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'I Constantly Take the Long Way Home': Dustin Kott on the Art of Building and Riding Custom Motorcycles

From his shop in Newhall, Calif., custom motorcycle builder Dustin Kott is creating not only authentic Café Racers, but works of art. Fifteen years ago, Kott began building these motorcycles, whose origin is in mid-century British motorcycle racing, with little intention of turning it into a business.

“None of had so much as two nickels to rub together," he said during a recent phone interview. "We all just had a passion for riding motorcycles, and we all just loved to disappear. It was nothing short of riding with a wrench in hand to tighten nuts and bolts, as things were falling off the bike.”

But doors opened in roundabout ways, and Kott now builds these bikes for customers of all types – some who ride, and others who display the bikes as art. While some customers are relatively new to riding or to Café Racers, others bought the bikes 45 years ago when they were new.

They all share a connection with the motorcycles. “I’ve done restorations of these bikes for guys who have had them since their teens and twenties," Kott says. "There’s a tremendous connection to something that’s vintage and antique in that way, and an intimacy involved in building them.”

Café Racers were born in the second half of the 20th Century, when riders who could not afford expensive racing motorcycles stripped down and modified affordable bikes. Kott says the influx of affordable bikes in the 1970s broadened the image of riders and made motorcycles accessible to everyone, causing motorcycles and motorcycle culture to take off.

Dustin Kott

“From an outside perspective, riding seems incredibly dangerous, but that perception is starting to shift, especially with Café Racers because they have such a broad influence and draws such a diverse culture of people,” Kott says.

That's his vision: to reach an audience that would not normally care about a motorcycle, and allowing that audience to recognize its beauty.  

“It’s creating expressive art with a widespread impact," he said. "I try to put as much of myself as possible into each project. While each build is recognizable, I want each bike to be a unique experience.”

For Kott, Café Racers provided the opportunity to express his personality. “There’s vulnerability, an exposure," he said. "You can’t hide anything. There’s a minimalist aspect to them. They’re not a celebration of noise and flash and loudness. They’re rooted in an understated classic celebration of yesteryear, but still alive and vibrant.”

Motorcycles have been a part of Kott’s life since his father bought him a dirt bike for off-road riding around their home in Northern Los Angeles County. Instead, Kott would take the bike out at dusk and ride for as long as he could. “Being on a motorcycle always made the world feel so big, and it still does," he said. "That’s still what attracts me to riding."

Summer evenings are still his favorite time to be on a bike. “I feel like a kid when I’m riding," he said. "I constantly take the long way home.”  

Coca-Cola 'Embraces the Idea of Americana'

Coca-Cola has been another staple in Kott's life. “As a born-and-raised American, it’s inescapable," he said. "It’s as much a part of the culture as anything. Everyone in my family was born during the summer, so summertime has always been an important time for our family. There’s always a can of Coke in photos of family gatherings at my grandmother’s house. There was always Coke in the fridge.”

Kott’s connection with Coke and his passion for Café Racers beautifully merged when he and his team, including photographer Alex Martino, decided to use a vintage Coke mural as the backdrop for a stunning image of one of his motorcycles (see photo at top).

The team was returning to Newhall from the Quail Invitational Motorcycle Show, where they had presented their latest bike – a completely rebuilt 1974 Honda CB 550. Like most of the bikes Kott creates, it came into the shop in ragtag condition, and he was allowed complete artistic freedom to give it new life. As they made their way back on the 101, they spotted an antique Coca-Cola sign in the small, agricultural town of Spreckles, Calif. Kott says there was an old post office, a diner, a yellow wall that looked like the side of an old barn, and the mural.

When asked why he and Martino chose to stop and unload the bike to take pictures, Kott doesn't hesitate.

“First off, the Americana aspect of the Coca-Cola brand. The old Coca-Cola signage, coolers… it embraces and encompasses the idea of Americana. It’s so recognizable. I love that. That sort of vintage inspires me and attracts me. Then there was a worn-out, yellowish wall with wood grain starting to come through the paint, the Coca-Cola scheme, and this pastel 1950’s bel air blue,” Kott noted. “It looked like a movie set. A moment captured in time. You could feel a different era when we were there. It only goes hand in hand with the type of bikes that I’m building because they embody that same kind of spirit and same culture.”

Learn more about Kott Motorcycles by watching Café Cowboy, and following them on Facebook and Instagram. See Kott’s most recent build, the transformation of a Triumph Thruxton for Ryan Reynolds, here.