Longtime builder and custom culture advocate Bob Kay is doing his thing…passing on the passion!
Words by Joy Burgess Photos courtesy of Bob Kay archive and
When it comes to American V-twin and custom motorcycle culture, Bob Kay is a pioneer, an influencer…The Godfather. He’s the guy who’s always just outside of the spotlight, pushing custom culture into the forefront of the motorcycle industry from behind the scenes and revamping bike shows to be more reflective of today’s current custom scene. With nearly 50 years of experience in the industry, he’s done everything from run the parts counter at a Honda dealership to buying into businesses like NEMPCO (later purchased by Tucker Rocky to become Biker’s Choice) and founding Biker Pros to working with custom bike shows like the AMD World Championship, the Ultimate Builder Custom Bike Show, and the Golden Bolt.
Look closely at photos from the biggest bike shows and you might catch a glimpse of him chatting with the builders. You’re sure to see him at Sturgis – he makes the ride there every year. But while he’s become a legend in the custom scene and his industry peers are well aware of his reputation and integrity – he was awarded the Hot Bike magazine Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999 and the Motorcycle Industry magazine Aftermarket Achievement Award in 2000 – many people still don’t know much of his story. And it’s one of the coolest stories we’ve heard…
“I had to be one of those biker guys…”
Kay is a third-generation Harley rider. His grandfather rode, his father rode, his brothers rode. “Growing up, we always heard about this bike my grandfather had,” Bob told me, “a 1929 JD from the factory, all white with gold striping. We heard about that, and it was like the Holy Grail growing up.”
“One day, when I was 10 years old, these two panhead dressers came pulling up into my yard. Those guys were in white t-shirts, jeans and engineer boots, and when they pulled into my driveway I was totally amazed. I’ll never forget those two guys because they got me so passionate and excited about motorcycles as a kid. From that point on, that’s what I had to be. I had to be one of those biker guys, and a couple years ago I actually built a ’73 Harley FLH made to look like one of those bikes that pulled into my driveway.”
Although that was the moment he decided he wanted to be a biker, he didn’t get a motorcycle of his own for some time. “Living at home, my parents didn’t want me to get a motorcycle because they wanted me to have a better life and go to college,” Bob remembers, “so I had go-karts and cars. At one point I even built a three-point hydroplane. I was doing mechanical things, but they didn’t want me into bikes.”
But then Bob headed off to college at the University of Bridgeport, where he ran into AMA Superbike racer Johnny Bettencourt. The two became best friends and roommates. “One of the attractions was that we both had just got back from Woodstock, and we were newbie hippies and became best friends forever. I’d help him out and go to his races. And we actually built a bike in our dorm room for him to race,” Bob laughs. “By the end of that first year I went and bought a motorcycle – that was my beginning.”
“This was 1970, so there were lots of crazy things going on. I wasn’t too focused on school and they were setting up a new Honda shop nearby at the time, so I started out working there, putting bikes together and tuning them up. Eventually I learned the parts counter and became the parts manager. I was the new guy, and this was Boston. People often get laid off in the winter in the motorcycle business, so I had an old milk truck I converted into a camper and just went to work anyways and lived in that old milk truck behind the shop. But I was in my glory! I was in the motorcycle business!”
“My business philosophy was, and still is, integrity and customer intimacy…”
Working with Honda of Boston led to a position as general manager, and before long Kay was running seven stores and racing on the side. “I was racing short track at Laconia, and also did some road racing, although I wasn’t very good,” Bob notes. “But I’d started out in a race shop, so we rode every weekend. Every Sunday morning we rode through the woods a couple hundred miles, year-round. Later I realized I was better at running a business than racing, but I still have my first motorcycle I used to ride to races, tape up and [then] ride back home again.”
“I was working 60 hours a week, racing weekends, and I figured I needed an education, so I went back to college at night. Once I had my degree the guys at New England Motor Parts Company (NEMPCO) called and said they needed some help, so I never even had a chance to send out my resume when I graduated – they just offered me a job. This was another step up in the motorcycle world, and now I was in the Harley-related motorcycle business, which was a big deal to me.”
Working with NEMPCO had him heading to trade shows, getting the company on the map, and eventually buying into the company. Along the way, he started building bikes of his own, and he told me, “I built a bike back around 1985 – an ’81 Harley FL with a steel side car. I entered that one in Boston World of Wheels and won the class, but then I realized maybe I shouldn’t compete against my customers. So I’d build bikes for myself and we’d use them as display bikes to show off our parts. Today I have about 14 motorcycles and a couple of hot rods out in my barn, including those I built and some I’ve helped with. I even have one Jesse James built for me when I moved to Texas.”
As he worked at NEMPCO and then later moved on to found Biker Pros, he had a couple of guiding principles that he still stays true to today. “My business philosophy was, and still is, integrity and customer intimacy. By that I mean that you know your customers so well that you know what they need before they do, and that’s how we ran NEMPCO. All my sales people at NEMPCO were Harley guys capable of building their own bikes.”
“Custom builders of today are the future!”
Kay first dove into custom bike shows in the mid ’80s during the Laconia Rally with a charity custom bike show, later continuing his charity shows at Sturgis. When he started doing shows with NEMPCO they were all about charity, too. While working with Biker’s Choice, American Iron Horse and Hardbikes, he worked at the corporate level doing bike shows to help advance the companies, and during his time doing those shows he got started working with the AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building – a bi-annual competition held by American Motorcycle Dealer (AMD) magazine.
“Once I started Biker Pros,” he said, “I started backing out of shows at the corporate level. I wanted to do something to help builders. No one was putting anything together to actually help them. At Biker Pros we started selling supplies to the builders, not making them buy large quantities, to help make their lives a bit easier. Eventually, that evolved into doing bike shows.”
“For example, the Ultimate Builder – when I created that I wanted to bring new custom builders in so they could be introduced to the industry and build a network with established builders and we could create community. When shows are set up the right way, everyone wins. Custom builders can meet new people, make new contacts and maybe get sponsors within the industry. And this is how I’ve run my bike shows for the past 10 years.”
Building custom bikes himself and working in the industry for decades, Kay has unique insights into what the builders are going through. “Builders have a tough time, and it’s not easy to build a ground-up bike and travel around to shows,” he mentioned. “Builders might win a couple grand at a show, and that may help cover their expenses, but not much more.”
You can tell how passionate he is about custom culture, and the importance of today’s custom builders, when he speaks. “The custom builders of today are the future,” he says. “The industry has gone through tough times, especially since 2007, and we’re finally coming back a bit. People focus so much on the money and the numbers, but you can only cut back and save so much to make your business profitable. At some point you have to move forward and take a chance – make things happen. Bike builders are the essence of making stuff happen. If we support them, they inspire people at custom bike shows.”
After putting nearly 50 years of his life, heart and soul into the industry, Kay’s beginning to start finding people to whom he can pass on the custom culture torch. “Next spring I’ll start turning the AMD shows over to Kevin Dunworth,” Bob confided, “and I’ll be there to back him up and help him, but this is the right thing to do for the future of the industry. In 2020, I’ll be taking four custom builders to Germany for the AMD World Championship where they’ll be competing against the best in the world. I’ll still be there, but Kevin will be in charge. And while I’ll still be doing the IMS shows for a couple more years, I’ll be looking to turn things over to someone else eventually who’s motivated to share the passion.” “I often talk about worshipping at the altar of internal combustion. Cars, boats, bikes…making them go fast. A lot of younger people don’t have that passion anymore. Pass on the passion, that’s what I want to do!”