building bikes professionally.”
2014 marks the seventh year of business for Walt Siegl Motorcycles, and in that time one of the most desired builds to come out of his shop is the Leggero. Siegl imagined the Leggero as a limited series motorcycle, built to suit his conception of a race bike that was light and strong which utilized a mill he’d grown to love during his racing days, Ducati’s 900 Supersport 90-degree Twin. He’s created a number of versions in the series already and says he plans to stop the current iteration at 12, after which he may or may not create an evolution model.
The third Leggero, simply called Leggero 3/12, is a beautiful realization of Siegl’s dream when he first imagined the series.
To achieve the feather-light machine he envisioned, Siegl designed a custom chromoly-tube frame for the Leggeros which utilizes geometries from various Ducati motorcycles, like the 888 and 916. Siegl also sourced measurements used on early ‘80’s Verlicchi frames, an Italian aftermarket company that built frames for both Ducati and MV Agusta. The frame itself weighs 19 pounds and the 3/12, according to Siegl, tips the scales at 332 pounds, with fuel.
“I used a combination of all those geometries to build my frame,” says Siegl. “And everything went from there more or less, I built a prototype and was hoping it would be successful and it did indeed turn into my daily bread, if you will. I’ve got numerous custom orders on the side, but it’s a bike that I can build now fairly easy because I’ve got jigs for most of the parts. I can also offer the motorcycle at a more or less affordable price. The Leggero model starts at $26,000.”
“I really set it up for racing, which is why it looks a little aggressive. I’m trying to wrap this contemporary package into a bodywork design that really comes from established design elements, the bubble fairing for example is clearly recognizable as something vintage and the same is true to some extent for the tank and the tail. I wanted to build a bike that has a contemporary function you can go and race with, ride it on a daily basis if you want to, but wrap it into an established, classic design.”
Siegl was on his way to put the 3/12 through its paces at the track but stopped off at a show in New York that he attends yearly. While on display at the show, a customer saw his creation and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Siegl modestly declines to specify what that first 3/12 sold for, but he did explain that “it would have been foolish for me not to sell it.”
Every element is either custom fabricated by Siegl or modified to fit his vision, which is often completely formed prior to the beginning of any work. His process is similar to an artist staring at a blank canvas or uncarved block of stone, allowing the finished piece to reveal itself early on rather than strive toward something as-yet-to-be-determined on the fly.
“What I usually do when I get a project in from a client, a custom project for example, is I try to get the donor for the custom in the shop as quickly as possible. As it is now I’m more than a year out, but I’d like to have the bike that I’m going to work with in the shop during that time so it can be in my peripheral vision. I start to live with it more or less, it’s in my head once it arrives here. I start thinking about what I want it to be while they’re in my life, while I’m working on other projects, and usually by the time I actually start the project I have it finished in my head. Then I just go through an assembly process, more or less, just finishing what I’ve worked out in my head.
“There’s very few sketches that I do. Most of them are just before I hit the machines to reassure myself, sketching out the parts with the dimensions for example. It’s not necessarily used as a reference as how to style the part, but just a reference to get a better visual of the part. But I usually don’t sketch a complete bike, it’s all in my head. In most cases the bike turns out to be exactly what I envisioned. While I’m completing the bike, I’m already in my head then at the next bike.”
Siegl lives and breathes motorcycles. They’re in his blood, and the world outside motorcycling only facilitates inspiration for the next build.
“Everything I look at and everything I do on a daily basis affects my creative approach about how I build my bike,” explains Siegl. “I don’t necessarily look at the motorcycle world as a whole. I don’t look at stuff other builders do, I just find my inspiration, if you will, from being around bikes all my life. My grandfather had motorcycles, my dad had a few bikes. I can get inspiration from a shoelace, or a watchband, or the surface quality of my workbench. My head is full of images and my life is more or less driven by them.”