A pioneer in the development of modern-day motorcycle suspension systems, Gilles Vaillancourt’s revolutionary work led to leaps in performance, quality, customization and style. His company, Works Performance Products, is one of the oldest and largest custom suspension companies in motorcycling and has served AMA racers and riders for more than three decades.
Born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1940, Vaillancourt first became involved with motorcycles as a teen while working in a local shop. When he was 20 years old his family moved to Santa Monica, Calif., with Gilles riding his Royal Enfield twin the entire way. He worked for Triangle Motorcycles and other area dealerships while studying welding, tool and die, and pattern making at Santa Monica City College. A concert violinist, Vaillancourt also played in the Santa Monica City College Orchestra.
While riding motocross bikes in the late 1960s, Vaillancourt became disappointed with the performance of stock suspension systems. Experimenting with his own shock pistons and relief valves, he incorporated multi-stage damping, which provided superior results over the single-stage dampers of the time.
Vaillancourt allowed friends to ride a bike that was outfitted with one of his modified shocks. They were so impressed with the performance they asked him to modify the shocks on their bikes. By 1973 he had enough business to open Works Performance Products in Chatsworth, Calif. AMA champions across various race disciplines soon became Vaillancourt’s customers: Kenny Roberts, Bubba Shobert, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Chris Carr, Scott Parker, Dick Mann, Brad Lackey, Jim Pomeroy, Eddie Mulder and Gary Nixon.
Quality materials, workmanship and innovation became hallmarks of Works Performance shocks. Pistons and bodies were constructed from high-tensile 7075 T-6 aluminum alloy and shafts were made from ultra-high-strength 17-4 stainless steel, materials more commonly used in the construction of fighter aircraft.
As the industry progressed, so did Vaillancourt’s designs. The latter half of the 1970s brought the advent of long-travel, lay-down shocks, which were engineered with five to six inches of shaft movement, allowing 10-11 inches of wheel travel.
Works Performance shocks debuted bolt-on, piggyback, bladder-style gas shocks in 1976, which used an innovative check ball and orifice valve system that provided superior control over the available technologies of the day. Works Performance shocks also featured sand-cast fins, which provided better cooling in high-leverage applications with the added bonus of a unique, high-tech appearance. These shocks evolved into the Magna Crosser off-road and Racer road-race models, which remained as standards of form and function for the next two decades.
Multi-time World Champion Eddie Lawson used Works Performance piggyback shocks during his 1981 AMA Superbike Championship-winning season. The design was known for providing the control, fade-free performance and consistency required by expert riders.
Large, cantilever mono-shocks became a standard in the early 1980s. Vaillancourt produced a model with six check valves to meet the demands of the newer machines. Options such as adjustable compression and rebound were offered, and larger capacity reservoirs used dual lines to recirculate the oil, which provided highly effective cooling.
In the late 1980s Works Performance began to seek new applications for their products, and the burgeoning ATV market was a natural fit. Vaillancourt designs were so well suited for off-road equipment that ATV product development and sales remain strong to this day. Works Performance also designed a line of performance shocks for snowmobiles. As the cruiser market began to expand, Works Performance shocks were sought out for their performance, customization and visual appeal. Custom builders such as Titan, Confederate, Kenny Boyce, Pro Street Frameworks, Big Dog and Kendall Johnson chose Works Performance. A unique pull-type design for soft tail frames was also introduced and is used by several manufacturers.
Works Performance shocks have been a part of championships in nearly every form of racing in the Americas, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
“I've been very fortunate to have some good experiences in the sport and meet some very terrific guys that have gone on to become champions,” Vaillancourt said. “I don’t claim credit for their victories, but I do claim their friendships."
Works Performance shocks continue to earn victories and championships in vintage race series.
By producing custom shocks for various loads, applications and disciplines, Works Performance shocks made it possible for riders of all sizes to enjoy their machines to the fullest. Outside of the world of motorcycling, Vaillancourt is sought-after as a consultant for the design of dampers, shocks and suspension systems for amusement park rides, military and commercial aircraft landing gear, mobile camera platforms, bicycles and race cars.
Vaillancourt has two brothers: Serge, who lives in Canada, and Francois, who lives in Southern California. Sister Denyse Kotfica and nephew Pierre Vaillancourt are part of the team at Works Performance Shocks. Gilles and wife Debbie share a home in Simi Valley, Calif.
In 2003, Vaillancourt suffered a life-threatening heart attack. He credits his current active lifestyle to Debbie, who cared for him during his recovery and donated a life-saving kidney to him in 2005. With his health restored, Vaillancourt went on to build a kit airplane and obtain his sport pilot license, and he continues to ride road race machines today.
Vaillancourt was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2009.