John Reed was a talented designer/builder of special one-off motorcycles in his native England before being discovered by the company that would be his long-time employer in the United States, Custom Chrome, Inc. His legendary status in England continues to this day, and his fame has spread throughout Europe as well.
A serial story of his life has appeared in “Back Street Heroes” magazine in 2008. John was regular contributor to that magazine with his column, “Reed’s Rides” and then later under a new column called “Dr. Reedie’s Casebook”-a history that is all the more impressive given that John dropped out of school at age 16.
John Reed started his life on July 22, 1944 in Oxford, England, the son of Ron and Joyce Reed. His early formative years were in East London. Soon after his leaving school he managed to land a five-year apprenticeship with the Atomic Energy Authority in England. His artistic talent and love of metal work put him in a good position to work with the finest in equipment while rubbing elbows with highly skilled and well-educated co-workers.
Some early efforts in motorcycling were in scrambles, which grew into motocross. John had some success, but was picking himself up out of the soil too frequently for his own good. A switch to road-racing was his immediate solution, and he raced both on solo and well as sidecar motorcycles. At this stage in his life, he had left his apprenticeship with the Atomic Energy Authority and was gainfully employed at the British Leyland automobile plant as a jig and toolmaker. The economics of this employment allowed Reed to race a Vincent-designed frame for sidecar racing. On more than one occasion, John raced another Vincent solo.
It was about this time that John met and became great friends with Fritz Egli, who was famed for his role in the Elgi Vincent. The association took him to Switzerland, where he absorbed valuable information in chassis design, suspension and general engineer principles. It was this involvement that saw the transformation of the Vincent he had been racing as a three-wheeler. It now was using a BSA gearbox, was planted in a Norton Manx frame and equipped with a Rickman front end. This combination served John’s lust for road racing for the next three years. This well used and loved Vincent engine resides in John’s well-organized and equipped garage in Morgan Hill, California, and may someday see the light of day as well be heard to bark seriously once more. There are still more projects than time in the busy life of John Reed.
In the early 1980’s John’s attention turned to creating rolling works of arts in the custom bike world. He notes that there was just enough rebel in him to react to an article appearing in the English press that chopper bikes were dangerous and should be banned. His reaction was to build a machine that had the best of materials and performed as well as any manufacturer’s product, yet was a drop-dead knockout to behold. It was the famed 1982 Gold Yamaha based upon the TR-1 V-twin of 1,000cc displacement.
His builders’ credentials had undergone some major overhaul though the deep desire to learn as much as he could about engineering. Deep probes into all aspects of design and metallurgy engrossed John, and his involvement in hand metal forming, machining, tool design, instrumentation and maintenance led him to fully understand and plan on paper the end results of his mind’s ideas.
“I started out to defend the right to build custom bikes,” he said. “I managed to get a few journalists on my side that would come to my shop. I’d let them take out some of the custom bikes I’d build, so they could see for themselves if they were dangerous, and they’d go away and write articles saying that custom bikes were OK.”
His activities evolved into what was quite a successful business called Uncle Bunts’ Chop Shop. And many a creation as well as parts came from this source, which grew to as many as three locations in Britain. The Gold Yamaha first appeared in time for the Oakland (California) Roadster Show and ended up with Best of Show in the motorcycle category-the first foreign entry ever to do so, and a non-Harley-Davidson entry at that! The Triumph Low rider preceded the Gold Yamaha into a North American venue when Avon Tire brought the machine to the Cincinnati Trade Show in 1978, and John made his first trip to this side of the Atlantic to meet our industry leaders and keep tabs on his pride and joy. His second trip was the 1982 Oakland event when he accompanied the Gold Yamaha.
“SuperBike” magazine was the first major magazine to feature John Reed creations, and a 1980 cover was the first of several such honors. His Blue Manx was commissioned by “SuperBike” and was another instant hit with the custom bike world, as it was the basis for a monthly feature in the magazine as it was being built. It had an XS650 Yamaha engine placed in a frame of John’s design and featured a gas tank that he hand-formed. It made it into the 1979 Earl’s Court Show, a famed English annual consumer show.
John Reed has worked with, co-operated with, and been commissioned by several motorcycle manufacturers including Yamaha, Triumph and Kawasaki, and for many of his years as a U.S. resident his efforts have helped keep Custom Chrome, Inc. at the forefront of the aftermarket industry. His Kawasaki involvement resulted in a famed creation known as the Tri Trak Trike, which saw light in 1983 and featured a GPz900R engine. His work started with the Kawasaki UK importer, and through some extra effort on their part, a 1300cc engine came into John’s hands.
Many of John’s efforts on behalf of Custom Chrome, Inc. (CCI) were firsts for both him and for CCI. Mr. and Mrs. John Reed (Genny), married in 1973; he obviously of English extraction and Genny, not so obviously French, moved to the home city of CCI, Morgan Hill, California.
Not too long after arrival in this country, he began one of his more famous Harley-Davidson based after-market creations; a machine that at first glance looks like a Harley-Davidson machine but is made up entirely of cataloged after-market parts offered by CCI. This machine was donated to the sponsors of the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota, with the proceeds going to the creation of the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum. The bike earned a great deal of money in the raffle turned all the heads who saw it at the 50th running of the Sturgis event, and it was instrumental in the creation of the Sturgis Museum.
But the rest of the story is that CCI bought the bike back from the raffle winner, who was pleased with his profit, and John got elected to the U.S. National Motorcycle Museum’s Hall of Fame. The museum has since moved to Anamosa, Iowa, and the Hall of Fame inductees along with the Museum itself have been made a sister to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum at AMA headquarters in Pickerington, Ohio. John was inducted in 2005.
John Reed’s other famous American Big Twin projects include the Telesis, built in 90 days and funded by a unique pair of motorcycle enthusiasts, Rick Magee and Rey Sotelo, both of Gilroy, California. Rey went on to become CEO of the new Indian Motorcycle Company, which was briefly located in a Gilroy factory location. The bike went on to win for John and his backers not only the Oakland Roadster Best in Show motorcycle award, but also the International Sports Car Association motorcycle section award. Somehow the machine remains in the care of John Reed after all these years.
There were many years of successful design of the Mirage Series of decorative parts offered by Custom Chrome that came from the mind and hands of John Reed. His last successful creation from Custom Chrome was the kit bike known as the V-Bike, which was introduced by cable hookup to a helicopter at the 2003 edition of the annual CCI dealer show in Morgan Hill, California. Its life was short and successful, but CCI discontinued all of its kit-bike offerings in the early 21st century due to registration difficulties.
A project yet to be finished was started many years ago in England, called the Euro-V and even though unfinished is a masterpiece of engineering design and artistic endeavor. Perhaps temporarily scrawled in felt pen across the gas tank are the words, “the one that beat me; Euro-V, John Reed, 1992.”
But nothing seems to deter John Reed forever so it is expected that the wild man Brit will buckle down once again and finish this project as well.
by Mike Vancil