Justin M. Bowen
Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011 | 2 a.m.
What: 11th Annual Las Vegas BikeFest
Where: Cashman Center, $45 to $65.
When: Thursday, Sept. 29, to Sunday, Oct. 2. (Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7:45 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
One time, he put a Harley-Davidson engine in a golf cart. Another time, he customized a scooter using a football theme — fake-grass flooring complete with painted yard lines and seats made of faux pigskin.
No, we aren’t talking about Xzibit, the rapper-turned-television host from the popular MTV series “Pimp My Ride” a few years back, or either of the Pauls on Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper.”
We’re talking about Las Vegas resident Shaun Ruddy, who operates his business, Phat Choppers, out of Arlen Ness Motorcycles on Boulder Highway.
Although he might not be a household name, his motorcycle customization skills are internationally recognized. Ruddy has won several bike show competitions and has judged several others both in his native Australia and in the U.S.
This weekend, Ruddy may be $10,000 richer.
He is one of 20 competitors in the eighth annual Artistry in Iron, a peer-judged custom-bike building competition that recognizes innovative design and vision, as well as overall craftsmanship. The invitation-only event is part of the 11th annual Las Vegas BikeFest, which runs Thursday through Sunday at Cashman Center and is expected to bring 30,000 motorcycle enthusiasts to town.
Ruddy’s entry is a chrome beauty that took him three weeks and more than $20,000 to build. Almost everything on it is custom-made, from the handlebars and seat to the fuel cap and struts. He doesn’t plan to sell it — he calls the labor of love priceless — but concedes the bike could go for $50,000 on the market.
“By the time you are done with something like this, it is not just a motorcycle anymore,” he said. “It is art.”
But that art also yields a lucrative business. Ruddy said he left his native Queensland for the business opportunities in America. At his shop on Boulder Highway, he builds custom motorcycles, customizes factory bikes and occasionally works on his boss’s classic hot rods.
Many customizations are relatively cheap and done to increase customer comfort, especially on new motorcycles.
“You cannot expect a 5-foot-2 nothing to fit the same on a bike as a 6-foot-9 former linebacker,” he said.
Beyond increasing functionality, there is no limit to how much customization a customer can request if he or she has the money to back it. Ruddy recalled a bike that took 1,000 hours of work to complete. His work turned it into a machine that runs completely on ethanol.
Who dreams up and buys these custom creations? Ruddy said the customer base varies. The only constant he sees is in age and gender: middle-aged men with disposable income.
“Much of what we do isn’t a necessity,” Ruddy said. “Especially here, people need a car, so having a bike is usually a hobby.”
He has received orders from all over the world, which sometimes presents added challenges. Ruddy’s go-to example comes from Australia, where importing new motorcycles is prohibited but importing bike parts is not. Like other U.S.-based motorcycle shops, Ruddy will build a custom bike and then deconstruct it to ship it.
All this might seem like excessive effort and money, especially in the Great Recession.
Ruddy said business slowed the past few years, but only to what he calls pre-“American Chopper” days. That show follows Paul Teutul Sr. and his son, Paul Teutul Jr., founders of the custom bike shop Orange County Choppers in New York. When the show premiered in 2003, it led to a wave of mainstream interest in customized motorcycles. Ruddy and others reaped the benefits, but saw some downsides too.
“After that, everybody with a catalog thought they were a custom builder,” he said. “Then, we found ourselves in the business of fixing other people’s mistakes.”
Ruddy’s professional experience began with a five-year apprenticeship in Australia. Now, he is a fully certified fabrication engineer, spray painter and panel beater. He knows what experience brings to the table, and he hates to see people conned or convinced they can do comparable work without it.
He also hates when people cut corners. One dirty little secret behind some customizers is that their show bikes are nonoperational. “It is easy to make a bike look beautiful if you don’t have to worry about hiding the wires or making it run,” Ruddy said. “But if it doesn’t run, it isn’t really a bike.”
Sure, Ruddy’s built motorcycles with tiny metal seats adorned with spikes, but the principle still applies.
“It wouldn’t be comfortable, but you could ride it if you had to,” he said.